Eat my shorts, Bart!

Issue 

The Simpsons
Channel 10, Wednesdays
Reviewed by Dave Riley

Confronted with The Simpsons, Walt Disney would turn in his grave. If Uncle Walt's subterranean crypt had access to network television, maybe he would (finally) feel remorse for what he did to Bambi's mother. And Fred Flintstone would be minus a yabba-dabba-doo or two if Pebbles grew up anything like Bart.

The Simpsons live in urban Springfield, which is a long way from the Magic Kingdom but much closer to the world on this side of the console. After years of cartoon kitsch and formula storyboards, the Simpsons welcome us to the real world.

I said "real", not "bright", because despite its sharp colours, the animated world that confronts these cartoon characters is a mean one. If it isn't the boss or sexism or even God that sours their existence, there is always an array of devious fictions on hand to convince the viewer that — despite their bright yellow visage, limited number of digits and inability to age either gracefully or at all — the Simpsons are indeed very much like you and me.

Many a girl and woman identifies with Leesa Simpson as she negotiates the rough gender passages of childhood. Marge's housebound existence and marital frustrations reproduce those of many mothers. Homer is just an ordinary bloke sentenced to labour, drink beer and fornicate but without an ounce of power to control the direction of his life. And Bart just drops his shorts and moons when given half the chance. While the others may protest, Bart rebels. (On you, Bart!)

The Simpsons, true to standard formula is a situation comedy. We've had our share of those from network USA, which has tapped the nuclear family for all its possible — usually coy — permutations.

But this outfit has very little in common with its predecessors. Matt Groenig's characters are closer to the tradition of US underground comics than anything that has appeared on television before. Contemporary collectors of The Phantom and the run of various superheroes may think bulging deltoids and snug leotards are it before you can graduate to the more explicit sexuality and violence of R-rated fantasy, but a humorous and satirical tradition predates the current vogue for such comic books.

The political upsurge of the late '60s and '70s bred a different genre that was overwhelmingly critical of established society. Characters such as the Fabulous Fury Freak Brothers, Wonder Warthog and Jesus (the New Adventures of ...) grew up and prospered in the pages of the alternative press in the USA.

It is this rich tradition that enabled the Simpsons to arrive so ready-made on our television screens. While they are surely cleaner than the easy sensuality of their comic forebears, they still share the same subversive edge. The team of writers and animators who conceive The Simpsons each week generate a sharp critique of life in the suburbs.

As well as this ready satire, the team is steeped in the saccharine tradition of Toon Town — Disney and Warner Bros, Mickey Mouse and the Roadrunner — and the ritualised sitcom of standard TV fare. The blend of such disparate influences produces a program that while it masquerades as a cartoon series designed for family viewing, actually pitches itself with greater social awareness than any program you care to mention. The sometimes inane activities of the Simpsons are among the most political of half-hour jaunts you'll share on television.

Springfield is peopled by enough stock characters to ensure that their alternating conflicts and quests for consensus seem just as applicable to modern civil society as they do to this complicated animated counterpart. In handling the class line The Simpsons' message is clear: don't trust the boss or the local constabulary. Indeed, in an action rare to television, Homer took on the role of working class hero and once led his workmates out on strike.

Nonetheless, the storyline that seems to come so easily is not bought without contradiction. This entertainment is the cutting edge of an industry to rival that of Sesame Street. From boxer shorts and chess sets to key rings and dolls, the Simpsons are eminently marketable. Even the final stages of the animation process are purchased cheaply at labour rates on offer in South Korea. As much as we may think Bart is so cool, there's a charred factory in Bangkok in which 200 workers were incinerated last year because management locked the exit doors to ensure that the productivity of Bart dolls was not reduced by outside distractions.

Despite themselves, there's always someone who wants a piece of the Simpsons. While they may alternate between submitting to and ranting against the world created for them, when you are merely pencilled in and coloured yellow, there isn't much you can do about it. Homer, Marge, Bart, Leesa and little Maggie are sentenced to life lived in struggle and foolishness without any way of transcending their time slot. But if we can learn to sometimes see the world through their eyes, maybe we will be better placed to do something about it.

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