Politically engaged, “discursively integrated” comedy has become quite the buzz topic both within the television industry as well as the academy, with all sorts of attention being paid to programs like South Park, The Colbert Report, The Daily Show etc. The modest topicality of The Simpsons broadly framed immigration debate episode “Much Apu About Nothing” in 1996 now seems quaint in comparison to South Park’s mocking of a presidential election the very night after its completion. Nowhere is this expectation for up-to-the-minute political satire made more apparent than in last week’s The Simpsons episode “The Greatest Story Ever D’ohd.” I’m quite sure the episode, which features an extended vocal cameo from Sascha Baron Cohen, had been in the pipeline for quite awhile. Thus, it’s probably not fair to read the storyline, in which the family visits the Holy Land, against the contemporary backdrop of U.S.-Israel relations. Just the same, it’s impossible not to.
The episode’s narrative is not terribly ambitious, beginning with Ned Flanders taking on the challenge of saving Homer from his various Deadly Sins and ending with some nonsense where all of the characters think they’re the messiah. There are a variety of Jewish jokes in the shticky Mel Brooks tradition (The Wailing Waldorf Hotel etc.) as well as a chase scene that rumbles through all the Jerusalem sites you’ve maybe heard of. The heart of the episode is Baron Cohen’s turn as an Israeli tour guide who, while spot-on and funny in its way, probably doesn’t translate too well for people who haven’t been on a Birthright Israel trip.
What’s so striking about the episode, however, is that while it aired in the midst of what many analysts are calling the biggest rift between Israel and the US in decades, there’s really nothing of political import or contemporary relevance. There’s a sign hanging in the airport that reads “Welcome to Israel, Your American Tax Dollars at Work,” a reference to the $2.4 Billion in American aid that goes to Israel but not necessarily a critical commentary. There’s also Baron Cohen’s passionate explanation of Israeli aggressiveness where he proclaims that if Americans traded in Canada for Syria as a next-door neighbor, they’d understand why the Jewish State might seem a little on edge. Also nothing new.
The word Palestinian doesn’t come up even once, which perhaps isn’t surprising but is pretty good evidence of the lack of teeth in the episode’s writers’ room. No matter what your political perspective, any satirical picture of Americans in Israel needs to at least engage with the question of conflict and the US’s place in it. I’m not suggesting that a show on Fox is going to be doling out radical politics, but the absence of something so central makes you wonder who thought the episode was worth writing. This is particularly apparent in a week during which Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama all directly addressed the topic, with the President making direct American demands on the Israeli government arguably for the first time since George H.W. Bush’s term of office.
Really, it’s unfair to ask an animated sitcom, a hugely labor intensive mode of television, to directly engage with real time politics. It’s just not possible. But when South Park is pulling it off and a variety of live action shows are pushing boundaries on a daily basis, it makes you question the wisdom of a show like The Simpsons even trying. The news cycle is simply too brisk for a show with a traditional production schedule to keep up.