The New York Times' coverage of Patty Bouvier's coming out party on The Simpsons follows a familiar script -- the religious right is the sole aggressor in the culture wars -- and, in a breathless search for Ultimate Meaning, manages to drain the episode of every moment of humor. Alessandra Stanley writes in a review/essay:
A few years ago, the coming out of a prime-time character would probably not have caused much of a stir. But in the current climate, with the issue of gay rights spiking in the public discourse, the episode stood out. What could have seemed like a sweeps month gimmick became instead an aptly satirical comment.
The debate over same-sex marriages, and the way the conservative right inflated that debate into a wedge issue during the presidential campaign, is one factor. At the same time, growing fears about the possible spread of a rare strain of H.I.V. that is resistant to virtually all of the standard drugs has revived concern about unsafe sex among gays.
Stanley also wins honors for editorial whiplash of the week for this segue from the Doug Wead-President Bush tapes story back to the imaginary world of Springfield:
. . . On the tapes, some of which were played for The New York Times, Mr. Bush explained to Mr. Wead that he told a Texas minister, James Robison: Â“IÂ’m not going to kick gays, because IÂ’m a sinner. How can I differentiate sin?Â”
Patty decided to wed her girlfriend, Veronica, after the town of Springfield legalized gay marriage to boost tourism and Homer Simpson became an ordained minister over the Internet to marry gay couples for cash.
In her news report for the Times, Sharon Waxman seemed incapable of finding a conservative who watched the episode, so she turned to L. Brent Bozell III. Waxman also writes about the show being a rebuke to the cultural right:
"It's saying to those who demonize homosexuality, or what they call the homosexual agenda, anything from 'Lighten up' to 'Get out of town,'" said Marty Kaplan, associate dean of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication and host of a media show on the talk radio network Air America. "It sounds as though they're saying that what the religious right calls 'the homosexualist agenda,' as if it were creeping Satanism, is: these people are your neighbors in the Springfield that is America."
Indeed, in some ways the Simpsons' fictional hometown, Springfield, has become a surrogate for mainstream, small-town America, with Homer its bumbling working-class hero. The closest parallel may well be the endearing though intolerant Archie Bunker, who became a symbol of working-class America in the 1970's show "All in the Family."
Odd, isn't it, that the animated equivalent of Archie Bunker ended up obtaining his minister's credentials through the Internet and then presiding at all of Springfield's gay unions?
Against all odds, Kathryn Masterson of the Chicago Tribune found a well-known conservative activist who watched the program:
Peter LaBarbera, head of the conservative Illinois Family Institute, wasn't too riled about gay marriage and a gay character coming out on "The Simpsons." LaBarbera thinks the public may be tired of seeing gay characters and gay situations on so many TV shows.
"Every TV show has to have the 'gay episode,'" he said. "I just think the 'all-gay-all-the-time' is generally wearing on people."
In her final paragraph, Stanley announced:
The episode was not the funniest in "Simpsons" history, but it was a tonic at a moment when television seems increasingly humorless and tame -- fearful of advertiser boycotts by the religious right and fines from the Federal Communications Commission.
Thanks, mighty Times, for the definitive ruling on the history of Simpsons humor -- and the pedantic reminder that the only thing we have to fear is a conservative Christian who's involved in politics.