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What the Faulkner? The Sound and the Fury and 'The Simpsons'
February 12, 2012  | By Noel Holston

What's left to be said about The Simpsons as it approaches its milestone 500th episode on Sunday, Feb. 19, at 8 p.m. ET? Well, we could talk about its literary kinship to the works of William Faulkner. william-faulkner.jpg

Is not Homer Simpson, with his abiding fondness for beer, deep-fried everything and lassitude, only a coon dog and a 12-gauge away from being prototypical of a certain sort of Southern man? Are not Faulkner's fiction and The Simpsons both concerned with humankind's indomitable (and abominable) nature?...

Is not Springfield, the Simpson family's fictional hometown, the closest TV has ever come to a realm of characters and themes as diverse and rich as Faulkner's "apocryphal" Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi?

Faulkner gave us vengeful barn burner Ab Snopes. Simpsons creator Matt Groening and his cohorts gave us maniacal Sideshow Bob.

Faulkner gave us poor Benjy Compson, his mind all sound and fury. Groening gave us Crazy Cat Lady.

Faulkner gave us a symbolic bear. The Simpsons gave us a symbolic three-eyed fish.

Can't you just see Bart Simpson sneaking off to Memphis in his grandfather's automobile with "reivers" Boon Hogganbeck and Ned McCaslin? Or one of Marge Simpson's twisted sisters keeping the corpse of a faithless lover in the spare bedroom? A Rose for Selma?

If not, well, so be it. I still believe it's arguable that no collection of fiction in any medium in the past quarter-century has shown us America, or at least its funhouse-mirror reflection, as thoroughly as had The Simpsons.

The Simpsons is as American as McDonald's fried apple pies -- and littering the street with the wrappers. It's our foibles and foolish ways -- and a decent helping of our decency and pluck -- writ large and inked in primary colors.


The Simpsons and their extended family of friends, neighbors and foils -- lovelorn teacher Edna Krabappel, zealous Christian Ned Flanders, woeful barkeep Moe Szyslak, to cite just three -- embody our vulgarity and grace, our selfishness and generosity, our religiosity and irreverence, our ambition and sloth, our love of family and our impatience with same.

When The Simpsons premiered on Fox in December 1989, protectors of our national rectitude had multiple cows. The show -- young Huckleberry Bart in particular -- was declared evidence of our once noble nation's moral collapse, possibly even beginning of The End Times.

Now the dozens of books inspired by the series include The Gospel According to The Simpsons and The Simpsons and Philosophy. Simpsons characters have graced the covers of Christianity Today and Guideposts for Teens as well as MAD and Forbes. The show has a Peabody Award, same as Sesame Street and 60 Minutes.


That doesn't mean The Simpsons has curbed its sass. About the only way The Simpsons has softened over two decades is in the appearance of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and little Maggie. Getting better-looking with time is just one more way the characters mirror us as a people.

The series' cheekiness may no longer be shocking, but it's ongoing and unbowed. Groening and company never tire of needling their network's media sibling, Fox News Channel, and its owner, Rupert Murdoch. On the upcoming 500th episode, Julian Assange, the controversial founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, is one of the guest stars who'll give voice to his animated stand-in.

If I had to apply a political label to The Simpsons, I wouldn't say liberal. I mean, c'mon , the giddy gore of the Itchy & Scratchy toons-within-a-toon is a do-gooder's nightmare. No, The Simpsons writers have always exhibited a libertarian streak. Viewers are encouraged to be ever vigilant with regard to authority -- all authority, be it in the form of an autocratic school principal, a know-it-all newscaster or a "friendly" commercial spokesperson. Advertising and consumerism are constant targets, and not even the show's own tireless merchandising is immune to barbs.

The Simpsons is as pro-liberty as any series ever shown on American television, a weekly brief on behalf of living and letting live and of laughing at ourselves as well as "others." It's a big tent, wide open, inviting and impudent without regard to race, religion, color, creed, sexual orientation or planet of national origin. Its humor can be cerebral or sophomoric.


What other TV series concocts guest-star bits for Suzanne Somers and Thomas Pynchon, Terry Gross and Ted Nugent? Where else are you going to see a football star catch an errant pass in the Cracker Jacks and an ingenious two-minute illustration of evolutionary theory? South Park? America's Funniest Home Videos? Nah.

Only on The Simpsons. Only in Springfield. Only, as Bill Faulkner or Krusty the
Clown might say, in Yuks-napatawpha.



Author's note: I obviously believe The Simpsons still has some juice, but there are plenty of one-time admirers who believe the show jumped the shark ages ago. If you're near the University of Georgia in Athens on Wednesday, Feb. 15, stop by for "Is The Simpsons Still Funny?," a roundtable co-sponsored by the Peabody Awards and the Willson Center for Humanities & Arts. It's set to start at 4 p.m. ET in the Miller Learning Center's Room 150. It's free, and open to anyone with an interest and an opinion.

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