Why The Simpsons are needed more than ever in the age of Donald Trump
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Writing on The Conversation in 2016, Travis Holland declared that The Simpsons had lost its way. He suggested the show was living on a legacy and needed to adapt or face growing demands for its cancellation. But two years later, the show is still on air and remains loved and hated in equal measure. Questions about its continuing relevance, however, remain.Certainly, the show’s audience has declined in recent years – but this is in line with a broader pattern of declining American television audiences. Increasing numbers of young people are moving away from television to streaming services and social media. But on all of these platforms, political satire remains prolific. The Simpsons remains the longest-running primetime scripted television show and still manages to get to the heart of issues which established newspapers struggle to analyse amid the rush of 24-hour news, allegations of widespread disinformation and declining attention spans. Against this backdrop, political satire has given a lift to civic-minded discourse and has been shown to encourage political engagement and drive young people to seek out more information about current issues. While nightly topical comedy shows are direct and regularly work off of the back of headlines each day, often becoming divisive as they do so, the “slower” form of satire found in shows such as The Simpsons is arguably a more constructive indulgence for contemporary audiences. Speaking at the Intellectual Forum at Jesus College, Cambridge recently, Harry Shearer – the voice of Ned Flanders, Seymour Skinner and Montgomery Burns among others – was keen to make a distinction between satire and nightly “topical comedy”. He noted The Simpsons “digs a little deeper” and “serves as a relief valve” for creators and viewers alike. In our politically polarised times – with no easy solution to bridging the divides in civic life – that “relief valve” is perhaps more significant than ever. Such a role sits in the minds of many involved in the show. Al Jean, showrunner of The Simpsons, told us:
I think the best satire intelligently exposes all sides of a topic, leaving it to the viewer to draw the conclusion. We have our opinions of course but hope that they’re presented in a clever way so that no one knows what they are.
Funny ‘cause it’s trueThe show has evolved from what some in the past called “politically neutral satire”. As Shearer explained, those involved in the show “observe the real absurdity, edit out the boring parts, and comically highlight what’s left”. It allows us to look at authority figures such as Donald Trump and ask about “what these guys are doing and maybe even why”. The appeal of the show lies precisely in the fact that it encourages a thoughtful kind of laughter, taking a tip from Homer Simpson himself when he said “It’s funny 'cause it’s true”. Infamously, The Simpsons warned America of a Trump presidency as far back as 2000. Playing on Trump’s repeated suggestions and shortlived push as a Reform Party candidate, Bart to the Future pictured Lisa Simpson as a president who has “inherited quite a budget crunch” from Trump. The episode’s vision was not so much a premonition as a depiction of what The Simpsons writer Dan Greaney told the Hollywood Reporter was “the logical last stop before hitting bottom … the vision of America going insane”. Shearer also rebutted any prophetic role for the show, saying:
It is clear that, where such satire once appeared to push reality out to the point of being ridiculous, the reality of modern America already is ridiculous.
You do 30 years of television and a couple of things are going to come true; the law of averages caught up with us.
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