Tuesday, December 7, 2004

D'oh! A book that promises a 'sprawling, multidimensional critical look' at "The Simpsons" as seen through the lens of pop culture analysis? Could such a book actually be any good?

Actually, Chris Turner's "Planet Simpson: How A Cartoon Masterpiece Defined A Generation," is a pretty fun read, with solid depth but not too pretentious. Books that try to take pop phenomenons like "Star Wars" or "Seinfeld" and find the deeper sociological meaning in them are often pretty hit-or-miss for me. Flipping through "Planet Simpson," I saw phrases like "Bart Simpson, punk icon" and "a partial taxonomy of Simpsonian humor," which didn't exactly warm me up, but as I looked closer, it becomes apparent this is an accessible book done by a diehard fan. It's also full of good-natured humor (most of it coming straight from "Simpsons" lines and episode recaps).

Turner breaks down his thesis, which is basically that "The Simpsons" is a microcosm of the American character, showing us in multiple parts -- chapters on Bart, Homer, Lisa, Marge, Mr. Burns and others and how they represent parts of the American dream. One of the interesting things about "Planet Simpson" is that Turner is a Canadian, so he comes from a perspective not quite so invested in American ideas, and is able to judge them a bit objectively. Turner definitely takes a liberal slant to "The Simpsons," but it's hard to argue that the fiercely anti-authoritarian show or its underground-culture spawned creator Matt Groening wouldn't agree with his views. Turner also frequently digresses, using "The Simpsons" as springboards to touch on everything from western capitalism to existential angst to Kurt Cobain to dot.com-mania. He skirts the edge of preachiness, but doesn't hit you over the head with it. While it may be a bit long-winded sometimes, it all makes for interesting reading.

I wouldn't argue that "Planet Simpson" will change your view of life or Springfield, but if you're a "Simpsons" fan, it will get you thinking deeper about the show, and the multiple layers of satire and thought that go into the gags. I think Turner errs sometimes on the side of pushing the show's significance too hard -- are we really a Simpsonian generation? Is it in fact the biggest pop culture icon in the last 20 years, or not? It might well be, come to think of it. But Turner's fairly egalitarian in criticizing the show, admitting its peak days are probably behind it (while even subpar "Simpsons" is better than 90% of what's on TV, IMHO). I dug "Planet Simpson," for digging a little deeper into the subtext of one of TV's best programs ever to muse over what it all really means. Mmmm... subtext....

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