I read a newspaper article recently about the various TV sitcoms and dramas that have been criticized in the ongoing debate about eroding family values. I read it with the kind of half attention people bring to the subject, for it is a confused and confusing one that, for most of us, is decided by common sense. Does Friends undermine parents’ teachings when its glamorous young stars sleep with each other? Sure. It, Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210, and others like them, exist to send bad messages—that if it feels good it is good, that materialism is normal and benign, that sex is a moral issue only in terms of whether or not it is “safe.”
But is Homicide bad because it is raw or NYPD Blue because it is profane? No. They’re for adult sensibilities, and they don’t carry messages suggesting it’s good to murder or steal. They’re about normal people struggling in dramatic circumstances to live lives of meaning. (It’s odd that the later in the evening you go the more moral the TV shows get. Melrose Place tells you: Be a slob. ER tells you: Be a hero.)
At any rate, on the list of criticized shows is The Simpsons. My Simpsons! The show my son and I have been watching every night in syndication for years now. It is, for us, “appointment TV,” and it’s the best family values show on television.
On the extremely off chance that you have never seen it since it went on in 1990, the Simpsons are: Homer, the father, a big fat ignorant lazy corner-cutting dunce; Marge, his wife, a tall-haired woman with the bemused sweetness of an unintelligent saint; their son Bart, a chip off the old block who schemes nonstop to shirk work and cut school; daughter Lisa, a lonely idealist and drama queen; and baby Maggie, a round lump who sucks furiously on a pacifier and often gets left in odd places by Homer.
The Simpsons has garnered criticism because Bart swears and Homer’s attitude toward life could be called cynical—if he were thoughtful enough to be a cynic. But these criticisms miss the larger point, which is that the Simpsons are a functioning family held together by good things. Homer loves Marge, and despite all reasons to the contrary, they are a unit: She knows and never doubts it; he barely notices and yet is faithful to it. Second, in their weirdness and weakness they are like all of us some of the time and like some of us all of the time. Who would have thought the realest show on TV would be a cartoon?
But for all their flaws, the Simpsons are trying. And because they are, the show provides consistently helpful messages. Once when Homer had a chance to cheat on Marge with a country-western singer, he didn’t, and only partly because he’d rather order room service. When Marge got a chance to run off with a man with a French accent, she didn’t, and only partly because of what the neighbors would say.
The neighbors, by the way, include the Flanders family, the Christians next door, whose portrait is humorous, teasing, and twitting, but not in the usual Hollywood “people who are believers are wicked hypocrites” way. Ned Flanders is a sweet and generous goofball; his family is similarly lovable. There’s no sense that they believe the wrong thing, only that their belief is an unusual thing. It is the most liberal portrait of a religious family in all of television.
Springfield, the town they all live in, is a multicultural universe with whites and blacks and browns and yellows. The Indian who runs the convenience store is dizzy, but no more or less silly than anyone else. There are no subtly patronizing counterstereotypes: The town doctor is black, a good man who is as dopey as everyone else; the mayor is a posturing fool with a JFK accent. And the message being sent out to children through it all is this: It is a rich and varied world out there and the richness is a gift. Don’t even consider bigotry unless you can find someone jerkier than you, which is impossible because we’re all jerks.
My son and I are not only fans of The Simpsons, we are grateful for it, because it’s something we can watch together that makes us both laugh out loud—albeit at different things. My son laughs when Bart aims his slingshot at the teacher’s behind; I laugh at the asides of the morbidly daffy Principal Skinner.
People don’t usually send Hollywood their thanks.
But now and then Hollywood deserves it. And so, James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, and all the other creators: Thank you for a family that sticks together through thick and thin in a good and imperfect place called America. You have left a lot of parents and children watching TV, and laughing, together. And what could be more pro-family values than that?