April 11, 2018

The Simpsons looks to books, but learns nothing new


“The Simpsons head to a series of bookstores.” It’s hard to believe this quote comes from a negative review of a recent episode of The Simpsons. After all, these are some of my favorite things, combined. What about this premise could be unlikable?

When Dennis Perkins discusses this setup in his A.V. Club review of the show’s latest episode, “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” he writes from a place of twin disappointments. The first is that the show has lost its narrative drive, and is unfunny. We must set that claim aside for today. The second is that the show botched its attempt to address a mounting controversy about one of its characters. This is where we take up the story.

The problem is clear: the show’s convenience store clerk, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, is an offensive caricature of a South Asian immigrant, and little more than the sum of a handful of stereotypes. The fact that the character is voiced by a white actor, Hank Azaria, heightens the tension.

Comedian Hari Kondabolu does an excellent deep dive into this issue in his documentary, The Problem With Apu. Dispiritingly, much of the documentary is devoted to the fact that The Simpsons creators don’t feel moved to address their now-decades-long misstep.

“No Good Read Goes Unpunished” attempts to wink at the controversy through a plotline about how books do or don’t keep up with the times. Wink, not fix.

As Linda Holmes writes for NPR:

Sunday night, The Simpsons offered what is apparently its best effort at a response. In one of the plotlines, Marge tries to read Lisa a book she loved as a little girl and realizes it’s full of racist stereotypes. In an effort to share the book with Lisa without passing along the things she finds offensive, Marge revises the book and brings it back to Lisa.

Lisa, who (correctly) doesn’t see the point of the new book, (incorrectly) leans into a truly uninspired, reactionary attack on political correctness. Holmes continues:

It gets worse. After Marge asks what she’s supposed to do, Lisa—Lisa!—looks directly at the camera. “It’s hard to say,” she says. “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” And she looks at a framed photo next to her bed of Apu, which is signed, “Don’t have a cow. Apu.” Marge puts a hand on her shoulder. “Some things will be dealt with at a later date.” “If at all,” Lisa responds. Both look blankly at the audience.

It’s disappointing because we’ve come to expect more from Lisa. It’s disappointing because this fictional reaction demonstrates the same wrong thinking that dominates the culture war around political correctness.

That is to say, no one is actually asking for Marge’s sanitized version of our stories. Many people, like Kondabolu, are asking us to be more critical of our stories and change where we can. And The Simpsons can certainly change by hiring an Indian actor to add a bit of life, and subtract a bit of offensiveness, from this non-main character. Future episodes can still explore difference, imperfection, culture clash. And it can still play those tensions for a laugh. I promise.

The Simpsons—among the longest-running shows currently on television—is in the unique position of actually being able to move forward with a new version of the Apu character. The books they hold up for comparison (but fail to use as a teaching tool) cannot be re-written in the same way. The comparison simply doesn’t hold.



Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.