Freakish, funny, dysfunctional and yet strangely familiar

The Simpsons are coming. Andrew Tuck on TV's new model family
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Is It acceptable to laugh at the misfortunes of a dysfunctional family? This autumn the BBC is screening a series that lays bare the inner workings of one such American household as it attempts to cope with an intellectually challenged father who drinks too much beer, two children hooked on cartoon violence, and a mother whose greatest asset is her "big hair".

These are The Simpsons, the infamous cartoon family that President Bush publicly berated in a State of the Union address (he yearned for the days when, it would seem, people were like characters out of The Waltons) and whose activities until now have only been screened on satellite television in the UK.

The BBC has been allowed to buy rights to the first three series - BSkyB will be showing series eight in the new year - from the owners, 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation, which is part of Rupert Murdoch's business empire. It is likely to get very high ratings on terrestrial television; Britain is probably heading for a wave of Simpsons mania.

"We started airing it in January 1990 and it was an immediate and phenomenal success," says Melanie Adorian, a BSkyB press officer and Simpsons fan. "Whenever we show a new episode, about a million people watch it. The only other programme that rivals it is The X-Files. Even the old episodes get great ratings."

The Simpsons are the invention of comic-strip writer Matt Groening (fans will upbraid you if you fail to pronounce it correctly as Grayning) who, at the age of 31, was asked by Gracie Films to develop an idea for television. He came up with the animated Simpsons shorts which were screened during The Tracey Ullman Show in the US. Soon the shorts were extended to half-hour episodes, with both children and adults guffawing at the mishaps afflicting the characters.

The programme's popularity is partly due to this split-level appeal. It works as a children's show - although some parents may find the characters too outspoken for comfort - but also pulls in a big adult audience because of its political comments and social critique.

Groening has always been proud that the show deliberately winds up Republicans: political gaffes can be picked up in the programme within days because, while it takes eight months to make each episode, the final editing is left to the last minute to make topical additions.

For anyone unacquainted with the Simpson family, Bart is the rebellious, spiky-haired son who is always in trouble and who has added to the English language such phrases as "Eat my shorts" (Come now, don't be so ridiculous) and "Don't have a cow, man" (Pray don't have a fit); Homer is the brainless slob of a father (but we still love him); Marge is the long-suffering and strangely wise wife and mother; Lisa is the cocky daughter who, with Bart, likes watching the violent TV cartoon Itchy and Scratchy (obviously based on Tom and Jerry, except that the mouse is as big as the cat and the action more violent than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre); and the baby is a blob that moves around in a cute way but makes an annoying sucking noise.

To be a Simpsons devotee you also need to become addicted to the opening sequence. At the start you must watch out for the blackboard on which Bart is always to be found chalking up lines as a school punishment: "I will not yell 'fire' in a crowded classroom", "I will not trade pants with others", "A burp is not an answer", "Organ transplants are best left to professionals", "I do not have diplomatic immunity", and "I am not deliciously saucy".

Also watch out for how all the characters assemble on the sofa: sometimes the couch springs open and turns into a bed, or everyone runs in and looks at where the couch should be, or everyone sits on Homer.

There are aural challenges too. The programme has had a rollcall of stars appearing as guest voices. Jackie Mason played Rabbi Hyman Krustofski; the Ramones played themselves; and Dustin Hoffman played Mr Bergstrom (he appeared as Sam Etic in the credits, apparently for contractual reasons).

Simpsons fans also find themselves growing fond of Homer's surreal statements. Take, for example, his entreaty that "You'll have to speak up, I'm wearing a towel", or his advice to Bart: "Son, when participating in sporting events, it's not whether you win or lose, it's how drunk you get."

There are several running gags that aficionados delight in, especially the pranks Bart plays on Moe, owner of Moe's tavern. Bart, not revealing his identity, phones Moe to ask if a friend of his is drinking there. Moe always falls for the trick and shouts out lines such as, "Hey, has anybody seen Mike Rotch lately?", "Somebody check the men's room for a Hugh Jass", and "Why can't I find Amanda Hugginkiss". Bart is bad, but you'll learn to love him too.

The Simpsons is a hotly debated show on the Internet. Here you will find the kinds of questions that will shortly be troubling you at night. Why, for example, does everyone in the programme have only three fingers? How come the policemen have pig's snouts? What is it that Marge likes reading in her magazine, Mom Monthly? And why am I turning into a Simpsons nerd?