Southern People-like

The Simpsons’ landmark 500th episode is coming up Sunday, February 19, and I’ve been trying to justify writing about the animated comedy on a website devoted to Southern politics and culture. I would like to believe I have found two rationales.

For starters, I would suggest that Homer Simpson, with his abiding fondness for beer, deep-fried everything and lassitude, is only a coon dog and a 12-gauge away from being prototypical of a certain sort of Southern man (and maybe not even a coon dog if you count Santa’s Little Helper).

From left: Homer, Santa's Little Helper (dog), Marge, Lisa, Snowball II (cat), Maggie and Bart Simpson.
From left: Homer, Santa's Little Helper (dog), Marge, Lisa, Snowball II (cat), Maggie and Bart Simpson. © 20th Century Fox Film Corp.

Second, I would argue that Springfield, the Simpson family’s fictional home town, located in coyly nonspecific “middle” America,  is the closest that TV has ever come to a realm of characters and themes as diverse and rich as William Faulkner’s  “apocryphal” Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi.

Faulkner gave us vengeful barn burner Abner Snopes.  Simpsons creator Matt Groening and his cohorts gave us maniacal Sideshow Bob.  Faulkner gave us poor Benjy Compson, his mind all sound and fury. Groening gave us Crazy Cat Lady. Faulkner has his environmentally symbolic bear, The Simpsons its three-eyed fish.

Can’t you just see Bart Simpson sneaking off to Memphis in his grandfather’s automobile with “reivers” Boon Hogganbeck and Ned McCaslin? Or one of Marge Simpson’s twisted sisters keeping the corpse of a faithless lover in the spare bedroom?  A Rose for Selma?

If not, well, so be it. I still think it’s fair to say that no body of fictional work in any medium in the past quarter century has shown us America, or at least its funhouse-mirror reflection, as acutely and as thoroughly as The Simpsons.

The Simpsons is as American as McDonald’s fried apple pies — and littering with the wrappers.  It’s our flaws and foolish ways – and a decent helping of our decency and pluck – writ large and inked in primary colors.

The Simpson family and their diverese friends, neighbors and foils – lovelorn teacher Edna Krabappel, zealous Christian Ned Flanders, woeful barkeep Moe Szyslak, to cite just three — embody our vulgarity and grace, our selfishness and generosity, our religiosity and irreverence, our enterprise and sloth, our love of family and our impatience with same.

When The Simpsons debuted on Fox in December 1989, protectors of our national rectitude had multiple cows. The show – young, Huckleberry Bart especially — was denounced as proof of America’s moral collapse, possibly even the apocalypse.

Now the dozens of books inspired by the series include The Gospel According to The Simpsons and Flanders’ Book of Faith.  Simpsons characters have been featured on the covers of Christianity Today and Guideposts for Teens as well as Forbes and MAD. The show has a Peabody Award, same as 60 Minutes and Sesame Street.

Not that The Simpsons has reined in its impertinence.  About the only way The Simpsons has softened over the two decades is in the appearance of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and little Maggie. Getting better looking with time is just one more way the characters mirror us as a people.

The series’ cheekiness may no longer be shocking, but it’s ongoing and unbowed. Groening and company never tire of needling their network’s media sibling, Fox News Channel, and its owner, Rupert Murdoch. On the upcoming 500th episode, Julian Assange, the controversial founder and editor-in-chief of WiliLeaks, is one of the guest stars who’ll give voice to his animated stand-in.

If I had to apply a political label to The Simpson, I wouldn’t say liberal. The giddy gore of the Itchy & Scratchy toons-within-a-toon is a do-gooder’s nightmare. No, The Simpsons writers have always exhibited a libertarian streak. Viewers are encouraged to be eternally vigilant with regard to authority – all authority, be it in the form of an autocratic school principal, a know-it-all newscaster or a “friendly” commercial spokesperson. Advertising and consumerism are constant targets, and not even the show’s own endless merchandising is immune to barbs.

The Simpsons is as pro-liberty as any series ever shown on American television, a weekly brief on behalf of living and letting live and of laughing at ourselves as well as “others.”  It’s a big tent, wide open, inviting and impudent without regard to race, religion, color, creed, sexual orientation or planet of national origin.

Its humor is can be cerebral or sophomoric. What other TV series concocts guest-star bits for Suzanne Somers and Thomas Pynchon,  Meryl Streep and Ted Nugent? Where else are you going to see a football star catch an errant pass in the Cracker Jacks and an ingenious two-minute illustration of the evolutionary theory?

South Park? America’s Funniest Home Videos? Nah.

Only on The Simpsons.  Only in Springfield. Only, as Bill Faulkner or Krusty the Clown might have put it,  in Yuks-napatawpha.

Author’s note: I obviously remain a fan of The Simpsons, but there are plenty of one-time admirers who believe the show jumped the shark ages ago. If you’re near the University of Georgia on Wednesday, February 15, stop by for “Is The Simpsons Still Funny,” a roundtable co-sponsored by the Peabody Awards and the Willson Center for Humanities & Arts. It’s set to start at 4 p.m. in the Miller Learning Center’s Room 150. It’s free and open to anyone with an interest and an opinion.

Noel Holston

Noel Holston

Noel Holston, originally from Laurel, Miss., is a freelance journalist, songwriter, storyteller and actor who lives in Athens, Ga., with his wife, singer-songwriter Marty Winkler. In a previous life, he was the TV critic at Newsday in New York and, before that, a critic and feature writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Orlando Sentinel.