February 12, 2005

BOOKS: Planet Simpson, Chris Turner (2004)

Here's a very detailed look at The Simpsons and the ways it's influenced (and reflected) the popular culture of a generation. There is, Turner argues, no single cultural artifact that is as universally recognized and understood by the generation that's come of age during the show's 15-year (so far) run; there's not a situation that can't be summed up, joked about, or understood by referring to a Simpsons character or punchline. And it's true that the show's fans can be obsessively devoted, holding a tournament to determine the most popular of the enormous cast of supporting characters, for instance.

Turner gives us a quick history of the show, starting with its first incarnation, as a series of short cartoons that aired between sketches on The Tracy Ullman Show; and an analysis of the show's comic style. The Simpsons is often dismissed as mere cynicism, but Turner thinks that satire is a better definition, the distinction being that satricial comedy is at its heart optimistic, believing that the institutions and people it ridicules are not yet beyond redemption.

We then get detailed examinations of five principal characters (Homer, Bart, Burns, Lisa, Marge), and examinatins of how the show has dealt with cyberculture, other countries, the cult of celebrity, and television itself. Turner's analyses are very thorough, and they are most successful when he's dealing with the show's characters; when he strays into broader real-world social and political issues, he flounders a bit and it becomes more obvious that his own political biases are shaping his interpretations.

Turner is occasionally overly impressed with his own profundity, and for some, this sort of analysis may seem to be more than the show deserves. It's hard not to groan a little, for instance, at the over-intellectualizing that leads to thoughts like, "If Homer's doughnut is understood as symbolic...".

There's also a bit too much fan-nish adulation in spots. Turner loves The Simpsons and everyone associated with it, but to claim, as Turner does, that Phil Hartman's voice acting in the roles of Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure has made "a permanent mark in the annals of pop culture" is going a bit overboard.

Still, Planet Simpson is entertaining reading, and I'm always happy to see pop culture taken seriously; more people watch The Simpsons in a week, after all, than will ever seen a play by Shakespeare or heard a symphony by Beethoven. Pop culture matters, and even if Turner occasionally gets carried away by his own enthusiasm, it's worth taking the time to consider why the show has remained popular for so long.

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