I Watched All 629 Episodes of The Simpsons in a Month. Here’s What I Learned.

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The show hates Lisa.

Before I explain what I mean, let’s back up for a second.

Among fans, there exists a kind of Standard Narrative about The Simpsons, which goes like this: the show was at its best for roughly a decade, between Season 3 and Season 13 (let’s call this the Golden Age). Since then – from Season 14 to Season 29 – The Simpsons has been largely awful (let’s call this the post-Golden Age period). In fact it’s widely held that during this latter period, The Simpsons hasn’t just sucked: it’s been essentially a completely different show, which many former fans find deeply unfunny and are happy to pretend doesn’t exist. For a long time, I was one of these fans. Occasionally I’d catch a new episode, and it would make me feel uneasy, for reasons that I didn’t fully understand. In these episodes, The Simpsons looked and sounded just the same as it always had. But it didn’t make me laugh. The show seemed to be doing something that it wasn’t supposed to do.

So what was it supposed to do? And what is it trying to do now? One way of finding out is to watch the show right through – to take it as a totality, and to see what occurs to you as you do so. Over the last month, this is what I did. It wasn’t the only thing I did, by any means. I would put an episode of The Simpsons on in the background, while I was cooking, or doing boring admin work, or what have you. So I didn’t pay complete attention to every single second of every episode. But I’ve now seen pretty much the whole thing: all 629 episodes, from “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” (Season 1 episode 1), which aired December 17th, 1989, to “Frink Gets Testy” (Season 29 episode 11), which aired on January 14th, 2018. And I think I have an explanation for what happened to The Simpsons: why the post-Golden Age period feels so different to the Golden Age period, and why the show is no longer really what it once was. And I discovered something else, too: the show really hates Lisa Simpson.

But before we get to Lisa: where did it all go wrong? Every Simpsons watcher has his/her own personal nomination for The Moment When Things Began to Go Awry. Was it the scene in “Homer vs. Dignity” (Season 12 episode 5) when Homer is raped by a panda? Was it earlier on, in “Hello Gutter, Hello Fadder” (Season 11 episode 6), when Homer, in a shockingly casual sequence, attempts suicide by throwing himself off a building? Or was it earlier still, when the show slyly turned on its audience by introducing a character, Frank Grimes, who hates Homer for psychologically convincing reasons; giving that character a pointless death; and then showing us Homer sleeping through his funeral (“Homer’s Enemy,” Season 8 episode 23)? All of these moments, I submit, represent radical departures from the warm, sunny tone of classic (or Golden Age) Simpsons. But whatever the decisive turning point was, everyone more or less agrees that by its 14th season, The Simpsons was no longer the show it had once been. So what happened?

To find out, let’s look back at the Golden Age itself.

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I’d like to propose that during its Golden Age, The Simpsons wasn’t really about character or plot. The denizens of Springfield – very much including the Simpson family – were never meant to be characters in any traditional dramatic sense. They were caricatures: collections of amusing traits. In fact, during the Golden Age, the characters were often retro-engineered backward from jokes, or they were changed entirely simply in order to facilitate a gag (as when Bart says, “I am familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda”). The precision-engineered plots that defined the best Golden Age episodes (e.g. “Bart vs. Australia,” which begins with Bart & Lisa flushing bathroom products down the toilet and ends with the family being airlifted from the roof of the Australian embassy) existed not to bring about emotional catharsis but to facilitate the telling of jokes. The point of Golden Age Simpsons, in other words, was to make you laugh. This is why we all remember specific lines, and the specific inflections with which they are delivered (“I AM THE LIZARD QUEEN!”, “It’s a pornography store. I was buying pornography,” “Use a pen, Sideshow Bob”), and why we have a harder time reconstructing the plot of any given episode. At its peak, The Simpsons exhibited a kind of sunny, nerdish nihilism: it would sacrifice anything (character consistency, narrative logic, continuity) in order to be funny. Being funny was the show’s supreme value. There’s a name for this particular aesthetic: absurdism. During its Golden Age, The Simpsons was the greatest absurdist comedy ever made. Those of us who grew up loving Golden Age Simpsons didn’t love it because of the characters. We loved it because of its highly distinctive upbeat nihilism, and because of the sheer density of perfectly-delivered jokes that made up the true substance of every episode. We loved it because it was funny and that was it.

Post-Golden Age Simpsons does not understand this. Beginning somewhere around Season 14 – but most especially from Season 20 onwards – the show switches its focus, with fatal results. Put simply, The Simpsons stops trying to make you laugh and starts trying to make you care about its characters. This is why we watch the later seasons with such an uneasy feeling – and why post-Golden Age Simpsons no longer feels like the same show as Golden Age Simpsons.

So what happens, once you leave the safety of the Golden Age and press on into the later seasons? At a superficial level, you notice a few things. The animation gets more professional but less funny. The couch gags get longer and longer and duller and duller. Mr. Smithers becomes openly gay. Mrs Krabappel gets audibly older and more frail, and finally disappears altogether. Entire episodes are built around subsidiary characters (Carl; Kirk van Houten). Other subsidiary characters are paired up, in increasingly desperate permutations (one particular nadir sees Comic Book Guy dating Agnes Skinner). The number of anime references increases exponentially. In the worst episode of the entire 29-year run, Moe’s bar rag, voiced by Jeremy Irons (or, if you will, Jeremy’s Iron), tells its life story.

Eventually the show reaches the point of maximum possible distance from its Golden Age essence: in “Every Man’s Dream,” (Season 27 episode 1), Homer cheats on Marge by taking ecstasy and sleeping with a hipster pharmacist voiced by Lena Dunham. (That this turns out to be a dream within a dream doesn’t seriously affect my point: during its Golden Age The Simpsons might have tempted Homer with Mindy Simmons, but it would never in a million years have shown him waking up next to a naked girl after a drug trip, even in a dream sequence.)

There are still some good jokes, here and there. Werner Herzog as a pharmaceutical tycoon revealing that he is, in fact, Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is pretty funny. So is a visual gag in which Marge mistakes a stuffed walrus for Homer and cuddles up to it in bed (“Oh Homey, you’ve lost weight!”). But these are not the kind of jokes that made The Simpsons of the Golden Age so sublimely quotable (“Ah! They’re defending themselves somehow!”). After Season 14, the show’s whole style of humour changed. This is because it stopped being primarily a show about jokes (i.e. one that wanted to make us laugh) and started being primarily a show about characters (i.e one that wanted to tell us cathartic stories). This marks a fundamental shift in the nature of The Simpsons, and it asks us to completely change the way in which we understand the show.

And then there’s Lisa. As you venture further into the No Man’s Land of this new, story-&-character-based iteration of The Simpsons, something odd starts to happen. You start to notice how often Lisa features in the show as the victim of unjust or even meaningless punishment – that is, how often she suffers for no real reason, and how seldom her suffering is redressed in any meaningful way. The other members of the central family – Homer, Bart, Marge, even Grandpa and Maggie – are generally rewarded for their troubles with growth, or love, or with the approval of the community (no matter how many times Homer gets fired, his job is always waiting for him when he makes amends; no matter how many times Bart hurts people, his friends stick with him; etc); or they’re rewarded with a helpful amnesia, so that they never have to fundamentally repair their flaws. In this new Simpsons paradigm, almost all of the main characters find their needs met at the end of each storyline: Bart is reunited with Milhouse; Homer is reunited with Marge. As the show goes on, it becomes clearer and clearer that Lisa is the only member of the Simpson family who almost never gets what she wants and needs.

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As originally conceived, Lisa was the character who would transcend the mediocrity of Springfield and become something great. Chris Turner, in his book Planet Simpson, quotes Matt Groening on his favourite Simpsons character: “At the end of the day, I have to admit that if I have a favourite it would be Lisa. She’s the only one who will escape Springfield.” And Al Jean, the current showrunner (and the man who has presided over the post-Golden Age shift in emphasis from jokes to characters), has said of the writing staff that “The character we’re closest to is Lisa Simpson, a character who reads a lot and hopes for a better life.” According to Chris Turner, Lisa proves “that TV is fully capable of providing a loving home for a character who’s not just quick-witted but genuinely learned.”

But if this is true, then why does The Simpsons – particularly in its post-Golden age seasons – consistently punish Lisa for her gifts? Why is Lisa the only character in the show who almost never gets what she wants or needs?

I’m going to propose that the Lisa stories told by post-Golden Age Simpsons display a recurring pattern in which Lisa is punished for being smarter and more talented than the people around her, and in which she is denied any sense of healing or recompense for the punishment she’s suffered. The pattern I’m proposing has six stages. The stages in square brackets are optional, occurring only sometimes, and at differing points in the narrative; the other stages, in order, are present in almost every Lisa story that the show has told for the past two decades.

  1. Lisa is Gifted.
  2. Lisa is Punished for her Gift.
  3. Lisa Needs Help From Others to Escape her Punishment.
  4. [Lisa Tries to Share her Gift with the World.]
  5. [Lisa’s Gift is Rejected.]
  6. The Status Quo Ante is Restored; Everyone’s Pain is Healed Except for Lisa’s.

This pattern recurs with such frequency that it raises some disturbing questions about how The Simpsons represents both intellectual achievement and women. But first let’s look at some examples of what I mean when I talk about the pattern.

Take a recent episode: the Season 29 opener, “The Serfsons.” This is a parody of various fantasy franchises starring the familiar cast in mythical garb (Milhouse is a goblin, and so on). In this episode, Lisa is the only member of the family who can perform magic – she transforms a lump of lead into gold (Lisa is Gifted). For this, she is imprisoned by a guild of magicians, who try to execute her (Lisa is Punished for Her Gift). When she’s freed (Lisa Needs Help From Others to Escape her Punishment), she proposes that instead of magic, people devote themselves to a scientific approach to the world – an approach that might “end poverty” and help everyone to escape from the trap of feudalism (Lisa Tries to Share Her Gift With the World). All the other characters groan; Homer resurrects the last dragon, whose fire is the source of all magic, and Lisa’s idea for a scientific utopia is abandoned (Lisa’s Offering of Her Gift is Rejected) as the dragon destroys the town (The Status Quo Ante is Restored; Everyone Else is Happy But Lisa Is Unfulfilled). This is just one iteration of a pattern that recurs throughout post-Golden Age Simpsons.

An early example of the pattern crops up in “Treehouse of Horror XII” (Season 13 episode 1). In this parody of the Harry Potter novels, Lisa is the best wizard in her class (Lisa is Gifted). She is targeted by Lord Montymort (Mr. Burns), who wants to absorb her abilities for himself (Lisa is Punished for Her Gift). Eventually she is rescued by Bart (Lisa Needs Help From Others to Escape her Punishment) as part of his redemption story (The Status Quo Ante is Restored; Everyone’s Pain is Healed Except for Lisa’s).

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In “I, (Annoyed Grunt)-bot” (Season 15 episode 9), Lisa’s cat, Snowball II, is run over and killed by Dr. Hibbert. Lisa gets a new cat, Snowball III, who immediately drowns in the family fishtank. Yet another new cat, Coltrane, jumps out of the window to escape Lisa’s saxophone playing (Lisa is Punished for her Gift). Lisa is devastated. In the same episode, Bart gets to fight in a Robot Wars-style TV show (Bart often thrives while Lisa suffers). When it turns out that his robot is really Homer, they enjoy a warm father-son moment. Lisa, on the other hand, finds a new cat that precisely resembles the dead Snowball II (The Status Quo Ante is Restored; Everyone’s Pain is Healed Except for Lisa’s).

In “Dial N for Nerder” (Season 19 episode 14), Lisa and Bart go to Springfield National Park, where Lisa helps Martin Prince dig for arrowheads (Lisa is Gifted). Bart, bored by the smart kids’ archaeological activities, plays a prank that causes Martin to fall from a cliff and land on a ledge below. Lisa tries to help, but accidentally pushes Martin into a ravine (Lisa is Punished for Her Gift). Lisa then endures a nightmare of guilt, until it transpires that Martin is actually alive. “I’ve learned that beneath my goody two-shoes lie some very dark socks,” Lisa says, concluding her character arc for the episode (The Status Quo Ante is Restored; Everyone’s Pain is Healed Except for Lisa’s). But we might note that the accident wasn’t Lisa’s fault: it was Bart’s. Once again the show has punished Lisa for no real reason.

In “Lisa the Drama Queen” (Season 20 episode 9), Lisa befriends Juliet, a new girl at school, and together they create a shared imaginary kingdom called Equalia (Lisa is Gifted). Marge decides that Juliet is troubled, and discourages Lisa from seeing her (Lisa is Punished for her Gift). The girls run away and are trapped by the bullies at an abandoned restaurant; they convince Kearney to help them by telling him stories about Equalia (Lisa Needs Help from Others to Escape her Punishment). While Jimbo & Dolph beat Kearney up, Lisa & Juliet escape. But Juliet rejects Lisa, and prefers to live in Equalia. At the end of the episode, Lisa reads a publisher’s letter rejecting her Equalia manuscript (Everyone’s Pain is Healed, Except for Lisa’s).

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In “The Good, the Sad and the Drugly” (Season 20 episode 17), Lisa’s research skills (Lisa is Gifted) lead her to discover that the world faces total environmental destruction in the next fifty years. She tries to warn her class, but has an emotional breakdown (Lisa is Punished for her Gift) and is put on powerful antidepressants (Lisa Needs Help from Others to Escape her Punishment). The antidepressants cause her to mistake a fan for a smiling face; she comes off the drug. Her final job in the episode is to tell a heartbroken Bart that the best way to deal with certain issues is just to forget about them; soon Bart and Milhouse are laughing as they drive a Zamboni through the school (Everyone’s Pain is Healed Except for Lisa’s).

In “Lisa Simpson, This Isn’t Your Life” (Season 22 episode 5), Lisa is given a scholarship to Cloisters Academy, a fancy school where the teacher-to-student ratio is 1:1 and where (Lisa Tries to Share her Gift with the World) Lisa is encouraged to finish her novel (“Self-published?” “Real published!”). But it turns out that Lisa is only able to go to Cloisters Academy because Marge has agreed to do the school’s laundry, staying up all night washing and ironing uniforms. Lisa tells Marge that she can’t go to the school under these circumstances and that the school is “too elitist” anyway. Marge is delighted, and hugs Lisa; over Marge’s shoulder, we see Lisa’s face, and how sad she is at the lost opportunity (Everyone’s Pain is Healed, Except for Lisa’s).

Sad Lisa

In “The Book Job” (Season 23 episode 6), Lisa discovers that her favourite fantasy novelist is a marketing gimmick cooked up by unscrupulous publishers. While Homer and Bart set about writing their own cash-in book, Lisa resolves to write a novel the authentic way – by herself. But she can’t do it (“Writing is the hardest thing ever!”). Eventually, she is so depressed that she agrees to act as a front for Homer and Bart’s group-written manuscript (Lisa Needs Help from Others). When the publishers change Bart & Homer’s story, it falls to Lisa to “switch the flash drives” and trick them into printing the original manuscript – but it turns out that Neil Gaiman has conned everyone and taken credit for The Troll Twins of Underbridge Academy. Following the pattern, the suffering inflicted on Lisa in this episode is never redeemed – she has found that writing a book is beyond her, but she hasn’t learned anything that might help her to cope with this insight. (The episode never bothers to suggest that Lisa might actually be correct to try to write a novel by herself, for reasons other than money.)

In “The Kid is All Right” (Season 25 episode 6), Lisa befriends a girl named Isabel who is as well-read and sensitive as she is (Lisa is Gifted). But Isabel turns out to be a Republican whose ideas Lisa finds appalling (Lisa is Punished for her Gift). The two girls run against each other for class president (Lisa Tries to Share her Gift with the World) but Isabel wins (Lisa’s Gift is Rejected). At the end of the episode, Lisa learns from an exit poll that it wasn’t her ideas that her schoolmates disliked; it was her. She interprets this as a victory for liberal thinking, but she remains, of course, lonely and sad (Everyone’s Pain is Healed, Except for Lisa’s). (This is one of a number of episodes in which Lisa makes a friend and is punished for it – see “Lisa the Drama Queen,” above.)

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The seeds of this pattern were sown in a large number of Golden Age episodes. As early as “‘Round Springfield” (Season 6 episode 22), Lisa is confronted with real suffering, when her hero Bleeding Gums Murphy dies. In 29 years, no other member of the Simpson family is ever asked to mourn a permanent loss in this way (in “Bart the Fink” [Season 7 episode 15], Bart is briefly led to believe that Krusty the Clown is dead; but in fact Krusty has faked his own death, and at the end of the episode Bart’s pain is healed). The only other Simpsons character who endures permanent loss is Ned Flanders – and he is healed, in Season 22 episode 22 and Season 23 episode 1, when he marries Edna Krabappel.

In “Lisa the Skeptic” (Season 9 episode 8), Lisa discovers the petrified remains of what seems to be an angel. She insists that there must be a rational explanation; the townspeople reject this suggestion, and are gulled into an apocalyptic panic. Of course, Lisa is right to be skeptical: the angel is a marketing trick thought up by the owners of a new mall. But no one ever acknowledges this. Stephen Jay Gould, whom Lisa has approached for help, does nothing to prove her right (Lisa’s Gift is Rejected). At the end of the episode, we are supposed to accept that the example of Marge’s faith has taught her daughter not to be so skeptical. But in fact Lisa’s skepticism would have saved the day – it was the correct approach, and nobody tells her this (Everyone’s Pain is Healed, Except for Lisa’s).

Looking back at Golden Age Simpsons, it’s startling how often the show presents us with images of Lisa alone, or crying, or depressed. Here are a few:

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“The Secret War of Lisa Simpson” (Season 8 episode 25)

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“Lisa’s Substitute” (Season 2 episode 19)

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“Lisa the Simpson” (Season 9 episode 17)

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“‘Round Springfield” (Season 6 episode 22)

Throughout the show’s run, episodes in which Lisa is punished for her gift tend to alternate with episodes in which Lisa is punished for no reason at all. This, too, has its roots in the Golden Age. In “Make Room for Lisa” (Season 10 episode 16), Homer permits a cellphone company to build a transmitting tower in Lisa’s bedroom. Lisa begins to suffer from stress-related stomach pains. In a sensory deprivation tank she learns to empathise with Homer. But the problem wasn’t Lisa’s inability to empathise with Homer – it was Homer’s casual cruelty to his daughter. Once again, the Status Quo Ante is Restored; Everyone’s Pain is Healed, Except for Lisa’s.

In “The Squirt and the Whale” (Season 21 episode 19), Lisa finds a beached whale, whom she names Bluella. As Lisa sleeps beside Bluella (after reading to her from Leaves of Grass), she dreams that the Marines have arrived with helicopters to return Bluella to the ocean. But it’s just a dream. When Lisa wakes up, she finds that Bluella has died in the night. The Springfield police detonate Bluella’s corpse with explosives; the townspeople scavenge her parts for products to sell. This episode fits into a pattern in post-Golden Age Simpsons whereby Lisa’s love is offered and then painfully rejected.

In “Halloween of Horror” (Season 27 episode 4), Lisa is traumatised by a disturbingly realistic Halloween fairground. She regresses to infancy, and starts hugging her childhood comfort-toy, Tailee. Later in the episode, some casual labourers whom Homer has antagonised break into 742 Evergeen Terrace; Homer, unable to help his daughter, forces her to hide with him in the attic. In the classic pattern, Lisa’s suffering arises not from flaws in her own character, but from the cruelty, incompetence, or indifference of the people around her.

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Post-Golden Age Simpsons reminds us again and again that not only does Lisa have no friends, she cannot have friends. Frequent jokes are made about the imaginary friends she is forced to invent as a lonely younger child. In “Treehouse of Horror XXVII” (Season 28 episode 4), Lisa’s imaginary friend comes to life and murders anyone to whom Lisa gets close. Throughout the show’s run, Lisa is almost always depicted eating lunch alone in the school cafeteria. I lost count of the number of throwaway scenes in which the other children at Springfield Elementary – often, but not always, represented by Sheri and Teri – reject Lisa as a friend or even as a lunch companion. “I forgot how hard school can be for a sensitive kid,” Marge says, in “Springfield Splendour” (Season 29 episode 2), in which Lisa is suffering from recurring nightmares about school. “It’s miserable,” Lisa says in a broken voice. In the same episode, when Marge makes a comic strip out of Lisa’s painful school experiences, it is sold at the Android’s Dungeon under the title Sad Girl. That’s Lisa: she is the Sad Girl, and post-Golden Age Simpsons demonstrates no interest in doing anything with the character except making her sadder. When Sad Girl is adapted as a musical, it naturally fails (Lisa’s Gift is Rejected).

Attempts by the other characters to help Lisa are generally abortive or inadequate. Lisa is the only family member of whom this is true. When Bart goes to therapy (“Yokel Chords,” Season 18 episode 14), he achieves new psychological insights that bring him healing. When Lisa goes to therapy (“Springfield Splendour”), she must do so at the community college, where students practice on patients while their teachers watch from behind a two-way mirror; Lisa’s therapy, abandoned after a couple of sessions, affords her no psychological insights or healing.

The Simpsons has several times taken its central characters into the future and imagined grown-up lives for Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. In the Golden Age episode “Lisa’s Wedding” (Season 6 episode 19), the future imagined for Lisa is rich and fulfilling: she has left Springfield to go to college, where she appears to be studying environmental science (at the library, she asks for “Ecosystem of the Marsh, by Thompson”). In post-Golden Age Simpsons, the futures imagined for Lisa are mostly awful. In “Holidays of Future Passed” (Season 23 episode 9), Lisa is unhappily married to Milhouse and has a poor relationship with her daughter Zia. She is also a successful businesswoman, despite the fact that the eight-year-old Lisa we know is consistently anti-corporate and wants a career as a jazz musician (or an environmental scientist). In “Days of Future Future” (Season 25 episode 18), Lisa is in her thirties and is again unhappily married to Milhouse. When Milhouse is bitten by a zombie and becomes a zombie himself, Lisa prefers this state of affairs, as it means she no longer has to suffer through a painful marriage. These futures feel like a betrayal of Matt Groening’s original idea of Lisa as “the one who will escape Springfield.” Post-Golden Age Simpsons is consistently unable to imagine a future in which Lisa fulfils the promise of her childhood excellence.

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So: why does Lisa suffer in such a unique way? It may have something to do with a strain of vigorous anti-intellectualism that The Simpsons has toyed with throughout its run and never entirely repudiated – a strain that grows even more pronounced in the (superficially even more meme- and reference-dense) post-Golden Age period. The anti-intellectualism of The Simpsons, early and late, is visible in several recurring characters, most obviously Professor Frink and Martin Prince (in fact, during the post-Golden Age period, Martin Prince is subtly punished by being gradually transformed from an ambitious and high-achieving nerd to nothing more than the pathetic victim of choice for bullies like Jimbo & Nelson). It’s also visible in a wide range of one-episode characters (take, for instance, Marge’s college professor in “That 90s Show” [Season 19 episode 11], a pseudo-intellectual poser who wants only to seduce his students and who is eventually beaten up by his own Dean).

The longer the show goes on, the more its structural message is a hidden endorsement of intellectual mediocrity. “Just pick a dead end and chill out till you die,” Homer advises Lisa, in “Lisa Simpson, This Isn’t Your Life.” We are, of course, meant to laugh at Homer’s laziness and stupidity. But taken as a 629-episode whole, The Simpsons in fact nominates “pick a dead end and chill out till you die” as the only approach to existence that it’s prepared to unreservedly endorse. For staying in his dead end, Homer is lavishly rewarded: with love, with friendship, with foreign travel. For trying to escape from hers, Lisa is punished again and again.

As the show’s designated intellectual, Lisa naturally bears the brunt of its subtle but insistent disparagement of the life of the mind. In “Little Girl in the Big Ten” (Season 13 episode 20), Lisa pretends to be a college student so that she can get a better education than the one available at Springfield Elementary. When her ruse is discovered, she is berated by Marge (who is suspicious of university life) and further ostracised by her schoolmates. In order to win back the approval of the community, Lisa must vandalise a chocolate cake prepared to celebrate the opening of the “Seymour Skinner parking annexe.” In other words, she must act like a stupid (or, in the show’s vocabulary, “normal”) person. Once again, the story ends with everyone’s needs being met – except Lisa’s. It also ends with the triumph of stupidity over intelligence and ambition – a message the show hammers home again and again – and again and again, from different angles.

Another reason for Lisa’s suffering is that The Simpsons endorses a deeply conservative view of the role of women in society. To be an unmarried childless woman, in The Simpsons, is to be pathetic. Look at Patti and Selma, or Edna Krabappel, or (in the later seasons) Lindsay Nagel. Happiness and normality, for the women of The Simpsons, reside in being married and having children, no matter how miserable this might make them. The other thing you can’t help but notice, watching all 629 episodes in a row, is that Marge’s disconnection from reality is essentially psychotic: as Anna Leszkiewicz points out in this New Statesman piece, Homer is an appalling husband and Marge should have left him years ago – long before (to take a random example) he framed her for a drunk-driving accident so that he could keep his licence. The view of marriage espoused by The Simpsons is one in which a woman must forgive her husband and stay with him, no matter how high the cost (in “Days of Future Future,” Marge literally commits suicide to be with Homer – she electrocutes herself so that she can live with the version of his personality that has been uploaded to a flash drive). The men of Springfield, on the other hand, are never burdened with the task of forgiving their meek, submissive wives.

This basic underlying misogyny explains why the show is incapable of imagining a future for Lisa in which she doesn’t marry Milhouse, her brother’s loser friend. It also explains why Lisa is punished for wanting to be independent (“When I get married, I’m keeping my own name!” as Lisa Lionheart would say – and while we’re on the subject, “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy” [Season 5 episode 14] is a near-perfect pattern episode: Lisa Offers Her Gift to the World, in the form of a doll that might actually encourage girls to be independent and smart, and her Gift is Rejected when the girls prefer the superficiality of a Malibu Stacy with a new hat).

The Simpsons, fundamentally, can’t accept the idea of a genuinely intelligent, self-determining woman who doesn’t shape her life around the needs of a man. This message isn’t necessarily conveyed by the plot of any particular episode (though most of the Marge-centric episodes come pretty close). Rather, it’s conveyed by all of the episodes, taken together. Sure, the men of Springfield are losers (Moe; Barney Gumble; Kirk Van Houten; Lenny & Carl; Chief Wiggum). But the show doesn’t punish the men for their faults – in fact, it often rewards them (Milhouse gets to marry Lisa). Their suffering isn’t structural; it’s superficial (i.e. it’s where the jokes come from). The suffering endured by Lisa and Marge is structural. Which means that that suffering lies somewhere near the core of what The Simpsons is saying, whether it knows it or not.

Taken as a 629-episode whole, The Simpsons leaves a strangely sour taste in the mouth. It shows us a world in which stupidity is uncontrollably rewarded and in which the life of the mind is derided, punished, and ignored; a world in which women can’t be happy without a husband – any husband; a world in which noble aspirations are generally crushed and the only fate that awaits even the best of us is mediocrity.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. This is, after all, the show that predicted President Trump – in, as it happens, one of the very few episodes in which Lisa ends up where she actually belongs.

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Antihuman Turns 1 Today

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This blog is one year old today, which is something worth noting – most blogs, I gather, peter out after a few initial entries, so I’m mildly proud of myself for keeping this one alive for twelve whole months. I began it as a place to put some of my old pieces & to flag new publications (for about three seconds I toyed with the idea of calling it The Self-Promotion Express, wanker’s chortle heavily implied, but who the hell would want to read that?). The inaugural entry was a transcript of my 2015 interview with Jonathan Franzen, and I’ve been adding book reviews and links to occasional pieces as I go along –  essaysshort storiesop ed pieces, et cetera.

My only rule was that I wouldn’t write about myself: anything I posted had to be of at least theoretical interest to someone other than me and my immediate family. This meant no witterings about My Interesting Holiday, no updates on How Many Words of My Novel I Wrote Today, and absolutely no posts that might be construed as what the guys at Gawker used to call “writering” (i.e. the business of announcing to the world via arty pictures of your manuscript and “#amwriting” hashtags that You Are a Writer). In practice, this has meant posts about things that interest me: Trump, Trump again, classical liberalismTwin Peaks, the politics of superhero movies, horror, the idea of progressHerman Kahn and nuclear war, Irish history, Irish politics, Norman Mailer, social media, the state of literary fiction, and so on.

I also wanted to force myself to write for an audience on a regular basis. Blog posts need to be concise, clearly argued, and adequately sourced. They should be timely. This compels you to get to the point quickly and cleanly. They are (or mine are, at any rate) written at speed; they’re not meant to be immortal contributions to the Western Canon, or anything highfalutin like that. This is liberating. It makes you less afraid of just sitting down and writing. Or at least I’ve found it so.

I’ve also found it interesting to track the stats on the posts I’ve written. My review of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger still gets a moderate amount of traffic. So, for some reason, does this random quote about the World Ice Theory from John Sladek’s “Science Fiction and Pseudoscience” (1972). This Joanna Russ quote about the agony of book reviewing also gets regular attention. And on the basis of my stats, a lot of people are Googling Blindboy Boatclub’s collection of stories.

My two most popular posts by far have been this one, about Vladimir Putin’s top “political technologist” Vladislav Surkov (now rather outdated, following the fall of Steve Bannon), and this one, about Star Wars: The Last Jedi. (Tip for aspiring bloggers: write something about Star Wars. People really, really like Star Wars.) This, I’d suggest, confirms my original instincts about blogging. Don’t write about yourself. Write about something that other people might be interested in. In fact, as a lesson about writing in general, it’s hard to do better than this.

Then again, it’s important to embrace new challenges. Coming up on Antihuman next year, I’ll be serialising my memoir about taking pictures of my notebook as it rests unused on various cafe tables. #blessed #amwriting #liveyourtruth

Thanks for your support this year.

A Long Way from Home by Peter Carey

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My review of Peter Carey’s fourteenth novel, A Long Way from Home (Faber), appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Implacably paywalled, as ever, but here’s a brief extract:

A Long Way from Home is a tremendously expert novel. Setting, characters, and period are evoked with unobtrusive mastery. It’s also – whisper it – just a tiny bit boring. Something impedes your progress through its pages. Perhaps it’s the minutely stage-managed quality of Carey’s structure (which tends to dilate upon minor matters and gallop through the big stuff), or perhaps it’s the unimpeachable worthiness – and therefore, artistically speaking, the dullness – of Carey’s themes. Or perhaps it’s just that the novel’s heavy cargo of personal emotion weighs it down. making the whole thing ponderous when it should be fleet-footed. At this point in his career, of course, Carey has nothing to prove. Nonetheless, A Long Way from Home leaves behind it an unmistakable residue of disappointment, as you contemplate the shorter, sharper, more troubling book it might, in less deadeningly expert hands, have been.

The Woman Who Fooled the World by Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano

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My review of The Woman Who Fooled the World: Belle Gibson’s Cancer Con, and the Darkness at the Heart of the Wellness Industry (Scribe) by Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Paywall as usual, but here’s an excerpt:

If Gibson’s story is worth meditating upon, it’s because of what it tells us about the contemporary hunger to believe. The “wellness industry” is now a permanent feature of the global free market. Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow shill for Tibetan chimes and “vaginal steaming.” The Gerson diet, recommended by Gibson, suggests that a daily coffee enema will cure cancer. People march to their graves following idiotic programmes that they read about on Instagram. 

“That vast moth-eaten musical brocade,” wrote Philip Larkin, “created to pretend we never die.” He was talking about religion. But he might just as easily have been talking about our current quest for an illusory state of “wellness.” People hated Belle Gibson the liar because, paradoxically, she showed them the truth: that death cannot be evaded by wishful thinking or quick-fix quackeries, and that “conventional medicine” (and there is, of course, no other kind of medicine) is often powerless to help us. Despite its occasional longueurs, The Woman Who Fooled the World bracingly retells a chapter in the history of human folly. It’s very much worth your time.  

On Thermonuclear War

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In 1960, at the peak of the Cold War, a strange book appeared. It was called On Thermonuclear War, and its author was Herman Kahn, a military strategist employed by the RAND Corporation. In this book, Kahn outlined the various ways in which a nuclear war might actually happen. He constructed what he called an “escalation ladder,” which laid out 44 stages of nuclear conflict, all the way from “Ostensible Crisis” (in which one or both sides assert, “not quite believably,” that unless certain criteria are met, further rungs of the escalation ladder will be climbed) to “Spasm or Insensate War” (in which nuclear arsenals are emptied indiscriminately). Between these two rungs, Kahn posited various “thresholds,” including the “Nuclear War is Unthinkable Threshold” and the “City-Targeting Threshold.” You can study Kahn’s escalation ladder in full here.

One of Kahn’s basic assumptions was that nuclear war was not fundamentally different from other kinds of war: it could be thought about strategically, and it could, in theory, be won. On Thermonuclear War is the source of the famous question, “Would the survivors envy the dead?” Kahn’s answer is No: “What evidence there is,” he once remarked, “suggests that relatively normal and happy lives would not be impossible even under the conditions that might prevail after a nuclear war, and in spite of the personal and social traumas that would have been experienced.”

Another of Kahn’s basic assumptions was that nuclear powers would always be reluctant to allow the development of crises that would lead to the possibility of nuclear exchange, and that even low-level crises would therefore generally be avoided. In this, he was proved wrong two years after On Thermonuclear War appeared.

1960s liberals regarded On Thermonuclear War as the work of a maniac. “This evil and tenebrous book,” one reviewer wrote, “is a moral tract on mass murder: how to plan it, how to commit it, how to get away with it, how to justify it.” (This review is quoted, without attribution, in Norman Podhoretz’s essay “Herman Kahn and the Unthinkable,” included in Podhoretz’s 1964 collection Doings and Undoings.) Kahn always insisted that his chief aim was to articulate a policy of deterrence. But in On Thermonuclear War, and in a follow-up book called Thinking About the Unthinkable (1962), Kahn argued that a civilisation-destroying nuclear exchange was in fact the least likely eventuality, and that we should therefore be prepared to think about the realities of a “limited” or “tactical” nuclear conflict.

In other words, Kahn provided intellectual ammunition for those right-wingers who believed that America should not be so reluctant to use its nuclear weapons for tactical reasons – among them Barry Goldwater, who during his presidential run in 1964 suggested that the US should use tactical nuclear strikes to end the war in Vietnam. (He was supported in this by William F. Buckley, Jr., the conservative gadabout and editor of National Review.)

On Thermonuclear War is inescapably a product of its time. Kahn posits the existence of two nuclear superpowers, and his “escalation ladder” (to the extent that it is anything more than a daydream of mass death) depends for its analytical effectiveness on the persistence of this situation. Kahn did not anticipate a predicament like the one we face today, in which a single declining superpower (Trump’s US) is engaged in what Kahn would call “subcrisis maneuvring” with a much smaller “rogue state” (Kim Jong-un’s North Korea). Nonetheless, Kahn’s suggestion that a “tactical” nuclear war can be won remains highly attractive to certain elements of the American right – including, of course, Donald Trump.

Trump’s continued bloviating about “the nuclear button” may simply be the ravings of an idiot – thus far Trump has given no evidence that he is capable of strategic thought of any kind (the assumption, on the left, that Trump and his cabinet are following some sort of Machiavellian master-plan is merely, I’m afraid, a result of the fond hope that our enemies can’t possibly be as stupid and incompetent as they look). Or it may be that Trump just isn’t bothered by the thought of a “limited” nuclear exchange with North Korea – he is probably right to think that America can “win” a nuclear war against Kim Jong-un (possible scenario: Kim obliterates Guam or San Diego or Chicago; Trump obliterates Pyongyang; game over; China would almost certainly not retaliate on Kim’s behalf, and nor would Russia). Either way, it is possible that during the next three years, the planet will witness the first tactical use of nuclear weapons since 1945. Under current global conditions, an “Insensate or Spasm War” (to use Kahn’s gruesome terminology) is unlikely. In other words, we’re not really looking at a single civilisation-ending nuclear exchange, of the sort evoked in The Day After (1983), or Threads (1984), or in Jonathan Schell’s harrowing nonfiction study The Fate of the Earth (1982) – all of them products of Cold War nuclear anxiety. What we’re looking at is the possible normalisation of “tactical” nuclear strikes. What we’re looking at is the dawn of a world in which the use of nuclear weapons is simply one more option on the geopolitical menu. If this occurs, thinkers like Herman Kahn will have to assume some of the responsibility.

I’m not a nuclear weapons expert or a political analyst or a military strategist. All I know is what I read in the papers. But I have an idea about nuclear weapons that sometimes keeps me awake at night. My idea is this: given everything that we know about human beings – i.e. that we are irrational, agonistic, death-driven, often incapable of electing wise rulers or of successfully deposing dangerous ones – how likely do we think it is that we will refrain from using nuclear weapons from now until the end of time?

A Writer, We Assume

“A writer, we assume, is involved in the life around him; he interprets and helps to transform his experience; he has needed will as well as talent to develop his individuality and to fight conformity and insensitivity.” – Pauline Kael, I Lost it at the Movies (1965).

New Short Story in Reading the Future

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Here’s a lovely thing: Reading the Future, a new anthology from Arlen House, edited by Alan Hayes and published to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Dublin’s biggest and best bookshop, Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street. It’s a bumper collection, over 700pp, and it features new work from dozens of contemporary Irish writers – including myself. My contribution is a short story entitled “The Nihilists.”

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It’s an honour to be included – especially since I’ve been buying books in Hodges Figgis for over two decades now, and I can’t imagine Dublin without it. And as a bonus, all profits will go towards a literary fund to promote new Irish writing. Copies are available in-store, and there are lots of events/readings planned for 2018. Go forth, and purchase!

What’s Up with the Casino Sequence in Star Wars: The Last Jedi?

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This post contains spoilers. You have been warned. 

There’s an old Hollywood joke that goes like this. Two writers run into each other at a party. The first one says, “Hey, how’s the script going?” The second writer says, “It’s great, it’s great. It’s fantastic. Just a having couple of problems with the second act.”

The joke is that every script has problems with the second act. According to ancient Hollywood lore, Act 1 is where you introduce the basic conflict and clarify the stakes; Act 3 is the climax (or resolution). But Act 2 is where you complicate things. Act 2 (the “middle” part of Aristotle’s beginning-middle-end structure, for those of a classical bent) is the longest part of any movie. It’s the part in which the good guys keep trying and failing – in which the quest to overcome the enemy must meet up with some carefully engineered roadblocks. (Hollywood screenwriting wisdom: “Act 1: Get a man up a tree. Act 2: Shake a stick at him. Act 3: Get him down.”)

From a narratological perspective, Act 2 is all about deferring closure. The problem is that this deferment of closure has to feel natural. The roadblocks have to feel intrinsic to the story itself – they have to derive from a logical premise, or from intelligible character motivation, or (ideally) from both working in concert. Otherwise, the middle of your movie is going to feel arbitrary and bloated. This is the meaning of the joke I quoted above. Writing a good second act is really, really difficult.

Before I go on to say a few things about Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I want to clarify that I think it’s possibly the best Star Wars movie so far. Much more successfully than The Force Awakens, it reactivates the childhood-awe response that is the whole aesthetic point of mega-budget SF movie franchises like Star Wars. This might be because Rian Johnson wrote and directed – he is a vastly more original & interesting director than the talented recycler J.J. Abrams. But Johnson’s undoubted gifts aside, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that The Last Jedi suffers from some serious second-act problems.

The second act of The Last Jedi begins when the Resistance fleet is ambushed by the Star Destroyers of the First Order. A chase ensues. The Resistance ships stay just out of range of the Star Destroyer’s weapons; they’re also too far away (we’re told) for the First Order’s TIE fighters to attack them. Most of the movie’s middle hour takes place in and around this basic set-up. But it doesn’t work. It’s completely arbitrary. For one thing, why don’t the First Order Star Destroyers simply make a quick lightspeed jump to catch up with the Resistance fleet? For another, don’t the First Order have ships that fall somewhere between “giant lumbering Star Destroyer” and “tiny short-range fighter”? The delay feels artificial – it feels trumped-up.

The movie’s parallel second act follows Rey’s sojourn with an aging Luke Skywalker on Skellig Michael (where, in one of the weirdest scenes to appear in a big-budget franchise movie since Logan helped Professor X go to the bathroom, she watches Luke squeeze milk from the udders of a large puppet-animal that seems a bit miffed about the whole procedure). Like the chasing-the Resistance-ships plotline, the Rey-and-Luke sequences depend quite heavily on the principle of artificial delay. “I won’t help you,” Luke says, “go away.” Then, after sufficient movie time has elapsed, he changes his mind.

This is, of course, a classic narrative strategy. Luke on Skellig Micheal has already been compared to Achilles, sulking in his tent (though a closer analogue might be Philoctetes on Lemnos). The hero, asked to help, always refuses at first. But in The Last Jedi, this trope is undermined by the fatal flaw of all Star Wars movies: poorly-articulated character motivation. (Why does Anakin turn to the Dark Side? Something about him being worried that Padme will die, is it? Does that make sense? What does the Emperor actually want, anyway? Power? Do we ever really learn?) Luke eventually tells Rey his secret – he was tempted to kill his student Ben Solo/Kylo Ren, lest he succumb to the Dark Side. Is this really sufficient to explain Luke’s decades-long huff? (It just about explains why Kylo Ren is in such a pissy mood the whole time.)

Of course, you don’t go to Star Wars in search of profound psychological insights. You don’t even go expecting the story to make a whole lot of sense (who cares if the second act is built on some pretty flimsy scaffolding?). What you’re after is what, in The Last Jedi, you actually get (though you have to wait until the last 45 minutes or so): mind-blowing images, heroic archetypes in balletic conflict, and spaceships blowing each other up. All of this Rian Johnson delivers with style and even a degree of originality. Luke’s showdown with Ren is shot like a sort of Old-Testament western – it looks incredible. The sequence in which Vice-Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) crashes the Resistance flagship at lightspeed into Snoke’s dreadnought is a wonder to behold. Adam Roberts has suggested (in this video and elsewhere) that it was the original 1977 Star Wars that signaled science fiction’s transformation from a print phenomenon to an essentially visual art form – that we now consume our SF through an increasingly sophisticated language of visual metaphor, even as the plots of SF movies remain bathetic or cliched. The Last Jedi supports this point, I think. Narratively speaking, it’s rickety stuff. Visually – or, if you will, mythopoeically – it’s a remarkable experience. It will keep audiences coming back for more Star Wars movies – and two more are due in the next couple of years.

Which brings me to The Last Jedi’s casino sequence. Halfway through that rickety second act, Finn and his new pal Rose sneak off the Resistance flagship and head for a planet called Canto Bight (another Star Wars rule followed by The Last Jedi: the names of planets are always terrible). Here they end up in a casino frequented by wealthy arms dealers. The movie makes quite a point of emphasizing how bad these bad guys are. They sip fancy drinks as they watch racehorse-type animals beaten by their jockeys; and Benicio del Toro, having seemingly drifted in from a movie with a more sophisticated sense of the complexities of human ethics, shocks Finn when he reveals that the arms dealers sell to both the First Order and the Resistance (where did Finn think those X-Wings were coming from, I wonder?).

The Last Jedi doesn’t really follow up on this amorality-of-the-arms-dealers stuff, settling instead for further mythopoeic battle sequences in Act 3. In fact the whole casino sequence has baffled some viewers: Mark Kermode in the Guardian wrote that “a visit to a space casino seems distractingly diversionary.” But the casino scenes are interesting. At one point, a grotesque, dwarfish alien creature mistakes BB8 – the amusing spherical droid – for a slot machine, and begins filling him up with coins. Later, BB8 knocks out some guards by spraying them with these stored-up coins. This is startling. For a brief moment, The Last Jedi brushes up against the realities of capital. The grotesque little alien, shoving money into BB8 – isn’t that us? After all, we’re the ones who keep spending money to see Star Wars films. When it comes to this franchise, we are all compulsive gamblers. Every year we line up, hand over our cash, and cross our fingers that this time the movie will pay out – that it will be better than The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones or Rogue One; that it will deliver the genuine hit, that real nostalgic Christmas-morning Star Wars buzz. Depicting BB8 as a slot machine is as close as the franchise has ever gotten to admitting the truth: that Star Wars is a money-making machine for giant corporations, a casino in which, as one of the dealers in the Canto Bight casino says to his clients, “The house wins again!”

This, I think, is why The Last Jedi sends Finn and Rose and BB8 to the casino, right there in the middle of its floppy second act. It wants to show us a quick glimpse of ourselves. Back on Skellig Michael, Rey descends into an underground cavern where, in a magic mirror straight out of a fairy tale, she sees herself reflected, almost to infinity. The Last Jedi is our magic mirror. It shows us ourselves. Perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so willing to embrace everything we see.