When the FOX network aired "The Simpsons" in 1989, the show brought the yellow-skinned and four-fingered cartoon characters named Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie Simpson into millions of American living rooms. This bent archetype of the American family, as well as the hundreds of zany characters that populate their all-American hometown of Springfield, fast became the targets of enormous criticism. Elementary schools banned T-shirts bearing the images of the Simpson family and their slogans. Former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett and even President George Bush berated the show as subversive and demeaning (McAllister 1494). However, a more careful investigation of the show reveals far more than nose-thumbing gutter humor--enveloped in sarcasm and comedy, "The Simpsons" offers a thought-provoking critique of American politics, faith, and the American family.
"The Simpsons," taking prime-time television far beyond its normal scope, throws fierce political punches right and left. Caricatures of Presidents Bush and Clinton have shown up in Springfield during various episodes, Bush as a laughable political failure and Clinton as a sexual pervert. While Springfield's mayor is a corrupt, womanizing Kennedy parody, the local Republican Party plots evil schemes from a nearby cave (Cantor). Paul A. Cantor, an English professor at the University of Virginia and sometime analyst of "Simpsons" politics, argues that the universally critical political message of the series tends, like most Hollywood entertainment, to favor the left over the right. John O'Connor, a television critic for The New York Times, goes farther to say that "The Simpsons" is "the most radical show on prime time" (McAllister 1494).
Beyond the dichotomy of partisan politics, the show also deals with specific political issues, such as nuclear power, the mass media, and medicine. In one episode, Homer makes an unwitting jab at U.S health care. "America's health care system is second only to Japan's . . ." he says, then adds, "Canada's . . . Sweden's . . . Great Britain's . . . well, all of Europe" (McAllister 1494). In another, Homer tries to buy a gun although he is a felon and a former mental patient on the government's list of "potentially dangerous" people. In a lampoon of American gun control, the dealer tells him that being "potentially dangerous" means only that he must wait a week before he can buy a weapon (Cantor).
In fact, according to those behind the scenes, these forays into politics mark more than just material for the next laugh; rather, they are deliberate efforts to shape American society. "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening says that, under its facade of humor, the show is trying "to nudge people, jostle them a little, wake them up to some of the ways in which we're being manipulated and exploited." He adds, "'The Simpsons'' message over and over again is that your moral authorities don't always have your best interests in mind"...