A politically incorrect moment with Apu

The Simpsons invited controversy last week by responding to criticisms about their Apu character and racial stereotyping. The accusations are both accurate and 30 years late. As The Simpsons has progressed, Apu’s character has, as well; He isn’t the common stereotype he was in his first appearance in February 1990.

My favorite Apu moment is the final question on his citizenship test:

That scene seems like something television couldn’t get away with today – not because of Apu, but because so many are so willing to put the same effort into historical literacy and nuance as the test taker.

Modern media doesn’t have a lot of room for nuance, which is one reason I argue The Simpsons’ producers will have trouble resolving their Apu problem.

Harry Shearer and the future of Springfield

It looks like “The Simpsons” is parting ways with one of six main cast members, Harry Shearer. The prolific Shearer voices several characters, including Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, and both Messrs. Burns and Smithers.

Since the show relies so heavily on a small cast – most of the main characters have come from one of eight voice actors – that a departure, or firing, or someone getting hit by a bus was inevitable. Given how outspoken he has been, it’s not surprising it’s Shearer – who also clashed with both Lorne Michaels and Dick Ebersol during separate tenures at Saturday Night Live.

From an operational perspective, the producers should be able to replace him in the near term. The characters Shearer has helped create have become so recognized and ingrained in the culture that just about any mid-sized city has someone who can do a spot-on Mr. Burns impersonation, or a dead-ringer Ned Flanders. If the audiences start to leave, it shouldn’t be due to voices sounding different.

In fact, forcing the writers to downplay Shearer’s former characters might remove  some of the crutches that recent writing generations have leaned on. Could the current batch of writers bring new characters that freshen up the series?

Think about the side characters that have made “The Simpson’s” so great (many voiced by Shearer. Many are cultural relics. Flanders is a wacky neighbor, pulled straight out of the old-time family sitcoms “The Simpsons” was created to satirize. Burns runs the biggest company in town, but the big bad boss just isn’t as threatening in an era where workers change jobs as frequently. Kent Brockman is the smug evening news anchor on an over-the-air local network affiliate; Krusty the Clown hosts an afternoon kids’ TV show. In a modern Springfield, neither of these types of people would exist. Brockman would be younger and pushing to latch on with a station in Capital City. Krusty’s time slot would be filled with Steve Harvey while kids watched their cartoons on the Disney Channel.

(Bumblebee Man? He might still be ok.)

At a quarter-century, “The Simpsons” has over-stayed its welcome as groundbreaking TV and evolved into Sunday-night background noise.  Future media critics may point to Shearer’s departure as the catalyst for the beginning of the end. But if the current crop of writers are up to the challenge, it could be a new beginning.

Who ya gonna call?

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein revealed yesterday that Harry Reid and others feel like the filibuster has been “abused” because it takes days for the Senate to enact cloture votes.  (It sparked an interesting discussion in the Post’s message boards, as well.)

“I file cloture” — the motion to end a filibuster — “to move to discuss the bill on Monday,” Reid explained. “That takes two days to ripen. We don’t have a vote till Wednesday. Once that’s done, Republicans have 30 hours to do nothing. After the 30 hours is up, you’re on the bill. If there’s no amendment offered” — remember, amendments can be filibustered, too — “you file cloture to move to the vote. It takes two days and then another 30 hours. So that’s 60 hours plus four days to vote on the bill. That happened 67 times last year.” You do the math.

One way to make the lawmaking process more efficient would be to reduce the number of people in the legislature, or to merge lawmaking authority with the executive branch.  Cuba, Venezuela, Iraq, North Korea, Germany, France, and others enacted similar systems at various times in history… though it hasn’t gone well.

Otherwise, we all may have to accept that our legislature’s inefficiency is by design.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course.

The filibuster exists to maintain the Senate’s deliberative nature, so the best reform might be to force actual filibusters.  Senators who want to extend debate should actually have to talk.

When Republicans made the same grumblings years ago, they missed an opportunity to demonstrate Democratic obstructionism on judicial nominees. The GOP could have made political hay out of CSPAN clips of Democrats talking endlessly or reading the phone book to keep debate going.  Republican parties in the home states of the filibuster-ers could have organized “Save the Judicial Branch” rallies to protest their talkative Senators.

The problem for Democrats now is that the filibuster is blocking an unpopular piece of legislation.  If I were a Senate Republican, I would welcome the chance to speak on national TV about the future of health care, about federal spending, about the risks of government running anything, and the bribes Democrats are using to win support.  And even the bill’s passage may be a losing proposition.

At the very least, we should all agree that the filibuster should be maintained so that the eventual remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington makes sense.  All in favor… say die:

Write all the white papers you want

When environmental debates are waged, the option of nuclear energy is rarely mentioned as a potential solution despite compelling benefits.  Professor Bill Irwin at King’s College in good old Wilkes-Barre, Pa. blames television’s most famous nuclear family:

The editor of the book The Simpsons and Philosophy says television and movies about nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have also added to negative publicity surrounding nuclear power.

With such shows as The Simpsons poking fun at the nuclear industry and movies that focus on disasters, Irwin says it’s somewhat disappointing there are so many negative stereotypes in the media about nuclear power.

The pro-nuclear energy side has their advocates, of course.  The Nuclear Energy Institute is a quality group, and they make a strong case:

Nuclear energy is America’s largest source of clean-air, carbon-free electricity, producing no greenhouse gases or air pollutants. The industry’s commitment to the environment extends to protecting wildlife and their habitats.

Unfortunately, the American public is more familiar with Blinky the Fish – who makes a more direct point in a joke than NEI could in a ten-page paper:

J. Geils Band angles for guest spot on The Simpsons

The news that Marge Simpson will be Playboy’s Ms. November is more than an unlikely pairing of cultural icons, it is desperate grab for relevance in a changing world.

The digital age has left Playboy plodding along like it’s run by an 80 year old guy who hangs around a house all day in his bathrobe and slippers.  Pursuit of other business models is a tacit admission that the heydays of Playboy and other girlie mags are over. Taking a peek into the Bouvier boudoir – and making the issue available only at newsstands – will likely give Playboy a temporary uptick in sales and find their way into the news pages and blogosphere for a day or two.

Marge’s centerfold also gives The Simpsons a chance to re-assert their pop culture street cred in their subtle rivalry with Family Guy – but Playboy clearly needed the boost more.