Say what you will about “Stunning and Brave”, the season premiere for South Park’s nineteenth season, which centers on Caitlyn Jenner and the public’s reaction to her transition, but in that episode, series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone had a point they wanted to convey about Jenner and the surrounding media hoopla. In classic South Park style, the quick production turnaround let them have their say while the topic was still fresh in everyone’s minds. And while their commentary may have been crass, with plenty of room to disagree, Trey and Matt had a clear viewpoint and message behind their work that came through in how South Park handled the issue.
The Simpsons’s much longer production cycle means that it’s always going to be playing catch up when it comes to addressing the issues of the day. The show has tried to work around this obstacle, trying everything from turning the show’s lagging response time itself into a joke, making their easier-to-animate chalkboard gags more topical (including in support of South Park), and more recently, creating short topical clips meant for viral internet consumption. But as a general rule, the creative minds behind The Simpsons have had to wait patiently to speak their piece in the national dialogue. Until now.
Enter The Simpsons: Tapped Out, a mobile “freemium” game (the likes of which South Park has previously taken aim at), featuring the denizens of Springfield in a Farmville-meets-SimCity type of environment. Within this game, there are various “quests” — brief in-game tasks that feature minor storylines (often rehashes or sequels to the show’s most notable episodes) with small bits of written, interstitial dialogue to break up the action and add a little flavor to a mode of game play that can otherwise become repetitive. The fact that nearly all of this dialogue is conveyed via comic book-esque speech bubbles, without the need for voice acting or animation, allows it to be much more timely than in the game’s televised counterpart.
It’s in these bits of written dialogue that The Simpsons offered its take on the Caitlyn Jenner story, by having a little-known Springfield mobster become a woman as part of a bid to overthrow the local government, only for the character to just as quickly transition back to being a man, without fanfare, after the citizens turn on him. It’s odd not only for the peculiar nature of this riff on the Caitlyn Jenner story in and of itself, but because the Jenner takeoff seemed tossed off into an unrelated storyline, with no real criticism or commentary behind it.
Now Comic Book Guy-esque fans might retort, “This happened in some little mobile spinoff game, not in the show itself. It’s totally not canon. Why should I care?”
Well for starters, the Tapped Out mobile game is big business for EA, with 5.4 million active users per day generating more than $130 million in revenue for the company. Secondly, that dialogue comes from the same writers who produce scripts for the television show, including frequent substitute showrunner Matt Selman, as well as J. Stewart Burns, the current “gamerunner” for Tapped Out. Burns has written several noteworthy episodes of The Simpsons television show, like the post-classic era standout “Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind” and the recent Simpsons-Futurama crossover episode. Burns himself explained that when it comes to writing for the game, “There is a responsibility because we are writers of the show, and this isn’t fan fiction.” Even if the stories aren’t canon, they’re created by the same braintrust behind the T.V. show.
So what specifically does The Simpsons: Tapped Out have to say about the Caitlyn Jenner story? Well, it all begins with Frankie the Squealer.
Even diehard fans of the show can be forgiven for not remembering who Frankie the Squealer is. He’s one of the most minor of minor characters, appearing in less than a dozen episodes of the series, with his only characteristic being that, true to his moniker, he’s a mafioso who cannot help blabbing about anything and everything.
Nevertheless, with The Simpsons: Tapped Out nearing its 4th birthday and its creators having added more than 50 levels of content over that time, the powers-that-be were running low on new characters to introduce to the game, and so Frankie became the latest addition to Simpsons fans’ mobile devices.
In his related storyline, entitled “Frankie the Politician”, Fat Tony decides to bribe Mayor Quimby in order to keep Springfield from passing any laws that would interfere with the mob’s lucrative ridesharing racket. In the process, Mayor Quimby meets Frankie and decides that he is a perfect match for the first lady of Springfield, Martha Quimby, because they both do nothing but talk. He enlists Frankie to spend lots of time with his wife, in order to keep her out of the Mayor’s hair.
After spending so much time with the Quimbies, Frankie gets the itch to go into politics. Mayor Quimby offers advice on how to achieve this goal, laying out several options such as, “Marry someone who becomes President and then start authoritatively spouting off on policy issues, even though you’re, uh, utterly unqualified to do so,” or “Make a billion dollars then file for bankruptcy, and wear a toupée that looks like a marmoset.”
After getting roughed up by some of Fat Tony’s goons for being a lousy at spying on the Quimbies, Frankie fully commits to running for office so that he can “commit crimes in a much less dangerous environment.” But Frankie worries that no one will vote for an “incompetent mafia flunky.” All of a sudden, Kent Brockman shows up to give him a vital tip.
Frankie then appears on Kent Brockman’s show as a “very special guest with a very special confession” and announces that he is now “Francine the Squealer”. Francine uses the stunt to rally the citizens of Springfield to “head to Town Hall and overthrow the government.”
After the townspeople topple the government and install Francine as mayor, Lisa is more than a little incredulous.
Once in power, Francine worries that the “revolutionary spirit” is dying down, and decides that, to stay in office, she must “follow the lesson of those great revolutionary leaders, Lenin and Mao…[and] turn on the people who put you there!” She collectivizes Cletus’s farm, declares Squishees to be counter-revolutionary, and deems Homer an “intellectual” (since he works at the nuclear plant) who must go to a “forced labor camp for re-education.” Lisa turns to Fat Tony to remove a power-mad Francine from office, and Fat Tony, once more, has his goons rough up the renowned squealer. This is enough to prompt Francine to end her reign of terror.
And that’s essentially where the story ends.
Now there’s a couple of weird things about this quest and its accompanying dialogue. The most minor of them is that it has an odd connection, albeit a tenuous one, to the 1992 Simpsons episode “Lisa’s First Word”. During a flashback in that episode, Marge is pregnant with Lisa, and she and Homer are trying to figure out what the new sleeping arrangements should be with a baby on the way.
Homer suggests to Marge that the baby can have Bart’s crib, and Bart can sleep with them until he’s twenty-one. Marge says, “Won’t that warp him?” and Homer replies, “My Cousin Frank did it.” When Marge responds that Homer doesn’t have a Cousin Frank, Homer explains that Frank “became Francine back in ‘76. Then he joined that cult. I think his name is Mother Shabubu now.”
But more importantly, what’s strange about this storyline in Tapped Out is that there doesn’t appear to be much of a point to the game’s writers invoking the Caitlyn Jenner story here. There’s the faintest hint of some kind of sendup of the publicity Jenner has received, and possibly an argument that her media appearances are a cynical ploy, but it’s pretty thin.
Instead, it seems like the writers just threw Frankie’s gender swap in as a “Hey, Look, We’re Being Topical!” moment, in the same vein as those asides about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump that had little-to-nothing to do with the storyline. These gags have the slightest wisps of social commentary to them, but at heart, they seem to be little more than hollow references to current events meant to give the appearances of timeliness where substance is lacking.
On one level, this is a problem just because it’s lazy. Being topical is no substitute for being funny or incisive, and shoehorning a sex change into a story about a mobster becoming a politician just because it’s in the news is, if nothing else, weak broth from a pure storytelling perspective.
But on another level, there’s something more than a little insulting about incorporating a nod to an individual changing their sex with nothing motivating the reference beyond the fact that it’s a hot topic at the moment. I hesitate to use modern day buzzwords like “problematic”, and I think that comedy, more than any other art form, thrives on digging into controversial topics and pushing conversations into uncomfortable areas. But the cavalier way in which The Simpsons: Tapped Out writers included this riff on the Caitlyn Jenner story without having much of a point to it, if any, bothered me.
For its part, South Park was anything but kind to Jenner in the episodes it produced about her, and the series has a history of being, at a minimum, pretty blunt in how it’s covered the topic of sex changes generally. But in episodes like “Stunning and Brave”, the show delved into these controversial subjects, as it often does, because it had something to say about them.
Matt and Trey could be commenting on how certain celebrities are lionized despite their prior misdeeds, or a offering a biting look at the pros and cons of “P.C. culture”, or addressing the very idea of using controversial humor to bring important issues to the fore, but in each instance they had some clear point of view that motivated their call outs to current events. Sure, South Park’s offerings have been both extremely topical and extremely crude for a long time, but Matt and Trey have consistently presented them in service of, if nothing else, saying something about whatever subject they’re covering.
In the same vein, part of what made The Simpsons great at its peak was its ability to comment on hot button social issues with wit, insight and above all, a unique comedic voice. In its heydey, the show tackled everything from religion to immigration to homosexuality with a sharp sense of humor, a near-perfect balance of boundary-pushing and sensitivity, and a healthy dose of witty satire. Even after the series’s glory years, many of the show’s better episodes have involved a take on modern trends or issues of national concern.
It’s naive to expect the same level of craftsmanship from the show nearly two decades after its glory years, especially in the context of an ancillary spinoff game. And it’s probably too much to ask for J. Stewart Burns and his cohort to include a thoughtful, not to mention funny, discussion of the issues surrounding gender identity within those confines.
But then the solution is to leave out the issue entirely, rather than including a facile, tacked-on reference to the hot button topic of the day, with nothing to add to the conversation. It feels, at best, strange and likely churlish, to shoehorn a riff on someone’s gender transition just because it’s in the news, without having anything, let alone something insightful, to say about it.