It's easy to expect that Chris Turner, the author of a book about television's most famous animated family, The Simpsons, would resemble the television show's mainstay Comic Book Guy, the supercilious social reject quick to point out minor inconsistencies in his favourite cartoons while spouting obscure references to prove his superiority.
Worst. Expectation. Ever. The 31-year-old Calgary-based pop-culture journalist is a three-time National Magazine Award-winner and no righteous triviaphile. The idea for his book Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Documented an Era and Defined a Generation sprang from a fin-de-siècle Shift magazine article reflecting on the culture of the 1990s, with Simpsons references used as the skeleton to hang fleshed-out essays on definitive moments of the decade.
But if it seemed like a slightly gimmicky if clever idea at the time, the more Turner thought about it, the more he realized he had a serious argument that established how the events and culture of the last decade of the 20th century can all be understood through a Simpsons prism.
"From a historical or pop anthropological point of view, looking to see what happened over the period that The Simpsons was on the air, it's a pretty good foundational document," said Turner in an interview last week in Toronto. "It discussed almost anything of any real relevance and did it in a more honest and direct way than anything else in the pop culture."
Since the series formally debuted in 1990, the Simpson family has played on just about everything that captured the imagination of the time, be it politics, religion or celebrity-worship, and those are just the broad examples. They've done just about everything, too, from winning a Grammy Award to flying on a space shuttle to travelling around the world -- including Canada in a much-media-blitzed episode that took the family to Toronto -- dishing out sharp social commentary as a side order to its laughs.
Far from being a simple lout with atrocious parenting skills, breadwinner Homer, a technician at a nuclear-power plant, is really a layered Everyman, representing America's "hopes and dreams and insatiable appetites," writes Turner.
Meanwhile, blue-beehived homemaker Marge "can help explain what happens to a society whose traditional authorities have lost their credibility and whose religious institutions have lost much of their resonance." Bratty oldest child Bart is really a nihilistic punk hero, an example of the explosion of punk "as a massive mainstream phenomenon in Western culture in the 1990s," Turner continues. While "earnest bookworm Lisa is a reflection of the "re-emergence of progressive activism." (As for little, soother-sucking Maggie, Turner says with a laugh, "I don't talk too much about Maggie.")
A fan from the beginning, Turner's own favourite episode, The Last Exit to Springfield, reflects The Simpsons'capacity to encapsulate pop-cultural references, in this case, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and the reality of true-life politics, such as Homer's union striking for a dental plan, into a solidly gag-packed and inventive half-hour.
"If you watch it -- way too many times -- the pace never lags, it's just spectacularly tight, but it never loses its narrative thrust either. It's almost this perfect humour collage with a great plotline," says Turner. "Plus, I studied history and it has this great historical element with background tangents on labour-relations history."
Interestingly, in a move worthy of Springfield's corrupt captain of industry, C. Montgomery Burns, the show's producer, Fox, refused to co-operate with Turner on the book, turning down his official, and unofficial, requests for interviews, permission to print stills, and viewer copies.
But it's not as if Fox released the hounds on Turner. The show's publicist simply told him that they'd co-operated with other books in the past and "it turned into a big hassle and a big headache."
"My suspicion is they make a lot of money off the official guides and they don't want someone playing in their pool," Turner says. "At a corporate level I can understand."
Fortunately he was able to mine several existing interviews with series creator Matt Groening or head writers such as George Meyer, Joe Vitti and John Schwartzwelder. He relied on his library of taped episodes to jog his memory. As for the photos in the book -- they're of Simpsons merchandise, not the television images.
In some ways, Fox's refusal to co-operate may be a result of trying to control the franchise while it still exists. During the mid-nineties, at the height of the show's popularity, it was difficult for people of a certain age, say 25 to 35 today, to go a day without making reference to one of the show's dozen or so catchphrases. Indeed, "d'oh" -- Homer's ubiquitous exclamation of frustration -- made it into The Oxford English Dictionary in 2001. But how many editions will "d'oh" remain in before it is expunged as an archaic term?
Turner himself notes that the show's "Golden Age" ended in about 1997, and while there are still flashes of its former brilliance in the subsequent, current era, "the Long Plateau," the program seems to have lost its edge. The show defined the nineties, but what does that mean in 2004?
"Probably 20-year-olds are saying, 'You know, The Simpsons was great, but now it's all about The Family Guy,' " says Turner. "Rock 'n' roll was the exact same way, much as it continues to be a major cultural force, it can't have the impact it had when it had the element of surprise on its side. . . . I bet there will probably be something else in 15 years that will say, that was really the cornerstone of our generation. Pop's sort of like that -- it's transient."