I’ve been watching the first two seasons of the Simpsons the last couple weeks. It’s been years since I’ve watched the show, but I still remember the first ten seasons or so as some of the best TV yet produced.
The first season came out in 1989-90, just 25 years ago, and I remember the show being controversial when it came out; I wasn’t allowed to watch it until some time in high school, about a decade after it first started showing. It was controversial enough that Bush actually used the Simpsons as a negative example of a family. Yet, re-watching now, it’s amazing how tame and traditional it is compared to media offerings today.
Obviously the ‘offensive’ humour in the Simpsons is nothing compared to stuff like Family Guy or South Park, but that’s not the whole of it or even the most important part. It’s not the stated messages, but the basic assumptions in the show.
The Simpsons family is intact and stable, if slightly dysfunctional, and hold to functional, almost traditional, family values. They all love each other, however much they might bicker. Homer is a flawed man, often selfish or stupid, but still loving and caring towards his family. Marge is shown to love and respect Homer, despite her occasional anger at his flaws. Bart disrespects Homer occasionally, but it is shown as a clear deviancy for laughs; it also clearly shown that he does look up to and admire Homer. The kids fight, but at heart care for each other.
Compare those family values that to the three highest-rated sitcoms of 2013: Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, and Modern Family. The first is about a bunch of (fornicating) nerds and their slut friend who spend the entire show snarking at each other. The second is about a cad, his divorced brother, and his nephew who regularly snark at each other; the cad is shown as cool, while the ‘family man’ is shown as a loser. According to Wiki, the third is about a blended family, a somewhat normal family, and a gay couple; the ‘modern family’ is so screwed up wiki needs a chart to keep family relations in order.
The Simpsons has a subtext of Homer as patriarch. A few times in the first couple of seasons Homer makes a family decision, whether it is selling the TV to attend counseling, buying a new TV, or choosing a camping spot, to name a few examples. The rest of the family complains or looks unhappy, yet it is not even questioned that, however flawed he or his decision may be, it is Homer’s place to decide these things. The show just assumes the father makes the major family decisions. Other than Duck Dynasty, would any modern show simply assume the father’s position as head of the home?
The episode Homer’s Night Out, centres around a picture of Homer dancing with a belly dancer at a bachelor party. The (non-nude) picture creates a town-wide scandal, brands Homer as a ‘swinger’, and is seen as something fundamentally deviant and abnormal. In any modern show would bachelor party antics, especially such comparatively tame ones, be shown as being so shockingly deviant?
The show assumes that normal people go to church on Sundays and say grace at mealtime. Prayer is a casually accepted part of the show, as is religion. Does any major show today, other than Duck Dynasty, so casually accept religion as a normal, unremarkable, everyday part of life?
Other, less remarkable, moral lessons are also included. The pro-family/loyalty message of Life on the Fast Lane. How Marge’s sisters constant denigration of Homer is shown as negative, destructive behaviour. In one episode, Marge is casually referred to as Mrs. Homer Simpson.
All this is not to say the Simpsons is a font of traditional values, it is a liberal show, it does have some fem-centrism, and is rather subversive, but it is a good example of just how fast our culture is collapsing. Just a couple decades ago, the Simpsons was a controversial show that was held up by the president as an example of family dysfunction. Yet compared to today’s cultural wasteland, where broken families are common, disrespect and degeneracy are the norm, and the husband as the head of the family is, at best, a joke, it is very tame, almost traditional.
25 years is all it took. In 20 years, will Two and a Half Men and Modern Family be relatively tame and traditional?