One of the biggest stories of the new fall television season concerns an old show. “The Simpsons,” Matt Groening’s animated sitcom about a family making its life in the small city of Springfield, premiered on Fox in 1990, but it is getting new life this fall on FXX. The comedy network is repackaging the classic show for a new age of television viewing, building a sophisticated streaming app based around “The Simpsons.” But first, FXX is streaming the entire series, starting today.
For me, FXX’s revitalization of “The Simpsons” represents an opportunity. I grew up largely without watching scripted television. And while I knew “The Simpsons” was a phenomenon from advertisements in my Archie Comics books and watched a few pirated episodes on debate team trips in high school, I largely missed out on a piece of American culture so significant that it now qualifies as a subject of literary fiction in its own right.
So in preparation for the marathon and the rollout of the app, I started watching “The Simpsons.” I have been struck by many things about the show’s first season, from its smart, funny feminism to its deft introduction of a huge cast of characters. But most of all, I have been touched by how beautifully “The Simpsons” captures the many ways to be a child with great humanity and wit.
Before really sitting down to watch “The Simpsons,” I knew that Bart was supposed to be, as a reversal of the middle two letters in his name would suggest, a brat, a bad kid, the sum of his sniggering giggles and the lines he was assigned to write on the chalkboard at the beginning of every episode. Despite Bart’s inability to submit to authority and his puckish, doubting spirit, one of the pleasant surprises of the first season of the show is Bart’s intense moral streak. “The Simpsons” has a clear sense of the difference between an energetic child and a bad one.
In “Bart the Genius,” for example, Bart recognizes on this own the downside of having cheated on a test, and confesses. While he is seduced into trying to impress a group of rebellious boys in “The Telltale Head” by stealing the head of the statute of town father Jebediah Springfield, Bart gives back the statue on his own initiative and gives a speech that quiets his town’s worst instincts as well.
When he is shipped overseas on an exchange program in “The Crepes of Wrath,” Bart is dutiful even when his host family turns him into an unpaid laborer. And his championing of Krusty the Clown may be driven more by Bart’s love for his favorite television program than by any great sense of right and wrong, but Bart’s investigation, which frees the comedian, still serves the cause of justice. Sometimes, following your need for adventure and exertion leads you to do right, even when you are not thinking in terms of what is good and what is bad.
Beyond moral sense, “The Simpsons” has a lovely sense of the complex inner lives of children.
While I know to expect more character development for Lisa Simpson in coming seasons, I was touched by her contradictions. “Moaning Lisa” is one of the few stories about a little girl to acknowledge that sometimes children are simply sad and that there is no age at which it is too young to have complex emotions. At the same time, Lisa is not reduced to her weightiest emotions: Watching her cackle on the phone as Bart makes prank calls to Moe’s tavern is a delightful testament that even the best-behaved little girls are lightened by their naughty streaks.
And Maggie’s adventures are a beautiful testament to the minds of children who have not yet learned to talk. In “The Call of the Simpsons,” Maggie wanders off from her parents and siblings while they are on a camping trip, only to be adopted by a family of inquisitive bears. To the elder Simpsons, Maggie is not yet a person: She is someone to be taken care of, rather than taken into consideration. But left on her own, Maggie has no trouble communicating her needs. She ends up with a stash of toys and comfortable accommodation in the bears’ cave.
Pop culture is full of tremendous performances by children and teenage actors right now, often fighting for space in larger stories about adults. “The Simpsons” preceded the so-called Golden Age of Television. But I cannot imagine the Stark girls in “Game of Thrones” or Henry Jennings in “The Americans” without Bart, Lisa and Maggie Simpson.