October 2004

Jennifer Leblanc

nonfiction

Planet Simpson by Chris Turner

Chris Turner’s exhaustive study of television’s longest running show covers every aspect -- history, trivia, critiques, its cultural background and the influence it has had on pop culture. Like The Simpsons's prime-time cousin, Seinfeld, it was expected to fail, not become an institution with a global “mass-cult” following. As Turner explains, even world viewers have become enthralled with the show: “Simpsons characters are used to sell lemon soda in Japan, and the show inspires academic essays in Mexico. The show’s vast array of internet fansites is a digital United Nations…” Not bad for a seconds-long bit on the Tracy Ullman Show of the late 80’s.

Turner fills the first half with character analyses -- Homer the American slob, Brainy Lisa, “Punk icon” Bart, Moral Marge, and Mr. Burns, “the sneering face of Capitalism.” Later on we also get time with the other “Springfieldianites” that populate the show. Mostly Turner breaks down the show's place in culture and the culture’s place in The Simpsons, a very chicken/egg situation. The Simpsons was the first show to have “elaborate, Internet-centered plots;" it skewers politicians, Hollywood and even the hand that feeds it, Fox and tv executives in general. It is aware of itself as a show, a cartoon that tackles society unlike any live action show ever had. But as critical as it is and as many Bart plush toys and moral outrages it begats, it is still a product of what it questions.

Just as the Simpsons go after the world they inhabit, Turner also takes on the 90’s pop culture atmosphere during which the Simpsons had their “golden era” (1992-1997). There is plenty of talk about Generation-X, grunge, Kurt Cobain, Quentin Tarantino, the 1992 election, Lollapalooza, and the Internet. The only minor snags in the flow of the book are when Turner loses focus on the show and gets lost in the real world events of the time. This is mostly forgiven and forgotten when he connects the yellow family to his digression, but a few instances are especially irritating. The one with at least a tiny relation to the Simpsons comes when Turner describes an online café in Indonesia which resembles the set of Fox’s other smart-cartoon, Futurama, and whose presence Turner dubs “Simpsonian.” The others deal with an island called Tuvalu, which is pushed into the 20th century with the Internet, and the rise and troubles of online gambling in Antigua, neither of which seemed to have any link to the show or characters at all. Turner was simply lost in the Internet’s effect on the global village for a moment.

While the book will hold on to every reader, Turner’s dense academic feel towards the end may feel like homework, and will definitely place it in university bookstores for next semester. Some of the chapter subtitles have a textbook feel, for example: “Journey to the Center of the Simpsons: Self-Awareness, Self-Reference, Self-Parody, and the perfection of the Postmodern Aesthetic.” But there is so much to this book that everyone will love it.

The cultural studies canon has recently expanded to include dissections of tv shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Sopranos and Sex and the City. But Planet Simpson trumps them all.

Planet Simpson by Chris Turner
Da Capo Press
ISBN: 0306813416
288 Pages