Monday, June 20, 2005

Book review--Planet Simpson

Planet Simpson, by Chris Turner, is, without a doubt, the most detailed study available on that venerable and important television institution, "The Simpsons". Turner's work, while written from a fan's point of view, is nevertheless a serious look at how the show has both mirrored and inspired societal changes through its run. Turner notes the main theme of the show as being one of a consistently anti-authoritarian sarcasm, leavened, of course, with many moments of sheer absurdity played just for laughs. Turner points out, though, that underlying all of the show's biting and supremely intelligent humor is a strong current of good old-fashioned family values. The Simpsons (the cartoon family itself, that is), after all, stick together through most of their adventures, recognizing by the end of each episode--at the latest--that they are better off with each other than they ever could be separately.
Turner cites an impressive number of episodes as evidence of his points throughout the book, and his citations and footnotes are rife with insider's glimpses into the rich world of Simpsoniana, gleaned either from his personal viewing or gathered from online resources. Each chapter addresses one of the main characters of the show to relate some aspect (or many aspects) of that character to a larger analysis of North American society (Turner is Canadian).
For example, Turner uses the chapter on C. Montgomery Burns to outline the increasing dehumanization of corporate America. The magic of the book, though, is that Turner's points are rarely that bluntly stated. Instead, Turner illustrates how the sarcasm of "The Simpsons" writing staff manifests itself in the plotlines and jokes that the show presents as a coherent whole. In other words, even shows not ostensibly about corporatism will have some sort of joke at Burns' (or some other capitalistic character like Lindsay Naegle, the omnipresent blond, upbeat, marketing whiz) expense that reveals the theme of anti-corporatism somewhat more obliquely. "The Simpsons", in Turner's description, is a show about subversion. (As distinctly opposed, of course, to the "Seinfeld" self-defined and nihilistic description as being a "show about nothing".)
While clearly aimed at Simpson fans, "Planet Simpson" is also a book that can be useful to anyone aiming to grasp just what the hell happened to/in America in the 1990s and slightly beyond. Turner's writing is dense with detail but elegant in design, as each paragraph and chapter flows naturally (mostly) from one idea to the next. Good stuff!


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