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HOWARD ROSENBERG

'The Simpsons': The Weird and the Wonderful

January 12, 1990|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Easily the the best, cleverest and nuttiest arrival of the 1989-90 season is "The Simpsons."

It's inspired goofiness from Fox, an adult animated series about a refreshingly bizarre family of five that originated as a regular feature on "The Tracey Ullman Show." Following its charming Christmas special of last month, the series begins its regular run at 8:30 p.m. Sunday (on Channels 11 and 6) with a half hour that couldn't be better, one that's not only exquisitely weird but also as smart and witty as television gets.

It's very small-scale, but perfectly conceived and executed. What we have here from creator Matt Groening is a rare confluence--delightful writing, pictures and voices fitting like a Matisse.

The Simpsons are Homer, the grouchy dad (performed by Dan Castellaneta); Marge, the groaning, blue-haired mom (Julie Kavner); Bart, the mischievous son (Nancy Cartwright); Lisa, the eldest daughter (Yeardley Smith), and nonspeaking Maggie, the infant, whose pacifier appears to be an extension of her lips. All have pop-eyes, overbites and yellowish complexions.

On Sunday, the ever-naughty, low-achieving, spike-haired Bart is shifted to a free-form school for gifted children after getting a genius score on an aptitude test. The impact at home is a royal hoot, and of course Bart's a misfit at school, amusingly suspended in limbo between his old and new classmates.

The genius of "The Simpsons" is its ability, through its combative, creepy looking characters, to at once convey dark oddities and capture something true and even touching about families without changing character and resorting to cheap sentiment. And stay alert for the little throwaways in Jon Vitti's script.

Like many dads, Homer gives his son necktie instructions. He removes his own and clips it on Bart.

Suburbia has rarely been stranger or sweeter.

Speaking of strange, there's Zsa Zsa Gabor. Unfortunately.

It was inevitable that someone besides Gabor would attempt to profit from her splashy trial, in which she was found guilty of slapping a Beverly Hills policeman. Even as the trial was in progress, Gabor herself appeared in a commercial mocking it. And after the trial came the talk shows, as Gabor and some elements of the TV industry colluded in wringing even more publicity from this sorry episode.

The show now goes agonizingly on, for here comes "The People of Beverly Hills vs. Zsa Zsa Gabor," a syndicated one-hour program being marketed by Harmony Gold. It seems that history must be served.

Calling Gabor's legal proceedings "the trial of the decade"--nothing like a little self-serving hyperbole--Harmony Gold describes this program as "courtroom scenes, out-of-court comments, fashion and glitz" plus "actual video footage taken during Zsa Zsa Gabor's 15 days in court." Whoopee.

Yes, how compelling--not "Jaws," but the equally lethal and devouring Zsas, with Gabor again opening her mouth to terrorize everyone within earshot, as her partners in this mutually predatory sham--camera crews and reporters with mikes and notebooks--clamor round and egg her on.

Well, it's the business, isn't it, one that measures a person's value by his or her marketability and profitability. That means if Manuel Noriega is tried and gets off, he'll probably get his own talk show.

A fascinating bit of TV--the Soviet nightly newscast "Vremya"--is available these days on KSCI Channel 18.

A Los Angeles station specializing in foreign-language programs, KSCI is almost midway through its two-week test of a slightly trimmed "Vremya" at 6 p.m. "Vremya" is downlinked daily by the RAND/UCLA Center for Soviet Studies, and KSCI is airing it with English subtitles to determine whether there's enough interest here to extend its run indefinitely.

Very nice, but, to be honest, most nights in this time slot, you'd still have to give the edge to CNN's "Larry King Live."

Yet the state-controlled "Vremya" is at least a narrow window through which to glimpse a tumultuously evolving Soviet Union, a window somewhat less distorted under glasnost . But that's a call for Sovietologists.

On to the cosmetics: "Vremya" is a metaphor for the Soviet paradox. It's amazing that a nation can be so technically proficient in many areas, yet an utter duffo in the technology of broadcasting. It's astonishing that Soviets can put humans in space, but can't seem to put them on the air free of a multitude of glitches. It's boggling that they can bug you , but not remove the bugs from their TV.

Apparently there are news consultants in the Soviet Union, too, for what we are watching on KSCI is the new-look "Vremya," no longer a single anchor on a stark set rendering you immediately comatose with monotonic readings. No, this "Vremya" has two anchors, and sometimes three, introducing tape packages and reading stories from a relatively high-tech environment set off by rows of blinking monitors in the background.

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