When George Bush Sr. said that the American family needed strengthening, “to be more like The Waltons and less like The Simpsons,” he disclosed a misunderstanding not only of the animated television series, but of how Americans really live. From its trendsetting early seasons through the tumult and criticism that’s plagued its supposedly less inspired recent seasons, The Simpsons has remained as quintessentially American as anything else produced by our culture, recognizing our dual capacities for greatness and folly, for cooperation and chaos, for weakness and resolve.
As the father figure of the show’s proverbial nuclear family, Homer Simpson leaves much to be desired on the surface (at the outset of this season’s premiere, “The Falcon and the D’ohman,” he sneaks into work late and, upon consideration of bills to pay at home, adjusts the time card clock and punches himself out with a half-day’s overtime), but his struggle for betterment has always reflected universal values of fidelity and community. If The Waltons sugar-glazes us with lies, The Simpsons pays tribute to the personal constitution of the repenting sinner. That’s something worth rejoicing.
One wonders what the 23rd season of Matt Groening’s series would have to say about the Herbert Walker administration. If the first episode is any indication of things to come, we’re in for one of the more bitter commentaries on our societal crossroads in recent memory, from the shenanigans of a self-absorbed and inefficient government structure (an ignored message of urgency—“Osama in Abbottabad, get him now!”—can be seen in the background of a high clearance office) to the cynicism of always viewing things through past, purportedly “better” times (Grandpa pines for the good old days, and when they can’t be delivered, death instead). Homer’s usual morning fist-bump at work (“friendly social contact with a whiff of manly violence”) is denied when a new, altogether unsociable security guard, Wayne (Kiefer Sutherland, in a no-frills cameo), unexpectedly replaces his now-committed predecessor. Fate forces Wayne to give into Homer’s insistence on friendship, and it’s a subsequent robbery attempt at Moe’s Tavern, and Wayne’s effortless intervention in the matter, so redolent of A History of Violence, that brings out the true reason for his reclusiveness. A former secret service agent outrunning his past, Wayne cannot overcome his unspeakable past, one that comes roaring back with his newfound publicity.
The Simpsons loves America, but it’s a necessarily tough love these days, as we continue to juggle more than we can possibly be responsible for, not unlike the ethereal Springfield and its recklessly managed nuclear power plant. The plot of this season-premiere episode is a clean reflection of the hidden, often forgotten side of our history (both distant and recent), but it’s the throwaway sight gags that prove most scathing, from Homer’s dreams of a Terminator-infested future (a poster of a mushroom cloud reads “Don’t Do This”) to a guffaw-inducing comment on a media culture as complicit and destructive as the warmongering leaders among us: On the front page of the Springfield newspaper, a proud headline announces that Mayor Quimby vows to “lie less.” Indeed.