By Tabitha Blankenbiller
“The Simpsons?” My husband Matt asked when he came back from dumping the turkey carcass. His incredulous, bemused tone was the same as if I came through the door schlepping a case of Surge with some Gushers chasers.
It was Thanksgiving night and dinner had wrapped early, with my Seattle-bound family anxious to get a head start out of Portland. I was peeling the fall decorations from the shelves and tabletops, filling a box with fake leaves and felt forest creatures. Dull, anticlimactic work that begged for background noise.
“The marathon just started,” I said, “and it’s The Golden Age.” At that moment Bart and Lisa were leading the mutiny against Kamp Krusty, a highlight of Season Four amidst a stack of classic episodes like “Mr. Plow” with its fabulous public access commercial and “I Love Lisa,” famous for Ralph Wiggum’s unforgettable I Choo Choo Choose You valentine. Memes you had to share in person—did you see? Remember when? When they did, you knew you were with a true kindred. I watched these early Simpsons installments originally air before bedtime in 1992 and 1993, when I was the same age as permanently 8-year-old Lisa.
“You know I spent almost my entire life after this thinking that A Streetcar Named Desire was actually a musical?” I said as the Springfield resident cast performed a number that got the episode banned in New Orleans.
If you want to go to Hell you should take that trip
To the Sodom and Gomorra on the Missisip!
“It’s not?” Matt and I shared a love of a great many things—grandiose holiday dinners, Black Friday Christmas house decorating—but theater, literature and vintage Simpsons episodes were not among them. He sat and watched them almost-new as I listened in the background behind folding up the fancy tablecloths and stocking the China cabinet back up with its breakable children, the familiar yellow and blue washed animated images as clear in my mind as if they were chiseled into my visual cortex. Every so often I’d scream “PAUSE!” and rush into the living room to sing every word to Phil Hartman’s The Music Man parody “Monorail,” a tune I hadn’t heard since at least the Bush administration.
But Main Street’s still all cracked and broken…
Sorry Mom, the mob has spoken!
“You’ve seen this one a few times?” He asked.
“Honey. I’ve seen them ALL a few times.”
As decorative gourd season retreated from the walls, we hauled in the boxes and boxes of Christmas decorations that overlaid our house for six weeks a year. The stocking that my grandma quilted me my first Christmas, and its double she made for Matt 20 years later. The ceramic tree inherited from his childhood home. A snowflake ornament screened with Our First Christmas 2005. A hundred shimmering, red-and-green talisman to insulate our home against a terror looming just around New Year’s Eve into a year not so much glistening with possibility as it was gaping with unknowns. There is something bold and blazing and brilliant about this year’s Christmas season, this dying star of the world I know, as my personality’s first template recites its verses in the background.
It’s easy for me to forget, amidst this current Renaissance of Television, what a ginormous part of my life The Simpsons held. Ask me most days and I’ll throw a ton of credit at Sex and the City, a show that’s aged like hummus in a glove compartment. There were my formative Mad Men adult years and the immediate college aftermath of Scrubs. The parallels between my existential personal crisis as The Leftovers premiered. ABC’s TGIF grade school nights with Family Matters and Step by Step, now a fuzzy microwave popcorn-scented blur that is unmemorable and indistinguishable from the Horsin’ Around clips on Bojack Horseman.
But while those other shows flickered on and off, blazing in for only a sprint through my childhood or adolescence or young adulthood, The Simpsons was ceaselessly there. When it wasn’t being originally broadcast Sundays on Q13 Fox, it was syndicated on weeknights in those foggy after-school hours between phoning in homework and inhaling dinner. I watched the canon unfold, and then I memorized it on repeat.
To hear Hank Azaria launch into a chorus of D’ohs is to feel the firm green checkered cushions of our family’s living room couch, replaced for over a decade by a tidier looking, unyielding leather imposter. It’s the dial tone before I dialed my best friend’s phone number, which I still know with more confidence than my social security digits. I can remember the exact moments where I laughed, and glanced over to see if my mom or dad or sister got the joke, too.
They’ve changed in this new millennium, as my age ekes far from the children’s and ever closer to Marge and Homer’s supposed late 30’s. I realize that I didn’t understand that the MORE ASBESTOS! Bart advocated in the class election wasn’t awesome, or the tragically topical relevance in their twin campaign posters—A VOTE FOR BART IS A VOTE FOR ANARCHY!
“You’ll never go broke appealing to the lowest common denominator,” Lisa notes from her second story perch as her brother basks in the mob’s glow. I never, until this binge, understood the feminist Simpson. I wanted to share her concerns, because I knew I should. If I wanted to be an intelligent, respected person who escaped her small town to do bigger things, I’d need to learn her truth. Bart’s chaos frightened me as much as Marge’s limits. Lisa was the path forward.
What was it like, I wondered now, not to know the wreckage of which Lisa Simpson spoke? To recognize the world was flawed only abstractly, like accepting the existence of black holes or narwhals? To puzzle at a question like “aren't the police the protective force that maintains the status quo for the wealthy elite” and only assume the answer because of the source?
“Now, you'll have lots of special people in your life,” Homer tells his daughter in “Lisa’s Substitute,” pushing her to look forward to all the magnificent places her ambition will eventually deliver her. “There's probably a place they hang out and the food is good, and guys like me are serving drinks.”
But Lisa Simpson never grew up. She is stuck in a loop that Fox won’t sever, the sharpest mind in a room full of adults that get dumber right along with us.
On Sunday, my mom called me to thank us for dinner. I hit pause on the DVR; Madame Bouvier and her brothel girls were about to break into “We Put the Spring in Springfield,” one of my favorite numbers in the series. The gorging was becoming evermore acidic on my tongue as all my Bests whipped by; I knew how soon the magic would end. I still remembered how it ended for me in 1999, watching the Season Ten finale. The Simpsons head to Tokyo, and do nothing but lampoon Japanese culture for 20 minutes with cheap sumo and game show jokes. A tendril of doubt, an original thought, nested in my heart. This doesn’t seem to be as good as it used to be.
“How’s the weather been down there?” she wanted to know, in the aftermath of our bad holiday storm.
“It’s been clear and nice all day,” I said. “Matt got the Christmas lights on the house.”
“We were out doing that too,” she said. “It’s strange, how it’s been windy without being cold. I still have roses on the bushes. Did you see that your cousin Amanda had them too?”
“I did,” I said, recalling the Facebook post my relative added that afternoon. “But you know, instead of ‘a sign of hope’ as she captioned it, it seemed more like another reminder of impending doom as climate change ramps up to an unstoppable gait.”
I didn’t need a phone to hear my mother’s sigh from across state lines. As kids we nicknamed her “Martha-Marge,” a woman with all the talents of Ms. Stewart and the unwavering disposition of Mrs. Simpson. “Looking at things so negatively all the time can’t be good for you!” she said, and in the sudden reminder that not everyone walks around cataloguing the ways in which our society is fucked the way I seem doomed to, I was too embarrassed and flustered to explain. Don’t you think I want to be wrong?
My cynicism wasn’t a wall against extreme vulnerabilities like the title character from Daria. It wasn’t the fuck-it-all libertarianism of South Park and its Giant Douche/Turd Sandwich false equivalency. I was sincere, the same way The Simpsons has long ceased to be because it’s a language we no longer speak. Lisa didn’t aim to be right about the world, she wanted it to be better.
I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how. Even saying such a thing seemed impossible without being repackaged. “Maybe I’ll volunteer next year, if China hasn’t bombed all the roads to Planned Parenthood by then.”
I took a breath and didn’t deviate. I let my yellow heart out on its sleeve. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m just scared.”
Tabitha Blankenbiller's essays have been published in Hobart, Electric Lit, The Establishment, The Rumpus, and numerous other venues. Her debut collection Eats of Eden is forthcoming from Alternating Current Press. She Tweets about writing and awkward human interactions @tabithablanken.