It’s becoming obvious that The Simpsons, now in its second season, isn’t just a product of media hype: Matt Groening’s cartoon family is one of the few current works of popular art that possess wit and integrity.
For evidence of wit, I need only point to the season’s masterful fourth episode, in which Homer Simpson’s boss, Mr. Burns, runs for governor. The head of a nuclear power plant, Burns wants the position so he can pass laws favorable to his industry. He hires a slew of image consultants, who come up with sketches of how they would transform the rude, glowering Burns into a desirable politician.
”Why are my teeth showing like that?” hisses Burns, pointing at one picture. ”You’re smiling, sir,” says one smoothie. ”Oh,” says Burns, surprised and delighted. ”Excellent! This is exactly the kind of trickery I’m paying you for!”
As for integrity, this second season has proven that the massive popularity of wise guy Bart and his clan hasn’t softened Groening; he and his writers continue to promote skepticism as a way of life. ”Dear God,” Bart began grace at dinner a few weeks ago, ”we pay for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.” There was a shocked silence from Homer, wife Marge, and sister Lisa (baby Maggie is always silent).
What’s significant is not just Bart’s jolting impiety (no flesh-and-blood sitcom kid would have gotten that prayer past the other networks’ standards- and practices departments), but also the fact that the rest of the Simpsons really were shocked. This is a family that has values, and for all of Homer’s laziness and Marge’s prissiness, they’re raising a lively, questioning crew, not a bunch of brain-dead cynics, like the Bundys on Married…With Children.
The Simpsons as role-model programming, as intelligence-affirming fare? Bart would probably tell me to blow it out my ear. But it’s true. A