Monday, February 21, 2005

What of the people whose boundaries chafe, who marry so bravely and end up so safe

In what's more a catalogue on the current state of the issue than anything else, the NYT praises last night's relentlessly unfunny episode of The Simpsons: Patty Bouvier, Marge's chain-smoking, "MacGyver"-loving sister, came out of the cartoon closet on last night's episode of "The Simpsons." The episode was preceded by a warning that because the show contained discussion of same-sex marriage, "parental discretion" was advised. Gay characters are not new to television, or to "The Simpsons," for that matter (Montgomery Burns's doting assistant, Waylon Smithers, collects Malibu Stacy dolls and vacations at men's singles resorts.) A few years ago, the coming out of a prime-time character would probably not have caused much of a stir. But in the current climate, with the issue of gay rights spiking in the public discourse, the episode stood out. What could have seemed like a sweeps month gimmick became instead an aptly satirical comment. [...] The episode was not the funniest in "Simpsons" history, but it was a tonic at a moment when television seems increasingly humorless and tame - fearful of advertiser boycotts by the religious right and fines from the Federal Communications Commission. Sigh. No, it wasn't. It was an episode where the characters' existing personalities, such as they've been written for the past fifteen years, were shoved aside yet again for the sake of being puppets in an Important Debate, the writers' proxies in a heavy-handed message show - and a one-sided one, at that. In the most blatant example, Reverend Lovejoy objects to performing same-sex weddings on the basis of biblical ordinance, but when pressed by Marge, can't name which book of the bible forbids homosexuality. Even I know it's Leviticus, and I've never so much as picked up anything more sanctified than a Presbyterian hymnbook, and that not in more than a decade. While an argument against baseline tolerance based specifically on an ancient legal code which also permits selling relatives into slavery and endorses capital punishment for adultery isn't really a very good one, it's one that is out there, and does have some historical basis. To deny its existence in the service of making the show's icon of institutional Christianity seem even more of a straw-man spouting obfuscator is unnecessary, and cowardly. It worries me that the Times is willing to excuse weak writing for the sake of endorsing their editorial opinion. That way lies madness, in the CBC model, where devout adherence to certain policy positions can keep horrendously unwatchable tripe on the air, season after season. Being genuinely funny is and should always be the first goal of a comedy; politics only get in the way of that prime directive. (Another thing: the plot moved too quickly, to set up the much-vaunted Patty angle only by the 21-minute mark or so. If you're only worried about telling the story, there's no need to spend twenty minutes on politicized setup. Patty could have come out without benefit of Springfield legalizing same-sex marriage. In the alternate universe where that was the sole focus of the episode, I suspect it might have seemed less manically, earnestly dull.) (Another another thing: With the exceptions of Lisa and Marge, no characters during the town meeting segment of the story endorsed the issue as anything but a means of personal economic gain. Surely there'll be complaints that the writers don't really believe hard enough in the radical ideal for suggesting anyone might have pecuniary, non-human rights-oriented reasons for supporting same-sex marriage, no?)


Blogger BeckoningChasm said...

As has always been ever thus, whenever politics and the arts get together, it is always the arts that have to adapt themselves to the politics, never the other way around. The sad face of Andre Breton peeks out again, then disappears.

2/22/2005 11:07:00 AM  
Anonymous stevenk said...

I'm dumbfounded, though, at the NYT (OK, guess that's my first mistake). What do they mean, "a few years ago, a coming out episode wouldn't have been a big issue?" For heaven's sake, when Ellen came out, the episode also started with a warning about content, which had some of us up in arms at the time. Hmmm.

2/22/2005 04:28:00 PM  

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