Cover Story

Homer's odyssey

Sacrilege, satire, and fun mingle in the zany universe known as The Simpsons

Issue: "Simpsons: Fair or Foul?," June 11, 2005

The Simpsons is the best television series of all time, says Time magazine. Some critics consider it the most religious show on television. David Dark, writing in the Christian left magazine Prism, called it "the most pro-family, God-preoccupied, home-based program on television." David Bruce, webmaster of the online Christian pop-culture site HollywoodJesus.com, calls The Simpsons "the best Christian family on television."

And yet, for many Christians, The Simpsons is at best a guilty pleasure. It is on many families' lists of television shows children are absolutely not allowed to watch. They consider the show a travesty and a mockery, displaying nothing but bad role models and irreverent attitude. Now in its 15th year as a television series and having passed its landmark 350th episode, the show inspires both rabid fans and rabid detractors. And both sides have a point.

The adult cartoon show centers around the family of the sublimely stupid Homer, his long-suffering blue-haired wife Marge, and their three children: the rotten kid Bart, the idealistic Lisa, and the silent pacifier-sucking baby Maggie. They live in the city of Springfield-a name common to many states-populated with other quirky characters: the cynical comedian Krusty the Klown; the sinister owner of the nuclear power plant where Homer works, Mr. Burns; the loser Comic Book Guy; and the kindly-but-annoying evangelical Ned Flanders.

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As in successful sitcoms from I Love Lucy to Seinfeld, the humor is character-driven, and other good characters include a sea captain, a Scotsman, various nerds and bullies, teachers and administrators, and a droning preacher in whose church the whole community gathers every Sunday morning.

The show is the brainchild of Matt Groening, a cartoonist from Portland, Ore., whose parents were named Homer and Marge, and who had two sisters named Lisa and Maggie. He was writing a mordant comic strip titled "Life in Hell" when a fan in television, producer James L. Brooks, invited him to put together some short animated sketches for The Tracey Ullman Show. The first crudely drawn Simpsons-in episodes that were only two minutes long-debuted in 1987.

Three years later, The Simpsons had their own show. The early seasons were still crudely drawn. And the characters and story lines tended to be crude as well. Those shows focused on Bart, an anagram for "brat." Bart Simpson was a rebellious, anarchic, obnoxious little kid with attitude. Though funny, he was no role model, and when America's children started to repeat his smart-alecky sayings-"eat my shorts"; "don't have a cow"-parents were right to object. And schools had a right to ban Bart Simpson T-shirts proclaiming "underachiever, and proud of it."

But in time, Bart grew more complicated and the show matured beyond its bad-boy shtick. The focus shifted to Homer, the self-centered, dim-witted, but oddly good-hearted head of the family, as he tried to make a living, tending his wife and kids in a surreal culture. The other family members also took on lives of their own, and the Springfield universe expanded to include moral dilemmas, family values, and church.

Mark Pinsky, in his book The Gospel According to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family (Westminster John Knox Press), points out that religion, which plays an important part in the lives of most Americans, is utterly invisible on most TV shows. But the Simpsons go to church, pray before meals, and talk about religion. At least one out of every three shows features a clear religious reference. Of those, one out of 10 is completely constructed around a religious theme. (For example, in "Homer v. Lisa and the Eighth Commandment," he has to learn that God does not approve of stealing cable TV. In "Homer the Heretic," he tries to start his own religion, until Flanders saves his life.)

Though the depiction of religion is mostly sympathetic, sometimes The Simpsons walks-or trips over-the line between comic insight and sacrilege. The Word of God is holy, but Simpsons characters spout garbled and made-up Bible verses from nonexistent books like "First Thessaleezians." One Halloween episode featured Fractured Fairy Tale-style spoofs of various Bible stories. The show's smart-aleck attitude is sometimes aimed at God, as when Bart says this meal-time prayer: "Dear God, we paid for all of this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing." The sacrilege is never justifiable, but the nature of comedy leads its creators to live dangerously.

According to Aristotle, tragedy presents human beings as better than they really are, while comedy presents them as worse. We might want to imitate the noble heroes and heroines of a tragedy, but never the characters in a comedy. The classical thinkers believed that comedy was among the most moral of art forms because it ridicules vice, making us look down upon bad behavior.

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