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August 28, 2007

The Simpsons As Romantic Comedy

Dave Weigel is crazy to suggest that "the Homer/Marge stuff [in the Simpson's movie] was as touching as anything in your top-shelf romantic comedies." I liked the film too, but it was unrelenting depressing on these issues. It was a film during which the lead female character realized her husband was a senseless brute who would always put his happiness before her own, and where her son realized the father was an abusive drunk who was continually denying him the emotional support and family environment he needed. And unlike in most Simpson's episodes, both characters recognized these truths fully, and abandoned Homer to begin new lives elsewhere. And shortly thereafter, both took him back, tossing away their opportunities for personal growth and fulfillment despite there being no evidence of an enduring change in their tormentor's psyche. It was a tremendous demonstration of the self-destructive mentality of the abused, and in that, quite unsettling.

Which isn't to say the movie wasn't funny and great and joyous, as it was! But you really had to fight to ignore what was actually going on...

August 28, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

The dysfunctionality of the family has always been at the core of the charm of The Simpsons. Homer viciously choking Bart is the best running gag of the show.

Posted by: Petey | Aug 28, 2007 8:47:27 AM

Ez --
Have a cold Duff's and lighten up a bit, son.

Posted by: charles pierce | Aug 28, 2007 8:48:14 AM

"Have a cold Duff's and lighten up a bit, son."

I think Ezra is endorsing Bush the Elder's campaign line that America should be more like The Waltons and less like The Simpsons.

Posted by: Petey | Aug 28, 2007 8:52:34 AM

But that's the thing, right? what made the movie sad was that the main characters stepped out of the world in which that was okay, and thus broke the unreality of it. Bart, it turns out, hated the choking, and it's achingly poignant when ned pats him on the back. In the past, you could ignore this stuff because the characters did. Less so in the film.

Posted by: Ezra | Aug 28, 2007 8:58:50 AM

"what made the movie sad was that the main characters stepped out of the world in which that was okay, and thus broke the unreality of it."

I do get your meaning, but I think the difference between the feature and the half hour show is a difference of degree, not kind. The themes you discuss are all present in the show, if not as fully fleshed out.

There's a sadness at the core of most good comedy. It's no accident that shows like The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park all feature sub-optimal family relations.

Posted by: Petey | Aug 28, 2007 9:13:00 AM

Yes, but were Marge & Bart & Lisa to leave Homer, they would lose the one thing he provides them that no one else can:

Eternal life and youth.

Without the Simpson's cartoon relationship, Bart and Lisa would have grown up, and Marge would have gathered a few wrinkles. Even Maggie would be a sullen teen, having to fend for herself, instead of living in perpetually indulged babyhood.

They have made their deal with the devil, and He is Homer.

Posted by: El Cid | Aug 28, 2007 9:26:17 AM

In the excellent "The Simpsons and Philosophy", (I forget the author), it is presented that each member of the family' behavior is directly influenced by the other. The only way the family is not horribly dysfunctional is if ALL members are seperated.

Marge enables Homer.
Homer's misery is compounded by a rebellious son and a daughter he can't relate to.
Marge is flustered by a liberal daughter.
Lisa finds every family member a brute except her mother who is hopelessly conservative.
etc...

Even if Homer is abandoned, the family remains a mess. Not really sad at all, but closer to just an exaggerated reality that we all face on some level.

Posted by: Byrd | Aug 28, 2007 9:58:25 AM

As much as I love* The Simpsons, it's always been a failed satire precisely because the show could never bring itself to truly make its characters - Homer in particular - as unlikable as they really deserve to be. The family members consist of a set of dysfunctional archetypes, but the show has always resisted really skewering these archetypes. We're meant to recognize that Homer is an abusive, violent, ignorant alcoholic, and that Marge is trapped in a codependent relationship, and we're meant to recognize this gross dysfunctionality enough to laugh at it, and yet we're also supposed to cheer at the end of the episode when Marge and Homer get back together. The show wants to have its cake and eat it too: to be critically praised for offering up a warts-and-all version of a modern American television family, and yet use those dysfunctional characters to play out the same faux-warmhearted sitcom mush network TV had seen for the last fifty years.

At the end of the day, The Simpsons has been more conservative than it's been subversive. The most consistent theme throughout the first eight or nine seasons of the Simpsons is that the nuclear family per se is a good thing, regardless of how abusive or destructive the members of that family may be. What was Bush Sr. complaining about?

*or used to love, back when I used to watch it.

Posted by: Christmas | Aug 28, 2007 10:17:14 AM

> We're meant to recognize that Homer is an
> abusive, violent, ignorant alcoholic, and
> that Marge is trapped in a codependent
> relationship, and we're meant to recognize
> this gross dysfunctionality enough to laugh at it,

"You can accept that your father was a pirate AND a good man, or you can..."

I grew up in an entire neighborhood of parents like Homer and Marge. They drank alcohol, some perhaps a bit too much. They were occasionally a little too violent. They and their families could be considered a bit dysfunctional by some ideal standard of a planet of angels. They also loved their kids and spouses most of the time, earned a living, did a lot of fun stuff, taught many lessons that have been very useful in life, and grew up/grew old together.

Most of us from that neighborhood find The Simpsons screamingly funny for exactly that reason: Homer and Marge exaggerate (and thus highlight) the characteristics of the family and friends we grew up with, but in the end they get back together and everything is OK. Which is how it worked out for 95% of us.

I always thought the episodes that showed how Homer wooed Marge in high school were very sweet and romantic, especially the way Homer worked his butt off to get a B in French so that Marge would pay attention to him showed a lot of depth (for a 2-D cartoon character!).

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Aug 28, 2007 10:25:45 AM

I found that dynamic unsettling as well, but nothing was sadder to me than realizing that post-Dome Springfield looked eerily like post-Katrina New Orleans (home sweet home). Right down to the crazy dudes wearing ammo and declaring themselves emperor.

All in all, I found "Superbad" to be about a thousand times funnier...

Posted by: senior | Aug 28, 2007 10:30:54 AM

And how. The Simpsons movie was grimmer than Borat.

Posted by: chris | Aug 28, 2007 11:09:02 AM

american television comedy raises the bar for insidious relationships and seething marital anger.
two shows that i thought were unwatchable for their unrelentingly brutal depictions of family life were,
"everybody loves raymond" and "home improvement".
....i never could understand how they could be called comedy shows.
...they are even worse than real life...as the humanity in "real suffering" is touchingly complex and very poignant. these comedy shows are created around shallow characters for whom it is very difficult to feel sympathy or healing laughter.
....even elizabeth taylor and richard burton in "virginia woolf" were easier to watch than these shows.

Posted by: jacqueline | Aug 28, 2007 11:20:46 AM

"It was a film during which ... her son realized the father was an abusive drunk..."

Actually, correct me if I'm wrong (o self-correcting blogosphere), but I seem to recall that there was not a single scene where Homer actually got drunk, even though he's drunk all the time in the series. I wondered at the time whether it never happened just because it wasn't necessary for the story, or whether there was some larger issue of movie vs. series that compelled them to minimize it (though Bart did get drunk himself in a hilarious scene).

Posted by: Eric | Aug 28, 2007 11:30:24 AM

Actually, I have this same problem with most romantic comedies. For example, the comedies from the 30s-50s, where the woman (often Katherine Hepburn) wanted some independence (a job, an award, personal recognition)while the man wanted her to be completely subservient to him (even though he was incompetent, had no job, etc). And in the end, the woman submits, gives up her ambition and personality, and we're supposed to take it as a HAPPY ending?
You just have to suspend disbelief or something, and roll with it.

Posted by: Fruity Bev | Aug 28, 2007 11:41:22 AM

I didn't watch the Simpsons, but I had almost exactly the same reaction about "Knocked Up." Fundamentally it's a movie about a woman who gets drunk and ruins her life, and what is funny about that?

Posted by: pseudosilence | Aug 28, 2007 12:59:55 PM

I didn't watch the Simpsons, but I had almost exactly the same reaction about "Knocked Up." Fundamentally it's a movie about a woman who gets drunk and ruins her life, and what is funny about that?

Posted by: pseudosilence | Aug 28, 2007 1:00:16 PM

I've not seen the movie, but for what it's worth, several years ago I met a screenwriter who asserted that everyone on the writing staff for The Simpsons would give you the same answer for what the show was about:

It's about a family who love each other no matter what happens.

Posted by: Jonathan Korman | Aug 29, 2007 6:31:17 AM

I read an interview with some Simpsons creative people a long time ago (in TV Guide, I think), and the gist that I got was that Homer's character makes more sense (and is funnier) when you view him as more of a family dog. He's not very bright, although he can be trained (sometimes), he's sensation driven (thus the attachment to beer/food/TV/etc), he's absolutely loyal and dedicated to his family, and he tries really hard to be a "good boy", but, as you can see from just about every Simpsons plot ever devised, he has the attention span of a puppy, and can be distracted by literally ANYTHING. Since Homer is a human (as far as cartoons go), he's dimly aware of all this, and some of the more poignant scenes from the series come when he's jarred into full realization of just how much he's lacking in qualifications as a husband and father. It's not very pleasant to realize that your second-grade daughter is already beyond any developmental help that you can provide her, and that your son is well on his way to turning out like, well, you.
The fact that all of this is plain as day and the TV series is still as intelligent and funny as anything ever aired is a true testament to the writing and acting.

Posted by: jonathan | Aug 29, 2007 8:46:29 AM

For example, the comedies from the 30s-50s, where the woman (often Katherine Hepburn) wanted some independence (a job, an award, personal recognition)while the man wanted her to be completely subservient to him (even though he was incompetent, had no job, etc). And in the end, the woman submits, gives up her ambition and personality, and we're supposed to take it as a HAPPY ending?
You just have to suspend disbelief or something, and roll with it.

Heh. It's not just the 30s-50s--think about Taming of the Shrew (which has the advantage of being a play, and therefore subject to the individual stagings of actors and directors, and therefore able to be staged, in fact, lacking a happy ending without changing the script).

I didn't watch the Simpsons, but I had almost exactly the same reaction about "Knocked Up." Fundamentally it's a movie about a woman who gets drunk and ruins her life, and what is funny about that?

I dunno, her life didn't seem to be ruined. First, she could have, of course, had a a rhymes-with-schmaschmortion (hee. yeah, I liked the movie), so on some level she did make a choice beyond just getting drunk. Plus, thanks to a little movie magic for which I was willing to suspend my disbelief, being pregnant helped her career. And because she was willing to listen to her heart (by turning down his proposal, even breaking up with him in the 8th month, but also by accepting his help and deciding to try again because he'd shown himself to be potentially trustworthy), we got the sense, I thought, that she was headed for a happier future than her sister and brother-in-law, who stuck it out because they thought that's what they were supposed to do instead of because they wanted to.

Posted by: Isabel | Aug 29, 2007 12:26:18 PM

...no evidence of an enduring change in their tormentor's psyche.

That's only because you know that Homer will be a jerkass when the next season airs on TV. With a movie, you can imagine that Homer is changed forever by his epiphany, and they all live happily ever after.

Posted by: Grumpy | Aug 29, 2007 6:52:23 PM

It's about a family who love each other no matter what happens.

You could say that about (the serial inc*st m*rderers) Fred and Rose West and their kids! Now I understand why my wife won't watch the Simpsons. To me, it's always been about people glorying in their stupidity. The movie has magnified both the sharp humour and the underlying nihilism. Had to be a Murdoch baby.

Posted by: justin ward | Sep 6, 2007 3:37:43 AM

Plain and simple, the Simpson show, movie, and whatever else, is just stupid...I do not even like the trailers...ignorance is not funny...

Posted by: George Merritt | Sep 13, 2007 9:07:53 PM

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Posted by: judy | Oct 11, 2007 6:52:57 AM

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