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Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Documented an Era and Defined a Generation

by Chris Turner

Anyone who’s ever watched an episode of The Simpsons knows that the long-running cartoon is topical, wickedly satirical, subversive, laugh-out-loud hilarious, and has oodles of street cred among disaffected youth who came of age in the mid-1980s and early ’90s. This makes the show rich territory for sociological exploration. Don’t believe it? There are websites devoted to downloading research papers about the show.

Thirtysomething pop culture journalist Chris Turner wades into the mix with a smartly analyzed, if a little too long, book that touches on everything 1990s – from grunge and the Internet to anti-globalization – and uses the forum to posit several different theories. Among them, that Bart is the new embodiment of punk (the original, defiant, 1970s punk of the Sex Pistols, not the sanitized, bubblegum variety of Blink 182 and Good Charlotte).

Fans of the show will have fun reading about episodes they’ve seen, likely many times and in varying stages of sobriety. If you’re not part of the quasi-religion that follows The Simpsons, then this book will at least assure you that the show actually has a lot more to say about so-called family values than any over-earnest half-dozen episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond or some right-wing think tank.

Turner argues that the success of the show, as with all good satire, comes from the yawning chasm between the world as it should be, as presented by cheerful corporate spokespeople, and the world as it is, as presented by the messy, uncensored Simpsons.

Like many an overeducated former employee of the service industry, Turner treads seamlessly between the vacuous, tabloid-television-ridden mediascape of celebrity and the tweed-coloured world of Neil Postman, postmodernism, Aldous Huxley, Foucault, Camus and, of course, the obligatory references to Marshall McLuhan.

Though The Simpsons is easily one of the most trenchant shows on television, there’s something weightless and transient about a book about a television show. Turner seems to understand this, though not in direct reference to his own work: “[Art] becomes mostly about itself: a sometimes clever but ultimately meaningless commentary on the nature of art. Art about art, that is.”