"Yellow Trash"

by Alex Lesman

The Simpsons (l-r): Homer, Santa's Little Helper, Marge, Lisa, Snow Ball II, Maggie, Bart.



The Contested Family

The Trajectory of the Situation Comedy

The Rise of The Simpsons

The Archetype (A close reading)



According to Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, he and his fellow producers wanted to make a cartoon the entire family could enjoy, one that would present "an alternative look at the American family" ("Doonesbury"). After six and a half seasons, the Fox sitcom has done that and much more. It has been a ratings hit, an advertising force, and a merchandising gold mine. Last season, it was the third most-watched program in the 8 to 9 PM slot among kids age 6 to 17 (Rudolph and Hammer, 21), and it consistently ranks among 18 to 49-year-olds' favorites. A specially-designed ad campaign featuring Bart Simpson helped Nestle jack up sales of its Butterfinger candy bar 51% in 1993 (Krumplitsch, 29). As of February 1994, $100 million worth of licensed Simpsons merchandise had been sold (Darlin and Levine, 98). Clearly, The Simpsons is enormously popular. While its popularity makes it worthy of attention, the ways in which it achieves its popularity make it a fascinating text. As I will show, The Simpsons is in some respects a typical sitcom, telling moral tales and affirming the nuclear family. But in other important ways it is a distinctive product of the current television milieu and the postmodern condition. With skillful use of the cartoon form and a self-reflexive, allusive narrative style, The Simpsons presents a portrait of the American family that is by turns critical and respectful, fantastic and realistic--all to great comic effect.

The Contested Family

Like the vast majority of sitcoms, The Simpsons revolves around the family. Still, it is different enough from the standard run of sitcoms that it strikes some observers as belonging to a separate category. Television critic Gerard Jones writes that The Simpsons "is no true sitcom, to be entered vicariously. This is bitter, self-conscious, self-dissecting satire" (Jones, 268). Evidently, Jones means "no true sitcom" as praise; that is, he appreciates that the show eschews the plot recycling and facile moralizing characteristic of sitcoms, especially in the 80's. But despite its sometimes trenchant wit, The Simpsons is not truly bitter. In fact, "Bitter...self-dissecting satire" better describes a Simpsons contemporary on Fox, Married...with Children. This live-action sitcom is a relentless send-up of the nuclear family that turns traditional mores upside-down for the sake of laughs. There is no real moral center to the show, no character or institution diplaying admirable or redeeming traits. The Simpsons, on the other hand, retains a moral center--even though at times its characters also upend traditional values--and that moral center is the family. As confused and misguided as the characters may get, at the end of each episode the sanctity of the family unit is maintained.

Perhaps The Simpsons, premiering at the end of a decade of Republican presidents and wholesome sitcoms like Family Ties and The Cosby Show, appeared at just the right time to satisfy a national hunger for something saltier. Cosby’s ratings defeat at the hands of the cartoon family when the shows went head-to-head in August of 1990 signaled a changing of the sitcom guard. Appropriately, George Bush--who can justifiably be called "old guard"--in a 1992 campaign speech called for "a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons" (Henry, 88). He was later rewarded with an unauthorized and unflattering portrayal on the show. That the president (and the vice president, for that matter) would use sitcoms to illustrate what they think is wrong with family life indicates the importance of these programs in our culture. Darrell Hamamoto describes their status thus: "Through narratives that assimilate social contradictions into everyday personal experience, the situation comedy has stood as an enduring sociodramatic model that has helped ‘explain American society to itself’" (Hamamoto, 153). Bush appreciated the sitcom’s power, and evidently he did not like the explanation The Simpsons was offering. But as Matthew Henry points out, he failed to acknowledge that the Simpsons "live in a society ‘loosed from its moorings,’ full of corruption, voracious consumerism, and moral decay. They are as dedicated to family values as the Waltons ever were, but, in such a society, find it increasingly hard to live up to them" (Henry, 88). The corruption and decay of the Simpsons's era relative to that of the Waltons is debatable, but many contemporary viewers seem to recognize and accept the Simpsons's moral confusion as truer-to-life than the certainty of the Waltons.

In Michael Kinsley's view, The Simpsons does celebrate family values, "but with a left-wing twist: the family as haven from the cruelties of the economic marketplace, and as threatened by those same economic forces" (4). Kinsley's diagnosis of this "family vs. the world" phenomenon is by no means new. Jackson Lears, in his book No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture 1880-1920, points out that "many Victorian idealogues did imagine the family to be a haven in the heartless world of capitalist competition" (15). As the country's economy shifted from subsistence farming to market capitalism during the 19th century, the family became less and less important economically, and more and more important ideologically. For the middle class, "work" grew psychologically separated from "home," as did productive males from non-productive females and children. This separation made it easier to sentimentalize the domestic sphere (Lears, 15-16). In light of this historical process, the "family haven" hardly seems "left-wing". In fact, national political discourse over the past 15 to 20 years has fostered the impression that conservatives champion "family values" more frequently and more vehemently than liberals. But Kinsley apparently sees the unrestrained market as a conservative desideratum, so therefore he deems any resistance to it "left-wing."

Of course both liberals and conservatives value the family, but their ideas about what threatens it and how to protect it differ. This is where the leftward leanings of The Simpsons can be discerned. For example, cultural conservatives' perennial issue of the appropriateness of TV programming for children is addressed--and eventually dismissed--by The Itchy & Scratchy Show, the extravagantly violent cat and mouse cartoon the Simpson kids watch. In one episode, when the baby, Maggie, hits her father with a mallet after watching the cartoon, their mother, Marge, goes on a crusade against it. She succeeds in taming its violence in the short run, but her efforts are undercut when she refuses to protest the showing of Michelangelo's "David" at a local museum. When she cannot justify "censoring" one form of expression while sanctioning another, the violent Itchy & Scratchy returns. Yet traditonally liberal concerns, such as tight funding for public schools, high-priced medical care, and huge military budgets are frequently presented as problems on The Simpsons. Still, despite this slight bias, the show is never crudely orthodox. Institutions that are traditionally associated with the left, like organized labor, are also subject to ridicule, though not as often as those associated with the right, like big business.

Matt Groening, in one of his few public comments on the show, said simply, "There is an ongoing subtext to The Simpsons, and that is that the people in power don’t always have your best interests in mind" ("Doonesbury"). A sampling of the show’s plots bears out Groening’s point: the Simpson family is threatened in some way or another by the nuclear plant boss, the mayor, the child welfare agency, the police, overzealous Christians, new age therapists, organized crime, and a distinctly Disney-esque theme park, just to name the most obvious. In this environment there are no clear-cut "good guys," and only a handful of "bad guys," most notably the nuclear plant boss, Mr. Burns. In Todd Gitlin’s view, a stance that is basically ambivalent about public issues is essential for a popular program:

TV entertainment takes its design from social and psychological fissures.... If the messages are susceptible to divergent interpretations, that is no failure for television. On the contrary, a show that couldn’t be interpreted variously would slide into what Larry Gelbart calls ‘electronic pamphleteering,’ whose left-liberal form is the archetypal violation of the television conventions (Gitlin, 217-8).
Television is, after all, big business. Sponsors will take some ribbing, but they will not take a call to action against the ideas they are founded on--especially consumerism. According to Darrell Hamamoto, sitcoms have progressed in tandem with post-World War II social movements, supporting an "emancipatory popular culture" that includes a tolerance of difference in our society and a questioning of the status quo. But working against this emancipatory tendency is the commercial system which "has helped to confine the affirmative aspects of domestic culture in the private sphere" (2). Hamamoto claims that a false separation between the public and the private on TV has allowed relatively free expression of liberal democratic values, but stripped them of their political implications (2).

While Hamamoto’s basic point is sound, The Simpsons certainly pushes the boundaries that he erects for the sitcom. Dissent on the show is often contained in the private sphere, as Hamamoto describes. But sometimes it is not, as when Lisa crusades against the "Malibu Stacy" doll (read: Barbie), cigarette advertising, and corruption on Capitol Hill; when Marge protests Itchy & Scratchy, when Homer rallies workers against unsafe conditions at the nuclear power plant, and when Bart and Lisa expose the anti-Irish origin of "whacking day," in which snakes are rounded up and killed. These crusades are sometimes successful, as when Bart and Lisa halt whacking day, sometimes unsuccessful, as when Marge takes on the cartoon makers or Homer takes on the power plant boss, and sometimes partially successful, as when Lisa designs an alternative doll to Malibu Stacy. The producers of The Simpsons seem to choose their battles--and the outcomes of their battles--carefully. When a protest succeeds, its effect is limited: whacking day is halted, but the mob mentality that drove it persists. When a crusade fails, it is sometimes because the producers do not agree with it (as in the cartoon protest episode) or because they need to maintain its target (like the power plant) for ongoing jokes. In the case of the failures, a controversial representative of the status quo is questioned, but in the end things remain unchanged. The only difference in the partially successful crusades is that some small change in the status quo is allowed to stand at the end of the episode. This is the case when Lisa designs a "Lisa Lionheart" doll that makes feminist statements when her string is pulled. When Lisa's doll is introduced, she only sells one, while the vapid Malibu Stacy sells out. But Lisa takes courage from the thought that if her doll’s message gets through to just one girl, she will have succeeded.

So while dissent is sometimes expressed publicly on The Simpsons, it rarely results in any real change. Aside from the commercial pressure Hamamoto identifies, the other force resisting political change is the "timelessness" in which the show exists. It is a convention of the live-action sitcom that "each week the narrative returns the characters to the same situation and frame of mind with which they began"(Henry, 93). The Simpsons, as a cartoon, takes this convention a step further: its characters never age, so theoretically every episode takes place in the same 22-minute period of time. Of course the show violates this theory regularly: night falls, day breaks, and the occasional episode is set at a recognizable time of the year, like Christmas or the last day of school. (Viewers should not be troubled by these violations, since the show makes a show of its artifice, as I will discuss later.) In any case, viewers can be sure that when they turn on The Simpsons each week, the characters will look the same, they will have the same house, and they will have the same cars. More importantly, the characters will have the same characters--they never learn or grow emotionally. (The only exception to this stasis was the "dumbing down" of Homer early in the show's run; since then, his character has remained essentially static.) In this state of "suspended animation" real political change is impossible. After all, if people do not change, how can the institutions they take part in change?

The Trajectory of the Situation Comedy

Regardless of how one characterizes it politically, The Simpsons fundamentally affirms the family. And not just any kind of family, but a two-parent, male bread-winner family. Of course the fact that the Simpson family is, at least in its composition, traditional, allows the show to comment on the tradition. This is where it runs afoul of many culturally conservative viewers. Its characters have faults, and obvious ones in the case of the males: Bart is disruptive in school, impertinent to adults, and rebellious generally; Homer is lazy, gluttonous, selfish, and impatient with his children; Marge tends to nag and Lisa is at times self-righteous and intellectually condescending. They are not noble characters, but neither are they, in the words of the reverend's daughter in one episode, "yellow trash." They do not resemble those comfortable, complacent, clean-cut, clean-mouthed inhabitants of such programs as Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. But there is no reason to think that these 50's characters are the natural denizens of television, or that they were ever an accurate portrayal of the American family.

In fact, sitcoms started out differently--on the radio. In the 1920's and 30's, many popular radio shows responded to socio-economic upheaval: for instance, Lum & Abner dealt with rural whites’ migration to the city, Amos ‘n’ Andy with that of rural blacks, and The Rise of the Goldbergs with the Eastern European immigrant influx (Hamamoto, 5). In the first years of television, many of these shows were adapted for the new medium in an attempt to retain their large radio audiences. But most working-class or "ethnic" programs did not last long. With the exception of Amos ‘n’ Andy, which was canceled after protests from civil rights groups, the radio-era portrayals of ethnic and working-class life, along with others that had been created for TV, were supplanted by portrayals of comfortable WASP middle-class life. Television critic Ella Taylor describes this shift as the result of both the postwar zeitgeist and the calculations of the networks:

The domesticity that came to define the series form in the first two decades of network television was grounded not just in the resonance of an idealized family for viewers steeped in postwar values of progress, affluence, and national consensus, which were to be achieved through the integrative power of the domestic unit, but also in the emergent political economy of the television industry itself. In the networks’ first two decades they searched for an undifferentiated, predictable mass audience of regular viewers for programs and commercials that would sustain the advertising revenues on which they were so dependent. This search helped to create that formulaic mix of repetition and continuity that was to define the episodic series and fashion an image of family so benign and uncontroversial, so broadly middle-class and free of ethnic partisanship, indeed so free of ethnicity in general--that it would offend no one (151).
Taylor’s analysis helps to expose the hidden ideological underpinnings of what must have seemed natural to many viewers. The project of 1950's television was to not only to entertain viewers but to enlist them in support of the burgeoning postwar consumer culture. Gerard Jones’s contemporary comment on the sitcom applies even better to the 50's: "The promises of bureaucratic democracy, managerial capitalism, secular humanism, and mass consumption are miniaturized, tested, and found true in the funny travails of TV families" (Jones, 4). But it is not clear that viewers went along for the feel-good ride. Commenting on unflappably happy sitcom families, TV researchers Glennon and Butsch wrote in 1982 that "these idealized pictures may raise expectations about parent and child relations that are not realizable and can lead one to question one’s own family adequacy" (quoted in Bryant, 132). The psychological effects of these portrayals are as yet undocumented, but the discrepancy between TV and reality clearly resonates with Jones. "The feeling that Father Knows Best and its successors inspire in contemporary viewers are complex, often unsettling.... For some viewers...they are strangely seductive horrors, which deny reality as they pretend to engage it, which offer an image of secular paradise that could just as easily be viewed as hell" (101). The Simpsons playfully acknowledges this attitude with an episode in which Homer inadvertently makes a deal with the devil--who turns out to be his super-wholesome and super-Christian neighbor Ned Flanders (more on this portrayal to come).

Ella Taylor’s analysis also supports the assertion that "people shown on TV are not representative of population. The groups shown most are those with importance in society" (Huston, et.al., 21). In the 50's and 60's the important people, as defined by television and advertising executives, were middle-class whites. Of course programs about working-class people did not disappear altogether in the 50's, as The Honeymooners demonstrates. But portrayals of them differed sharply from the portrayals of the middle-class. In studies of programs aired from 1947 to 1977, researchers found that working-class husband/fathers were often shown as inept, stupid, and bumbling (predominantly in the years 1949-66)(cited in Cantor, 42). Conversely, middle-class husband/fathers were shown as competent and their family life was idealized (cited in Bryant, 132). In effect, working-class shows like The Honeymooners reversed the dominant social order: the man was the fool, the woman his superior (Cantor, 42). Although The Simpsons started its run with a basic parity of intelligence and responsibility between Homer and Marge, in its second season Homer was refashioned in the bumbling image of Ralph Kramden and Fred Flintstone, and Marge in the stoic image of Alice and Wilma. The portrayal of the working-class man as a child who must be mothered by his wife betrays a persistent paternalistic elitism in American culture. Throughout the nation’s history, various disadvantaged groups, including African Americans and immigrants, have been portrayed as children in the popular culture. Still, this observation does not fully explain the childish, incompetent television character. Not every disadvantaged character in American comedy is a bumbler, and not every bumbler is disadvantaged.

At this point some pre-television-era criticism is relevant, since "television inherits the forms and preoccupations of earlier narratives and social meanings" (Taylor, 4). Aristotle’s theory of comedy is helpful in the attempt to determine what audiences laugh at. In the Poetics, he argues that comedy "aims at representing men as worse than in actual life" and is "an imitation of characters of a lower type" (quoted in Shershow, 6). Although Aristotle made it clear that he meant "lower" in an ethical sense, Renaissance critics, perhaps misled by mention in the Poetics of wandering comedians of "the more trivial sort," misinterpreted the statement as pertaining to social class (Shershow, 12-13). Social class was, after all, easier to apprehend than ethical fiber. But there was also an idea in their culture that made the misinterpretation make sense to these critics: the poor were comic. It had been expressed succinctly by Juvenal:

Nil habet infelix paupertas durius in se
Quam quod ridiculos homines facit.

(The worst thing about poverty is that it makes men ridiculous)(Shershow, 14).
In order to understand the perceived connection between the disadvantaged and the comic, many modern critics have turned to psychology. In his Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud calls attention to the phenomenon of incongruity:
A person appears comic to us if, in comparison with ourselves, he makes too great an expenditure on his bodily functions and too little on his mental ones; and it cannot be denied that in both these cases our laughter expresses a pleasurable sense of this superiority which we feel in relation to him (quoted in Merchant, 9-10).
Both of these theories posit a basic feeling of superiority in the laugher or observer of comedy. Characters of any station in life and with a wide range of failings can elicit this response in an observer, but the disadvantaged are more likely to do so. Perhaps because the poor man lacks education he seems to expend too little mental energy in certain situations; perhaps because he must work so hard to survive he seems to expend too much bodily energy in others. Returning to the American sitcom, it is important to note that the ridiculous character may be working-class, but he is almost never destitute. Ideally, the character should be far enough “below” (economically, educationally, and/or ethically) the viewer to elicit a sense of superiority, but not so far below him to elicit pity. Homer Simpson fits comfortably in this range. Viewers can laugh at his ignorance, selfishness, cowardice, petty deceit, and bad luck, while remaining certain that he will always have a steady job and be able to provide for his family.

In the 1970’s an increasing number of sitcoms featuring working-class families appeared, displacing to some extent the middle-class fare of the previous two decades. One reason for this, according to Matthew Henry, is that "the sitcom needed to add to its ‘mimetic agenda’ the complex social and political issues of the day in order to retain its credibility ‘as chronicler and salesman of the American family’" (88-89). As the Vietnam war era drew to a close, Americans were acutely aware of the divisions in their society. The complacency and consensus of 50’s sitcoms seemed more and more unreal in the context of newsreels showing combat in the jungles of Asia and rioting in the streets of America. Some shows, like Happy Days, returned to the 50’s for escapist entertainment. But others, most notably All in the Family, integrated current--and sometimes thorny--social issues. The views expressed by All in the Family’s main character, the stubborn and grouchy Archie Bunker, were frequently racist and sexist, but they did not go unopposed. His daughter and son-in-law, representing the younger generation and the more enlightened viewpoint, regularly challenged his opinions. It was a far cry from Father Knows Best, but it was popular.

In 1973 another program stepped into the ring of the non-idealized family. An American Family was not a sitcom but a sort of cinema verite, a document of seven months in the life of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, CA, shown in several installments on PBS. Viewers learned early on that they would not be seeing a conventional family. In the first episode, Mrs. Loud goes to New York City to visit her 20-year-old gay son, who takes her out to a transvestite show. In a later episode, she learns that her husband has been having an affair and she orders him out of the house; viewers are privy to both the revelation and the confrontation. Although An American Family did not air on a commercial network, it received a great deal of attention, and represented, along with All in the Family, the new realism in portrayals of the American family in the 70's.

With the beginning of the 1980’s, the country settled into a mood of nostalgia for the simple certainties of the pre-Vietnam war era, and sitcoms reflected that change. Working-class sitcom families were gradually replaced by more harmonious middle-class ones. A few shows featured unconventional family arrangements like a single mother with a daughter and a live-in male housekeeper (Who’s the Boss?). Others tried to "integrate" the sitcom by having affluent whites adopt black children (Diff’rent Strokes, Webster), thereby providing enough material for an entire thesis on middle-class white paternalism. More representative of 80’s sitcoms, however, were the "happy family" shows Family Ties and The Cosby Show. Family Ties featured an upper-middle- class suburban family headed by two former hippies. Their ideas were often portrayed as inappropriately idealistic for their proto-yuppie children, but their authority was never seriously questioned. The Cosby Show, meanwhile, was a thinly-veiled morality play that also featured a harmonious upper-middle-class family who happened to be black. Bill Cosby, "NBC’s 2-D pater familias," (Herron, 18) actually sent the show’s scripts to a psychologist for review to ensure that they contained positive messages.

The Rise of The Simpsons

In the transition from Cosby to The Simpsons, sitcoms once again reflected the national zeitgeist; relative to the 80’s, the 90’s have been characterized by economic anxiety, cynicism toward national institutions, and diminished expectations of the America’s role in the world. More concretely, the competition for viewers brought on by the proliferation of VCR's, cable television and the addition of a fourth broadcast network has spurred producers to create more attention-grabbing programs. Most viewers now receive 50 to 100 channels, and with the help of remote control, their viewing patterns have come to resemble surfing--skipping quickly over the channels until something catches and holds their fleeting attention. The unofficial "family hour"--a period from 7 to 9 P.M., first established in 1975, during which no adult-oriented material would be aired--has all but disappeared as networks vie for the highly coveted demographic group of 18 to 34-year-old viewers. Another factor in the changing look of prime time television has been the number of television sets in the average household; whereas twenty years ago, the family tended to gather around the one living room set, now 73 percent of households have two or more TV’s (Rudolph and Hammer, 19). Advertisers can now target multiple demographic groups simultaneously within a single household. In this atmosphere of intense competition for viewers, The Simpsons has thrived.

In order to understand why, it is important to consider the nature of television and its effects on us as viewers. Stephen Fjellman writes that "As a medium, television is characterized by disconnection and decontextualization" (53). He explains how decontextualization alters meaning:

By pulling meanings out of their contexts and repackaging them in bounded informational packets, decontextualization makes it difficult for people to maintain a coherent understanding about how things work. Meanings become all jumbled together--separate in that all are abstracted from their different environments and equal in that their packaging destroys any sense of scale by which they could be measured against each other(31).
Hence on television a plane crash in which 200 die is presented as just as important as a local woman giving birth to triplets, which is as important as the shooting of a fictional character, which is as important as the scrubbing bubbles of a household cleanser. In this telescape, entertainment value becomes more and more privileged:
Messages on television...are edited into shorter and shorter cuts that pass in front of us faster and faster. Both commercials and transitions are accompanied by music. As the editing gets faster and faster, the use of music grows. Senses are assaulted as the battle over our attention escalates. We pay what little attention we do to information only if it is entertaining (Fjellman, 307).
In this frenetic environment The Simpsons succeeds because it is so good at winning "the battle over our attention." One way it does this is simply by being a cartoon, a rare genre in prime time. For viewers surfing the channels, the appearance of a cartoon, obviously visually diferent from live-action programs and reminiscent of beloved childhood shows, is enough to prompt a pause. Once the viewers/surfers have paused, The Simpsons's quick pace helps its chances to keep them long enough to pay some attention to the content. Again, the show's cartoon form is an asset: Jerry Herron writes that the animator can "crowd more information into his cels than a comparable, human-acted frame of film or video tape" (19). He adds that in The Simpsons "there are dizzying dolly shots and tracking shots that mock the limitations of real life cameras and action and make these seem visually, and informationally, impoverished by comparison, which of course they are" (19). The Simpsons demonstrates its greater visual capacities not just to hook in viewers, but also to serve its narrative and thematic needs. In one episode, for example, the family turns into flaming demons before Homer's eyes as he mentally compares them to other families. Once it has hooked viewers in with the uniqueness and sheer abundance of its visual information, The Simpsons attempts to keep them with a postmodern narrative style that employs self-reflexiveness and allusion.

At this point it is helpful to refer to some basic postmodern theory. According to Marguerite Alexander, one of the prerequisites for postmodernism is a "shattering of the fictional illusion," the illusion that what is narrated is an actual series of events in real people's lives (quoted in Henry, 95). The Simpsons accomplishes this by frequently drawing attention to its status as an artificially created product. It begins in the opening sequence: the viewer sees scenes of each member of the family racing home at the end of the day to jump on the couch and watch what appears to be the same television program we are about to watch. Despite this self-reflexive introduction, within the context of the show the characters themselves are generally ignorant of their status as cartoons and subjects of the program. For instance, at the beginning of one episode, Bart comes into the kitchen whistling the Simpsons theme, prompting Marge to tell him to stop whistling "that annoying tune." At a time when a large portion of the population has known television all its life and watched thousands of episodes of sitcoms, such reminders of the medium’s artifice strike viewers as clever and refreshing. As Jerry Herron has noted: "when it (TV) succeeds at informing on itself, the result for an audience is not disillusionment. Just the reverse: the result is a kind of hailing that yields strong ratings numbers and a large audience share" (15). Of course self-reflexiveness is not a new technique, but it is a particularly important one for postmodernism as it attempts to "shatter the fictional illusion."

Working in concert with self-reflexiveness in The Simpsons is a heavily allusive narrative style. Allusions include a scene in which Homer hoards a huge pile of contraband sugar, insisting, "First you get the sugar, then you get the power, then you get the women," (Scarface) and a flashback scene in which a young Marge and her mother are swooped down upon by a biplane while walking on a road bordered by cornfields (North by Northwest). Matthew Henry observes that "such intertextual incorporations, blatant transgressions of real-world boundaries, problematize the ontological status of the cartoon's fictional world by acknowledging its artifice" (91). In other words, in a world where people have four fingers per hand and yellow skin, they ought not to be aware of movies like Scarface. That The Simpsons uses this allusive narrative style is not just an indication of its cleverness; many contemporary critics would say that it is an indication of the postmodern condition. Fredric Jameson, for example, calls the phenomenon of frequent allusion in contemporary arts "pastiche," and identifies it as the primary practice of postmodernism:

...with the collapse of the high-modernist ideology of style--what is as unique and unmistakable as your own fingerprints...the producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture (74).
It is certainly true that The Simpsons relies on cultural products of the past to tell its stories. But the problem in applying Jameson's idea of pastiche to the show is his gloomy view of how it works; he calls it "devoid of laughter," and "a neutral practice" of mimicry. Even granted that some of The Simpsons's allusions appeal simply to the satisfaction of recognition, as do the examples cited above, they still provoke laughter. Further, some allusions appear not just for the sake of laughter, but to comment--in a decidedly non-neutral way--on characters or situations in the show. A good example of such an allusion comes in the episode that I will study in the next section. Having been called by Bart and Lisa's school principal, two child welfare agents in a paddy wagon go speeding out of a garage in a scene modeled on one from the Batman TV series. The allusion may be neutral toward its referent, Batman, but it is certainly not neutral toward the agents, who are being chided for their excessive zeal.

The effect of all this self-reflexiveness and allusiveness on The Simpsons is to destabilize narrative conventions; in this way the show takes part in postmodernism's project to force a re-evaluation of traditionally held notions of authority, hierarchy, and centeredness. For Linda Hutcheon, postmodernism's initial concern is

to de-naturalize some of the dominant features of our way of life; to point out that those entities that we unthinkingly experience as "natural" (they might even include capitalism, patriarchy, liberal humanism) are in fact "cultural;" made by us, not given to us (quoted in Silvio, 40).
This is how The Simpsons differs fundametaly from the "happy family" sitcoms of the 50's (Father Knows Best, et. al.): it exposes itself as a product of American consumer capitalism, whereas the the "happy family" shows steadfastly obscured the fact that they were the same thing. After watching The Simpsons, it becomes difficult to see the prosperous patriarchy of Father Knows Best as "natural."

Postmodernism's project sounds positively anti-capitalist. But, as Hutcheon and other critics admit, it is unable to "escape implication in that which it nevertheless still wants to analyze and maybe even undermine" (quoted in Henry, 86). The Simpsons is a good example of this complicitous criticism. One episode instantiates it particularly well: the plot revolves around a film festival as a device for introducing Fox’s prime time cartoon sitcom The Critic (which premiered immediately following this episode). At one point, Bart is watching television when he hears: "Stay tuned for The Flintstones Meet The Jetsons." Miffed, he says, "Uh-oh, I smell a cheap cartoon tie-in." Just then, Homer enters with the new show’s protagonist and says, "Bart, meet the critic. This is Jay Sherman." Besides acknowledging its cartoon predecessors in prime time, the show has, in Jerry Herron’s words, "informed on itself," inviting viewers to forgive it for plugging one of the network’s programs. It has simultaneously ridiculed network promotions and promoted for the network. As Matthew Henry puts it, "The Simpsons is involved in the production of the very ‘culture’ it satirizes; it is at once a hilarious situation comedy, a biting social commentary, and a monumental merchandising phenomenon" (Henry, 86).

The Archetype (A close reading)

In order to demonstrate how The Simpsons works as a postmodern sitcom while retaining the traditional theme of family affirmation, I will describe and analyze an individual episode. While every episode deals with family issues in some way, episode #3F01, produced in 1995, tackles them head-on, offering two competing visions of what the American family should be. The storyline is as follows:

Homer surprises Marge one morning with two certificates for a three-hour spa “getaway.” Despite Marge’s protests that the housework isn’t done, he pulls her away, leaving his father to take care of Maggie. That day at school Bart’s teacher discovers he has head lice (which he got from a monkey at his friend Milhouse’s house) so his clothes are burned and he’s given a potato sack to wear; Lisa has her shoes taken away by pranksters and on the way to the principal’s office gets hit in the head with a ball, causing her to bite her tongue. Thinking Bart and Lisa have been neglected, the principal calls the child welfare agency. When two welfare agents show up at the Simpson residence, they find the house a mess, "Grampa" asleep with the cat eating off of him, and Maggie drinking from the dog’s water bowl. When Bart and Lisa come home (Bart in a sack, Lisa with plastic bags on her feet) they can’t tell the agents where their parents are since they don’t know about the spa getaway. Homer and Marge return and are presented with a citation for neglect. All three children are taken to a foster home--next door at the Flanders residence.

The Simpson kids are welcomed with open arms by the hyper-wholesome fundamentalist Christian family--Ned, Maude, Rod and Todd--but they chafe at the bland new world they’ve entered. Homer and Marge go to the county courthouse to try to get their children back, but a judge tells them they must first complete a "family skills" class. Back at the Flanders house, Bart and Lisa continue to feel out of place, but notice that Maggie seems to enjoy living there. One night, during a game of Bible questions, Lisa admits that they’ve never been baptized, much to the horror of the Flanderses. Ned calls their reverend but is brushed off, so he decides to baptize the Simpson kids himself. Meanwhile, Homer and Marge complete the humiliatingly condescending family skills class. When they return they find a "gone baptizin’" sign on the Flanders’s door, much to their horror. They get in the car and race to the river, where Ned is performing the baptismal ceremony. Homer runs (and tumbles) down a hill in time to see Ned raise a chalice over Bart’s head. He lunges, pushing his son out of the way of a splash of holy water, which falls on him instead. Bart and Lisa hug their father, but Maggie seems torn. She begins walking toward the Flanderses, but just then Marge appears and mother and baby are reunited. Homer, Bart, and Lisa join them in a family embrace, then they all walk off into the sunset together.

Even from this simple plot outline it is easy to see that the episode makes an explicit comparison between the Simpson family and the Flanders family, the Simpsons’s “ideal family” foil. The problematic situation is precipitated by that old sitcom stand-by, the misunderstanding: several unusual circumstances combine to give the principal and the child welfare agents the impression that the Simpson children are neglected, when in fact, Marge takes extremely good care of them (as the first scene of the episode demonstrates). But the show begins to invite family comparisons even before this scene, in the opening sequence.

The basic idea of the characters heading home at the end of the day is modeled after the opening of The Flinstones, in which Fred knocks off work and races home in his bipedal vehicle. But the second-to-last shot, in which they all jump on the couch in front of the TV set, changes with each episode. In one episode, for example, they run into the room to find "clones" of themselves already sitting on the couch. In the episode under consideration here, the frame in that variable shot is split into nine boxes, with each member of the family (including Grampa, the cat, and the dog) shown in a head shot a la The Brady Bunch. The center box is a long shot of the empty TV room. After glancing lovingly around at each other Brady-fashion, they dash out of their boxes and into the TV room (still shown in the center box), where they all jump on the couch as usual. All except Grampa, that is--he’s dozing. To anyone familiar with The Brady Bunch, the technique is instantly recognizable. In the space of four seconds, an allusion has been made to the popular sitcom of the 60’s, which featured a family unusual in its composition (a widow and her three daughters, a widower and his three sons) but wholesome and conventional in every other way. The Simpson family, on the other hand, is conventional in its composition, but quirky and decidedly flawed in many ways.

The formal presentation of the first scene also conveys a great deal of information about the family. In a standard sitcom transitional device, the first scene begins with the theme music playing for a few seconds. Marge is in the kitchen making breakfast and packing lunch boxes. A series of quick cuts as she cracks eggs, pours orange juice, gets down a box of cereal, and wraps sandwiches indicates the quickness and precision with which she performs the morning routine. There is even a crane shot showing the breakfast table from above as Marge distributes waffles. The fact that she has a smile on her face the entire time lets the viewer know that she gains satisfaction from these domestic duties. The first pieces of dialogue reinforce this impression. Taking a tray out of the oven and putting its contents on the baby’s plate, Marge says, " Here’s your toast, Maggie. I melba-fied it myself." When Lisa enters the kitchen, Marge tells her "I tracked down those old newspapers for your history project." The headline of the top paper reads: "America Loves Ted Kennedy." It is an acknowledgment that Lisa is the character most likely to express liberal political opinions, and the first instance of viewers being jarred out of the fictional world. She responds, "Wow, Mom, you didn’t have to go to this much trouble." By this point Marge’s status as a good mother is secure, even before she prevents Bart from wearing plastic fangs to school for his class picture, takes a sign reading "I’m a stupid baby" off Lisa’s back, and shoos a spider away from Homer’s car keys.

As in many other episodes, it is one of Homer’s ideas that leads the family into trouble. When Marge asks him how he afforded the spa certificates, Homer answers, "Never you mind." Then a wavy dissolve accompanied by a harp flourish (sitcom signal for a flashback) changes the scene to a Bentley dealership, where a banner reads: "Free spa getaway with test drive." Having told the dealer that he is a count, Homer takes the car for a three-second spin, snatches the certificates, and runs. The act is typical of Homer, who loves both treating his wife, on whom he relies so heavily, and getting something for nothing. Once Marge agrees to go, everything is set for the misunderstanding that is to come.

The involvement of the child welfare agency represents a challenge to Homer and Marge’s parenting that is more direct and powerful than those in other episodes, which are generally limited to other characters’ disapproval. But the show’s portrayal of the child welfare agents efficiently subverts the authority of these official figures.{Click here for video clip.} When the principal calls them, the scene cuts to a shot modeled on the segues in the Batman TV programs: a badge (with the state seal rather than the bat design) quickly approaches the camera, with a swirling effect in the background, until it fills the screen, then recedes. The shot is accompanied by the same trumpet flourish used in Batman. The next two shots show the agency’s vehicle (which looks like a paddy wagon) tearing out of a garage, much the same way the Batmobile tears out of the Batcave, and running over a tricycle as it speeds up the street, accompanied by the Batman theme music. In just a few shots the show has established, by way of allusion, the unwise zeal of the agents, thereby preparing the viewer (who should already be on the Simpsons’s side after the first scene) to dismiss the charges of neglect they are about to make.

The scene in which the agents confront Homer and Marge and take the children away solidifies their characterization as appallingly intrusive government bureaucrats. They hand Marge a citation listing the evidence of neglect they observed, including the absurd item "toilet paper hung in improper over-hand fashion." The children are led away and put in the back of the welfare vehicle/paddy wagon. One agent tries to reassure them by saying, "Now just relax, kids, all we’re doing is taking you to a foster home." But the presentation of this line makes it clear that it is anything but reassuring to the Simpson kids. The agent begins speaking in a medium shot from the front of the vehicle, showing him and his colleague in the front seats and the kids behind them. But after the word "to" there is a cut to a kids’ point-of-view head shot of the agent, and a zoom- in as he says "a foster home," with a slight echo effect and menacing music in the background. This melodramatic effect, reminiscent of B-grade horror movies, is the show's self-consciously hyperbolic way of highlighting the difference in perception bewtween the agents and the kids. Bart and Lisa gasp and throw themselves against the back windows, looking with dismay at Homer and Marge standing helplessly by, equally dismayed. The sadness of the scene is broken by the absurdity of the fact that the agent drives exactly one house down and pulls into the Flanders’s driveway. Ned Flanders greets them with "Hey-dilly- ho! Welcome to your new home, neglect-arinos!" He is the exaggerated foil to Homer, who is annoyed to no end by having such a wholesome neighbor. Yet Ned’s trademark silly wordplay serves as a sign that he may be pious and kind, but he is also a bit ridiculous. His wife, Maude, announces in a sweet voice, "I don’t judge Homer and Marge. That’s for a vengeful God to do," revealing the scorching flip-side of their fundamentalist Christianity.

Marge, ever the self-abnegating matriarch, blames herself for the situation. "I can’t believe I put my own pleasure ahead of my home and family," she says in a moment of high irony, "That is so like me." But Homer protests, "I’m the terrible parent. The boy bugs the hell out of me; I can’t help Lisa with her homework. The only thing I’m fit to take care of is a houseplant." Just then he turns around and sees the plant wilted. This exchange pretty well sums up Homer and Marge’s respective roles in the family. Following in the footsteps of The Honeymooners, The Flintstones, and All in the Family, The Simpsons presents the man of the house as selfish, dim-witted, and irresponsible--in other words, as a sort of overgrown child-- who must be mothered by his wife. Still, Homer has an ultimately redeeming trait: his genuine love for his family, which will be borne out in an upcoming scene.

At the Flanders house, Bart and Lisa are having trouble fitting in. The boys’ newspaper reporter game and their cucumber and cottage cheese snacks are alien to them. In an attempt to make him feel more at home, Ned grants Bart his wish to watch The Itchy & Scratchy Show, an ultra-violent cartoon about a cat and mouse. Itchy & Scratchy generally takes the theme of the Simpsons episode in which it is embedded, and this one is no exception: the cat finds what he thinks is a baby (the mouse in costume) on his doorstep, so he picks it up and hugs it, but the mouse smashes his bottle, stabs the cat with the shards, then runs inside and steals his TV set. Bart and Lisa laugh uproariously, but the Flanders boys are clearly traumatized. Rod, the older son, asks his father, "Daddy, what’s the red stuff coming out of kitty’s ears?" "Uh, that’s just...uh...raspberry jam," he answers. Todd, the younger son, asks, "Dad, should I poke Rod with a sharp thing like the mouse did?" Ned responds, "No, son. No-sir-ee-Bob!"

Itchy & Scratchy functions within The Simpsons as an ambivalent commentary on cartoon violence. The fact that it is a show-within-a-show, (combined with the fact that it is so extravagantly violent) gives viewers of The Simpsons added critical distance with which to consider it. The effect is to "de-naturalize" cruelty and violence in children’s cartoons, reminding viewers that they are created that way--they don't have to be that way. But at the same time, Itchy & Scratchy is so absurdly--and creatively--excessive that sometimes viewers can’t help laughing along with the Simpson kids. The result is a queasy ambivalence about the appropriateness of these cultural products being pitched to American children. Accordingly, the show follows its "de-naturalization" of cartoons with an implicit rebuttal to those who claim that cartoons cause violent behavior in children. The notion is ridiculed by Todd’s question to his father about poking his brother with a sharp thing. It is ridiculous because the Flanders children are so well behaved, it seems they would never think of harming each other. But there is another subtle shade of meaning that can be discerned in the scene: if somehow cartoons do inspire violence in children, it is only in those whose parents shelter them so much that they have no idea what the world is like.

Meanwhile, Homer and Marge have gone before a judge to try to get their children back, but their cause is imperiled by Homer’s thoughtlessness. He begins to explain to the situation to the judge: "OK. I’m not going to win 'Father of the Year.' In fact, I’m probably the last guy who should have kids..." Then, catching himself, he says, "Wait. Wait. Can I start again? Fathering children is the best part of my day. I’d do anything for Bart and Lisa." While Homer’s rhetorical reversal is intended to be humorous, the sentiments he expresses are basically sincere—in both statements. He does not think too highly of his parenting ability, but in every episode key actions on his part betray a genuine love for his children. In any case, the judge sends Homer and Marge to a family skills class to learn how to be better parents. Once again, government is portrayed as unjustifiably intrusive in the Simpsons’s lives. The irony of the situation is heightened by the judge’s admission, in response to Marge’s plea "from one mother to another," that she doesn’t have a family. "I don’t care for children," she remarks.

Back at the Flanders house, Bart and Lisa notice that Maggie seems to be happier there than she was at home. Watching Ned play with the baby, Lisa asks her brother, "When was the last time Dad gave her that kind of attention?" Although she does not talk, Maggie’s shifting allegiance is indicated by her location in the scenes with the Flanderses. In several shots she appears visually united with them and separated from Bart and Lisa: on the opposite side of the dinner table, in a bedroom across the hall, sitting between Maude and the boys on the floor of the family room, and in the front seat of the car. On the way to the river for the baptism, Maude tells Bart to relax, pointing out that Maggie isn’t scared. "That’s because she can’t talk," Bart shoots back. At that point Maggie takes out her ever-present pacifier and, looking at Ned, says, "Daddilly-doodilly." Then, in Bart and Lisa’s POV shot, the back of Maggie’s head appears over the front seat and rotates 180 degrees to look at them with a maniacal smile. Besides being an allusion to the horror film The Exorcist, about a child possessed by the devil, this shot is a subtle self-reference to a previous Simpsons episode, in which Homer sells his soul to the devil for a doughnut, and the Evil One turns out to be Ned Flanders (but with red skin, horns, and the hind legs of a goat). The implication in these episodes that Flanders is actually evil reveals the producers’ ambivalence--and prods some viewer’s ambivalence--toward religiosity. On one hand, the idea that Flanders is the devil is funny because it is so outlandish; he is, after all, a devout Christian, a good neighbor, and a kind, loving family man. On the other hand, it appeals to the producers’ secular sensibilities--and those of some viewers--to think that such unblemished goodness, and further, such self-righteousness, may be evil in disguise. Homer and Marge never voice any such suspicions, but they clearly resent the idea that anyone could care for their children better than they can.

Meanwhile, they are stuck in a class that treats them like idiots. The instructor’s tips for building a happy home include putting milk in the refrigerator and putting garbage in a garbage can. At one point Homer is asked to participate in a role-playing exercise with Cletus, the show’s redneck stereotype. When Cletus tells him he’s cut his finger on the screen door, Homer reacts as he often does with Bart: he shouts, "Why you little..." then starts choking him. But when he notices the rest of the class looking at him critically, Homer releases the redneck and says to himself, "I gotta pass this class for my kids." Homer's reflexes may be wrong, but he is clearly willing to change his behavior for the sake of his children. Turning to his partner, he says, "Son, let’s stop the fussin’ and the feudin’." Cletus throws back his head and shouts, "I love you, pa!" prompting Homer to respond, "I love you, Cletus!" They embrace and dissolve into laughter as the class gets up and cheers. The show's presentation of a skit-within-a-show, featuring instantaneous resolution of a problem, once again gives Simpsons viewers critical distance. This time it prompts them to consider the improbably quick and clean resolution of problems on sitcoms.

When they return from the family skills class, having passed both the class and a drug test (more government intrusion on privacy), Homer and Marge’s horror at finding the "gone baptizin’" sign is indicated by a POV shot that zooms in on the sign, accompanied by a measure of typical horror movie music. They gasp, and Marge says indignantly, "They’re going to baptize our children?!" Homer’s reaction is: "Oh no! In the eyes of God, they’ll be Flanderseseseses!" They may not be as religious as Ned and Maude, but Homer and Marge acknowledge religion’s importance as a family bonding ritual.

The thwarted baptism scene is the structural climax of the episode and the peak of the show’s stylistic virtuosity. A crane shot that moves in on the Flanderses singing "Amazing Grace" on the riverbank, with Bart, Lisa, and Maggie standing by dressed in white robes, serves as the establishing shot. There’s a cut to a high-angle long shot of the group, then another to a medium shot of Ned as they finish singing. He holds up the bible, saying, "Today we write a new page in the Flanders family Bible." After the word "Flanders" there is a cut to a close-up of the Bible, with gold lettering reading "Flanders Bible" on the cover, in Ned’s hands. A light glitters along the lettering accompanied by a chime. A cut to another high-angle long shot shows Ned wading into the river with Bart, Lisa, and Maggie reluctantly following behind. There’s a cut to a medium shot of the three kids’ feet stepping into the water, with a tilt upward to show their apprehensive faces looking up. A kids’ POV medium shot of Ned comes next, as he asks, "Who wants to be the first to enter God’s good graces?" leaning forward with a chalice in his hand. He is smiling, apparently oblivious to (or perhaps dismissive of) Bart and Lisa's discomfort with the whole affair. There’s a cut to a high-angle medium shot of Bart and Lisa, each pointing at the other and looking more frightened than ever.

After a brief cut-away to the Simpsons’s car crashng through the reverednd's model train landscape as it is being unloaded in front of his house, the scene cuts back to the river. A low-angle shot shows Ned holding the Bible in one hand and the chalice in another; as he raises the chalice, the camera tracks backward to show Bart with his head bowed beneath it. Organ music in a minor key plays in the background. There is a close-up of Bart’s frightened upturned face, then one of Ned’s smiling downturned face. Then there’s a cut to the the road where the Flanders’s car is parked. The Simpsons’s car come skidding into the frame, and Homer and Marge jump out. A low-angle shot shows Homer stoop next to the Flanders’s bumper, where a sticker reads "I love your kids." He growls and runs down the hill. About halfway down he trips on a rock and tumbles headlong the rest of the way, cursing as he goes.

A high-angle close-up shows Homer land face-first in the mud on the riverbank. The camera moves in on his face as he looks up and gasps. The menacing organ music continues in the background. There’s a cut to a long shot of Ned with the chalice raised over Bart’s head with Homer in the left foreground.{Click here for video clip.} The camera tracks in as Ned intones, "Do you reject Satan..." Cut to Ned’s POV shot with the chalice held over Bart, who looks terrified. "...and all his empty promises?" The chalice begins to tip; Bart cringes. Cut to a medium shot of Homer, running through the water in slow motion, shouting "No!" (the sound is also slowed down, distorting his voice). Cut to a close-up of Bart, looking to his left with a surprised expression. Cut to a high-angle medium shot of Ned, also turning in surprise. Cut to a close-up of Bart, looking up worriedly; tilt up to close-up of chalice tipping, dropping a splash of holy water. Cut to a long shot of Homer with Bart in the right foreground; the camera moves in on Homer as he lunges, still shouting "No!" Cut to a long shot of Ned with the dripping chalice and Bart looking toward his father, who lunges (in slow motion) into the frame from the left and pushes Bart off his feet. Cut to a close- up of Homer and Bart face to face, moving in super slow motion from the left of the frame to the right. Several drops of holy water fall on Homer’s head, making a sizzling sound. Cut to medium shot of Bart falling backward out the right of the frame and Homer growling as the holy water sizzles on his head. He falls into the water, then gets up, growling and flailing his arms. Cut to close-up of his contorted face. Cut to a medium shot of Homer falling with a splash into the water, then floating up on his back with his eyes closed.

The running lunge and the slow-motion effects used to portray it offer viewers, on one level, the satisfaction of recognizing typical action/adventure movie techniques. The use of these techniques seems at once silly (since it is not a life-or-death situation) and appropriate (since Homer has such a rivalry with Flanders and he resents Ned's presumptuousness). Viewers are also implicitly being invited to assess the silliness or appropriateness of these techniques in the movies from which they are drawn. The shots in which the holy water sizzles on Homer's head and appear to cause him pain imply that he is evil, acknowledging his lack of enthusiasm for religion. But the implication is playful rather than damning, since viewers will not believe anyting so awful about one of the show's protagonists.

Normal speed action returns as Bart and Lisa run to embrace their father, who revives quickly. "Wow, Dad, you took a Baptismal for me," says Bart, sincerely impressed. By way of both self-restraint and physical exertion, Homer has gotten his children back, and he has won their respect for it. But when he turns toward the bank and holds out his arms to Maggie, she seems unsure of what to do. She turns to look at the Flanderses; the over-the-shoulder shot shows them gathered happily together, waving to her in a landscape of green grass, flowers, fruit trees, and blue sky. A butterfly alights on the younger son’s head, and a rabbit hops by, while a happy melody plays on a flute. The music stops abruptly with the cut to another over-the-shoulder shot as she looks at Homer, Bart and Lisa sitting in the water. Behind them, the trees are bare, the sky is overcast, and there is no music--only the sound of a frog croaking as it hops by. Here The Simpsons's producers take advantage of the cartoon genre quite blatantly and self-consciously, flaunting its artifice once again.

Maggie begins walking toward the Flanderses. A cut to her POV shot shows them standing together and Ned outstretching his arms, but in the upper right of the frame, Marge’s signature blue hairdo appears over the rise. There’s a tilt up and right as Marge comes into full view and runs forward. She picks up Maggie and spins her around against a brilliant sunset with a triumphant variation on the show’s theme playing. "Oh Maggie," she says, "you’re a Simpson again." In response, Maggie takes out her pacifier and burps. Homer, Bart, and Lisa run to join them and they all embrace. As they walk off together, Marge asks what it was like at the Flanders house. Homer says, "Yeah, gimme all the dirt." Lisa answers, "Let’s see...dirt...dirt...well there wasn’t really much dirt." Bart jumps in with "There was a bunch of old cans of paint in the garage, though," at which Homer laughs heartily. "Old painty can Ned!" he exclaims, and the rest of the family joins him in laughter as they walk off into the sunset, that indispensible prop for a sentimental ending. Just as the show's producers insert the backgrounds when Maggie looks from the Flanderses to her own family, they insert the brilliant sunset as a little piece of artifice, calling attention to the ways in which television programs and films try to manipulate viewers' emotions to craft the "happy ending." Still, the consciousness of this manipulation does not tarnish the beauty of the moment. The Simpsons have survived the efforts of intrusive government agents and overzealous Christians to tear them apart, and their sense of humor remains intact. For the moment, at least, they are a happy, united family.


As a conspicuous success in the lucrative and highly visible sitcom arena, The Simpsons merits close attention as a late 20th century American cultural product. Working in an atmosphere of intense competition for television viewers, the show's producers have crafted a prime-time cartoon sitcom that balances distinctiveness and familiarity, critical acuity and marketability, irreverence and morality. They have taken advantage of the plasticity of the cartoon form to give The Simpsons an eye-catching appearance and to create an alternate reality not dependent on the laws of nature, while still making use of some of the sitcom's structural conventions. They have employed the self-reflexive and allusive techniques of postmodernism, with the effect of de-naturalizing earlier cultural products that unself-consciously embraced the dominant features of our society; yet they have avoided the blatant political partisanship that would drive away some sponsors and viewers. They have retained the family as the show's focus and moral anchor--as it has been throughout the television era in such popular sitcoms as Father Knows Best, The Waltons, All in the Family, and The Cosby Show--despite the confusion and missteps of its characters.

It is remarkable that The Simpsons has assimilated all of these ingredients and maintained enormous popularity for six and a half years--already a long run for a sitcom. The most remarkable facet of this success is the trick that the show pulls off every week; Frank McConnell phrases it well: "The genius of The Simpsons...is that it deconstructs the myth of the happy family wisely, and miraculously leaves what is real and valuable about the myth unscathed" (390). The Simpsons has brought the sitcom into the postmodern era, laughing all the way.

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The Contested Family

The Trajectory of the Situation Comedy

The Rise of The Simpsons

The Archetype (A close reading)