Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Defined a Generation
by Chris Turner
Published by Da Capo Press
464 pages, 2004
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan
It's hard to believe but The Simpsons, that seminal animation oeuvre, enters its 16th season this year. According to The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV-Shows, 1946-Present, that puts it in a tie for tenth place of longest-running series, in such illustrious company with The Tonight Show, 60 Minutes, 20/20, Meet the Press and Gunsmoke, among others. Considering Matt Groening created this yellow-tinged family almost as throwaway filler for The Tracey Ullman Show, the impact of The Simpsons on popular culture is one of the most amazing stories in media history.
Chris Turner, an award-winning Canadian magazine writer, has put together this magnum opus based, seemingly, from having way too much time on his hands as he contemplates the higher philosophical meanings of this watershed series.
Satire and parody are the watchwords Turner uses over and over again. He is at his best when deconstructing the main characters -- Homer, Bart, Marge and Lisa -- as representative of segments of Western society. He examines how the iconoclastic Simpsons has poked fun at pop icons; indeed, the show's writers have a special flair for knocking the cult of celebrity off its pedestal.
As Homer often says, "It's funny because it's true." This oafish, simian-like tactless creature is as beloved as any Jimmy Stewart character. As Turner writes, "...[W]e love him because he tells us that everything's okay, that it's just fine to be self-indulgent, to drive a gas guzzler and eat junk food and obsess over the minutiae of our favorite celebrities."
But this isn't the whole equation. There is also the anti-hero side of Homer, a miasma of Ralph Cramden, Archie Bunker and Chester A. Riley, with his Belushi-esque subversiveness -- as when Homer tosses away the entire apparatus of organized religion after a single joyous morning without church.
Similarly, Marge is a throwback to the June Cleaver/Donna Reed mom, baking brownies, worrying about the family. Bart, the poster child for underachievement, of course, deserves a book of his own, as does the precocious Lisa, his distaff sibling.
Another Simpsons staple is Montgomery Burns, owner of the nuclear power plant where Homer works. Burns is the "Mr. Potter" (to use another Jimmy Stewart reference) of the fictitious town of Springfield, wealthy and cantankerous, bringing to mind the moustache-twirling villains of the silent pictures (indeed, as Springfield's oldest resident, he could have acted in them). Other characters -- Apu, the convenience store manager; Chief Wiggim, Springfield's clueless and corrupt symbol of law; Moe, the acerbic bartender; Smithers, Mr. Burns' sexually-ambiguous lackey; Kent Brockman, throwback to the 70s-created news anchor; and Troy McLure, whom you've seen in such thrilling episodes as ... well, you get the idea -- help to create the bubble that is the Simpsons' universe. On the occasions when the family ventures out of its cozy environment, they serve as the poster family for "ugly Americans."
For readers who religiously watch The Simpsons, Turner will undoubtedly remind them of "Comic Book Guy," or simply "CBG," the geek-savant who runs the local collectible shop and who knows everything about nothing, or at least nothing the general public might consider "important." Turner's attention to detail, to the inner meaning of the Simpsonian philosophy is admirable and frightening at the same time.
Despite some minor flaws -- such as paying any substantial credit to the brilliant actors who lend their voices to the characters -- as CBG might say, this thorough examination of a pop culture phenomenon is "Best. Simpson. Book. Ever." | November 2004
Ron Kaplan is a freelance writer from Montclair, New Jersey and a contributing editor to January Magazine.