Learning from The Simpsons, 25 years on
THE Simpsons sparked a revolution in the way we make and watch television. Now, 25 years on, it’s a cultural touchstone, too.
Tyler Shores has seen, by his own admission, “thousands” of episodes of The Simpsons.
It’s his job – the Stanford academic was a pioneer in the study of the hit TV show, and is now at work on a book on The Simpsons’ cultural impact over the Past 25 years. As he described it: “How ‘d’oh’ made it into the Oxford English dictionary, that sort of thing.”
He believes The Simpsons is the most influential television show of all time: “It’s almost impossible to imagine what TV would look like in a world where The Simpsons had never existed.”
That’s because, he said, The Simpsons changed the way television was written: “Suddenly, intelligent TV writing became the norm, instead of an anomaly.”
The Simpsons and their multilayered cultural references were born in the age of video-cassette recorders, enabling – even encouraging – viewers to rewatch episodes to spot subtle details.
The show was written with what he called “an eye toward further consumption” – a then-new concept that is taken for granted today.
The show’s subject matter broke new ground, too.
In the early 1990s, family sitcoms largely avoided “politics and religion, education, environment, race relations, gay marriage,” Shores said. The Simpsons became “revolutionary” by tackling such topics.
The show’s impact was felt not just in the US, Shores said. For better or for worse, The Simpsons have become ambassadors of American culture around the world.
“There was a BBC poll a few years ago, and Homer Simpson was chosen as the greatest American ever for people in the UK,” Shores recalled. “Homer is not a real person, and, if you look at the list of people he beat out – Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and all these other people – that’s very telling.”
The show’s global popularity comes from the “honest mirror” it holds up to US life, warts and all, he said.
“A large amount of the humour works precisely because it celebrates and makes fun of the American cultural excess,” Shores said.
But the show isn’t all fun and games. In 2003, as a student at the University of California at Berkeley, Shores developed a course called The Simpsons and Philosophy, using the show as a cultural text to explore larger ideas.
“I thought philosophy was very important because it talks about: what is a good life? What does it mean to be a good person? How do you think about these things? But it was just too boring and too out of touch for too many people,” he recalled.
Shores developed a curriculum using The Simpsons, expecting a few dozen students to register.
“We ended up cramming almost 600 students into the auditorium for that class,” he recalled.
Asked for an example of a Simpsons teaching moment, he recalled an episode in which the Simpsons’ brainy daughter Lisa joined a local Mensa chapter, where all of The Simpsons’ smart characters decided they wanted to run the town.
“It’s a very loose parody, based on the ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s The Republic. The Republic basically says that philosopher-kings are the ones best suited to run society, and hat they should be in charge because they’re more enlightened than the common masses,” he said.
The Simpsons poked fun at the theory by taking it to its logical end: “It starts off really well – the smart people are making smart decisions – but then just like anything else, there is human fallibility. And it kind of devolves into chaos.”
While the Berkeley course is no longer offered, other Simpsons classes are in the course catalogues at several other universities.
“It’s less weird now than it was 15 years ago,” he said. “Universities and educational institutions are recognising that these things are part of our culture. And a way to under-stand part of our culture is to incorporate critical scrutiny toward the things that we see every day.”
The Simpsons may not be as relevant today as they were 10 or 15 years ago, he said – because The Simpsons blazed a trail that the rest of television has followed.
“It’s still in some ways difficult and unfair to compare it to what it was back then,” he said. Before The Simpsons, he said, “no one in the history of television did what they were doing.” – Sapa-dpa