We don’t need The Simpsons to make a specific political stand. Nor should we want it to. It’s an idea that struck me when watching this season’s It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia episode “Gun Fever Too: Still Hot,” wherein the Gang take typically-horrifying and self-centered sides on the gun control debate. In the comments, the debate over that debate quickly erupted—and cross-erupted. All sides of the issue lobbed attacks at each other, as invariably happens whenever a program with a comments section touches even tangentially on any hot-button topic. With most people snugly ensconced in their intractable positions, nothing was agreed upon, of course—except that everyone was disappointed that the show didn’t take a coherent position (read: their position) on the gun control debate. But is that really what we want our TV shows to do? Especially our comedy series?
Shows like Sunny or The Simpsons, at their best, produce memorable political or social satire when they skip the straightforward polemics in favor of examining how people (in the guise of its characters) invariably stake out our moral positions according to internal factors far less clear-cut and noble than we’d like others (and ourselves) to believe. Which isn’t to say that all morals are relative, that there’s no such thing as right or wrong, or that TV satire shouldn’t come coupled with its writers’ convictions. But I contend that it does mean that satire is most effective when it filters its themes through the complexity of its characters. Otherwise, you’ve got Julia Sugarbaker standing center stage and speechifying about why, say, she has the right to run her car over the pornography-peddling local newsstand while a self-selected studio audience nods and applauds in smug agreement, and anyone looking for memorable comic insight feels his eyes glaze over.
So does this episode of The Simpsons, in which Lisa discovers that her new friend Isabel (voiced by a nondescript Eva Longoria) is a Republican, pass the eye-glaze test? Well, the political one, sure. Lisa has always been the show’s moral center and, as its most outspoken leftie, that means that the show generally comes down on the liberal side of things. Although, even when conservative writer’s room legend John Swartzwelder was around, The Simpsons has always leaned more to the left. (I maintain that’s because great comedy incorporates a generosity of spirit, but that’s an argument for which I’ll be berated in the comments.) Here, the essential decency of Lisa Simpson underlies the episode’s inevitably kindhearted resolution—she loses, but she keeps her friendship with Isabel, and her impassioned plea for clean elections and an end to negative campaigning and the influence of monied outside interests manages to sway a whopping 53 percent of the second grade electorate to her liberal ideas. Although not to her specifically—the show’s primary criticism of the Democratic party seems to be that while its ideas are more palatable, its candidates are traditionally dull as, well, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, and John Kerry, all of whom make benignly uninspiring appearances in Lisa’s dreams. (Clinton is there too, but his post-presidency path of drily well-intentioned philanthropy isn’t as entertaining to dream Homer. Homer: “You used to be fun.” Clinton: “Kevin Costner used to be a movie star—get used to it.”)
As for what Fox News will inevitably call out as “conservative-bashing,” the episode essentially let’s Lisa do the talking, with most of the outright evil being perpetrated by Springfield’s notorious Republican party inner circle (which, as we’ve seen in the past, consists of Mr Burns, the Rich Texan, Rainer Wolfcastle, Krusty, Superintendent Chalmers, and Dracula.) It’s they who, coveting Isabel Gutierez’ Latina demographic, flood Springfield elementary (redubbed “Springfield Isabelementary”) with campaign propaganda and unsuccessfully attempt to bribe the principled young Republican with a wheelbarrow full of ice cream. Sure, Isabel is willing to reap the benefits of all this undemocratic special interest money (defending her acquiescence with a facile “money is free speech” talking point), but Lisa’s not blameless either, employing Bart as a James Carville-esque political operative to bombard the school with embarrassing training wheel bike-riding footage of Isabel and, well, actual bombardment balls festooned with her picture. Naturally, Lisa eventually thinks better of what Watergate conspirator Donald Segretti termed “ratfucking,” but, well, that’s why Lisa is Lisa. If there’s any Sugarbaker-style grandstanding going on, it’s in Lisa’s explanation to the school that liberalism, at it’s heart, means “that those who have more than enough should share with those who don’t.” That it passed the eye-glaze test for me is because such heartfelt sentiments, coming from the mouth of a decent child like Lisa comes across as guileless and kind. (And, of course, because I agree with it.)
If there’s a bigger flaw with “The Kid Is All Right,” it’s that it’s just not very funny. Longoria brings nothing to the table, and there’s a dearth of quotable lines along the way. (Skinner’s glee at seeing Lisa “thoroughly de-high-horsed” notwithstanding.) For most of its running time (there’s no B story), the episode seems content to let Lisa learn (and teach) a lesson in plain old Lisa Simpson decency, and I was strangely okay with that (as ever, Yeardley Smith imbues Lisa with genuine heart). Taking time out from its seemingly accelerating descent into gag-driven wackiness, The Simpsons taking an episode to engage in more character-based storytelling isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
- The recent tradition of couch gag flights of fancy continues, with the Simpsons, transformed into musical instruments, rebelling jazzily against Mr. Burns’ “classical only” regime. While it’s not a bad approximation of the old “Silly Symphonies” Disney shorts (“Silly Simpsony”), I maintain that the time spent on these expanding gags would be better spent on the main story. Unless Guillermo del Toro is involved.
- “Conservatives only get more conservative because each year they get a little further through Atlas Shrugged.”
- Marge, explaining how people’s beliefs go through phases: “Bobby Kennedy worked for Joe McCarthy. And Larry David was on Fridays.”
- I just didn’t get the running bit where Lisa and Bart belly up to Maggie’s imaginary watering hole to drown their troubles in imaginary booze. And whomever came up with Bart’s smarmy, sexist line to a stuffed pig, “I bet by the end of the night your gonna look pretty good” should just go work for Family Guy already.
- Also, the way Isabel’s Republicanism is introduced makes no sense. She and Lisa worked on their presentation on FDR together, so presumably Lisa would have ferreted out the fact that Isabel thought the New Deal was unconstitutional, etc. Plus, the way Isabel announces her political leanings seems far too calculated to stun and dismay Lisa—if it was intended as a gambit on Isabel’s part, then she’d be portrayed as malicious throughout, which she’s not. It’s just a clumsy example of “premise introduction.”
- And since I’m feeling complain-y, the wordless callback to Mr. Bergstrom was a major bummer—don’t take one of the best guest star/characters from a classic episode and brush it off with a cheap joke.
- Lisa has her own library study carrel.
- Bart’s figured out that karate instructor “Sensei Weinstein” is actually his therapist.