Teetotalers convert to fans of Simpsons


Friday, July 27, 2007

— Few fans of The Simpsons can match the unwavering loyalty of Scott Vestnys, who compulsively watches three or four episodes a day and dresses up as Homer Simpson every Halloween.

But it wasn't always so.

Vestnys boycotted the first three seasons of The Simpsons because the Sunnyvale, Calif., church he attended was vehemently opposed to the Fox network's envelope-pushing animated show and, as he puts it, "I just fell in line with what I was supposed to do."

Around the same time, Danny Wallace was attending a parochial school in Concord, Calif., where, on free-dress days, joyful students could ditch their uniforms in favor of regular duds - with one exception being those appalling Bart Simpson T-shirts with sayings like "Underachiever and Proud of It."

"My parents banned me from The Simpsons and pretty much everything on Fox," he recalls. "I'd hear people talking about the show and I had no idea what it was."

Fast-forward to the present. Wallace, now a father of two, owns every Simpsons DVD set available and regularly "freaks out" his wife by reciting, with pinpoint accuracy, passages of dialogue from Homer, Marge and company.

"It's just ingrained in my head and there's nothing I can do about it," he says, without apology.

These vivid personal transformations reflect the long, strange journey taken by a show that, in its infancy, was criticized, ostracized and demonized by hordes of critics, including the first President Bush. But now here we are, nearly 20 years later, and the family Simpson - making a hypefilled debut on the big screen today - has not only survived but thrived as a beloved icon embraced by millions across the world.

Matt Groening's zany creation, in the words of author Chris Turner (Planet Simpson: How aCartoon Masterpiece Defined a Generation), has gone from being a "subversive smart bomb" that exploded upon prime time to "pop-cultural wallpaper" - an entertainment entity that is so deeply woven into the American tableau that it's practically taken for granted.

And along the way, some of the show's edginess has been lost, according to journalist Mark Pinsky (The Gospel According to the Simpsons), who points out that TV's favorite mustard-colored brood has been left in the dust by animated shows for which it paved the way, including South Park and Family Guy.

"The culture has moved on," he says. "The Simpsons started out on its far reaches and made it safe for those other shows. But now, The Simpsons are very much like centrists."

The early objections to The Simpsons now seem quaint, considering all the taboo-busting exploits by movies and television in recent years. But back in the late 1980s, the uproar had an unmistakable intensity to it.

Bratty little Bart Simpson incurred the wrath of parents and religious groups across the country for the way he backtalked authority figures ("Eat my shorts!").

In 1992, the show even provoked a presidential rebuke when Bush insisted that families should be "a lot more like The Waltons and a lot less like The Simpsons." First lady Barbara Bush took it a step further by deeming The Simpsons to be the "stupidest thing" she had ever seen.

"You had a show that was a smart, vicious satire about American culture as mainly told through the perspective of a potty-mouthed kid," Turner says. "And some people thought it was out to destroy American values ... that people wearing Bart Simpson T-shirts were going to take down the Republic."

Gradually the uproar dieddown as America loosened up. And as Turner points out, The Simpsons somehow became more acceptable when the show's main focal point moved from Bart to Homer.

"It's interesting to see what Americans get worked up about," he says. "For whatever reason, sex on TV and in movies really bothers them, but extreme violence? Not so much. In this case, a rebellious little boy had people really riled. But a lazy, self-centered couch potato who drank a lot and was a [bad] parent was quite OK."

Even many church leaders have stopped having a cow.Gradually, they realized that, despite the fact that The Simpsons regularly takes satirical shots at organized religions of all stripes, the family is also one of the most God-fearing clans on television.

"In a lot of ways, they mirror a typical American family. They say grace before meals. They quote the Bible. And they regularly get down on their knees to pray - although it's often out of desperation," says Pinsky.

The Simpsons still has the ability to offend, and it remains willing to sink its fangs into any deserving individual or institution, including (maybe especially) the network that feeds it. On the other hand, many fans and critics believe it is well past its socalled golden age, roughly pegged to 1991-97.

"It's still better than most shows on TV. And it still manages to have some great moments," says Vestnys. "It's just not as good as it was at its very best."

"I think there are some whobelieve it should just fade into the sunset already and celebrate what it achieved," adds Turner. "They're sort of like The Rolling Stones of television. With each tour, they get a little further away from Exile on Main St."

With that in mind, many devotees are placing heavy expectations on the movie.

"There's a hope that, perhaps, the movie can recall the glory days and reinvigorate the franchise somewhat," Pinsky says. "Whatever happens, The Simpsons aren't about to go away any time soon. Other great shows tend to come and go and have their moment, but with The Simpsons, their moment never seems to end."

MovieStyle, Pages 50 on 07/27/2007