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Growing up, I was not allowed to watch The Simpsons. My mother had a strong sense of what was and was not appropriate for young kids to watch, and The Simpsons landed squarely on the “not appropriate” scale (along with Captain Planet, Power Rangers, The X-Files, Clarissa Explains It All, and others).
As I got older, and everyone I knew watched and loved The Simpsons, I developed this weird anti-popular-culture pride in having only ever seen one episode when I was stuck on a bus going to New York City and had no option but to watch it (I had no headphones to drown out the noise).
And then I met my husband. If I’m a total Star Wars fanatic, he’s a total Simpsons fanatic (and I’ve got a giant X-Wing tattooed on my leg). We’ve made it through two seasons of the show so far, and are working our way through the third.
I love it. It’s smart, funny, socially conscious, emotionally touching and self-aware. Of course me liking it makes my husband happy and gives us something to do when we want to relax. And there are like, 37,589,042 million seasons, so we’ll probably never run out of episodes.
Perhaps the part of the show I enjoy the most, though, is the opening. First, because little details change with each episode and I appreciate how much extra time and care that takes, and second because of the social commentary it offers.
In case you’re like I was and have never seen an episode (which is truly an amazing feat considering how ubiquitous the show is), the opening portrays each member of the Simpson family finishing his or her day and rushing home by car, bike, or skateboard to plop down on the couch in front of the TV. Once everyone is in position in front of the television, the camera zooms into the TV and shows the show credits, and then the episode starts (sans the faux TV frame).
In essence, the Simpson family is sitting down to watch The Simpsons. Even if you think there’s not enough evidence for me to draw that conclusion, at the very least, the Simpson family, like you and/or your family, is sitting down on the couch to watch television.
The fact that the characters are rushing home to the couch makes fun of Americans who do the same thing, even as they are in the act of sitting on the couch watching TV. As a sitcom, The Simpsons pokes fun at the average American family anyway, but I always feel a little guilty as the opening plays. I could be reading a book, or writing, playing with my dogs, or cleaning my house, but instead I’m watching TV, and The Simpsons brings it to my attention.
No, watching a half hour or an hour of TV a few nights a week isn’t all that awful (especially not compared to the amount of time I spend on a computer every day), but I can’t help but think about it whenever I watch this show, because it does point it out, albeit in a subtle fashion.
In addition to providing social commentary and being mildly metafictional, The Simpsons opening also tells the viewer a great deal about all the characters in very, very short time. I can’t think of a single other show opening that is so revealing.
We see that Homer works at a nuclear power plant and is careless. We can gather that Marge is a stay-at-home mom since she’s doing the grocery shopping with a baby. Bart is being punished for one of a million things after school and so we know he’s a troublemaker (and his skateboard doesn’t help). Lisa, on the other hand, blows the rest of the school band away with her saxophone solo (showing us she’s a talented musician), and rides home on her bike with a stack of school books (showing us she’s studious).
The other thing the opener does is show us what kind of program it will be. We know from the fact that sequence focuses exclusively on characters that it will character, rather than plot, driven. We can expect comedy because of Homer’s carelessness and Bart’s antics, but the opener’s self awareness lets us know we can expect intelligent comedy and commentary.
The best part about it is that it looks effortless. The show doesn’t rub anything in the viewer’s face or shout “HEY LOOK AT ME I’M SELF-AWARE!” or judge the viewer for watching TV. It says what it needs to say, and that’s that.
If anything, even as it makes feel a little guilty, it makes me want to snuggle up to my husband and get nice and cozy on the couch.
Television and I have a sordid history. Mostly I don’t like it. I’ve got nothing against the devices themselves—they’re pretty cool, especially for, you know, watching movies and Bones on DVD. But I don’t have cable, and the only things I ever watch live are sports.
Of course, sports broadcasts are great times for commercials for televisions and cable companies; because everyone knows that all sports fans HAVE to giant televisions and 24-hour access to every sports channel ever. I’ve noticed a lot more lately than I have in the past, and at least two that I’ve seen utilize meta structural elements to try and sell equipment or services.
First are the television commercials for televisions. The most recent one I’ve seen was for Best Buy. I couldn’t find it uploaded anywhere (and I don’t know why anyone would want to upload it anyway), but it features a family watching a movie in a Best Buy store, and the employee or narrator saying that with this particular ginormous 1,000 inch high definition super TV you weren’t just watching the movie, you were a part of it!
With a commercial like this, you can’t help but think about the fact that you’re watching TV. The makers of said commercial are also probably hoping you look at the TV in the commercial, and at the awe on the viewers’ faces, and then look at your own TV, and then feel like your TV is woefully inadequate, and then rush to Best Buy to buy a new television.
During the Olympics, which I had to watch online because the only thing I really cared about was hockey and that was the only thing NBC didn’t broadcast (why the hell would you pick speed skating over a Team USA versus Team Canada hockey game?!). About every five minutes they would play the same three Direct TV commercials, which went something like this:
“Don’t panic! This is your TV. I unplugged your cable to show you something better. Blah blah blah blah blah. Plug me into the good stuff.” And then it would show the Direct TV logo and another similar commercial that said pretty much the same thing would start.
Those commercials aren’t quite as meta as the commercials for televisions, but they still make you think about the fact that you’re watching TV because suddenly your television is talking to you. Again the point is to make you think about your experience and hopefully make a new decision (in this case purchase Direct TV rather than regular cable).
Why, TV, Why?
I’ll be honest, I think these commercials are pretty stupid, no matter how meta they are or how much they make me think about my television experience. I rather suspect that the metafictional elements in these commercials don’t do much to sell televisions or cable plans—the most relevant and interesting information in the Direct TV commercials is all the nifty things you can do with the company, not your TV “talking” to you. These meta structural elements are nothing more than gimmicks.
In fiction and writing in general, if a section or even a sentence isn’t absolutely necessary, if it doesn’t move the plot or story along, it shouldn’t be there. Maybe commercials should follow the same formula. They’d probably be more effective and less annoying.