"The Simpsons" just made its Apu problem worse — and proved its creative bankruptcy

Sunday night's episode responded to criticism from Asian Americans about Apu, making a very weak point

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published April 9, 2018 7:00PM (EDT)

Apu voiced by Hank Azaria on "The Simpsons" (FOX)
Apu voiced by Hank Azaria on "The Simpsons" (FOX)

On Sunday’s episode of “The Simpsons” its writers and producers delivered a message to America, care of Springfield, U.S.A., one as disposable and succinct as a postcard: “We’ve stopped caring. You should too.”

As to what we should stop caring about, the obvious answer would be Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the character that inspired half of the plot’s spine for “No Good Read Goes Unpunished.”

We weren’t meant to see that from the get-go, understand. Executive producer Al Jean teased as much before the episode aired, promising “a Twitter explosion in act three.” That was the moment at which we were to realize that the wandering and weak plot spine was meant as a half-baked clap back at comedian Hari Kondabolu’s “The Problem with Apu,” an excellent documentary that premiered on TruTV in November 2017.

That’s right around the time that “The Simpsons” writers would have been in the early stages of working on "No Good Read Goes Unpunished." The main story begins with a concerned Marge urging the family to rekindle a love of reading, which she does by taking Bart, Lisa, Maggie and Homer to a local bookstore. There, she encounters a classic edition of "The Princess in the Garden," one of her favorite childhood books, and she decides to read it to Lisa.

Only after she’s perched on her older daughter’s bed does Marge realizes that the book’s heroine is a colonialist slave owner who considers brown people to be savages. “They were too naturally servile to oppose her will,” one line reads. This leads Marge to quickly revise the book to make it “as inoffensive as a Sunday in Cincinnati” by removing what she calls its spirit and character. Marge rewrites the heroine as “cisgender” and a crusader for net neutrality.

In response Lisa, typically Springfield’s most overtly and overly-conscientious progressive voice (a fact fueling much of Monday’s consternation on Twitter) points out that without flaws, the heroine has no room to evolve and therefore her story lacks a point.

“Well, what am I supposed to do?” a flummoxed Marge asks.

“It’s hard to say,” Lisa replies, then looks directly at the audience. “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”

Then she casts a longing look at a framed picture of Apu sitting on her bedside table bedecked with an inscription that reads, “Don’t have a cow, Apu.”

Amazing. In a scant three sentences, part of a sequence that lasts all of 16 seconds, “The Simpsons” writers managed to display enough layers of dismissiveness to build a truly impressive lasagna of willful ignorance.

Where to begin?

There’s the laziness of dismissing valid concerns about the character as so much politically correct bluster, as opposed to evidence of harm offered by an array of voices representing a slice of the population long overlooked. That’s the central point of Kondabolu’s documentary; in fact, as incensed as he is about how Apu has impacted the way he’s viewed in the world, what really upsets him, and other actors and public figures interviewed in the film, is how the characterization of Apu leads to his parents being mistreated. (If you haven't seen the documentary, by the way, it's streaming on TruTV's website and is available via video on demand.)

Stubborn solipsism breeds in the most vaunted of Hollywood’s writers’ rooms. And “The Simpsons,” stocked by Harvard Lampoon alumni and overwhelmingly white and male, is one of the toughest clubs for a comedy writer to break into. Let’s assume, fairly safely and based on the data indicating that 86.3 percent of TV writers are white, that no people of color were present or consulted when “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” was written.

That’s no more smug of an assumption than the declaration that Apu used to be “applauded and inoffensive,” no doubt informed by all the people quoting Hank Azaria’s accent back to people who work on “The Simpsons.” In Hollywood’s creative bubble, that’s a major barometer of success.

Industry accolades are another. On Twitter, Jean defended that line by pointing out that Hank Azaria, the actor who voices Apu, won an Emmy for voicing the character in 1998. “Only 20 years ago,” he argues.

Emmy voters never make mistakes, and so little has changed in 20 years. Right?

The tenor of the conversation sparked by “The Problem with Apu” has sharpened even since its cable debut five months ago. Back then I wrote, “It's worth wondering how many of the people who would learn the most from 'The Problem with Apu' will want to watch it. 'The Simpsons' is a beloved property, a nearly sacred icon of American popular culture. . . . And a number of its passionate fans may not want to confront any implication that their favorite cartoon also is a potent perpetuator of a damaging stereotype.”

At that time I failed to consider the show’s own writers to be among its biggest fans. Nothing wrong with being proud of your own work, but the whole of “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” exists to prove that they know the show’s not going anywhere anytime soon. So...insert shrug emoji here.

In three more episodes, “The Simpsons” will beat the record set by “Gunsmoke” for most episodes aired, and among the critics that are still watching, the consensus is that its best days are behind it. Why bother provoking with thoughtful satire when you can just respond to a detractor who can’t — nay, shouldn’t — argue with success?

Salon reached out to Kondabolu for comment but did not hear back. However, he did offer these responses on Twitter.

“No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” the series’ 633rd episode, opens with the writers giving themselves a good ribbing by way of patting themselves on the back, as the ‘toon within a ‘toon “The Itchy and Scratchy Show” airs a ceaseless marathon of every slaughter ever. In one scene the fictionalized home of “Itchy and Scratchy,” FXX (the real life home of “Every. Simpsons. Ever.”) does a PR stunt involving feline offal being slopped out of an airplane and onto excited fans cheering mindlessly.

The universal adoration for a cartoon cat and the homicidal mouse who regularly dismembers him is so accepted that nobody dares to be taken aback at the implied barbarity of a blood-and-guts shower. It’s just a cartoon after all. A cartoon that no longer needs to work at being funny.

No actual beings are injured in the making of “The Simpsons” show within a show. And despite what “The Problem with Apu” posits, the implied takeaway is that “The Simpsons” isn’t in the business of harming anyone either. Just a cartoon, folks!

Jeff Westbrook, credited with writing the episode, must have seen “The Problem with Apu,” but he and the other writers failed to digest a central point Kondabalu makes in it. When the most popular Indian American character on TV is a stereotype voiced by a white guy, and when that character contributes to a generation of children and their parents suffering prejudice and bullying, then perhaps that character is due for an unflinching reappraisal.

Drawing a false equivalency between a decades-old children’s book and an animated series that’s in the midst of its 29th season doesn’t cut it. As NPR’s Linda Holmes points out in her excellent piece, “Apu is not appearing in a 50-year-old book by a now-dead author. Apu is a going concern. Someone draws him, over and over again. Azaria makes money to keep imitating Peter Sellers imitating an Indian man. Scripts are still being written.“

But this spectacular thud is only one example of the series’ more pressing problem of irrelevancy. The entire episode is a classic example of a group of TV writers’ collective failure to acknowledge a significant flaw in their classic creation. Or to consider that opening themselves up to accepting measured criticism of that creation may actually win them points as opposed to sinking them further into creative bankruptcy.

Don’t forget that it takes several months for an episode of “The Simpsons” to make it on the air, by the way.  That means that this line had to have been written right around the time that Kondabolu’s documentary made its TV debut. That throwaway bit, and the compostable plot coupon leading up to this, is a reactive response to an issue that begs for a thoughtful, measured reply that addresses it and, perhaps in the course of doing so, ameliorates the problem.

Instead, Marge places her hand on Lisa’s shoulder and says, “Some things will be dealt with at a later date.”

“If at all,” Lisa finishes, before mother and daughter both stare out at America with their wide, round and blank peepers. In the silence of that pause, they deliver the moral of this story: In the end, “The Simpsons” has stopped caring about how intelligently and compassionately Springfield satirizes the good people of the U.S. of A. And so should the rest of us.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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