Last week we began with an old saying that best summed up that episode. So it seems rather fitting that this week the episode derives its title from another old saying: no good deed goes unpunished. The phrase is a commentary on the frequency in which good acts either backfire or have hidden costs for those that offer it. In No Good Read, The Simpsons suffer this very fate.
Before proceeding I should state for the record that I am a Simpsons fan through and through and will always be one. So it’s very unfortunate to have an episode like this one that is not only not funny but more importantly and regrettably, very disingenuous.
Last year comedian Hari Kondabolu released a documentary ‘The Problem with Apu’. The film focused on Apu who for a period was the only figure of South Asian heritage to appear regularly on mainstream U.S. television. The film further explores Kondabolu’s and others experiences with negative stereotypes, racial microaggressions and slurs against people of Indian and South Asian heritage spread through the character.
Following the release of the film Hank Azaria (who voices Apu) commented that “The idea that anybody young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased—or worse—based on the character of Apu is distressing…Especially in post-9/11 America, the idea anybody was marginalized based on it was very upsetting to me, personally and professionally. It’s a character that I’ve done for 29 years now, and I’ve done it with a lot of love and joy and with pride. That certainly wasn’t the intent. The intent was to make people laugh and to bring joy. The idea that it caused any kind of pain or suffering in any way is disturbing.”
Earlier this year speaking at a press tour for the Television Critics Association Azaria said that the show would address the issue and that he was consulted but that whatever response would ultimately not be up to him.
Shortly before the episode aired showrunner Al Jean tweeted “New Simpsons in five minutes. Twitter explosion in act three.” An unusual comment to say the least. It’s as if he was reveling in excitement.
Which leads us to No Good Read which may end up going down as one the most polarizing episodes of the series’ history. The episode itself is rather unremarkable save for one scene where the show decides to tackle the issue. In one storyline, Marge and Lisa try bonding over Marge’s favorite childhood book. Marge realizes that the book is actually quite racist and tries to fix it but is unsuccessful. Lisa then provides the following response:
“It’s hard to say,” Lisa says, staring straight at the camera. “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” Cut to a signed Apu photo on the family nightstand. His inscription reads: “Don’t have a cow.” Marge then says, “Some things will be dealt with at a later date.” “If at all,” Lisa adds.
It was an odd sequence, not the least due to its tone; it came off as dismissive. The scene was a mediocre response to well reasoned arguments and personal experiences felt by many. The irony was that Lisa was the one to deliver the line; a character who is usually a champion for the underdog and is supposed to be the most thoughtful and liberal of the family. The entire sequence had an undertone contemptuousness as if the writers were trying to communicate their disgust for even having to answer the criticism.
Yet The Simpsons have dealt with this issue before and in a more thoughtful way that indicated good faith. In season 27 we had ‘Much Apu About Nothing’ which was about modernizing the Kwik-E-Mart but also doubled as a reflection on the nature of Apu in a changing society.
So in No Good Read, it was wrong for Lisa to question what can be done when The Simpsons have already entered the conversation and appeared willing to deal with the issues.
The flip side of all this is to say that The Simpsons makes fun of everyone and so there shouldn’t be an issue. Kondabolu, however, already addressed this in his film. The “Simpsons stereotypes everybody” line of thinking assumes that everyone is treated equally in society and media, and that widespread, systemic racism doesn’t exist.
To quote Shannon Liao from The Verge:
‘While characters like “Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel” and Groundskeeper Willie are satirical stereotypes, they’re specific stereotypes of narrow subgroups, and there are plenty of counterexamples of Southern people or Scottish people on television. By contrast, Kondabolu makes the point that Apu is a broad amalgam of every possible ethnic stereotype about Indians, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis that the writers could think of. And in an environment where there was no other counterexample to Apu on TV, the character made those stereotypes more popular and prominent. In Kondabolu’s experience, Apu led people to think it was funny (and potentially even socially accurate) to shout his catchphrase, “Thank you, come again!” at South Asian-Americans or imitate his accent and fake bow when talking to them.’
The Simpsons would have been better off by not responding this way. Apu himself wasn’t even in the episode that dealt with his very character (I don’t count his cameo at the tunnelcraft convention an ‘appearance’ for the purposes of this episode).
As for the rest of the episode there really is not much to say. There were no moments that made me laugh. The only interesting bit was Bart’s appreciation for Sun Tzu’s The Art of War which kind of makes sense. In fact I would have preferred an episode solely focused on that then the one we got. The bits at tunnelcraft were very uninspired and a few years too late (have the writers not heard of Fortnite?) There was also a wasted Daniel Radcliffe cameo about his experiences going to conventions.
All in all this was a bad episode. The Simpsons tried to do the right thing by addressing controversy but went about it the wrong way. If you typed in Simpsons this past week it seemed everyone had something to say about the episode and for good reason. Let’s hope that they actually address the issue in a meaningful way in the future instead of having this be the ‘official response.’