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TELEVISION

The real first family

How did 'The Simpsons' get to be such a cultural touchstone? We meet the enemy -- and they are us.

February 16, 2003|Bob Baker | Times Staff Writer

What he eventually realized he was watching, Pinsky said, was "a show that makes cynicism and skepticism safe" for masses of Americans who feel betrayed by various institutions and need a way to vent. The Simpsons are trapped in the web of consumerism that traps most middle-class families -- often suckered by it -- yet recognize their plight. What binds them, Pinsky says, is their commitment to being a family. "The viewer can't write them off because they're just like the viewer."

I thought about that, about how much more complex that is than anything else on TV. And then I thought about that special moment from the show that the Connecticut professor, Charlene Dellinger-Pate, told me about, when Homer -- perpetually torn between id and responsibility and unfailingly choosing id -- is eating the lobster, Pinchy, who'd become his friend.

"Homer's crying," Dellinger-Pate said. "He's saying, 'You know who would love this? Pinchy!' So, sometimes when my husband and I are out and we're so happy to be having some private time away from our daughter, one of us will say, 'You know who would love this? Gracie!' "

I laughed, and I thought about a moment from the old "Rocky and Bullwinkle" Saturday-morning cartoon series that my wife and I have been tossing back and forth forever. (In certain moments of celebration, we remember the way a suddenly muscular Dudley Do-Right looked in a mirror and realized, "I'm not puny.") A wave of symbolic-relational-culture compassion washed over me, and I released Dellinger-Pate and the other public enemies from censure, knowing that were I ever to change my mind, I could round them up tonight at 8.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday February 25, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Simpsons" -- A Feb. 16 Calendar article on "The Simpsons" incorrectly said the theatrical spoof "MacHomer" parodies "Hamlet." In fact, the performance satirizes "Macbeth."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Through the years: Some signposts along "The Simpsons' " invasion of popular culture:

1988: Cartoonist Matt Groening's characters are unveiled in a series of vignettes on Fox's "The Tracey Ullman Show."

1989: "The Simpsons" debuts as its own series, climbing into the top 15 in weekly ratings in its first year.

1990: Newspapers begin convening therapists to ask them whether Homer and Marge are good parents. Fox signs licensing agreement with Mattel.

1992: Fox moves the show from Sundays to Thursdays to go head-to-head with NBC's "The Cosby Show" and soon beats it in the ratings. Making fun of Vice President Dan Quayle's spelling gaffe, Bart scrawls on the blackboard during the show's opening credits: "Potato, not potatoe." Two month later, the first President Bush, kicking off his reelection campaign, proclaims American families should be "a lot more like 'The Waltons' and a lot less like 'The Simpsons.' "

1994: Residents in a rural South Carolina school district, upset by the show, protest naming a new school "Springfield," even though the suggestion came from a child who innocently wrote "the school is being built on a field and spring is a happy season." The school board holds firm in Springfield's favor.

1997: With its 167th episode, the show passes "The Flintstones" to become the longest-running prime-time animated show.

1998: The week of the show's 200th episode, a reporter walks into the national Academic Decathalon and asks the assembled 400 competitors if they watch "The Simpsons." Nearly everybody raises their hands.

1999: In its end-of-the-century issue, Time magazine proclaims "The Simpsons" the best show in the history of television.

2001: Homer's "D'oh" is added to the Oxford English Dictionary ("expressing frustration at the realizations that things have turned out badly ... ").

2002: The show is named Britain's favorite TV show.

2003: Fox announces a deal to renew the cartoon for two more seasons, taking it through May 2005 -- its 16th season, when it would become the longest-running comedy series, moving past "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet," which ran 15 years and filmed 435 episodes. (Still in the lead for all scripted shows: "Gunsmoke," which ran for 21 years, 1955-75, filming 635 episodes.)

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Times researcher Penny Love contributed to this story

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