Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for April 3 through April 9 is "The Burns Cage," the 17th episode of the 27th season of Fox's The Simpsons.
The Simpsons has lived long enough to see itself become the villain.
The series' first episode aired in December of 1989, and befitting a show that has aired new episodes in four separate decades, it has a bunch of elements that feel very early '90s. The series' setting of Springfield occasionally incorporates modern technology, but for the most part, the internet, smartphones, and social media might as well not exist, if they're not at the center of that week's plot line.
But this extends to some of the show's characters, who play around with stereotypes that fewer viewers were sensitive to back in the 1990s. In particular, the series has been hit by criticism of Apu, the Indian immigrant who runs Springfield's convenience store, and Waylon Smithers, the long-suffering gay assistant of Mr. Burns. Apu is an out-and-out stereotype of an Indian immigrant, while Smithers has seemed stuck in an early '90s conception of a gay man for some time.
But in its 27th season, The Simpsons is doing something about this problem — albeit half-heartedly.
The Simpsons doesn't want you to think too hard about how all its characters are stuck
"The Burns Cage" is a good example of this. The plot is centered on how Smithers longs for the love of Mr. Burns, even though Mr. Burns remains oblivious to what Smithers truly wants. Finally breaking free of this desire, Smithers takes up with a new boyfriend, a Cuban-American man named Julio and voiced (as most of the series' stereotypical caricatures are) by Hank Azaria.
But because this is The Simpsons, Smithers ends up right back where he started, perhaps a little wiser about what he wants but unable to break free of the destructive cycles that keep him there.
Now, The Simpsons has always embraced the inherent hilarity of humanity's self-destructive ruts. As the writers have noted many times, if you think too long and too hard about how Marge continues to love Homer, you'll end up feeling very sorry for her, or you'll assume she has some sort of serious mental imbalance.
Like most sitcoms, The Simpsons needs you to avoid thinking about how its characters are stuck in place, because it might make you start thinking about how you're stuck in place.
But most sitcoms run 10 or 11 seasons, tops. The Simpsons has run 27 years, and while the world has changed around it, the characters have barely changed at all. A few have died here and there, and a few have come out of the closet. But for the most part, they're all who they were back in that very first episode. Watching it is like a constant primer in just how far we've come.
Are jokes about Apu and Smithers "of their time"?
But the kinds of jokes The Simpsons makes about Apu and Smithers have largely fallen out of favor over the past 20-plus years. Never mind the fact that both characters have largely been presented sympathetically over the course of the show's run. The simple fact of Apu being a broadly drawn racial stereotype — voiced by Azaria, a man who's not of Indian descent — is the sort of thing a show starting in 2016 probably wouldn't do.
Had the show been canceled in, say, 1998, then jokes about Apu and Smithers would play as being "of their time," in the same way that this video of homophobic jokes on Friends does to us right now. (And, remember, Friends began its run after The Simpsons.)
Calling the jokes "of their time" wouldn't be strictly accurate — plenty of people were taking offense to Apu and Smithers from the very beginning of its run, though the internet has made their voices more prominent — but it's a fairly standard way of dealing with older art that has elements we now see as harmful to those who feel like the butt of the joke.
In that case, then, episodes like "The Burns Cage" play slightly as The Simpsons trying to have its cake and eat it too. The show will finally acknowledge that Smithers is truly, officially gay, and it will have slightly more sympathy for his romantic pursuits. But he's still going to be the guy who's in love with his oblivious boss for no apparent reason.
The Simpsons is dealing with its messy legacy
The show also tried to tackle the question of Apu back in January with "Much Apu About Something," featuring Utkarsh Ambudkar, an actor who has criticized the character of Apu harshly in the past. Indeed, the plot of the episode features Ambudkar's character, Apu's nephew Jay, telling his uncle that he's a relic of the past and needs to step aside for something new.
Again, the show tries to have things both ways — by arguing that Jay (a hipster millennial) is just as much of a stereotype as Apu — but it also advances an argument that many of the show's characters are based on stereotypes that the show has then deepened. Indeed, both "Much Apu" and "The Burns Cage" trot out the show's mustachioed, heavily accented Luigi, owner of the local Italian restaurant, to underline this point. Apu, certainly, is a much better developed character than Luigi or, say, the Sea Captain.
There's something provocative in this notion, because comedy is, indeed, largely based in stereotypes. Most comedic characters grow out of broad types — the slob or the skinflint or the party animal, to take a few examples — and the great comedies then find interesting shading in those basic types, while still allowing for laughter at moments where the slob just messes everything up.
But you'll notice those basic types have nothing to do with race or gender or sexuality. "Slob" is a defining character trait of lots and lots of different kinds of people. Apu and Smithers are fundamentally decent human beings within the universe of The Simpsons, but neither can entirely escape the fact that when the show began, their defining characteristics were "Indian" and "closeted gay man." And that's why jokes about them can feel so cruel and, by extension, like they should be jettisoned from the show.
I don't necessarily feel as if Apu and Smithers should be shot into the sun and never spoken of again, but it's easy for me to say that. As a white man, I am in a position where I don't have to worry about whether others will mock me with a comically exaggerated accent, simply because of the color of my skin.
I do think the show has told really moving stories about both characters and come up with plenty of jokes for them that aren't rooted in race or sexuality. And there's certainly truth to the idea (advanced in both "Much Apu" and "Burns Cage") that the show gently mocks everyone, no matter who they are.
But I also can't argue too much with those who feel both characters are regressive stereotypes who constantly tie The Simpsons to a past worth moving beyond. It's weird to still have the most famous Indian character in US pop culture come packaged with the stereotypical accent, and Smithers's sexuality long ago stopped making any sort of sense.
There's still something fascinating — and maybe even heartening — about the series struggling with its origins. "The Burns Cage" was even written because writer Rob LaZebnik wanted to write a tribute to his own son, who is also gay. Both episodes almost seem like the show is saying, "Hey, we can change, too."
Like a recent South Park season that wrestled with whether the series' attacks on political correctness really could hurt people who didn't deserve to be hurt, this season of The Simpsons has turned a critical eye on itself. And if that doesn't always absolve all sins, it at least shows a series struggling to grow and change — which is more than you can say for a lot of TV.
The Simpsons airs Sundays at 8 pm Eastern on Fox.