The Simpsons take on the American Dream in their season 33 finale : The Indicator from Planet Money Last year, we analyzed whether or not the Simpson family's lifestyle was attainable for the middle class. A writer on the show listened to that Indicator, and decided to answer that question with an episode of their own. Today, we bring you a sneak preview of their take on America's shrinking middle class.

Bart Simpson's American Dream

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC'S "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

PADDY HIRSCH, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Paddy Hirsch. And today, Stacey Vanek Smith is with me.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Hello.

HIRSCH: I asked her to join me for this very special episode. Thank you for joining me, Stacey.

VANEK SMITH: Well, I couldn't not join, Paddy. I was very, very excited about this episode.

HIRSCH: Just over a year ago, we did what we rarely do, and we dedicated an episode of THE INDICATOR to a single person, a patriarch of one of America's favorite families - "The Simpsons."

VANEK SMITH: Homer J. Simpson - the iconic American economic everyman, with his middle-class job at the nuclear power plant, his suburban home, his two-car garage, complete, of course, with two cars, and his beloved family - his wife Marge, his son Bart, and his daughters, Lisa and Maggie.

HIRSCH: And Homer is kind of regarded, as you say, Stacey, as America's everyman.

VANEK SMITH: Yes.

HIRSCH: However, as we found out on our show last year, that image is deeply flawed, and that message appears to have resonated around the American economy because a lot of people listened to that show.

VANEK SMITH: Yes.

HIRSCH: And one person in particular listened to it.

TIM LONG: I am Tim Long, and I am a longtime writer/producer for "The Simpsons."

VANEK SMITH: "The Simpsons" writers listen to THE INDICATOR. I feel like we just need to take a moment. Thank you, Tim. Keep listening.

HIRSCH: And Tim heard our show, which was - props to The Atlantic - inspired by an article in The Atlantic magazine. And he decided to dig into this question of Homer's lifestyle himself.

LONG: You know, it's obviously crazy that Homer has managed to maintain this middle-class lifestyle. Like, how are they living so well? But just the issue - the hard economic facts of the show just struck me as kind of like an interesting topic.

HIRSCH: So Tim and the rest of "The Simpsons" writing team, they goofed around for a year - you know, the way writing teams do - making jokes about crushing poverty and social alienation.

VANEK SMITH: The classics.

HIRSCH: And a year later - this Sunday, in fact - the show will be airing its 33rd season finale.

VANEK SMITH: And we are just over the moon excited about this. The entire episode is dedicated to the very greatest subject of all time.

DOUGLIS: The American economy.

VANEK SMITH: And, of course, you know, this is "The Simpsons." It's naturally set to music.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Cable news declares we're doomed, and Facebook feeds are fright. They convince us things were great when gas was cheap and men were white. So they rally around the crooks and the creepy and depressed - the vengeful lead of our vanishing middle class.

HIRSCH: This is our spoiler-filled "Simpsons" story - coming up after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

NANCY CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Just like you, Dad, I can't wait to live the American dream.

YEARDLEY SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) Well, actually...

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) What?

SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) Oh, nothing.

HIRSCH: Tim Long has been writing for "The Simpsons" for 24 years. He grew up in Ontario, where his father was a John Deere tractor dealer. It was the '80s, so he got an early taste of how hard the economy can be on people.

LONG: You know, I was coming from an agricultural area. It was very boom and bust. And so you saw a lot of people who were doing well one year and doing very poorly the next year. So I feel like this is the sort of thing that's always sort of fascinated me.

VANEK SMITH: And in late 2020, The Atlantic published its great piece on "The Simpsons," and in March of last year, we aired our episode.

LONG: So I started kicking that around in my mind, and then I thought, well, what's the funniest way that we could respond? And then it felt like, what if it were a musical?

HIRSCH: And in the show, Homer's son Bart embraces the American dream - that ideal that we can follow in our parents' footsteps and do just a little better or even a lot better than the last generation did. And he decides that he, like Homer, will work at the nuclear power plant and replicate his father's middle-class life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) I never thought about it, but Homer makes enough to pay for this awesome crib, two cars, with enough left over to fill the freezer with three kinds of French fries - waffle, curly and steak cut.

LONG: And then it takes this crazy turn where Bart is informed via a musical number that that may not be possible anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

HUGH JACKMAN: (As character, singing) Your dad and his buddies had it swell, but gradually it all...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Went to hell.

JACKMAN: (As character, singing) Factories closed. Unemployment was...

LONG: The primary voice in the song is none other than Hugh Jackman. And he plays a sort of magical singing janitor who takes Bart on a musical journey through the American economy from the end of the Second World War until now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

JACKMAN: (As character, singing) 1945 - we won the war. Our boys came back to the factory floor.

HIRSCH: So Homer gets his nuclear plant job during that postwar boom. Bart's prospects today, however, don't seem so good. For one thing, if he wants his dad's job, he's going to need to go to college, a fact his little sister, Lisa, takes great delight in telling him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson, singing) Yo, all I need is a foot in the door, and I'll take Dad's job when he dies at 44.

SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson, singing) That job you see now needs a Ph.D., while paying student loans leaves you in poverty.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, Lisa Simpson - such a downer. Truly, though, she has a point. In fact, when we crunched the numbers on "The Simpsons" household last year, we worked out that Homer would earn about the equivalent of $50,000 a year in today's dollars.

HIRSCH: Tough to send a kid to college on that kind of money, let alone get them an advanced degree. It's a good thing kids these days have options.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson, singing) Because there's a lot of new ways a guy can make a dollar. I'll ride the money train, make it rain.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Holler.

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson, singing) I'll buy and sell bitcoin, build a new app, do pranks on YouTube. I'm great at that crap. Film TikTok tricks on my sick motorbike.

ROBERT REICH: (As self) Your chances are slim.

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson, singing) Go to hell, Robert Reich.

VANEK SMITH: Robert Reich.

HIRSCH: Robert Reich.

VANEK SMITH: Economists, they're everywhere.

HIRSCH: They called in - isn't this the greatest INDICATOR moment ever?

VANEK SMITH: It's the greatest INDICATOR moment ever.

HIRSCH: So the former labor secretary from the Clinton administration came on the show to, as Tim puts it, threw down some facts.

LONG: I mean, the whole thing is rhymed, which is not that easy. But I just wanted someone to just start spitting facts for about 30 seconds. And I thought, well, who else to get then Robert Reich, who I know is very funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

REICH: (As self) The decline of unions, rampant corporate greed, Wall Street malfeasance and the rise of short-sighted politics all contributed to increased economic inequality, widespread real unemployment...

HIRSCH: That doesn't sound all that funny to me.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. In fact, you know, there is a very dark streak running through this entire show. There's this one scene reminiscent of the musical "Les Miserables," which, of course, is set in the bloodiest days of the French Revolution.

LONG: The old people in Springfield come out and start talking about why they vote for certain candidates. And it's sort of like the part in "Les Mis" where everyone comes out to the ramparts and sings this rousing song. But in this case, the song is about how they vote foolishly and let bad guys win.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) They shred our safety nets and gut Medicare. But they get our vote because we're incredibly easy to scare.

VANEK SMITH: That's a hot take.

HIRSCH: Is that The Simpsons taking a bit of a political position there?

VANEK SMITH: I mean, yes, but it's not their first, I don't think.

HIRSCH: I don't think it's their first. Of course, it's impossible to separate economics and politics. So I asked Tim if he was worried that this episode might alienate some viewers.

LONG: Comedy is, by its very nature, kind of alienating. I mean, at some point we have poked fun of everyone, and certainly we have done plenty to poke fun of the left, and certainly there's plenty to poke fun of there. And so, you know, it just - eventually we manage to target everybody. So I'm not that worried about it.

VANEK SMITH: You know what comes out of this episode looking pretty good, though, Paddy, are firefighters because in the last act of the show, after Bart's fragile hopes for his future have been torched by Lisa and Hugh Jackman and Robert Reich, Bart gets himself into this terrible situation. And he is rescued, saved by firefighters.

HIRSCH: Yeah, and they're not there just to save Bart but actually to revive all of our hopes for the American dream, to deliver the message that a comfortable middle class is possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Hang on tight. You'll be OK.

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson, singing) Thanks. By the way, how good is your pay?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Pays good, and pension is great when we retire.

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Nice.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, singing) Sweet health plan, plus cool hat and boots.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, singing) We're always hiring new recruits.

VANEK SMITH: Got to love the hat and boots, you know, plus the pension.

HIRSCH: The perks are everything.

VANEK SMITH: But yeah, I mean, if you look at what they're talking about here, this is stuff that used to come with lots and lots of jobs not that long ago, but now is very rare - a job with health care, a pension, really good pay, union protections.

LONG: The point that we're trying to make is that the middle class is sort of a vanishing species. And so, you know, we were slightly tongue in cheek when we said that fireman is the job that he should get, but he could do worse.

HIRSCH: Yeah. And of course, then there's the fact that we really need firefighters - I mean, that we really, really need firefighters - right? - given the strong likelihood that some part of the U.S. could burst into flames at any time. I guess that's job security.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) But you still hold me in high regard.

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Eat my shorts, you tub of lard.

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) D'oh.

VANEK SMITH: D'oh.

HIRSCH: D'oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HIRSCH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jess Kung, with engineering from James Willetts. It was fact-checked by Corey Bridges. Our senior producer is Viet Le, and Kate Concannon edits the show. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

So did Robert Reich look over the script?

LONG: Yeah, he did. He did. And he didn't have a single change.

HIRSCH: So this means that we could say that this show was in some way inspired by THE INDICATOR and fact-checked by Robert Reich.

LONG: (Laughter) Yeah, that's one way to put it.

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