If you want to see genuine, mature love in a television family, you would be hard-pressed to find it in the dregs of primetime television. Any watchful parent can tell you that most of the shows are today are simple-minded and prurient. For the most part, networks have jettisoned clever scripts in favour of “unscripted” reality shows. Shows like Hell’s Kitchen and American Idol are modern-day freak shows, with William Hung starring as the geek. When networks do turn to scripted shows, they use hackneyed formulas: There’s the smart wife, the dopey dad, the sassy kids, the cranky in-laws, the weird neighbour. It’s pretty clear that network executives have little regard for the American family.

There is one TV show, however, that is very gentle with the American family. It has some of the familiar elements: dopey, hounded dad, sassy kids, and martyred mom. But unlike most sitcoms, it offers smart writing. And most importantly, it shows a family holding together with love. Surprisingly, this humane show does not feature human beings. It’s a cartoon.

That show is The Simpsons, now in its 17th year.

There was a time when The Simpsons was the bane of American morality and prudence. When the show first appeared in the early 1990s, the country quickly picked sides. On the side of right and goodness were Bill Cosby and the Huxtable family – a picture of healthy smiles and correct posture and wholesome ambition. On the other side were off-yellow, spiky-haired, four-fingered creatures with names like Bart who said things like “Eat my shorts!” to adults. And there was Homer, the oafish pater familias, a character who was too much an idiot to do anything other than push buttons at the local nuclear power plant, but who always managed to have extraordinary adventures (last I checked, Homer has been―in a long and varied career―an astronaut, a submariner, a rock star, inventor of a make-up gun, founder of his own religion, and professional prison snitch).

The Simpsons quickly became the poster family for everything wrong in modern American culture (rude kids, oafish fathers, a thumb in the eye of authority). Hating the show became a cause celebre. Even President George H. Bush weighed in, famously opining, “We’re going to keep trying to strengthen the American family. To make them more like The Waltons and less like The Simpsons.” An early death was predicted by most.

How times have changed. Seventeen years later, The Simpsons isn’t just a presence on television. It’s a force of culture. Visit the bookstore where you can buy The Simpsons and Philosophy, a collection of essays about (among other things) the meaning of happiness as seen by animated tyrant Montgomery Burns and Homer Simpson’s Aristotelian virtues. The book is right next to The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family. If you prefer, you can surf the web and find very sober articles with titles like “The Simpsons In Search of Jesus” and “The Simpsons as a Critique of Consumer Culture.” Conservative denominations have embraced the show as a model of perseverance and faith (Marge, the suffering servant, always dragging lazy-but-good-at-heart Homer back from the brink of damnation). Not to be outdone, colleges too have embraced the Simpson family. Appalachian State (Boone, North Carolina) offers Simpsonmath.com, an on-line tutorial for the math-baffled student. Structuralism and religious studies are made easy when they are offered in a presentation called “The Theology of The Simpsons: Why do The Simpsons go to Church? Postmodernism and Religion in Pop Culture” (Brock University, Ontario, Canada). I wonder what it was like to cram for class when the class is called “The Simpsons: Sitcom as Political and Social Satire”? (University of California at Berkeley)

The Simpsons is no longer just a cartoon. It’s a staple of cultural analysis and academia. I, for one, couldn’t be happier. Yes, so many of the books, essays, and classes that have come from The Simpsons are just pseudo-intellectual silliness, but if a kid watches a cartoon and from it stumbles into wisdom, who am I to complain? And it’s good to see that the show is recognised for its well-placed heart. No doubt it drives Simpsons creator and vocal progressive Matt Groening crazy, but the show is something of a paragon of conservative, traditional mores. Hard work is rewarded. Characters drift from church, but always come back (sometimes God makes a special guest appearance on the show to drag a character – usually Homer – back to Church). Marriages are tested, but in the end, Homer and Marge always stick together. Bart, for all his mischief, really loves his family. And Homer, for all of his simple-mindedness and naiveté, is a good father.

In that sense, The Simpsons is the natural and evolved offspring of a show like The Flintstones (another cartoon that made it to primetime). In its day, The Flintstones offered viewers (mostly children) simple morality plays. Fred would fib about spending time with friends, Wilma would get upset, and the whole house of cards would come down. Lesson learned for Fred. The important message of the show was that in spite of Fred’s foibles, he kept on trying to do right. As the closing lyrics said, “Maybe, some day Fred will win the fight.” In the 1960s, it was Fred Flintstone. Today, it’s Homer Simpson who, in spite of himself, really tries hard to do right by his kids and wife. Apart from a few missteps (did the Simpson family really need to applaud homosexual unions?), The Simpsons consistently affirms the inherent goodness of family life.

It could be worse; in fact it is

Disturbed that a cartoon is the best model of the American family TV has to offer? Consider this: children watch an average of four hours of television a day. Most of the sitcoms kids watch will feature dysfunctional families where the parents cheat on each other or the father is an ineffectual non-entity. When kids are not watching sitcoms, they are watching shows targeting the magical 18-to-25 audience – the seductive, sexy “reality” shows of MTV (The Real World, Spring Break), competitive shows like America’s Top Model, shows purporting to give teens the “real scoop” about sexuality and identity like Girlfriends. Watching these kinds of shows has a negative effect. Studies by the Rand Corporation and other organisations show that kids who watch shows with heavy sexual content are twice as likely to engage in sexual intercourse than other children.

If children must watch television, it’s best that they are exposed to a depiction of American life that is light, intelligent, and loving – even if it’s a cartoon. In the Grand Guignol of television shows, The Simpsons has become a beacon of morality.

A nation suffering from outrage fatigue

There’s no sign that The Simpsons phenomena is slowing. In March 2006, the show was renewed for two more seasons, and a full-length feature film is expected in 2007. Clearly the show is a financial and critical success. So why aren’t viewers demanding more shows like it? Why is television still polluted with easy sex, foul humour, and consequence-free drug and alcohol use?

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the senior senator from New York in the 1980s and 1990s, may have found the answer. Moynihan, an accomplished sociologist, offered the idea of outrage fatigue. In his 1993 article “Defining Deviancy Down” (American Scholar, 1993), Moynihan argued that “over the past generation, the amount of deviant behaviour in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can ‘afford to recognise’.” As a result, Moynihan said, “We have been redefining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatised, and also quietly raising the ‘normal’ level in categories where behaviour is now abnormal by any earlier standard.” In other words, America is inured to the low standards of television shows, and what would have outraged viewers 20 years ago (about the time The Simpsons premiered) is now accepted by a weary and morally shell-shocked audience.

Cases in point are two cartoon shows that surfaced in 2005: Family Guy and American Dad (Fox Network), both the creation of 33-year-old animator Seth MacFarlane.

Mr MacFarlane says Family Guy and American Dad are homages to The Simpsons, and there are similarities. Like the Simpson clan, these shows feature thick-headed dads, exasperated mothers, morally-centred, spirited sisters, and emotionally stunted sons (in the case of Family Guy, the son seems to suffer from severe autism). Unlike The Simpsons, Family Guy features a talking dog that regularly masturbates. Apparently, masturbation jokes about dogs earn big laughs. Unlike The Simpsons, American Dad features a goldfish that regularly solicits the sexual attention of the family mother.

That’s not to say the better quality Simpsons can’t be naughty from time to time. The Simpsons is bawdy. The show cheerfully pokes fun at Homer’s drinking, and characters do have sex. But almost all of its sexual content features the married Homer and Marge. The kids – Bart, Lisa, and Maggie – are innocents. Bart might have a crush, but it’s just innocent. Lisa has a crush only on a teen idol named Corey. Maggie is just a baby. Compare with the kids in Family Guy and American Dad, where the boys aren’t just sexually aware, they are sexually active. Last season, the girl from American Dad moved in with her boyfriend. Three weeks ago, the baby on Family Guy beat up a character because he was a virgin.

Simpson viewers know that in spite of it all, the characters actually like each other. They behave like actual family members. Consider this exchange between Homer and daughter Lisa when Homer learns Bart has run away from home and now needs a ticket back to Springfield:

Lisa: Bart rented a car with a phoney driver’s license and drove Milhouse, Martin, and Nelson to a wig outlet in Knoxville and the car got crushed and they’re out of money and they can’t get home and Bart’s working as a courier and just came back from Hong Kong!
[Homer’s face turns pink, but his voice is eerily calm]
Homer: Yes, that’s a real pickle. Would you excuse me for a moment?
[He screams out indistinguishable profanities. Then he is eerily calm again]
All right, I have thought this through. I will send Bart the money to fly home. Then I will murder him.

Only a truly loving dad would want to help and kill his son at the same time.

Here is a typical exchange from American Dad:

Stan Smith: Son, if you ever get captured by any terrorists in the neighbourhood and end up on Al-Jazeera, just blink you location in Morse code. I’ll have a bomb dropped on your location immediately.
Steve Smith: But, Dad, then I’d get killed too.
Stan Smith: Ah, come on son, there are plenty of kids to play with in heaven. Your cousin Billy. That little girl from Poltergeist. She must be about 16 by now. You could totally tap that.

A father is pimping for his son. And the response from an outraged American public is? Silence. It’s downright quaint to think how everyone got upset when Bart Simpson would tell teachers, “Don’t have a cow, man!”

If cartoons like The Flintstones or The Simpsons are snapshots of our culture and the American family, then Family Guy and American Dad are like our pictures of Dorian Grey. If Seth MacFarlane is right, then we’re not just good-natured, big-hearted buffoons. We’re abusive towards our children, salacious, obsessed with pop culture to the exclusion of actual thought. Family Guy and American Dad mark the devolution of the cartoon family.

But why? Why accept shows like Family Guy and American Dad when we have families like the Simpson clan? Senator Moynihan suggested Americans tolerate deviant behaviour out of altruism – “good people who try to do good.” No one wants to be a censor; no one wants to trample on freedom of speech. So if Mr MacFarlane wants to make a show celebrating smut, who will stop him? Likewise, Moynihan argued that there is a kind of psychological denial at work. A community can afford to recognise only a limited number of deviant offences before becoming numb. Perhaps American Dad and Family Guy simply daze us with its outrageousness.

But let’s take heart. I will make a bold prediction and say that no classes will ever be offered on Family Guy and American Dad. Students will not sign up for a course on the politics of these cartoon shows. No one will study these shows to learn about American culture, except to learn where the bottom is. In the meantime, I look to The Simpsons to give us a better portrait of the real American family.

Eugene Naughton writes from Washington DC.