The Simpsons has seen better days. As far back as 2004, Harry Shearer, voice actor of Mr. Burns, Waylon Smithers Jr. and over a dozen other major characters, was stating publicly that he could not watch recent episodes since they compared so poorly to earlier ones (Legett, 2004). In 2014, he was asked if he thought the show’s quality had declined and answered, ‘I think about it but I don’t talk about it’ (Hogan, 2014). As of 2017, the show has continued for 28 seasons, withstanding ratings a tenth of its golden era (Dodge, 2014) and even the deaths of major voice actors. This could be due to an estimated total franchise revenue of between US$2.8 billion and $13 billion (Molloy, 2011; Statistics Brain, 2016). However, a show that once defined a satirical, counter-hegemonic cultural space for millions of people is well past its golden era.
It could be hoped that the nearly two decades since seasons 2 to 9, when that era ended,1 would have seen a critical consensus develop about the show‘s impact. While many authors have used The Simpsons to illuminate specific aspects of American society,2 there have been few attempts to synthesize its narrative arc to see what its shifts mean for contemporary popular consciousness. For this purpose, we can follow Wallace (2001: 148) in his privileging of The Simpsons as a text which, ‘like all cultural products, develops from and reflects the material and historical conditions of the age in which it was created; reflects, in other words, the ideology of capitalism in late twentieth-century America’ (emphasis in original).
That ideology is neoliberalism: the shift away from government responsibility for social welfare and towards the marketization of daily life. The Simpsons reflects that shift in two important ways: first, in the changing definition of work, from a Fordist model of employment to a precarious one, and second, as a result of the first, in its mode of realism, moving from an internally coherent to a fractured portrayal of the characters’ lives. The character of Frank Grimes, in ‘Homer’s Enemy’ (4 May 1997), is representative of these shifts: his relationship to Homer marks a turning point, after which Simpsons’ characters and viewers alike are no longer able to inhabit a stable Fordist universe. If the task of realism as a mode of expression is to approach social reality, then The Simpsons’ failure to provide consistent characterizations reflects neoliberalism’s own dislocations.
During the golden era, the show spoke to the lived experience of working class people, portraying and subverting spaces of home, work and school. This was encapsulated in the Simpsons, a stereotypical nuclear family: Marge the homemaker, Lisa the preternaturally-intelligent daughter and Bart the precocious son. But it was Homer, the Simpsons patriarch, who would quickly become the most popular character on the show as an anti-hero, adopting the worst traits of a stereotyped working class man: unfit, with a terrible diet and, despite being a safety technician at a nuclear power plant, no work ethic, ‘a product of the working class in defeat’ (Nesbitt, 2007).3
‘Homer the Heretic’ (8 October 1992), chosen as the best-ever episode in a round-robin elimination vote by fans in 2006 (No Homers Club, nd), encapsulates the charm of Homer in particular and The Simpsons’ community in general. After deciding to sleep in on Sunday and skip church, Homer enjoys the creature comforts of a hot shower, homemade ‘moon waffles’ and sports TV, so much so that he decides to renounce church altogether. He ignores his wife and neighbours’ entreaties to return to the faith and, in a direct dialogue with God, rejects the demands of work and social rituals that are increasingly meaningless: ‘I’m not a bad guy. I work hard and I love my kids … so why should I spend half my Sunday hearing about how I’m going to hell?’ He is eventually defeated by his own laziness, setting the house on fire after falling asleep with a lit cigar. However, even his rescue by kindly, religious townsfolk only reinforces the anti-ideal scenario: Springfield is a town populated by lovable losers who manage to – barely – survive through their affection for one another, and in the process revealing the real hypocrisy of institutions – church, government and school – that function as tools of social control. It is this combination of emotional connection and social critique that marked dozens of early episodes as part of the golden era.
This began to change at the beginning of season 9, ‘The Principal and the Pauper’ (28 September 1997), when Springfield Elementary principal Seymour Skinner was revealed as an imposter named Armin Tamzarian. This marked the onset of what one author (Sweatpants C, nd c) has termed ‘Zombie Simpsons’: animated shells that share the appearance and voices of their past incarnations but are dramatically and psychologically dead. In the place of consistent characterizations and plots anchored in a working class reality, the show came to feature ‘emotional treacle, wild plot twists, poor storytelling, Homer acting insane, and lots of self voiced celebrities’.4 This involved a heavy reliance on national stereotypes and spontaneous travel episodes, ceaseless expository, and Homer enduring the kind of physical suffering that The Simpsons itself neatly lampooned in its cartoon-within-a-cartoon Itchy and Scratchy. This shift also meant abandoning one of the focal points for The Simpsons’ universe: labour.
Transition One: From Fordism to Precarity
‘You know, I’ve had a lot of jobs: boxer, mascot, astronaut, imitation Krusty, baby proofer, trucker, hippie, plow driver, food critic, conceptual artist … But protecting Springfield, that gives me the best feeling of all’ (‘Poppa’s Got a Brand New Badge’, 22 May 2002). Homer’s partial list (he notes many more in the speech) underscores how so many classic episodes revolved around the theme of work yet, coming shortly after the end of the golden era, it also suggests the paradox of these later seasons, when work shifts would be more prominent and less significant. Earlier shows dealt poignantly with the misery of wage-labour and the threat of unemployment. This is not surprising, considering The Simpsons began broadcasting during the recession of the early 1990s, when millions of Americans were losing their jobs (Nesbitt, 2007). ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ (21 February 1991), in which Homer meets his long-lost brother Herb, an auto magnate whose business Homer ruins, depends on the decline of the American industrial working class for its narrative heft. Class politics feature explicitly in one of the show’s top-rated episodes, ‘Last Exit to Springfield’ (11 March 1993), when Homer leads the nuclear power plant out on strike to protect the union contract’s dental plan. In ‘Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk’ (5 December 1991), Homer’s terrible workplace regime – which is both a product of, and impetus for his own alienated work ethic – is contrasted with a corporatist Fordism, when German investors buy the power plant. A new manager, Fritz, tells workers that efficiency is predicated upon ‘Happy workers who feel secure in their jobs!’ When Homer is fired for his dismal job performance, he tells his wife that he cannot simply get a new job: ‘Marge, it’s not the money. My job is my identity. If I’m not a safety whatchamajigger, I’m nothing!’ He cannot quite grasp his Fordist identity, but he knows it is there.
This is even clearer when Homer tries and fails to leave the nuclear plant. When he cannot earn enough at the bowling alley to support a pregnant Marge, he must return to his hated workplace (‘And Maggie Makes Three’, 22 January 1995). He is taunted by his boss Mr. Burns, who not only forces him to crawl through a door marked ‘Supplicant’ to plead for his old job but also installs a plaque above his workstation reading ‘Don’t forget: you’re here forever.’ The direct message – there is no escape from wage labour – is accompanied by a startlingly personal expression of class power: Mr. Burns’ positive joy at Homer’s predicament shows that the job is not just boring and poorly paid but also a source of humiliation. In a sense, Mr. Burns is a reflection of Homer’s own alienation: he does not need a plaque to feel inadequate, but it emphasizes, without ambiguity, how destructive to his personality Homer finds work to be. The fact that Homer covers it with photos of his youngest daughter, Maggie, changing the letters to ‘Do it for her’ is a sad acknowledgement that, despite his motivations, he remains trapped in a system he cannot escape from.
It is also a Fordist sentiment: Homer has a system to be stuck in, and his family’s livelihood depends on it. In a broader sense, class is a central organizing concept for the show: witness Marge’s attempt to move up several social classes after discovering a Chanel suit hidden in a discount store (‘Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield’, 4 February 1996). Another time, after alienating Lisa, Homer buys her a pony from a wealthy, aristocratic horse breeder and must work days and nights to find the money to care for it (‘Lisa’s Pony’, 7 November 1991). Later, the family must choose between buying an air conditioner and a saxophone to alleviate Lisa’s depression (‘Lisa’s Sax’, 19 October 1997). This logic extends to the entire town. Homer proves himself worthy of Marge’s sisters’ respect when he saves their job at the Department of Motor Vehicles, taking responsibility for their cigarettes when they are caught smoking indoors (‘Homer vs. Patty and Selma’, 26 February 1995). When Bart’s friend’s father, Kirk van Houten, loses his job at the cracker factory (‘A Milhouse Divided’, 1 December 1996) it is precipitated by his divorce and compounds his personal tragedy that sees him ending up living in a seedy bachelors’ apartment complex. The consequences of being un- or underemployed are immediate, tragic and complex.
Even when reality begins to stretch in the later classic episodes, and work is treated as a focus for comedy rather than tragedy, it remains the pivotal point around which characters and plots rotate. In ‘Homer The Great’ (8 January 1995), Homer joins a secret society and discovers he is privy to workplace privileges like massage chairs, good parking spots and the freedom to insult his boss. ‘King-Size Homer’ (5 November 1995) has Homer hating his job so much he over-eats to become obese, get special accommodation and work from home. What saves the episode from fat-phobia is the very real motivation to create a better job that Homer demonstrates and our ability to sympathize with his predicament. He fantasizes about a life spent drinking lemonade in the back garden and dancing with his wife. On his first day telecommuting, he muses, ‘I pity those poor suckers on the freeway. Gas, brake, honk. Gas, brake, honk. Honk, honk, punch. Gas, gas, gas.’ His weight gain is a means to freedom, and he is genuinely hurt when others criticize him for it. King-Size Homer demonstrates the length Homer is willing to go to escape his workplace: disfigurement, public humiliation, the approbation of his family and boss (in the next scene, the photo is used in the employee newspaper and captioned ‘Burns survives brush with shut-in’), and using a computer system he has no understanding of. Yet his grin speaks volumes: all conditions are worth it to better negotiate the terms under which he sells his labour power. The scheme unravels due to his laziness but, as with the company plaque in season 6, he rectifies the situation and goes back to the plant because of his family, not because his job has improved.
This changed dramatically with zombification. Not only did the number of jobs Homer took rise from four or five per season in the early years to over 10, but ‘Homer finding new jobs and new ways to get hurt increasingly substituted for the kind of smart, aware and layered comedy that had been the show’s foundation’ (Sweatpants C, nd b: ‘Jerkass Homer Gets a Job’). Work became central at precisely the point it stopped mattering. In fact, Homer was not really finding work, in the consistent Fordist sense that marked the early seasons, because his life no longer centred around it. Compare Homer’s attitude towards his job pre- and post-zombification. In ‘Simpson and Delilah’ (18 October 1990), Homer gets promoted to Vice-President at the nuclear plant because of his lustrous new head of hair, then loses the position once he can no longer afford the growth formula. He is sent back to his old desk:
Homer: I’m stuck in that dead-end job again. The kids are gonna hate me ‘cause I can’t buy ‘em all the stuff I promised ‘em. And you’re not gonna love me as much ‘cause I’m ugly and bald!
Marge: Oh, Homer. Your job has always put food on our table, and the kids will get over it.
Homer: And? What about …
Marge: Oh, Homer … come here. You are so beautiful, to me.
Later in the season (‘Lisa’s Substitute’, 25 April 1991), Homer has to explain his class position to his 8-year-old daughter:
Homer: Now, you’ll have lots of special people in your life, Lisa. There’s probably some place where they all get together and the food is real good, and guys like me are serving drinks. Oh, well, maybe I can’t explain this, but I can fix your dollhouse for you. At least I’m good at monkey work. You know, monkey? You know what I mean?
Homer: I can hold these nails in place with my tail.
The poignancy of both these exchanges derives from the fact that there are real-world consequences for under-employment, not just financially but emotionally. In one, Homer is ashamed of his lowly status and salary; in the other, he recognizes that there is another working world only available to highly-specialized mental labour. Despite his technician job, he is good for ‘monkey work’ alone.
As reality begins to stretch in later classic seasons, the loss of a regular income still remains a grounding, universal theme. For example, in ‘Lisa’s Rival’ (11 September 1994), Homer finds a shipment of sugar and decides to sell it door-to-door. Marge frets about the loss of income:Homer:
And you didn’t think I’d make any money. I found a dollar while I was waiting for the bus!Marge:
While you were out earning that dollar, you lost forty dollars by not going to work. The plant called and said if you don’t come in tomorrow, don’t bother coming in Monday.Homer:
Woo-hoo! Four-day weekend!
Work and income still matter, even if their relationship is becoming tenuous. However, this changes drastically. By season 11, in ‘Alone Again Natura-Diddly’ (13 February 2000), Homer videotapes bereaved neighbour Ned Flanders for a personal ad. Noticing the involved nature of the scheme, Bart asks him ‘Do you even have a job anymore?’, to which Homer replies, ‘I think it’s pretty obvious that I don’t!’ Previously something to find humour in precisely because it is so all-encompassing, the very concept of work is now a joke. In ‘Diatribe of a Mad Housewife’ (25 January 2004), Homer gets fired and buys a 1960s ambulance:Marge:
I was hoping you could watch the kids while I work on my novel.
Homer: Slow down, Picasso! You were gonna start a novel without informing me?
Marge: Homer, you left two jobs and bought an ambulance without even a phone call.
Homer: I also fed some ducklings.
Marge: I know. I got your message.
This passage is significant because it gestures towards the dual meaning of labour and work. After season 9, Homer could do any job at all because wage labour ceased to matter in Springfield. This is an erasure of the exploitative relationship that gave Homer’s struggles meaning to audiences. Although season 9 marks its formal beginning, its opening salvo was in season 8, with the brief appearance of Frank Grimes.
Homer’s enemy, Frank Grimes
Towards the end of season 8, Frank Grimes is featured on a TV documentary as a disadvantaged worker who overcomes terrible odds to get a degree. Moved by the power of his story – the American dream writ small – Mr. Burns hires him. Grimes’ office is placed next to Homer’s, and the two men embody a contradiction: the former is diligent, well-trained and intelligent, yet his education and career path have been thwarted at every turn. Homer is demonstrably stupid and unmotivated, yet he has been rewarded with a full-time job and the stability of home and family that come with it. Grimes encounters Homer with the wide-eyed horror of someone who has had to struggle to get what little he has, meeting someone who has – in this episode – never struggled. Frank Grimes discovers Homer has stolen his personalized pencils, after being denied permission to borrow one. This visual joke resonates not only because Homer is being lazy and selfish, but because of the contrast between their expectations of the workplace. For Homer, it is at best a rest area and, at worst, a trap; for Grimes, it is his reward for years of labour and a means of escaping poverty. The embossed pencils are part of his professional identity, something Homer lacks.
At one point, Homer tells Grimes he can turn the security camera around and have a nap, to which Grimes says, ‘I don’t think we’re being paid to sleep.’ Homer replies, ‘Oh yeah, they’re always trying to screw you.’ Homer’s reticence to work is nothing new – laziness was a defining part of his character from the beginning – yet the contrast with Grimes’ diligence is a major shift. From being someone thrown into a job he never wanted and which barely supports him and his family, now Homer is shirking for the sake of it. He is no longer sympathetic. Grimes echoes the German investors of season 3, but his tone is one of disgust:
Grimes: I’ve never seen him do any work around here. I mean, what is his job?
Lenny: Safety inspector.
Grimes: That irresponsible oaf? A man who by all rights should’ve been killed dozens of times by now?
Lenny: 316 times by my count.
Of course, Grimes is correct. Homer nearly killed everyone in the entire town by not knowing how to shut down the nuclear reactor (‘Homer Defined’, 17 October 1991). But, crucially, Grimes is the only one who realizes it, and he is utterly outside the Springfield community. To distance itself from the Fordist premise of Homer’s life, The Simpsons had to introduce a character who could voice the neoliberal critique of Fordism: that its full-time, benefited jobs promote lazy, slovenly workers.
The subplot of the episode, in which Bart buys an abandoned factory for one dollar, shows the social context of this critique. Bart brings Milhouse to his vast, empty factory floor; the latter is suitably impressed and exclaims, ‘Wow. Adding machines! Industrial waste! What should we do with all this stuff, Bart?’ Bart directs them to dump the machines into the waste, and then hires Milhouse as a cleaner and security guard, telling him, ‘Get to work!’ Yet he has no money, and there is no functioning factory (indeed, the building collapses overnight). It is a simulacrum of work, and its presence suggests that it is Grimes, not Homer, who is closer to reality. The industrial heartlands of the US have been emptied, and Homer’s laziness is at odds with the millions of desperate ex-workers trying to survive.
To correct the bad impression he has made, Homer invites Grimes over for dinner, and the latter is duly shocked:
Grimes: Good heavens! This is a palace! How can – how in the world can you afford to live in a house like this, Simpson?
Homer: I dunno. Don’t ask me how the economy works.
Grimes: Yeah but look at the size of this place! I live in a single room above a bowling alley and below another bowling alley.
Homer is in awe of Grimes’ life, but this only highlights his stupidity. Grimes’ critique is not simply that Homer lives in luxury but that he is parasitic, without the necessary diligence, subservience or productivity that the labour market demands. We are shown the contrast between a comfortable, even bemused Fordist Homer and the tired, angry neoliberal subject Grimes, whose unknotted tie and briefcase signify that even as a guest of the Simpson family, in a domestic setting, he alone is not allowed to stop working:
Grimes: I’ve had to work hard every day of my life and what do I have to show for it? This briefcase and this haircut. And what do you have to show for your lifetime of sloth and ignorance?
Grimes: Everything! A dream house, two cars, a beautiful wife, a son who owns a factory, fancy clothes, and lobsters for dinner! And do you deserve any of it? No!
Homer: What are you saying?
Grimes: I’m saying you’re what’s wrong with America, Simpson. You coast through life, you do as little as possible and you leech off decent hard-working people, like me. If you lived in any other country in the world, you would have starved to death long ago. You’re a fraud, a total fraud.
Note what is being equated with leeching: a full-time job with benefits that supports a family. The joke is on Grimes, as the Simpson family’s living conditions are far from luxurious. The family cars are old and dented; Homer is constantly stealing white goods from Flanders. A running visual gag shows the camera panning from their living room to the upstairs and revealing asbestos, a snake or the family pets trapped between floors. The chimney collapses (‘You Only Move Twice’, 3 November 1996), prompting Marge to agree to sell the house, which is in such terrible condition they eventually abandon it. In ‘Homer the Great’, the Simpsons’ basement floods. But this kind of squalor is still better than Grimes’ life between bowling alleys, and this is the point of his neoliberal discourse: to prepare us, by example and didacticism, for our lives to get worse.
Through the exchange with Grimes, Homer denies none of the charges: he simply cannot understand what is wrong. This is because, up to this point, he represented the old, internally consistent Fordist worker, to which even a trip into space (‘Deep Space Homer’, 24 February 1994) worked as humour because it contrasted so clearly with his well-anchored circumstances. Grimes, in his abject suffering, signalled an anti-worker bias that the early show, for all its stereotyping of Homer, took pains to avoid. Fordist Homer is defined by exploitation: he is in no way privileged, unless one considers having a full-time job a mark of distinction – something the show tries very hard to show is not the case, through Homer’s constant workplace humiliations. After season 9, this would change. In one of the most egregious examples, ‘Maximum Homerdrive’ (28 March 1999), Homer becomes a long-distance trucker, only to discover that other truckers have a self-driving mechanism in their cabs. They threaten him when he promises to reveal their ‘laziness’. Neoliberal subjectivity is even read backwards into history, when Homer’s father, Abraham Simpson, confesses that he used to grift in the 1930s: ‘Yeah in the Depression you had to grift. Either that, or … work’ (‘The Great Money Caper’, 10 December 2000). The only universe in which Homer’s soul-destroying, dead-end job could be seen as a privilege is the one that Frank Grimes inhabits: the precariat.
Frank Grimes electrocuted himself, a victim of the insanity Homer’s laziness drives him to. Yet in a broader sense, he won, because the kind of work world he represented would be one Homer increasingly came to inhabit. Homer’s conceit, continually shown up, was his vain struggle to control the process of his work and thereby his life; the tragedy of The Simpsons, after season 9, is that there was nothing to control. The Simpsons came to reflect a different, emerging aspect of work: the end of stable employment and the rise of irregular contract work and permanent unemployment.5
These changes are not simply reflected in post-Fordist Simpsons: the show addresses precarity directly in ‘Kiss Kiss, Bang Bangalore’ (9 April 2006), when Mr. Burns outsources the nuclear plant to India and Homer wins a competition for the sole remaining American job by becoming a supervisor. The episode is made thoroughly in Zombie Simpsons mode, as the characters embark on outlandish adventures, the episode relies on old stereotypes of the Indian subcontinent, and, in typical Orientalist fashion, it transposes a reference to Apocalypse Now (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) from Vietnam to India, as Homer’s job drives him insane with power and he comes to believe he is holy. Yet it is also one of the few times Zombie Simpsons makes a concrete reference to work: crucially, not Homer’s, as he turns the power plant into Kurtz’s jungle redoubt, but that of the Indian workers themselves. They are hired because they are cheaper than American workers, but Homer lets them unionize, take breaks and have flex-time. For Mr. Burns, this is Homer’s crucial mistake, not his God delusion. This, too, captures something about the world of precarity because the replacement workers want the same security the Americans had: when Burns dismisses the Indian staff, they cheer, ‘Two months’ severance! Early retirement! Golden parachutes for all!’ The workforce is united in appreciation of Homer’s Fordist management, demonstrating not only the breadth of that particular workforce’s unity but, with their raised fists, a universal symbol of the trade union movement, a sly reference to the American workforce which once harboured those traditions en masse before neoliberalism. However, their explicit working class subjectivity is undercut by Lisa’s compliment to her father when she says, ‘You’re the first man to ever outsource the American worker’s sense of entitlement and privilege.’ Grimes may have died, but his legacy was firmly ensconced.
Transition two: From linearity to fracture
If seasons 5 to 8 mark the show’s first tension between Fordism and precarity, ‘Homer’s Enemy’ marks the official defeat of the former. As Davis et al. (2015: 184) suggest, ‘Grimes’s past, like Bob’s, weighs heavily upon him; in Homer’s charmed life, which intersects with a series of major and minor historical figures, nothing sticks.’ To add a further nuance: Grimes’ appearance and death mark the point at which Homer’s past no longer sticks. By showing the rise of precarity, ‘Homer’s Enemy’ also demonstrates the shift in The Simpsons’ underlying concept of realism.
Having destroyed wage labour, the anchor for Homer’s presence in Springfield, the show began to tear down all other markers of continuity. The show had always relied on what showrunner David Mirkin has called ‘flexible reality’: using animation to place characters in hyper-real or surreal environments, the better to find humorous contrasts with their established daily lives:
Once you sort of set up that there’s flexible reality, then you’re going, ‘Well, we could flex in this direction, we could flex in this direction.’ And as long as you come back to center, you can get away with those moments of fantasy. (Fox, 2014)
For 8 years, completing overturning reality was confined to the annual Hallowe’en episodes; other disruptions, however extreme, were temporary. This changed as the show ‘increasingly rel[ied]… on cartoonish tricks and (danger free) action sequences to tell its stories’, and giving gravitas to those moments (Sweatpants C, nd a: ‘Armin Tamzarian’). As Matt Groening puts it, all actions are supposed to have consequences:
‘I always say that we can put the Simpsons in whatever situation we want as long as they behave the way somebody in that situation would behave. [Yet] I think I’m the only one who really cares about that rule; we violate that rule a lot.’ (Lloyd, 2012)
However, it was not the over-the-top comedy per se that marked the show’s narrative degeneration, but the fact that it was integrated into the plot as serious beats. Flexible reality snapped, and the jarring, self-consciously zany actions of the characters had to be integrated into the overall narrative arc, which eventually snapped.6
It is not the case that, prior to season 9, there was a single, coherent narrative. The Simpsons played with the usual tropes intended to maintain interest in a long-running TV show: long-lost relatives (Homer’s brother Herb; Homer’s 1960s radical mom in ‘Mother Simpson’, 19 November 1995), marriage crises (Marge’s romance with a bowling instructor in ‘Life on the Fast Lane’, 19 November 1990; Homer’s romance with a coworker in ‘The Last Temptation of Homer’, 9 December 1993), and single-appearance characters (Karl, Homer’s suave, gay assistant from ‘Simpson and Delilah’; Mr. Bergstrom, the teacher from ‘Lisa’s Substitute’). But it did so to establish a critical distance from those stereotypes: as with the workplace, the outlandish scrapes the family got itself into gained meaning by being offset against the solid core of home, school, bar and church.
From season 9 onwards, discontinuity and fragmentation became standard, as Homer went on James Bond-worthy adventures and endured superhuman physical suffering without complaint. Plot points were abandoned without any reference to the careful narrative building that established them. ‘The Principal and the Pauper’ came in for special approbation from fans, not only because it rewrote the show’s chronology but due to its being so ‘thick with abrupt plot twists, expository flashbacks, and unbelievable character turns that there’s hardly any humour to it’. Skinner, as a minor character, had run out of narrative significance: ‘The writers were out of ideas, and the fans were attached to what they already knew’ (Sweatpants C, nd a: ‘Armin Tamzarian’). But to suggest that the episode’s destruction of linearity was ‘a source of delight for the writers involved’ (Davis et al., 2015: 180), is to downplay the significance of that shift. As Shearer recalled of the Tamzarian episode:
I said, ‘That’s so wrong. You’re taking something that an audience has built eight years or nine years of investment in and just tossed it in the trash can for no good reason, for a story we’ve done before with other characters. It’s so arbitrary and gratuitous, and it’s disrespectful to the audience’. (Wilonsky, 2001)
Season 9’s change was certainly ‘the construction of characters and settings less anchored to a very precise historical setting, and thus more “floating”, than [the animated sitcom’s] live-action counterparts’ (Davis et al., 2015: 185). But by destroying the precise historical setting, the characters were destroyed as well. Time may no longer pass chronologically for The Simpsons, but it used to, and that loss had profound consequences.
Despite its many episodes with strong characterizations and functional narratives, season 9 also introduced numerous plots that stretched credibility. For example, Springfield Prison is an established venue from earlier episodes, but season 9 introduces an extra, abandoned prison, with the mayor simulating death by electrocution – a simulation that itself turns out to be real, but somehow non-fatal (‘This Little Wiggy’, 22 March 1998). Marge’s new job reveals a ‘murder house’ on a hill in Springfield that all characters are familiar with but has never been mentioned before or since (‘Realty Bites’, 7 December 1997). Homer attempts a botched insurance scam with bartender Moe Sizlak, trying and failing to risk death on train tracks and surviving a plunge into the ocean in a car (‘Dumbbell Indemnity’, 1 March 1998). Major plot points are introduced and abandoned for the sake of provoking a reaction among viewers: ‘The show had certainly done episodes with outrageous endings before, but generally only once or twice per season, and even then things weren’t played for tension or shock the way they often are in Season 9’ (Sweatpants C, nd a: ‘Armin Tamzarian’).
The critical consensus – The Simpsons ‘holds up a mirror where we can examine both the fragmentation and continuity of postmodern life’ (Wallace, 2001: 148) – is understandable given the sheer number of post-golden era episodes, in which fragmentation between and within stories is common. But this insight applies largely after the season 9 shift. Just as Sideshow Bob’s son illustrates a fractured chronology (Davis et al., 2015: 181), Grimes’ own son, Frank Grimes Jr., illustrates the consequences of that fracture. He shows up in ‘The Great Louse Detective’ (15 December 2002), to take revenge on Homer for his father’s death. But Homer’s charmed life saves him again: he survives being trapped in a boiling sauna, getting shot and having his brake lines cut. The very lack of consequences that Frank Grimes criticized Homer for, and which got Grimes killed, have no effect on post-Fordist Homer. Significantly, Sideshow Bob himself – Bart’s arch-nemesis – is brought in to stop Grimes Jr. Bob, having been defanged of all power, leads an uncomfortably plotted finale where he has Bart at his mercy yet cannot kill him, internalizing the deus ex machina that had usually foiled him in the past. Even Bob is not safe from The Simpsons’ erasure of character and narrative.
The Simpsons as contemporary realism
While explaining this shift from a chronological to a non-linear perspective, Davis et al. (2015) identify a crucial theme, suggesting that changing the timeline of Homer and Marge’s youth from the 1970s to the 1990s is ‘particularly mind-boggling if one is trying to hold onto a realist understanding of characters and their biographies’ (p. 79, emphasis in original). This is key to understanding what season 9 signified: a shift in The Simpsons’ mode of realism. This is different from an erasure of that mode altogether, what Wallace (2001: 148) calls the ‘perfect depiction of the fragmented, disjointed, contradictory world of capitalism’.7 Indeed, from Georg Lukács’ (2007: 47) definition it would appear The Simpsons fails the realist test:
The realist must seek out the lasting features in people, in their relations with each other and in the situations in which they have to act; he [sic] must focus on [and reveal] those elements which endure over long periods and which constitute the objective human tendencies of society.
The centrality of wage labour to the show, consistent throughout the golden era and abandoned post-season 9, makes The Simpsons temporary realists at best.8
Davis et al. (2015: 180) suggest that we should not ‘impose more logic upon a work of fiction than the work allows. Paradoxes … are a frequent feature of fiction that we should learn to live with.’ This is formally correct, yet it leaves open the reason why, before season 9, The Simpsons largely contained their paradoxes, remaining internally consistent and anchored in a working class family, workplace and community. Frank Grimes, as the outsider to Fordism, knew this, and it was those inconsistencies that triggered his descent into madness. When Mr. Teeny, the showbiz monkey, exclaimed at the end of a particularly fractured show, ‘This episode made no sense – tell the people!’ (‘Trilogy of Error’, 29 April 2001), he was not simply expressing the writers’ acknowledgement that the series had declined, but the possibility that the logic of fiction had changed, because the logic of capitalist governance had changed as well.
Despite appearances, Zombie Simpsons also acts in accordance with the realist artist, whose ‘goal is to penetrate the laws governing objective reality and to uncover the deeper, hidden, mediated, not immediately perceptible network of relationships that go to make up society’ (Lukács, 2007: 38). If the golden era’s elements – like Homer’s stable, living-waged job, the nuclear family, home-ownership, public schooling, and so on – ceased to endure, then an art that describes chaos, instead of the ‘lasting features’, echoes the disintegration of Fordist-era social formations. It approaches realism for the precarious age.
Lukács feared that abandoning attempts to synthesize the social totality in favour of modernist disjuncture would only lead to solipsism: ‘[since] chaos constitutes the intellectual cornerstone of modernist art, any cohesive principles it contains must stem from a subject-matter alien to it’ (p. 45). However, Lukács meant chaos as a formal artifice concealing an absence of meaning, a highly contested understanding. It can also point towards the co-existence of many conflicting meanings, held in tension with one another and inscribed into the social fabric of capitalism itself: the knowledge that
our housing, our income and our play are temporary and contingent, forever at the whim of the landlord, policeman, bureaucrat or market. The only constant is that of insecurity itself. We are gifted the guarantee of perpetual flux, the knowledge that we will forever be flailing from one abyss to another. (Todd, 2015)
All these chaotic signs are in The Simpsons, and any cultural production that shows the results of these contradictory drives is doing reality a service. As Brecht (2007: 82) suggests, ‘Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change.’ As Eagleton (1981) warns us, immediate experience is itself an ideological construction. There are no such people as the Simpsons, and no such place as Springfield – a point the show itself has made many times, when it refuses to specify the state that Springfield is located in. This does not relieve the show’s makers from responsibility for the shift to flimsy characterizations, but it does allow another way to approach its significance: not as the failure of a phenomenon to approach its essence, but as a companion to broader shifts, comprehensible by individuals but beyond any single person’s experience. As Eagleton explains Brecht’s position:
You thus cannot determine the realism of a text merely by inspecting its intrinsic properties. On the contrary, you can never know whether a text is realist or not until you have established its effects – and since those effects belong to a particular conjuncture, a text may be realist in June and anti-realist in December … A text may well ‘potentialize’ realism, but it can never coincide with it … Texts are no more than the enabling or disabling occasions for realist effectivity. (p. 88)
After season 9, The Simpsons stopped conforming to the laws of physics, let alone social norms. Yet in its failure to be traditionally realist, the show ended up reflecting and even anticipating a new reality: the upside-down world of late capitalism, in which the ever-greater solidity of processes of capital accumulation is mirrored by the dislocation and degeneration of the welfare state in the Global North. Or, as ‘Kiss Kiss, Bang Bangalore’ puts it:
Mr. Burns: Effective immediately, I’m closing the plant and moving all our operations to India!
Lenny: Does this mean we’re losing our jobs?
B: No, no, your jobs are safe. They’ll just be done by someone else in another country.
In one sense this topsy-turvy world is nothing new: as Marx and Engels argued in The Communist Manifesto I (1998):
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations … and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man [sic] than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’.
Capitalist development is defined by fixed relations and signifiers becoming free-floating. But focusing on this continuity with past social forms would be to deny the real, material changes in work organization that have taken place since The Simpsons’ heyday in the mid-1990s, and in particular, the financialization that precipitated the 2007 global crisis. The Simpsons’ fractured narratives can only be understood in light of the structural transformations that precipitated them.
It is not enough to mourn the passing of The Simpsons’ golden era: we must understand why it passed. For this task, the intention of the makers is secondary; the real changes of contemporary capitalism are constitutive of consciousness and its effects, including those in popular culture. Nesbitt (2007) suggests the key to the show’s popularity was its birth in the late 1980s, a period of working class defeat, as the Simpson family inhabited a world of people struggling to survive the end of the American Dream. There is no reason why the show should not also reflect subsequent changes, and The Simpsons’ transition to zombie-mode represents this moment: the radical re-organization of work, the end of socialism as an ideological threat and rise of a multipolar world.
Frank Grimes was the perfect foil to usher in this new era, allowing the show to blame Homer for both the failure of Fordism and, more cleverly, for the lack of success of the neoliberal subject, Grimes himself. Paradoxically, this shows just how precarious The Simpsons’ own ideology had become by this point. It is a sign of the very fragmentation inherent in precarity – Frank Grimes’ own life in this case – that the show cannot muster a coherent critique of the model it seeks to present. It must blame Homer, for Homer is the only solid signifier remaining. In the years to come, it would seek to divest Homer from any remaining coherency, making him and the show as a whole a blank page on which to write whatever immediate social issue, celebrity appearance and pop culture fancy could gain viewers.
Grimes’ paradox – he is the harder worker, yet he is not rewarded commensurately – matches right-wing anti-union arguments: long-term stability breeds laziness and entitlement. Moreover, his example helps justify the lack of success precarity affords individual workers: after all, it is the lazy, entitled Homers who are supposed to be holding back the entrepreneurial Grimes from thriving in the marketplace. But there is a double-movement happening here. The Simpsons formally operates within the deep neoliberal orthodoxy that secure jobs are a fetter to productive forces, and that precarity can shake the workers out of their torpor and unleash the dynamic businessperson within. This is not only imbricated in Frank Grimes’ single episode story but the broad arc of post-season 9 characterizations, in which Homer is rewarded for being fundamentally irrational.9 However, simultaneously through its post-season 9 narrative degenerations, The Simpsons demonstrates the impossibility of a stable, successful, and productive worker that would result from the marriage of Homer’s circumstances and Grimes’ skill. Its very zaniness is proof that the neoliberal subject, in its disintegration of both social democratic standards of living and class-conscious political representation, cannot exist stably. Although the shell of Fordism remains, in that Homer and his family still reside at 742 Evergreen Terrace and he still sometimes goes to the nuclear plant, he exists in a reality that has no consistent bearing. Fordist Homer was the anti-Frank Grimes; precarious Homer has gone far beyond Grimes’ tenuous circumstances. Thus The Simpsons’ chaos represents a real discontinuity in the working class’s mode of life, a concomitant end to ideological coherency and the inability to come up with new forms of representation.
Yet it is not necessary to agree with Wallace’s (2001: 149) contention that The Simpsons, in its scattershot approach to humour – punching down as well as up, in contemporary parlance – ‘not only fails to suggest the possibility of a better world, but teases us away from serious reflection on or criticism of prevailing practices’. If we accept the complete postmodern fragmentation of narrative, this is true. And it is dishonest to read against the text in order to construct a progressive narrative from key moments.10 But as this article has argued, The Simpsons has accomplished two important tasks: first, it has signalled a key shift in the way labour is organized in contemporary capitalism, and second, it has reflected – through an end to chronological narrative, as well as many other discontinuities – the impact of that shift on social reality. Wallace suggests that
The Simpsons is a sort of Brechtian television show. Much in the same way that Bertolt Brecht rejected the artificial elements of drama – the unified plot, sympathetic characters, universal themes – for techniques that ‘alienated’ or distanced the audience. (p. 140)
And, as Eagleton (1981: 85) reminds us:
Brecht’s practice is not to dispel the miasma of ‘false consciousness’ so that we may ‘fix’ the object as it really is; it is to persuade us into living a new discursive and practical relation to the real. ‘Rationality’ for Brecht is thus indissociable from skepticism, experiment, refusal and subversion.
As a text, The Simpsons demonstrates a subversive realism by being unable to coherently hold together what it portrays. ‘Homer’s Enemy’ was our enemy too, in that Grimes signalled the arrival of a new, harsh labour regime. Homer may have inadvertently killed Grimes, but The Simpsons’ realism demonstrates that the crime happened in reverse: Grimes’ precarity would end up destroying Homer’s world.
It is possible to mourn the loss of accurate characterizations while appreciating how accurately The Simpsons foreshadowed the rise of neoliberalism. Yet this conclusion is deeply dissatisfying to fans whose emotional connection to the show and its characters was based on more than an intellectual appreciation. The viewers’ judgment is not incidental: as Eagleton asks the author, ‘If you want to know whether your play was realist, why not ask the audience? Did it, in their estimation, “discover the causal complexes of society”?’ (p. 88).
The answer from fans is a resounding ‘no’. Social insight has been obscured by the horrific spectacle of The Simpsons characters’ voices and bodies being kept alive decades after the characters stopped being themselves, augmented by celebrity appearances and pop-culture references, without significance and quickly forgotten. But if we take Brecht’s (2007: 85) definition of realism as a process – ‘a ceaseless activity of dislocating and demystifying’ – then the question changes. To give the fans their due, one of the reasons an emotional projection was so easy to make is because The Simpsons, pre-season 9, made a claim on realism: its characters spoke to the viewers’ lives, and it posited a fantastical world that was recognizably a distorted version of the American working class in decline. Its appeal lay in its accuracy because it never lost sight of the contradictions of Fordism: the exclusionary, productivist nature of the post-World War Two social contract that guaranteed Homer had an unfulfilling job and Marge was stuck in the house. When Frank Grimes came to push over the flimsy edifice, he was the harbinger of an unwelcome premise we are still coming to terms with: the ceaseless re-organization and hyper-exploitation of the global working classes, sentenced to precarity and stagnation. As Eagleton (1981: 84) asks of Lukács: ‘why should accurate cognition and representation of the real afford aesthetic gratification?’ The fans’ observation that The Simpsons has abandoned realism and become a less interesting, poorly-made show, can be true at the same time as the show’s frenetic fracturing demonstrates something real about the present conjuncture. It may be that the present is simply less pleasant to watch.
1.For a quick but representative survey of the consensus on the golden status of seasons 2 through 9, with outliers on either side, see ‘No Homers Club’ (2010) and Hunter (2015); and ‘Did We Appreciate What We Had’.
2.Henry (2012) provides the broadest overview – specific to an American context – of The Simpsons’ intersectional politics, showing how the show touches on changing concepts of race, class and gender. However, this is the exception in the literature. In other, more specific treatments, The Simpsons has been the lens through which to view foreign perceptions of the US (Gray, 2007), critical media education (Gray, 2005), sociology pedagogy (Scanlan and Feinberg, 2000), neoliberal educational reform (Kiedrowski, 2013; Meskill, 2007), religiosity (Pinsky, 2007), ethics and continental philosophy (Irwin et al., 2001), and the revalorization of the nuclear family (Cantor, 1999). In a bizarre treatment, Cooper et al. (2005) graft tribal symbolic consumption patterns onto Simpsons’ characters. These problematics tend to value The Simpsonsas a descriptor of an external social phenomenon, rather than as a normative text with internal transformations.
3.The Simpsons was not unique in portraying working class life in this period; Cheers, Roseanne, and even Married … With Children sought to show working class characters struggling with issues like unemployment, bad jobs and poverty, in a break from the traditional happy sitcom family with few real problems. However, The Simpsons’ animation meant its humour could deepen characterizations in a way that live-action sitcoms could not (Ortved, 2009: 6).
4.The importance of audience to The Simpsons can be rooted in Marx’s concept of ideology and Stuart Hall’s (2006) concept of decoding. Ideology is encoded in the life processes of members of a particular class – including authors and animators – who assume their worldview is shared by everyone else (Mitchell, 1986: 176). However, while audience members are just as ‘ideologized’ as the text-makers, they are not passive. Audiences decode texts by shaping the meanings they receive, because the latter ‘are themselves framed by structures of understanding, as well as being produced by social and economic relations … permit[ting] the meanings signified in the discourse to be transposed into practice or consciousness’ (Hall, 2006: 166). Since meanings are open to interpretation, a text’s reception must be studied to understand its full import.
Williams (2006: 140) goes further, suggesting that ‘emergent practices and meanings’ arise from texts that are shaped, rather than absorbed. This critical engagement forms a ‘practice … [and] a complex of extending active relationships’ (p. 143). While Schiller (2006: 306) warns that the sheer volume of output of daily media dilutes a series’ effects, the very size of The Simpsons’ oeuvre and its decades of accumulated fan commentary make it a representative template for an audience reception study.
Fans are crucial for creating relationships with texts. Their ability ‘to be quite self-reflexive and able to analyze their own behavior’ lends credence to their analysis: they actively shape the narratives of the text they engage with, including pointing out omissions (Busse and Gray, 2011: 428). We need not accept Smythe’s (2006)conclusion that audiences are simply commodities, buying the consumer products of advertising and, with them, the legitimacy of the state and capital. Rather, those fans most invested in the text can best identify the changes in the emotional arcs of The Simpsons universe. In turn, the scholar must re-situate the meaning production already taking place within new theoretical frameworks. Despite infinitely varied approaches, it is precisely because fans exist within ‘limited shared interpretive spaces’ (Busse and Gray, 2011: 435) that their analysis counts. Fans construct and contest social meanings through their receptions of The Simpsons’ texts.
5.Precarity generalizes from the exclusion built into the Fordist era: women, people of colour and migrants were often on the margins of the American labour market. However, for men, private-sector job-tenure declined by a quarter since 1973, the roots of the neoliberal era in the profit shock and oil price spike. Healthcare and pension benefits declined precipitously. Unemployment has risen over 40 per cent from its 1973 levels. After each recession – there have been four in the US alone since then – private sector male employment has become much more irregular. This has provided the backdrop for massive shifts from manufacturing to logistics services among the US working class, with the shorter hours and contracts and lower wages endemic to service work. See Benanav (2015) for a defence of the precarity thesis, and Moody (2016) for a nuancing of it that places the emphasis on occupational shifts, not just insecurity.
6. When pressed, writers attribute shifts in The Simpsons’ style and substance to changes in popular tastes and the contributions of individual writers. With the exception of Shearer, the show’s creators reject the criticism that The Simpsons has peaked, perhaps as a reaction to the intensity of fan response from the early days of the show, coinciding as it did with the first online fan forums. This was skewered directly in season 8 (‘Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie’, 9 February 1997), when Comic Book Guy calls an Itchy and Scratchy episode ‘Worst episode ever’ and Bart replies, ‘What? They’re giving you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? I mean, if anything, you owe them!’ Groening roots fan criticism in intense emotional investment in the show:
The ones who are the most passionate are generally the most critical. I attempted once to have a conversation with them … about how in any long-running pop culture enterprise it’s hard to keep up with the audience’s memory of their favorite experience, because you can never have that first time, first impression again. They got out the knives after I said that. (Lloyd, 2012)
He also admits writers may get defensive out of a love for their craft:
I think people who work in comedy and humor are hesitant to analyze it too much, because you feel like if you take it apart, you’ll break it and not be able to put it back together again … Examining humor too closely does seem to destroy it. (Ryan, 2009)
While this self-reflexivity is admirable, it would be a mistake to cast the fan-creator dialogue solely in psychological terms, judging the veracity of claims to quality solely on qualities internal to the creative process. Considering the broader, socio-economic context of production and reception allows an immanent set of criteria to be considered: the degree to which texts approach or reject a realist understanding of the shared social processes both makers and consumers participate in.
7. Indeed, some analysts consider The Simpsons a postmodern show outright, due to its portrayal of ‘a truly postmodern arena devoid of meaningful social structure and lacking a moral center’. Yet this analysis also rests on a realist core, in which 742 Evergreen Terrace ‘remains an asylum in a postmodern world’ due to its reliance on traditional labour and gender norms and its tacit defense of the nuclear family (Snow and Snow, 2001: 83).
8. Groening’s motivations for The Simpsons are, in one sense, highly political:
With The Simpsons and with Futurama, what I’m trying to do in the guise of light entertainment, if this is possible – is nudge people, jostle them a little, wake them up to some of the ways in which we’re being manipulated and exploited. (Doherty, 1999)
Groening was closely identified with the American counter-culture in high school and college, and his Life in Hell comics consistently targeted shibboleths of the religious and patriotic right (Ortved, 2009: 10). Given this background, his statement that ‘if there’s a message that runs through the show … it’s that maybe the authorities don’t have your best interests at heart’ (Scott, 2001) is consistently reflected in the early Simpsons oeuvre. But it is precisely the ambiguity of anti-authoritarian politics that hobbles The Simpsons from having a coherent political perspective. Groening’s initial target was not politics per se but television sitcoms of working class life, which had become ‘obsequious’ since the 1960s. (Groening references The Andy Griffith Show as an inspiration [Lloyd, 2012]; the other obvious choice is The Flintstones, which gets frequent direct allusions in The Simpsons.) The fact that The Simpsons inspired a revival of satirical animation – ‘a certain kind of Dumb Dad with Family template’, as Groening calls it – may be a political success of the show, but it also points to its weakness: the show’s satire attacks left and right. Wallace (2001: 146) points out:
The writers of The Simpsons seem to have taken pains to avoid earning our sympathy for the family or for anyone who suffers or endures. In their apparent refusal to pick a side, ridicule is equally distributed among the powerful and the helpless.
This means it is up to commentators to consider the nature of the show’s realism, as the show’s creators refuse to directly consider questions of power and its effects.
9. Season 9 has Homer’s manifesto on irrationality, when he tells Lisa (‘Lost Our Lisa’, 10 May 1998): ‘Stupid risks are what make life worth living. Now, your mother, she’s the steady type and that’s fine in small doses. But me, I’m a risk taker. That’s why I have so many adventures’:
Lisa: Dad, you’re headed for the river again!
Homer: Feel your heart pumping a mile a minute? That’s what my heart’s doing all the time.
This exchange is atypical in that Homer tries to justify his maniacal behaviour, something he would cease to bother with for the rest of the series.
10. The most commonly cited cases for Homer’s radicalism are where he declares “the machinery of capitalism” to be “oiled with the blood of the workers” (‘The Crepes of Wrath’), and ‘Homer the Great’, in which Homer finds and keeps his father’s Communist Party membership card. But these are rareties: open discussion of radical politics is nearly completely absent from the show.
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