How do you cover 20 years of pop culture history and influence? I instantly thought of a dozen or more angles and possible discussion topics to include, so I sympathize with the difficult task documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock was given. The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special premiered last night after a new (and very funny) episode, and my expectations were ridiculously high. However, noting the difficult task at hand, I felt Spurlock did a competent, if somewhat shallow, recap of the family I know and love so dearly.
I say “shallow,” because the doc definitely felt like a beginner’s guide to the Simpsons phenomenon. I’m not a beginner. I’m a diehard, longtime Simpsons fan. I’ve got yellow in my blood (and perhaps that’s something I should see a doctor about). I wanted a detailed, in-depth, nitty-gritty analysis of how and why this show has had such a major, lasting influence on the entire world. Spurlock delves ever so slightly into this study by relaying the history of the show’s inception, introducing us to key players, including creator Matt Groening himself, then traveling the world to meet fans, look at collections and reflect on past controversies.
As much as I enjoyed hearing from the people on the street, I could have done without that just to get more time with the creators and stars. The hour-long special went by in a flash, while I could have listened to Julie Kavner or James L. Brooks talk about their work on the show for days. I suppose that’s why there are college courses devoted to the show, and why I shouldn’t expect that sort of scholarly focus in a TV special. Still, Spurlock has an annoying habit of letting his interviewees say something very tantalizing, cutting away, then never coming back. For instance, Hank Azaria reveals he refused the initial offer to be a regular on the show. Then Spurlock never returns to get why he refused or what changed his mind or what he thinks now. Similarly, Dan Castellaneta appears (in sunglasses and a hat), says one line, then never appears again. Surely, the voice of the most famous and recognized cartoon character in the world has something to say about it. Or maybe, after 20 years, he’s already said it all.
The best part of the special, and what continues to amaze me, both as a fan and a student of pop culture, is how this animated show on Fox influenced politics, angered nations and somehow made itself an integral part of America’s psyche and, like it or not, national identity. Whatever critics and snarky bloggers think of recent seasons, no one can argue with the fact that The Simpsons premiered at a time when there was nothing else like it on the landscape and went on to change television, the family comedy and our national dialogue forever. Spurlock ends the special by asking his subjects to imagine a world without The Simpsons. He didn’t ask me, but I’ll answer anyway. So much of my own sense of humor, perspective and world view has been influenced by this show, I really believe I would be a totally different person today. Less cynical, perhaps. Less of a smart ass, definitely. But also immeasurably less happy.
P.S. I’ve had a crush on Executive Producer/Writer Al Jean for years, just from listening to the episode commentaries on DVD. Seeing him only cements my devotion. Al Jean is dreamy. There, I’ve said it.