Monday, February 15, 2010


There's a great book to be written about The Simpsons, about the disparate group of personalities who created the show, how they achieved an amazingly consistent run of quality for several years, and how one by one its greatest creative talents exited, and the sad slide of a once-great show into continuing mediocrity.

John Ortved's The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History is most certainly not that book.

The most obvious mistake Ortved made when writing this was to tell the story as an oral history. Why? When examining the genesis and influence of a particular creative work, a singular voice is needed, a critical independent mind, someone capable of sifting through the agendas of various former staffers and arriving at some sort of truth, and a writer well-versed enough in TV history to analyze the impact The Simpsons may or may not have had on the medium.

Instead, Ortved mostly just talked to a bunch of people--some only tangentially connected to the show--and cobbled their conversations together in the most arbitrary manner imaginable. True, Tom Wolfe did a guest voice on a late-period episode, but how are his comments even vaguely relevant?

More damagingly, Ortved couldn't get interviews with the key creative personnel--Matt Groening, James L. Brooks or Sam Simon--and tries to make do with interviews they'd conducted elsewhere. (Except for Simon, who's never given an interview about his time on the show, and whose absence seriously undermines the wisdom of the whole oral history concept.) But since these interviews often seem to be taken out of context, what they have to say is often made to look bad. (Ortved seems to have a particular dislike for Brooks.)

In fact, there are no fresh interviews with any of the best-known writers from the show's heyday--George Meyer, John Swartzwelder and Jon Vitti are only heard from second-hand. Ortved's biggest "get" is Conan O'Brien, whose tenure with the show was relatively brief, and has little of interest to say. (Probably not O'Brien's fault; given everything else wrong with the book, I suspect he simply wasn't asked the right questions.) But hey, we spend lots of time talking to various execs from Fox, and learn all about how the show got on the air--as if that's the story anybody wants to hear.

The absolute worst parts of the book, though, are when Ortved's own voice emerges to try to supply some kind of connective tissue. Simply put, he doesn't know what he's talking about. He has absolutely no knowledge of animation history--which would be useful when writing about a cartoon show--and the things he presents as Absolute Truths about TV history are wrong, wrong, wrong.

He claims The Simpsons was unique in sitcom history for its caustic worldview, though everything from Sgt. Bilko to Buffalo Bill prove otherwise. He wants us to believe that the show appeared fully-formed in a sea of prime time mediocrity, though its first season was wobbly and the network landscape already included Cheers, Roseanne, The Wonder Years and an early incarnation of Seinfeld. (True, none of these shows were as good as The Simpsons at its best, but they weren't chopped liver.) He seems convinced that The Simpsons single-handedly ushered in a new wave of series driven primarily by their writing staffs, although that's pretty much the whole history of TV ever.

That last point is particularly laughable. At one point, Ortved implies that The Sopranos and The West Wing were somehow made possible by The Simpsons, that it alone made TV a respectable medium for writers. Leaving aside such well-respected Golden Age scribes as Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling--Ortved would consider such names ancient history--what about MASH, which was clearly Larry Gelbart's show, or Jay Tarses' Days And Nights Of Molly Dodd...or Taxi, with a staff of writers that included James L. Brooks and Sam Simon?

In fact, the evidence of Ortved's own book shows that writers weren't particularly respected at any point in the history of The Simpsons, since every script would be punched up a string of gagmen, and the credited author often had nothing to do with the final episode. No one voice could ever emerge, no one individual would ever be considered the auteur of the show. It's not the only way to do a show, but it worked just fine for many, many years. Just how it managed to work is a story that fans have been waiting to hear.

And thanks to Ortved, they're still waiting.