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Monthly Archives: October 2016
One of the great things about the Simpsons as characters is that they can pretty much do anything or be anything. You can put Our Favorite Family in whatever kind of story you’d like, from a standard domestic squabble to a world-threatening catastrophe, and for the most part, the characters are so universal and recognizable that they’ll still fit regardless what sort of narrative they’re dropped into. It’s part of what makes the show’s Treehouse of Horror franchise work — these characters can be slotted into any number of spoofs, pastiches, and homages, because they’re firm but malleable enough for it to click no matter the setting or plot.
But as I discussed with Robbie and Matt on The Simpsons Show Podcast, I often find that my favorite episodes of the show draw back to the quieter and more relatable stories for these characters. I warm to the ones where they feel like real people going through trials that we can all understand, accented with that trademark Simpsons irreverence.
That’s what’s so striking about “Marge Be Not Proud.” In a series that can claim some of its greatest triumphs in the guise of monorails gone awry, and city-threatening comets, and town-hopping, knife-wielding, Machiavellian maniacs, The Simpsons makes such an impact in this episode by stepping back from the commedia dell’arte-style flexibility of its characters, and focusing on the specific and down-to-earth story of a boy and his mom experiencing one of those moments that makes them see each other in a different light.
Most people know the bible story of when God tested Abraham. It’s one of those biblical references that just filters through the popular consciousness, even if you haven’t cracked open Genesis anytime lately. The Good Lord tells Abraham, his devoted servant, to prove his devotion by offering his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. Abraham follows this command, building an altar, binding his son to it, and raising his knife in the air, ready to perform the grisly deed. But God stops Abraham at the last minute, explaining to him that this was all simply a test of his devotion and then providing a ram to be sacrificed instead.
I can remember hearing this story in Sunday school and how the rabbi would milk this moment a bit. Keeping second graders enthralled with bible stories isn’t necessarily easy work, but he knew how to draw out the details of the story, embellish a little at the margins, and hold the tension of moments like that one. Even if you’d heard the rabbi tell this story half-a-dozen times before, he made you believe that maybe this time it would be too late, that Abraham would act and all would be lost. He knew, in short, how to build the suspense.
In the years since I first wrote about Roger Ebert’s disdain for video games, he’s been in the back of my mind each time I’ve picked up a controller. He believed, and argued quite strenuously, that video games could never be art. At the height of the firestorm of controversy he unleashed with this statement, Ebert went so far as to declare that no game could ever achieve the same level of artistic transcendence as the great films and novels and paintings from around the world, all of which stood head and shoulders above such a hopelessly shallow medium.
It’s a ludicrous, haughty, even arrogant proclamation. And yet, as I discussed with Robbie Dorman on the Serial Fanaticist Podcast, in the years since his death, I’ve tried to at least understand where Ebert was coming from. He is a giant in the world of criticism and a smart and generally open-minded critic at that, even if he has a particular view of what’s required to create “great art.” That makes his critiques, however frustrating, worth unpacking, even if they’re not necessarily worth accepting.