The Simpsons (1989) has long been a controversial show from the start as television audiences had not really seen a fully dysfunctional family coupled with a son whose motto was “underachiever and proud of it, man”. This type of controversy seems rather quaint when viewing any sitcom today but apparently the early 90’s were a simpler time when a first lady had nothing better to do than call out a cartoon. This is not to say that The Simpsons hasn’t had its fair share of controversy as semi-recently the show found itself in hot water when they asked Banksy to animate the couch gag for the episode “Moneybart” (2010). Banksy’s couch gag has the Simpson family running to the couch before zooming out to what is supposed to be the Korean studio where the show is animated and the merchandise is made. Needless to say, the animation studio is portrayed like a sweatshop and features many human rights abuses in the bleak working environment. Nelson Shin, who owns the South Korean company AKOM that animates The Simpsons, criticized the sequence as inaccurate and degrading and said his workers protested animating the segment before going through with it. Even in their later years The Simpsons can still pull off the odd controversial moment.
As we start our tour down controversy lane let’s begin with the episodes that offended an actual U.S. city and real life countries. “A Streetcar named Marge” (1992) earned the ire of New Orleans for its song “Oh Streetcar” which describes the city as “a home for pirates, drunks and whores." After a critic published the lyrics of the song before the episode aired (he had received an early copy of the episode), the New Orleans Fox affiliate received over a hundred complaints about the song which inevitability lead to a statement by the Fox President Jamie Kellner telling viewers to watch the episode rather than just complain about a song snippet delivered out of context. The ploy worked and the controversy was quickly squashed as in the next episode Bart wrote “I will not defame New Orleans” for the chalkboard gag. All was well in the Big Easy.
At the end of the day states are small potatoes. The Simpsons has managed to outrage the countries of Australia and Brazil in the episodes “Bart vs. Australia” (1995) and “Blame it on Lisa” (2002) respectively. The Aussie were mad at The Simpsons for an inaccurate depiction of their homeland (and accents) and took the rather drastic action of having the show condemned in Australian Parliament (as told by writer Mike Reiss). In “Blame it on Lisa” it was Brazil’s turn to get in on the outrage train. Here, like with Australia, the country was mad at the various cultural clichés and inaccuracies but unlike Australia, the tourist board of Rio de Jaineiro thought about suing the show for damaging the reputation of the city. The suit never went through and lead to an apology by producer James L. Brooks. To show the matter was firmly resolved, the Simpsons returned to Brazil in a later episode to no criticism or lawsuits.
It’s time now to turn our focus internally and discuss the episodes that were controversial amongst the staff and fans. “The Principal and the Pauper” angered many fans by suggesting that Principal Seymour Skinner was really an imposter by the name of Armin Tamzarian. Critics point to this episode as the beginning of the decline from the “golden era” and Harry Shearer (until recently the voice of Principal Skinner) trashed the episode by telling the writers "That's so wrong. You're taking something that an audience has built eight years or nine years of investment in and just tossed it in the trash can for no good reason, for a story we've done before with other characters. It's so arbitrary and gratuitous, and it's disrespectful to the audience." The show has come around to the fans and Shearer’s perspective by mocking the “plot twist” in future episodes. Still, this episode holds a rather low light in the eyes of fans, critics, and cast members. Another fan angering episode has to be “That 90’s Show” (2008) which retconned Homer and Marge’s early married (and childless) life to the 1990’s rather than the original 1980’s, changing the whole internal history of the longest running animated couple. Critics felt it to be an unnecessary move and an insult to longtime fans that grew up on the version of Homer and Marge falling in love after their prom in 1974. This episode has been largely ignored by the staff of The Simpsons as future shows have gone back to the original 70’s setting.
Overall there have been a few worthy contenders for the crown of most controversial Simpson’s episode, but in the end the winner is “The Principal and the Pauper”. This episode angered fans, critics, and cast members and has been accused of ending the golden age of the show. For that disaster of an accomplishment the title easily goes to “The Principal and the Pauper”. Well played Armin Tamzarian.