Check out this listing of The Simpsons episodes that feature math lessons. Having seen some of these episodes, I remember a few of these moments quite clearly. Yet, while it is clever that the writers dropped these in, how many of the viewers noticed? We could use these examples as a sign that The Simpsons is an erudite show, one often derided as an animated comedy with little redeeming value that typically punches above its weight in terms of cultural references and ideas. But, if the viewers don’t notice or care, what is the point (beyond making some critics happy)?
It sounds like we need an experiment where viewers are asked to watch these episodes and see if they spot these math moments. Or, we might set something up to see whether viewers of these episodes, compared to viewers of other episodes, learned something more. The answer, I suspect, is that including the math doesn’t change most viewers.
Part of the long-term appeal of The Simpsons has been its ability to effectively play with ambiguity: it has had the ability to both mock television in general while at the same time creating a likable cast that reach resolutions that are not that different from many sitcoms. Should viewers revel in its put-downs of all aspects of society or should they enjoy the heart-warming family outcomes?
The latest stunt on this front involves the elusive British street artist Banksy:
The episode, “MoneyBART,” opens with an extended “couch gag” — the opening sequence in which the Simpson family takes its place on their sofa — created by British street artist Banksy. The artist’s dark vision gives viewers a horrifying look at how he imagines the hit show and its lucrative merchandise are made: sweatshop conditions for its animators; unsafe conditions for producers of its apparel; boxes sealed with the tongue of a disembodied dolphin head; the center holes popped out of its DVDs with the horn of a shackled, emaciated unicorn. Really…
Were the show’s creators trying to draw attention to the unethical business practices an animated series must engage in to remain competitive? Are viewers meant to draw conclusions about our own complicity as we consumers indirectly fund companies that enslave people overseas? Or was the sequence merely a stunt calculated to bring attention — negative or not — on an aging, fading series?
While an interesting opening sequence that was longer than normal and contained typical Simpsons absurdities (like the unicorn), is this really edgy or new? Any television watcher should know what is really going on with shows: they are about making money. In its early days, the Simpsons was a rebellious show, drawing in a young audience and selling a lot of merchandise. Today, it is still about making money (and perhaps sowing ground for a second successful movie). The Simpsons may now be part of American culture but that is not why the show is still on television.
Ultimately, this may simply be about gaining attention. And with the show then moving on to a typical 22 minute storyline, can the opening really be construed as some sort of powerful statement?