Bart writes on the walls at the opening of The Simpsons' controversial Sunday night sequence.
Discussion of the "couch gag" at the beginning of Sunday night's episode of The Simpsons started to circulate on Twitter at about 8:02 PM.
The "couch gag," for non-viewers of the show, is the extra joke thrown into the opening credits every week. It's usually about two or three seconds long — but this week's was different.
Designed by UK street artist Banksy, who recently made the documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop, the bit — which you can see above — depicted the show being animated in an Asian sweatshop, where kittens were also being turned into mulch to stuff Bart Simpson dolls, and where a unicorn's horn was being used to punch out the centers of Simpsons DVDs.
Darkly funny? Sure. But is it really, as MTV (among many others) argued, a "ballsy critique of outsourcing, The Simpsons, and the standards and human rights conditions that people in first world nations accept"?
The Simpsons has been animated partially in South Korea since its inception. That's not new. But there have never been claims that it is produced in a sweatshop — and, in fact, Simpsons executive producer Al Jean was quick to clarify that "It’s a fantasy—none of it is true. That being said, it’s funny."
So if it's supposed to be an actual critique of The Simpsons, or of outsourcing, or of standards that people in first world nations accept, a significant part of its bite would seem to be reduced by the comforting reassurance to the audience that "it's a fantasy." In other words, you might need to think about outsourcing or sweatshops — but certainly not with regard to this show. Be uncomfortable, but not about us.
If Banksy thought that the bit had anything to do with the actual production of the show or was a real critique of it or of happenings at Fox, the producers apparently didn't. Jean shrugged off reports that the animation department threatened to walk out over it, saying, "We’ve depicted the conditions in a fanciful light before."
A word that's been thrown around quite a bit with regard to this bit is "subversive." But when a piece of art — which is what this is intended to be — is accompanied by reassurances that it's "fanciful" and "none of it is true," how subversive is it? If it doesn't disturb, or it isn't meant to disturb, it's just meant to be funny, and if it's perfectly okay with the network that has shared in the literally billions of dollars the show has made, is it more subversive, or is it more a brilliant way to get some attention for a franchise that is widely understood in quality terms to be on whatever comes after your last legs?
Remember — Banksy had his name splashed all over the opening sequence two different times, and he's probably more famous this week than at any other time in his life. The show, meanwhile, has reclaimed a level of relevance to the cultural conversation that it has almost never enjoyed over the last, say, seven or eight years. Considering that the show has made swipes at Fox part of its brand (kind of like David Letterman has always joked about his various bosses), it's not exactly devastating to the network.
So if the network benefits (if it were actually concerned, it likely wouldn't have let the piece air), and the show benefits, and the artist benefits, and the audience can enjoy it as "fanciful" and "funny," what is being subverted? What is being rebelled against? Nobody is giving back any of the money from the DVDs, or the Bart Simpson dolls. Nobody is advocating changing the way the show is produced.
In closing, consider this question: Has this bit led to more discussion of outsourcing and sweatshops, or more discussion of The Simpsons and Banksy?