“Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” Lisa asked Marge in an April episode of The Simpsons, as a framed photo of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon sat pointedly in the foreground. “Some things will be addressed at a later date,” was Marge’s blank reply, before Lisa qualified: “If at all.”
The show’s response to the controversy surrounding its Indian character felt sulky and dismissive. “I truly appreciate all responses pro and con,” long-serving Simpsons writer and producer Al Jean tweeted after the episode aired. “Will continue to try to find an answer that is popular & more important right,” (sic).
It seems that, at least for Fox, this answer is the one Lisa suggested, with the network reportedly deciding to “drop the Apu character altogether”.
A Fox representative’s cryptic response is pretty far from a denial, the reference to the afterlife a bad omen. “Apu appeared in the 10/14/18 episode ‘My Way or the Highway to Heaven,’” they said. “In the episode, Apu only appears in a single wide shot [below] that showed dozens of characters gathered around God.”
What a way for Apu to go, stood with a blank expression next to a god the Hindu convenience store owner doesn’t recognise.
Adi Shankar broke the news in an interview with IndieWire, claiming the tip was “verified by multiple sources”. The producer of Liam Neeson thriller The Grey took it upon himself to fix The Simpsons’ representation problem, after it was explored in Hari Kondabolu’s 2017 documentary, The Problem with Apu.
Shankar sought to crowdsource a script that “in a clever way subverts [Apu], pivots him, writes him out, or evolves him in a way that takes a creation that was the byproduct of a predominately Harvard-educated white male writers’ room and transforms it into a fresh, funny and realistic portrayal of Indians in America”.
The idea that a problem with a beloved show should be fixed by fans and Twitter commentators instead of its actual creators smacks of 2018 entitlement. The corrective script needed to come from the writing staff, and the show shouldn’t be in the business of outsourcing its ethics. But, nevertheless, it sounds like the winner of Shankar’s competition – Vishaal Buch – was onto something.
In Buch’s script, according to IndieWire, Apu would go from a single store owner to a thriving Springfield business magnate – a move pulling in “other prominent Indian Americans in hilarious ways to highlight the importance of diversity and individuality through the lens of The Simpsons”.
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Most importantly, the spec episode didn’t – at least, according to Shankar – simply pander to dominant identity politics.
“It wasn’t preachy. It wasn’t hammering us over the head,” Shankar said. “When a lot of people hear ‘The Problem with Apu’ they roll their eyes, ‘There is no problem with Apu, it’s these millennials, they’re out of control.’ I think in a lot of ways those people will really like this episode.”
Taking existing elements of a universe and giving them a backstory is a classic technique when building a multi-season show, and The Simpsons could have so easily and effectively dived deeper into Apu’s life. A spin-off series could even have been on the cards.
Maybe there is an element of “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” here, and whatever attempts to right the two-dimensional nature of the character the show made would not have been enough for some critics. But there was certainly potential for a compelling and, yes, funny episode about all of this; one that made South Asian fans of the show feel less overlooked while examining this era’s low threshold for offence (as South Park has so relentlessly).
Shelve it and everybody loses. “There are so many ways to make Apu work without getting rid of him,” Kondabolu tweeted. “If true, this sucks.”
Cultural commentary and sideways looks at pop culture have always been part of The Simpsons. So have self-referential gags, which makes the decision not to allow the show take this matter on seem more than a little cowardly.
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