Like the inevitable roll of Sisyphus’ boulder, it was only a matter of time before they made The Simpsons Movie.
In The Simpsons Movie, Homer’s careless polluting condemns Springfield to imprisonment in a giant Plexiglas bubble. The Simpson family escapes to Alaska (?), where they catch wind of the government’s plans to destroy Springfield and turn it into “the new Grand Canyon.” This conflict shatters the family, and Homer must race against time to save his hometown and reconnect with the people he loves.
The Simpsons is, for America, what Catholicism once was to the Irish: an irreproachable institution woven into the national identity. My language may sound highfalutin, but tell someone you don’t like the The Simpsons, and their shocked surprise (and occasional offense) will sound eerily like an Connacht Carmelite admonishing a sinner. The show, which started off controversial and rebellious, is now a dinosaur like the targets it once skewered. The Simpsons on Sunday is as automatic a ritual as weekly mass once was to a Dubliner.
I mention the show because the movie is basically one long episode. The structure and conflict are similar to any given episode, though the writers take advantage of the film medium to make tv-unfriendly jokes. Bart goes nude, Homer gives Springfield the finger, and we even seen loveable bus driver Jimbo going one toke over the line (though he isn’t sittin’ on the dock of any railway station). Given the chance to do something impressive with a different medium, all the writers can cough up is jokes the Fox censors normally nix.
The Simpsons Movie shares it’s lone redeeming quality with the tv show. The Simpsons’ writers have always been fond of cartoon sight gags, and they’re remarkably good at them. The times I actually laugh at the Simpsons are instances like Homer’s head getting stuck in a bridge, or Grandpa’s teeth being stolen by a turtle. There’s a painfully funny moment in the movie that involves (of course) damage to Homer’s skull. It also involves a sinkhole, bows and arrows, and a lot of clawing. Groening and the rest of the crew clearly love cartoons, and when they try to write a cartoon show, instead of a “significant” yet halfhearted satire, they shine. Too bad that’s rarely the case.
What I can never get is why critics find The Simpsons intelligent. Everyone from Tom Shales to my freshman Sociology T.A. honestly believed The Simpsons was “incisive social commentary,” “cutting-edge satire,” and other such clichés. I’ve never found that to be the case. The world of The Simpsons is, as has been frequently noted, nihilistic. People are generally stupid, parents are often distant, and most efforts are hopeless. It’s very hard to write a truly good nihilistic satire. This is because nihilism is a blunt ideology, and satire is anything but blunt. Satire requires a fine balance of absurdity, contempt, and hope. The contrasting cocktail of cynicism, hate and despair (The Simpsons’ usual fare) may produce the laughter of existential collapse—but not the humor and wit of satire. Satire needs the focus of a microscope and the precision of a surgeon, and blanket jokes about the futility of life possess neither.
The Simpsons’ humor is so blunt and predictable (cops are fat, politicians are dishonest, retarded kids say the darndest things) that it isn’t so much titillating as it is reassuring. It’s a weekly belge of normative assertions, comforting us that, yes, cynicism is the only way to go. It’s television-as-alka-seltzer.
But maybe it’s all in good fun? Maybe I’m being too hard on a group of fun, funny guys n’ gals who just want to make America laugh by putting others down. I mean, tv can’t have that much of an effect on our culture, right?
At one point, Bart made a quip about Homer’s “fat ass.” A nine-year-old four rows behind me giggled cherubically as a haggard man chased a big rock towards the exit.