Discursive Disintegration

April 4, 2010
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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.


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12 Responses to “ Discursive Disintegration ”

  1. Nick Marx on April 6, 2010 at 9:11 AM

    Agreed, a really strange episode. I’m usually pretty quick to defend the aughts-era lameness of The Simpsons, but it’s as though the show’s creative minds just got that Borat DVD all the kids were talking about and sought a way to work him into an episode. Perhaps we’re spoiled by all of the immediate commentary bandied about on the innernette and elsewhere, but there’s something sort of sad about the show’s stabs at aping the aesthetic of programs it once tore into.

  2. Jonathan Gray on April 6, 2010 at 2:47 PM

    yeah, it does better when it does social satire, not specific, targeted satire. Even the Dole/Clinton Treehouse of Horror, which is kind of good, or the one where Ralph is drafted as presidential candidate in the midst of primary season, were better for timeless criticism (of a two party system in the case of the former, and of campaigning excesses in the case of the latter).

    Even South Park, though, rarely pulls off anything good with its overnight episodes. The BFF ep about the Schiavo incident was a very notable, excellent exception, but its election episode was just kind of stupid, with no real smart commentary.

    In an era of The Daily Show and Colbert, it’s a pity the two shows feel they need to ape them, and doing so badly, rather than doing social satire and doing it really well.

    small note, btw — you write “I’m not suggesting that a show on Fox is going to be doling out radical politics,” but James L. Brooks negotiated a no-notes policy for the show, which means Fox can’t give em orders, and has nothing to do with the writing. They either play it or cancel it, basically. So we can’t even blame Rupert for this one … as much as I’m cool with blaming him for most things 😉

    • Matt Sienkiewicz on April 8, 2010 at 12:31 AM

      The no-notes rule makes sense for the current season, but moving forward the show has to please the Powers that Be no? Next season is always one network decision from not happening. Granted, they’re mostly interested in the bottom line, but it doesn’t follow that because there’s no direct note-giving there’s no motivation to please the boss, does it?

      • Jeffrey Jones on April 8, 2010 at 9:19 AM

        I’m with Jonathan here. Plus, Fox broadcast has let political stuff go on the air that Rupert would disagree with happen before–perhaps most notably Michael Moore’s TV Nation in 1995, with much more in the way of direct criticisms of the stuff central to Rupert’s world than Israeli politics.

      • Jeffrey Jones on April 8, 2010 at 9:21 AM

        Plus, if we believe hegemony is real (not just some theory), then none of this should be surprising, no?

      • Jonathan Gray on April 8, 2010 at 10:06 AM

        I find it unlikely that after 20 years of doing their thing, The Simpsons will start cowering. They’re also the most lucrative entity the network has ever owned: American Idol earns chump change by comparison. So I think they’re entirely comfy in their skins, but more to the point, there’s no way FOX would cancel them because they made a political statement (remember, they were just as much on the edge of cancellation in 2006, when they made their boldest political move in the history of the show and ended a Halloween ep about the war in Iraq with a castigation of American policy. It’s still the only ep I know of that doesn’t end on a happy note).

  3. Jeffrey Jones on April 7, 2010 at 12:10 PM

    I don’t know, man. I’m going to cut the writers slack on this one because as we have all seen way too often, wading into the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is NEVER a civil affair. Pick whatever side you want to blame for that (perhaps both), but as you recently and perhaps routinely experience(d), the ability to have a conversation about that has been shut down in the United States. So a seemingly innocuous statement to you–“Welcome to Israel, Your American Tax Dollars at Work”–most likely produced an outpouring of criticisms and letter writing to Fox for its anti-Israeli “policies”. Ugh. I am happy that the writers have the kahunas enough to do simply that in this environment. In short, you seem to want to blame the writers, whereas I think the overall cultural climate is more to blame.

    • Jonathan Gray on April 7, 2010 at 1:03 PM

      at the same time, Jeff, if they don’t want to touch the topic with a ten foot pole, then why give it a prod, no? They could’ve had that little comment in a dream sequence or something like that in an otherwise non-Israel episode, but they chose to go there, so why not go there?

      • Matt Sienkiewicz on April 7, 2010 at 2:38 PM

        Yeah, that’s very much my point. This seems like the kind of thing you’re either committed to or you don’t bother with. And more than anything, I’m saying that it looks like they’re aiming for topicality but don’t have the firepower to actually hit the target. If I’m blaming the writers it’s for their failure to play to their format’s strengths and as a result coming up with some really lumpy satire. The targets are all over the place (religion, politics, tourism) but none of it feels all that relevant. Again, topicality perhaps isn’t something they have the tools to excel at, which makes this a bad choice for an episode to my mind.

      • Jeffrey Jones on April 7, 2010 at 8:14 PM

        Well, rarely will you hear me say that network television produces anything in the way of cutting-edge satiric comedy, so I’m not exactly going to rise to the show’s defense. That’s your job, no? ;-).

        • Jonathan Gray on April 8, 2010 at 10:08 AM

          It’s definitely cutting-edge, or capable of it, and I’ll defend that tooth and nail, yes, but it’s social and generic, not so much party political and timely.

          • Jonathan Gray on April 8, 2010 at 10:08 AM

            by “generic” I mean satire of genre, not humdrum, btw