Until this week, I had never seen a single episode of The Simpsons. I can see your gaping maw, so let me explain: My parents weren’t fans of animated television, and by the time I reached adulthood, I had no desire to dredge up a box set or chase the episodes down online. The “golden age” of the show—season three to somewhere around season ten, or so I’ve been told—isn’t available on any of the streaming services I subscribe to. So I simply never watched. When I told my coworkers, they looked at me like I’d just spawned a third eyeball. One showed me a picture of the kid with blue hair and red glasses, asking, “Do you know who this is?”
“Of course,” I responded, pulling up the meme of him throwing a frisbee to no one, running after it, and throwing it back.
“Do you know his name?” my coworker followed up. Nope.
I have always been familiar with the cultural cachet of the show—the celebrity cameos, the impact on popular culture, and yes, the memes. But I didn’t know the names of characters or even the vastness of the show’s run. I simply assumed The Simpsons peaked in the 2000s, then vanished. I had no idea it was still on air.
But when I decided—really, was forced by my editors—to check the show out, I was intimidated by the nearly 639 episodes, so I searched for someone who could be my guide. I found Tyler Shores, a PhD candidate at Cambridge who taught a class at UC Berkeley called “The Simpsons and Philosophy” in 2003. “You see classes that reference pop culture more frequently now, but at the time, there weren’t really courses that used non-academic or classic texts,” Shores told me over Skype. “I designed this course for a semester, and I really didn’t expect so many students to show up. But I had 500 the first year.” The class became so well known it was even recognized by Simpsons writers and featured in the episode “Little Girl in the Big Ten.”
Shores selected 11 episodes for me to watch, based off of my self-professed interests, with the intent of providing a healthy range. I trusted him; his knowledge of the show seemed impressively encyclopedic. And I have to say, every single episode I watched, nearly all from the golden age, gave me something different—a different core cast member feature, a different narrative formula, a different target of satire, a celebrity cameo. He also included one of his favorites and one of Matt Groening's favorites. Here is the full list:
- "Lisa the Vegetarian"; season 7, episode 5
- "Homer the Heretic"; season 4, episode 3
- "Last Exit to Springfield"; season 4, episode 17
- "Homer’s Enemy"; season 8, episode 23
- "Marge vs. The Monorail"; season 4, episode 12
- "And Maggie Makes Three"; season 6, episode 13
- "Homer the Great"; season 6, episode 12
- "One Fish Two Fish Blowfish Blue Fish"; season 2, episode 11
- "Homer Badman"; season 6, episode 9
- "Treehouse of Horror I"; season 2, episode 3
- "Who Shot Mr. Burns"; season 6, episode 25 and season 7, episode 1
Bad news first: On balance, I did not enjoy this show. This isn’t particularly surprising—I have never enjoyed sitcoms, and have always found it difficult to sink my teeth into a show that isn’t serialized or at least features long narrative arcs. A lot of people enjoy shows without continuity because anyone can watch any episode, no background knowledge required. But that quality has always made a show less enjoyable for me—the only sitcom I truly love, The Good Place, is extremely serialized.
But my dislike of it extends beyond the sitcom format. You might as well call me Frank Grimes, because I absolutely hate Homer, and couldn’t stand watching the show mostly due to his character. I don’t find him funny or likable—he’s an insufferable, pathetic freeloader. I don’t understand how people can bear him. You’re either laughing at his expense, which simply makes me sad, or you’re supposed to laugh at the scenarios he manages to get into and out of due to his inanity. And most of his triumphs seem to be at the expense of people who are actually conscientious and hard working.
It follows that “Homer’s Enemy,” a sort of meta-episode where Homer’s charmed life is challenged by the hardworking Frank Grimes, was my favorite episode of the bunch. Shores told me it was also one of Matt Groening’s favorites. I respect the show immensely for its willingness to play devil’s advocate toward one of its main characters, and the episode displayed a level of awareness that the show has become famous for. But I found myself wishing that it was Homer who died at the end of the episode, rather than Grimey.
The other crux of my discontent with The Simpsons comes from the way Marge is continually treated like a doormat. Obviously, The Simpsons started in 1989, before “political correctness”—otherwise known as being tolerant and conscientious towards people—was a concern for a lot of folks. I didn’t go in expecting it to be free of prejudice, but the fact that people still love the show and considered it progressive for its time gave me a kernel of hope. Not so, at least not when it came to the abuse heaped on Marge. I don’t understand why she doesn’t just divorce Homer’s dumb ass. I didn’t even have to take notes as I watched in order to remember these moments:
- In “Marge vs. The Monorail,” she pitches the idea of using Springfield’s budgetary surplus for repairing the roads, which is only accepted after Homer’s father makes a case, ironically against road repairs (I assume this is supposed to be funny). Marge gets ignored (is this supposed to be satire?). She then investigates the monorail to learn it’s a fraud. Despite her having done all of the work, it’s Homer who saves the day despite being an idiot (I assume this is also supposed to be funny). Yay, men take the credit once again.
- In “Homer’s Enemy,” Marge cooks a nice lobster dinner so Homer can reconcile with Frank Grimes. Homer hasn’t even told Marge that Grimes doesn’t know about this dinner (which, I guess, is also supposed to be funny). At this point, this show feels like an infinite setup for Marge to put in so much bloody work only to have her oafish husband fuck it all up. I hate him. I hate him so much.
- “And Maggie Makes Three” perhaps made me the angriest of the episodes—an astounding assertion, given my blood pressure during the above moments. Three separate people recommended this episode to me as “heartfelt.” It’s the episode where Homer is able to quit his hated nuclear plant gig in order to work his dream job at the bowling alley. That premise, at least, is funny. When Marge becomes pregnant, she hides it from her husband because she knows his dream job can’t financially support another child. Through flashbacks, we learn that every time Marge is pregnant, Homer apparently gets so angry he rips his hair out (which is somehow supposed to be funny). Homer is horrible at reading his wife’s emotions or caring for her in any way, including her morning sickness (which is also somehow supposed to be funny). He then bitches and moans—even though SHE’S THE ONE literally giving birth—until he physically holds baby Maggie. He instantly loves Maggie and returns to the power plant to financially support her. Mr. Burns erects the sign “Don't forget: you're here forever,” which Homer covers in Maggie’s baby photos so that the sign reads “do it for her.” Cue the “awwws.” Because Homer had feelings about his own child for approximately three seconds on screen, it’s a touching episode. Give Homer a fucking trophy.
- In “Homer Badman,” when Homer goes to a candy convention, Marge is his candy mule. Fun.
“Homer Badman” also made me angry more generally, in the way only a episode of a 90s show could. In this one, Homer is indicted by the media for “sexually harassing” a female grad student. Except he was only really grabbing a gummy Venus de Milo off of her butt, not grabbing her ass. He gets featured on a tabloid-style show that edits his interview to make him “admit” to being a harasser. While this episode does a great job demonstrating the way media can snowball out of control, the episode’s entire premise is a load of hogwash. No one, literally not a single person on. the. planet. Would protest about a female grad student getting ass-grabbed.
The hyperbole of this isn’t funny to me, nor does it read as satire. That isn’t a “in this #metoo moment the show doesn’t hold up” observation. It's just how the world operates. Yesterday I got street harassed five times on the way to work, and twice on the way back. I’ve been inappropriately groped by too many strangers to keep count. If anyone cared enough to do a damn thing about it, maybe I could watch this episode and laugh. This episode feels like the least realistic of all of them, including the Halloween special “Treehouse of Horror" episodes.
None of this even begins to touch on my disappointment at the way Lisa is continually used as a punching bag. I can’t go there right now. She was my favorite.
That being said, I don’t want to dismiss the importance of The Simpsons—I appreciate the immense impact this show has had on pop culture, animated and family sitcoms, and even politics. This type of humor largely didn’t exist before, and it has created its own vocabulary. And there are aspects of the show I genuinely love:
- The irreverent meta-humor. My absolute favorite line of any episode I watched came from “Lisa the Vegetarian.” After watching an episode of Itchy and Scratchy, Lisa laments about the way cartoons peddle specific ideologies. “Cartoons don’t have messages Lisa,” Bart responds, adding that they’re supposed to be mindlessly violent. At that exact moment Homer violently opens the door into him. I love that willingness to break the fourth wall in a way that makes us reflect on our own entertainment consumption habits.
- Incredible wordplay, like “Stern Plumbing” being the name of a company but also featuring a logo of a plumber saying something stern. In that same episode, “Homer the Great”—the Freemason-based satire about the Stonecutters—Marge says, “Kids can be so cruel” to comfort Homer, which Bart takes to mean, “Kids are permitted by their mother to be so cruel” and starts tormenting Lisa. There’s the delightful line “a toast to the host who can boast the most roast” in “Lisa the Vegetarian.” Other random moments: Bart pronouncing “macabre” as “mah-cah-bray,” and the line “it was the best of times, it was the blurst of times."
- I really loved the satire of the Freemasons. Obviously political and historical satire are baked into the legacy of The Simpsons, especially with the vulture-like Mr. Burns and the nuclear power plant.
- The celebrity cameos are magnificent, and give the show a sense of really connecting to the real world. The Simpsons is also obviously historic for these, and I loved seeing Paul and Linda McCartney on the roof of Apu’s shop and Leonard Nimoy at the monorail unveiling. Even from my limited perspective, I can see the echoes of this influence on modern sitcoms, like Prince playing himself in New Girl or Oprah on 30 Rock. Likewise, I appreciated the show’s encyclopedic range of references, from Charles Dickens to Tom and Jerry.
- Weirdly, hair might be my absolute favorite thing about this show. It’s reductive but also a synecdoche for the show’s insane attention to detail. I love that no one else in the town has hair as ridiculous as Marge—that it bends when she sits in the car or puts it in a nightcap. I love that a part of it gets snipped off in “Last Exit to Springfield,” when Mr. Burns arrives at their home by helicopter. I love that Bart’s head crown sometimes functions as his head, but sometimes functions as hair—like when it’s combed down for church or a nice dinner.
Unfortunately, my distaste for Homer and the way Marge and Lisa are continually abused really soured my enjoyment of these incredible TV gags. The upending of my enjoyment vis a vis the main narrative of the show made it even more frustrating and irritating.
It is also worth noting that the treatment of Apu, and Asian characters more broadly, contributed to my distaste. Just one example: When Homer questions his religion in “Homer the Heretic,” he says it’s OK to be “Christian, or Jewish or,” as he points at Apu’s Ganesh shrine, “whatever that is.” That sort of othering feels very personal. Asians also get weirdly-drawn faces in the show, though other characters simply get to have the same face styles in different skin tones. I don’t really know how to think about it beyond recognizing that the white folks in Springfield are already yellow, so the show had to sub in some other racial "features" to indicate Asian characters. A lot has been said about race in The Simpsons and 90s shows more broadly—I don’t need or want to dive into that here more than I already have.
The fundamental problem for me is I simply can’t relate to The Simpsons. It’s about a white family in a small, mostly white town. It imagines a vision of America that has never been mine and could never be mine. And, of course, I can't stomach Homer or the way he's supposed to be the hero in so many episodes.
If you love The Simpsons and the show is special to you, that's great. If you used it as an accessible framework for philosophical matters—as Shores and his students have—even better.
Just don't tell me to watch another episode.
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