THE FORUM on Bart and the Bard
SO, at last, The Simpsons Movie — a project suspended in the Hollywood ether since the show’s third season — will become a reality when it opens on Thursday. Critics invited to advance screenings of the film’s opening minutes have come away laughing, so we can probably expect a triumph. However, even if the project turns out to be a 40- pound turkey, we’ll still flock to see it, if only out of curiosity. Failure, in the context of such huge success, has its own fascination.
The most interesting thing about the belated arrival of the movie, however, is its redundancy. The Simpsons recently celebrated its 400th episode and is set to enter a 19th season, with no end in sight. It has won 23 Emmy awards and been voted best television show of the 20th century by Time magazine. And it earned its star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame back in 2000.
Beyond all this fiddle, a feature film feels less like some grand culmination than a victory lap. The only thing the translation from small screen to large will confirm ( as if further confirmation were needed) is that The Simpsons ’ status as a transculturality icon, a term art critics use to describe what is universally recognisable and beautiful beyond notions of tastefulness, such as Elvis Presley or Andy Warhol’s soup cans.
No, The Simpsons ’ proper place is at home, on the box. Not only because it is first and foremost a TV show, structured to provide 23 minutes of perfection each episode, but because TV is also its subject, its reason for being. A film version is merely a curiosity: a fish out of water, removed from its natural environment. And ours, too, it should be said, since it’s the same subaqueous world we goggle at through the bathysphere window of our flat- screens.
But perhaps it is the extent of our immersion in the televisual realm that blinds us to the real worth of The Simpsons , the most brilliant creation of a medium that is itself the ‘‘ most successful disseminator and definer of our cultural atmosphere’’.
This last point comes from a 1993 essay about TV by author David Foster Wallace, in which he questions why highbrow TV critics have been largely unable to get beyond their basic lovehate attitude towards the medium. His answer is that TV has supplanted them, emerging as its own best critic and self- analyst.
This was not always the case. TV and its audience have spent decades evolving alongside one another, in a kind of feedback loop. We began by watching programs that were, when compared with novels and cinema, simple and formulaic. We had to learn the conventions of a medium whose traditional role was dreampeddling — offering a sense of normal life transformed into something sweeter, kinder, tidier — before we could move into more complex terrain: the action shots and car chases; the rapid collages of news and commercials; dramas with their multiple plots and gritty verisimilitude; and comedies buoyed by risque commentary and, most significantly, irony.
Today’s audiences are, according to Foster Wallace, ‘‘ jaded, weary, but willing and above all knowledgeable. And this knowledgeability utterly transforms the possibilities and hazards of ‘ creativity’ in TV’’.
He suggests that once an audience attains a certain level of sophistication, the medium is free to become its own self- contained universe. ‘‘ The best TV,’’ he concludes, ‘‘ has been about ironic self- reference like no species of postmodern art could have dreamed of.’’
Enter The Simpsons , a program that consciously echoes the daddy of all ’ 50s sitcoms, Father Knows Best — one of a number of shows from that period so moralistic and whitebread that one critic labelled them ‘‘ Aryan melodramas’’ — only to turn its conventions inside out.
This has happened before: four centuries ago, in England. Playgoers in the Elizabethan era also had to become acculturated to their medium, largely through formalised religious works — the creaking dramaturgy of morality plays — before they could appreciate the faster- moving, more personal, eventful ( and decadently selfreferential) creations of full- blown Elizabethan, Jacobean and Carolinian drama.
To take this parallel to its logical conclusion, the universe of invention explored over two decades by The Simpsons represents a creative efflorescence comparable to only one figure, William Shakespeare. If this sounds a long bow to draw, remember that Elizabethan theatre was made possible by two groups: university wits, such as Robert Greene and Ben Jonson — ironists and scholars steeped in classical literature — and actor- playwrights, who were of necessity more populist and instinctual. So it was with The Simpsons : cable TV producers demanding bums on seats before any other considerations, and a countercultural cartoonist named Matt Groening, whose writing team began their careers producing satirical zines for the liberal arts college cognoscenti.
Elizabethan theatre was low art, in the sense that it had to please people to make money. And yet the tools it used to pull punters in — vulgarity, prurience and Falstaffian buffoonery — were deployed with enormous subtlety and sophistication. There was also no shame in stealing plots ( Shakespeare did so regularly), nor with collaboration between playwrights. Just like TV, as theatre developed, once- discreet genres of comedy and tragedy blended together.
Also, consider the inheritors of The Simpsons ’ protean achievement: South Park , with its dark and contentious subject matter, is perfect Jacobean stuff ( John Webster and John Ford), while Family Guy, which takes selfreferentiality to a new level, resembles the court masques of Jonson, those private entertainments written for the delectation of the elect.
Like TV, it was Elizabethan theatre’s cultural centrality that made its true reach invisible to the kulturkritiks of its day. It was two centuries before the importance of these dramatists began to peel away from their popular role. Perhaps it will take us just as long to realise the omnipresent power of TV over our own contemporary culture, though hopefully not as long to acknowledge that its greatest work was a crudely drawn cartoon about a dysfunctional family in small- town US.
As for the film version, I think I’ll hang on for the DVD.