Simpsons Books Prove the Show is More Than Just a Laugh Factory

If you are a serious fan of The Simpsons and see in the show more than just a producer of a half hour of laughs per week, then you should seriously consider some of the more intelligent books that the show has produced in recent years. You may not be aware of it, but the show that revolves around the poor yellow trash family that gives the show its name has reached a status few television shows have ever attained. College courses are taught using the show as a jumping off point to study media, religion and culture.

Not to mention philosophy. I have already written an article that gives a brief overview of the book The Simpsons and Philosophy. This book is for the much more dedicated fan as it draws on profound philosophical theories espoused by the likes of Aristotle and Kant to comment on the impact of the Simpsons. As much a book for philosophy majors as for fans of the show, this is one of the books I’d be much more likely to recommend to someone who is a diehard fan who has seen every episode and owns all the season DVDs. Or else, someone who hasn’t seen the show but knows the difference between Lyotard and Barthes.

The Simpsons has been much maligned-fairly and unfairly-through the years for taking digs at religion. True, the show is decidedly edgy when it comes to organized religion, but no other show on television, perhaps no other show in television history, has had so many of its episodes include a scene inside a church or shown a character praying. Those like William Bennett who publicly criticized the show for being anti-God, despite the fact that he hadn’t yet actually seen an episode, are clearly not watching the same show I have.

The best book to take a look at the impact of The Simpsons and religion is The Gospel According to the Simpsons, by Mark I. Pinsky. Pinsky is writer who has covered religious issues for national magazines and came to the show filled with the same doubts as many parents. After watching several episodes, however, he realized that the show treats religion with a seriousness that most shows-including so-called “religious” shows like Touched By an Angel don’t. His book covers such topics as how the shows treats beliefs other than Christianity as well as whether Ned Flanders is really the object of derision that so many critics of the show conclude. Ned Flanders is by far the most religious of the show’s characters and while his beliefs are often mocked, Pinsky comes to the conclusion, as have so many others, that if you had to live in Springfield, you’d probably want Ned as your neighbor before anyone else.

A more recent addition to the growing canon that sees the show as a major touchstone for the generation that came of age watching it is Chris Turner’s Planet Simpsons. The subtitle of this book claims that the show actually defined a generation. That’s a pretty big claim, but Turner does a nice job of defending it. By focusing on a major character in nearly every chapter, Turner does something very interesting. He begins by focusing on the character and his or her place within the show, for instance Marge as maternal influence or Mr. Burns as epitome of capitalism. As the chapter progresses, so does his scope. Turner manages to comment on everything from the commodification of “cool” to the dot-com speculation bubble to Y2K to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon and he does it without bringing in the Simpsons awkwardly. Turner is quite adept at using episodes and the general character of the show to comment upon cultural events that have shaped western civilization in the last decade and a half. It certainly helps to be a big enough fan to know the difference between Lindsey Naegle and Cookie Kwan, but there’s enough information in this book that even if you are only vaguely aware of the show you can still come away with some valuable knowledge.

Probably the best book ever written about the show is Leaving Springfield, a collection of essays edited by John Alberti. The subtitle and the real subject of this book is how the Simpsons can possibly position itself as a center of oppositional thought when it is created from inside the largest right-wing capitalistic media conglomerate in the world today, Fox Broadcasting, a division of News Corp. Indeed, how can the show’s writers and producers get away with questioning so much of the consumerist ideology that its bosses constantly foment upon viewers? The first two chapters, focusing on this paradox-a contradiction inherent in capitalist structure foreseen by Marx himself-are the highlight. Other chapters deal intelligently with topics that include how the show treats homosexual and ethnic/cultural stereotyping. These chapters are not afraid to call the show to task for giving in to both, thereby casting a cloud of doubt on those who would insist that the show is unforgivably bleeding-heart liberal in its politics.

In addition to these fine books, there is also Simpsons and Society by Steven Keslowitz. Unfortunately, I cannot comment upon this book as I have to yet read it. Along with many, many academic papers written about the show that are available online, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that The Simpsons is far more than just a TV show. By tackling so many issues of our times with satiric seriousness, the show has positioned itself as a something more akin to a Mark Twain novel than a kids cartoon. If you haven’t yet figured out the profound depths contained in the Simpsons, then these books are surely a step in the right direction.

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