Every week, 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 8 through 14 is “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” the 15th episode of the 29th season of The Simpsons.
What if the Simpsons had aged in real time? What if the show had launched in 1989 and here, in 2018, all of the characters were 29 years older? Bart would be pushing 40 and Lisa in her late 30s. Maggie would be in her early 30s but smack-dab in the middle of the portion of the millennial generation hardest hit by the 2008 economic collapse. Homer and Marge would be somewhere in their 60s, probably still scrabbling to make ends meet.
Or imagine that the Simpsons had aged very slowly, like the characters on South Park or King of the Hill, who get a little bit older every five seasons or so. What if Bart and Lisa were teenagers? If Maggie were a kid? If Springfield, too, had changed to reflect all of the differences between the world of now and the world of then?
A couple of things prompt this musing from me. The first is the Roseanne revival, which catches up with the characters 20-plus years after the original show left the air (a necessity for a series that’s live-action — nobody would buy Sara Gilbert as a teenager, most likely), but which also left me wondering if the world would be clamoring for a Simpsons revival had the original ended in, say, 2001.
But the other, of course, is the horrible way the show has handled the closest thing it made to an official response to comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu. In its most recent episode, “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” the show seems to take pride in the way it hasn’t changed since 1989, even as change is a fact of life. And for a show that likes to satirize everything, its inability to talk about aging, about shifting political opinions, about how different America has become, ends up miring it in a past it could so easily escape.
“No Good Read Goes Unpunished” offers the most lackluster defense of Apu imaginable
The basis of Kondabolu’s argument has never been “Apu must go away,” or even “Apu is the most racist character imaginable.” It has always been that The Simpsons is a funny show, and one that has given the character of Apu more dimensions than a lot of shows would have. But it still has a massive blind spot when it comes to a character voiced by a white man with a stereotypical Indian accent, who remains stuck in a dead-end job.
It’s, admittedly, a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty situation. Many people like Apu have existed in the US, and many of them have become great arguments in favor of immigration as a net positive for the country. But the fact that the character is voiced by Hank Azaria — and the basis of jokes around him has so often been his Indian heritage — makes it easy to see why some find the character a bridge too far, no matter his better qualities. (At least I would hope so.)
And The Simpsons has wrestled with this very problem before. In the 2016 episode “Much Apu About Something” — a direct callback to the 1996 episode “Much Apu About Nothing,” perhaps the show’s foremost defense of the immigrant experience — Apu talks with his young nephew, American-raised, who believes that his uncle is an old man who should be left in the past. (I wrote a bit about that episode in 2016.) Comedian Utkarsh Ambudkar, an American of Indian descent, voiced Apu’s nephew, and while the series didn’t radically upend its status quo, the episode at least tried to grapple with why some have deemed Apu offensive, and it was better for it.
What’s weird about “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” is how essentially everything in the episode but the one-off gag about Apu seems to suggest the show is thinking these things through, at least as much as a show that will enter its 30th season in the fall possibly can. The Marge and Lisa B-plot involves the two discovering that one of Marge’s favorite books from her childhood is full of racist caricatures, which results in Lisa saying, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” before panning over to a photo of Apu. (My colleague Caroline Framke has a further dissection of the scene.)
It’s, to say the least, a stupid way to respond to the controversy (and has only been made worse by showrunner Al Jean’s week on Twitter, which mostly involved retweeting people telling him that they didn’t find Apu offensive, in the classic “lighten up” posture of anybody who doesn’t want to change a thing about themselves). But it’s even stranger in light of the rest of the episode, which features Apu, but in a non-speaking role, and also casts Jimmy O. Yang, an actor who was born in Hong Kong, in the role of Sun Tzu, rather than having Azaria affect an exaggerated Asian accent (as it might have done in the ’90s).
Yes, the episode also features Bart imagining himself as Sun Tzu — which is hard to call yellowface for obvious reasons but nevertheless does involve a character coded as white taking the place of a real Chinese person — but there are moments throughout the episode that suggest the show is aware its status as a cultural landmark might not be enough, that it, too, needs to shift with the times.
But, honestly, can it?
The problem of dealing with Apu is the problem of dealing with anything within The Simpsons
The easiest solution to this problem is for The Simpsons to have ended in 2001. Some aspects of the show are relics of a 1990s comedy culture that was interested in pushing back against “political correctness,” but the show was never as didactic as, say, South Park (which has faced its own reckoning with its legacy of late). Thus, overtly politically incorrect humor was never an easy fit within the show, because it lacked a device to say, “Just kidding, you guys!” (Think of how, say, South Park uses Cartman to espouse its most horrible ideas because it knows the audience knows he’s a bad little kid.)
Apu is just the most obvious example of this problem within the show, on levels that sometimes comprise the political and sometimes just involve the kind of bad storytelling you get when you’re about to enter your fourth decade on the air. Dr. Hibbert, for instance, is a black character voiced by a white guy, something a cartoon debuting today probably wouldn’t do, while the show’s endless search for new stories to tell means it has repeated itself multiple times. (The A-story of this episode, after all, involves Bart trying to trick Homer into letting Bart do what he wants, which has to have been the basis of dozens of episodes at this point.)
None of this takes away from the show’s legacy, I think. It’s still my favorite TV show ever made, even if it now has far more so-so seasons than it does great ones. But shifting cultural attitudes of what’s acceptable in pop culture do complicate that legacy in ways that a series not so content to rest on its laurels would be more interested in engaging with. Whether the series likes it or not, its seeming inability to get this response right — whether in the actual construction of the gag or in Jean’s inability to just say, “Clearly the joke didn’t work for some people” — will always hang with it.
But I keep thinking about a Simpsons where everything had changed, and just by its very nature, such a show would have had to deal with Apu slightly better (though Azaria would probably still be playing him). When things can change within your fictional universe, it’s only natural for the characters to grow and change with them.
In this alternate Simpsons, maybe Apu would be a convenience store mogul now, owning several of his own chains. Maybe his relationship with his American-born children would be complicated by their growing up in a much more diverse, much more connected world than the one that gave birth to his character. Maybe Lisa wouldn’t be a mouthpiece for the idea that concerns about Apu were just “political correctness,” because she would have grown up in that world too. Maybe.
Time is television’s most potent weapon. A movie or book can cover a great sweep of history, but TV can really make you feel it. The Simpsons is 30 years old, but it lives in an eternal 1990, forever on the cusp of some other world. By its nature, it can never get there, but it’s far past time for it to try.
The Simpsons airs Sundays at 8 pm Eastern on Fox, where it has aired forever and ever. Reruns are playing constantly everywhere.