The trouble with Springfield

A couple months ago, I did something I hadn't done in almost two decades: I watched an episode of The Simpsons. I wanted to see the show's response to Hari Kondabolu's documentary The Trouble with Apu, which addresses the racism in the show's handling of the Indian-American character Apu. Surely, The Simpsons would address the situation with some knowing self-deprecation, or a clever admission that our relationship with race and identity in the United States have changed considerably since the show first debuted in the late 1980s?

Unfortunately not. Instead, The Simpsons issued little more than a shrug, and the writers made the unfortunate decision to use Lisa Simpson — the one character on the show who could always be counted on to approach situations with nuance and empathy — as their mouthpiece. It was worse than lashing out at critics; it was a wince and a "whattayagonnado?"

The other day, I sat down with a review copy of Simpsons writer Mike Reiss's memoir about his decades on and around the writing staff of The Simpsons, Springfield Confidential. The first chunk of the book, which was ghostwritten by celebrity journalist Mathew Klickstein, was breezy and funny. Reiss isn't interested in burning bridges with his old coworkers, so there's nothing too dramatic: a few pieces of trivia, mostly centering around Homer Simpson's development as a character, and some funny inside-the-writer's-room anecdotes. For its first half, it's aggressively okay.

But then Reiss addresses The Trouble with Apu, and the whole book goes sideways. Reiss refuses to accept The Simpsons's role in furthering the racist stereotype of Indian-Americans, and he refers to Kondabolu's film as "a nasty little documentary." He doesn't offer any supporting evidence for his claims that the film is "nasty," and then he settles the issue by, basically, saying that people are too darn sensitive these days.

I kept reading Springfield Confidential — you can read the book in a couple of hours without much effort at all — but Reiss, like The Simpsons, lost my sympathy in that moment. It became clear, then, that the problem with The Simpsons goes further than just a lack of consideration: it's institutional inertia, plain and simple. Reiss's by-the-numbers memoir, then, is a perfect portrait of how the show became so thoroughly unfunny and uninterested in the culture around it.

As near as I can tell from Reiss's account, people stopped caring about how to make The Simpsons as good as it could be. They simply became obsessed with the business of making The Simpsons. That's how the fatal flaws started to creep in, and that laziness and lack of introspection is apparent throughout Springfield Confidential.