“We’re going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”
So said then-President George H.W. Bush at a campaign stop in January 1992. That quote played well with conservative audiences. “The Simpsons” had only been on the air for three years, but it had already generated a great deal of controversy for its irreverent portrayal of a dysfunctional American family. The father was stupid, the mother was an enabler, and the son was the poster child for prepubescent juvenile delinquents everywhere. At one point, “The Simpsons” went head to head with “The Cosby Show,” which was the gold standard for inoffensive family comedy.
Today, “The Cosby Show” seems almost as distant a memory as “The Waltons,” which aired its last first-run episode 10 years before President Bush cited it as the template for wholesome entertainment. Dr. Cliff Huxtable’s clan was off the air months before George H.W. Bush lost his re-election bid, but over two decades later, “The Simpsons” is still going strong in its 25th season and is now the longest-running scripted primetime television series in history.
Surely this is a sign of America’s moral decline over the past 20 years, right?
Well, yes and no.
It’s indicative of the times we live in that “The Simpsons” is no longer controversial, but not because it has watered down the content that had the first President Bush up in arms. Rather, the media environment around it has become so squalid that “The Simpsons” seems downright tame by comparison. If you don’t believe me, watch “Family Guy,” a Simpsons rip-off guaranteed to offend you within the first five minutes of every episode or you get money back. I could cite dozens of other examples, but you get the idea.
But there’s another side to the story. The fact is, time has demonstrated that “The Simpsons” has actually gotten something of a bad rap. The reality is that there are elements of this enduring show that belie the conventional wisdom that “The Simpsons” is a hotbed of moral turpitude. In fact, many critics have noticed that “The Simpsons” may very well be the most religious show on network television.
Again, that’s not a very high threshold to cross, as most shows have almost no religious content whatsoever. Indeed, religion is all but ignored on TV, and when it comes up, it’s usually the butt of a joke. And certainly “The Simpsons” has skewered its fair share of religious targets. But the fact is, Homer and family show up at church every Sunday, and the church is portrayed as an integral part of the community as a whole. Say what you will about “The Cosby Show,” but Cliff Huxtable didn’t go to church nearly as often as Homer Simpson does.
Viewers might also be surprised to see how many of the episodes feature religious themes that are consistent with biblical principles. In fact, in 2006, a religion journalist named Mark Pinsky wrote a best-selling book titled “The Gospel According to the Simpsons,” which examines the often complex moral and theological issues that the show addresses on a fairly regular basis. The characters are flawed, but they also suffer the consequences of the poor decisions they make. Amid all the wisecracks, religion as a whole is generally portrayed as an influence for good, which is a rare concept in today’s entertainment landscape.
That’s not to say that the show is appropriate for all audiences, and there’s still plenty of offensive material thrown into the mix. My only point is that the Walton family and the Simpson family have more in common than former presidents might have you believe.
(Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.)