Unless you have been living under a rock for the last twenty years, you are familiar with television’s favourite animated family, “The Simpsons.” The satirical parody of middle class America family life follows the lives of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie Simpson — and lampoons pretty much everything you may hold dear in the process.
The show had its start as a regular feature on Fox’s “The Tracey Ullman Show” in 1987. When the show was cancelled, “The Simpsons” was developed into its own series, airing its first episode on December 17, 1989. Since then the series has completed eighteen seasons and will commence its nineteenth (and last) season in the fall.
But the big news about the world’s favourite yellow family is that they are hitting the big screen in a couple weeks. That’s right, The Simpsons Movie (David Silverman; IMDb) opens in Canada on 27 July 2007 — and I’ll be there with my Homer slippers on.
While in its first few seasons the show raised the ire of a number of conservative Christians who saw the Simpsons’s family as bad role models (among other things), many (including myself) recognize that “The Simpsons” is actually one of the most religious shows on television. Religion and spirituality are frequently satirized in the show, whether it’s Reverend Lovejoy’s deathly boring sermons (many episodes), Homer’s personally created do-it-yourself religion of Homerism (“Homer the Heretic,” 9F01), Lisa’s rejection of commodified Christianity and turn to Buddhism (“She of Little Faith,” DABF02), or the hilarious retelling of favourite OT stories in “Simpsons Bible Stories” (AABF14) and the Simpson-style nativity story in “Simpsons Christmas Stories” (HABF01). While other religions are spoofed, cultural Christianity — whether Catholic, Mainline, or Evangelical — receive the most attention. On the one hand Ned Flanders and family are an over-the-top caricature of conservative evangelical Christianity, but on the other hand they are the most moral characters in the show. Ned is a nerd, yes; but he is a nerd with moral integrity.
“The Simpsons” has received a fare amount of attention from cultural critics and other academics. In terms of its long-standing portrayal and parody of institutional religion and popular culture, I can’t think of any television show that comes close to its incisive critique (although some come close). Besides the many “official” publications related to the series, there are also a number of analyses of “The Simpsons” available. Here are some of my favourites:
- John Alberti, editor, Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture (Contemporary Film and Television Series; Wayne State University Press, 2003; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This is an interesting examination of how “The Simpsons” is both a corporate-manufactured show as well as a parody of very consumer capitalism that makes it wildly successful.
- Alan Brown with Chris Logan, editors, The Psychology of The Simpsons: D’oh! (Psychology of Popular Culture series; Benbella Books, 2006; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). I have not had a chance to examine this book in depth, though many of the chapters appear to deal with topics that touch on religion.
- Jonathan Gray, Watching With The Simpsons: Television, Parody, And Intertextuality (Routledge, 2006; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). I haven’t had a chance to peruse this volume yet, though the focus on intertextuality piques my interest.
- Matt Groening, Bart Simpson’s Guide to Life: A Wee Handbook for the Perplexed (Harper, 1993; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This is a fun little book that epitomizes Bart’s twisted worldview.
- William Irwin, Mark T. Conard, and Aeon J. Skoble, editors, The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer (Popular Culture and Philosophy 2; Open Court, 2001; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). While this work does not examine the religious life of the Simpsons, many of its chapters deal with religious and ethical matters. The chapter on allusion is a great discussion of the intertextual nature of the show.
- Steven Keslowitz, The Simpsons And Society: An Analysis Of Our Favorite Family And Its Influence In Contemporary Society (Hats Off Books, 2003; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com) and Steven Keslowitz, The World According to The Simpsons (Sourcebooks, 2006; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). I was a bit disappointed with Keslowitz’s first book (The Simpsons and Society) — far too superficial — though from all indications his second work appears to be more promising (although it appears it may just be an expanded edition of his first work… I don’t have access to my copy of The Simpsons and Society right now, so I can’t confirm).
- Mark I. Pinsky, The Gospel According to the Simpsons, Bigger and Possibly Even Better! Edition (Westminster John Knox, 2007; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This is an entertaining look at faith in The Simpsons by religion journalist Mark Pinsky. While his theological reflection and cultural analysis are at times superficial, this is still a valuable examination of faith and spirituality in the series.
- Chris Turner, Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Defined a Generation (Random House, 2004; Da Capo Press, New edition, 2005; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This is perhaps my favourite book about The Simpsons. It is comprehensive in its cultural analysis, including a section on religion and faith.
Well, I have written enough… time to go to Kwik-E-Mart for a squishee and play a game of chess with my The Simpsons chess set. (I only wish I lived in Coquitlam, BC so I could go to a real Kwik-E-Mart! D’oh!)