It’s The Simpsons PR nightmare that won’t end.
At the Television Critics Association press tour in August to promote the upcoming season, Fox Television Group chairman Dana Walden admitted she simply didn’t know how The Simpsons was going to deal with the ongoing controversy around Apu:
“We’re not sure yet what they’re going to do, but ultimately we decided that was their decision.”
What Fox would clearly like is for the whole thing to go away.
How the problem began
Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu dragged a long-running issue into the spotlight – that Simpsons’ character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon (voiced by the American actor Hank Azaria) is an Indian racial stereotype that is increasingly out of tune with society’s current values.
But, time and time again, when pressed on the subject the Simpsons creative team have chosen to double down and stand behind a character that may have been well-meant 30 years ago but is clearly doing more harm than good now.
When asked about it earlier this year, Matt Groening sparked outrage by seemingly dismissing the concerns of Indians and South Asians. “I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended,” the Simpsons creator said. When pressed he followed up with: “We’ll let the show speak for itself.”
That might have been a reasonable response if The Simpsons’ most recent attempt to speak for itself hadn’t been so clumsy.
The episode that tried to address it
In the episode ‘No Good Read Goes Unpunished’ from April this year, one of the subplots involves Marge Simpson picking up a book she loved as a child only to discover that it’s full of outdated views.
Reading it aloud to Lisa, she updates it to fit more modern values, only to find that in Lisa’s view the “cisgender girl” heroine is “already evolved” and “doesn’t really have an emotional journey to complete.”
Marge ends up asking Lisa for advice on what to do. “It’s hard to say,” Lisa says. “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
Then Lisa looks at a framed photograph of Apu that has “don’t have a cow,” written on it.
“Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” Marge tells Lisa.
“If at all,” Lisa replies.
The critical response was less than enthusiastic. The A.V. Club said the moment sounded “an awful lot like The Simpsons turning to their audience and asking, “There, are you happy now?”. Meanwhile, on Twitter, Kondabolu called the show’s response to his documentary “sad”.
In the days after the episode aired, Simpsons showrunner Al Jean leapt to the episode’s defence on Twitter. That only further riled up fans, as he linked to a positive article from the right-wing site National Review and suggested that there was “no solution… that will satisfy.”
Eventually Jean left the online discussion, vowing to “try to find an answer that is popular & more important right”.
Perhaps he should have asked Hank Azaria.
While Azaria chose not to engage with Kondabolu or appear in The Problem with Apu, by 2018 he seemed to have come around on the issue. He told Stephen Colbert on The Late Show that his “eyes have been opened” and that he’s “willing to step aside” from voicing Apu. "I think the most important thing is to listen to Indian people and their experience with it,” Azaria added. “I really want to see Indian, South Asian writers in the writers' room.”
Going stale from refusing to take a risk
Even The Simpsons itself managed to tackle the issue with more nuance a few years earlier.
In the 2016 episode “Much Apu About Something”, Apu’s nephew (voiced by Utkarsh Ambudkar, who once said about Apu: “I hate that guy”) arrives in Springfield and promptly takes Apu to task for being a cliché that gives Indians a bad name. But in many ways, the problem with Apu is a symptom of a bigger issue The Simpsons faces in 2018. After 30 years of steadfastly refusing to move with the times, many of the characters no longer make sense. Homer and Marge were created as Baby Boomer parodies; now they’re practically millennials.
However, the show's biggest flaw is its refusal to update things when the opportunity arises. The voice of Mrs Krabappel, Marcia Wallace, died in 2013. Rather than create a new permanent teacher for Bart to replace her, the show had a one-off substitute teacher in 2015 and then just didn’t show Bart’s teacher until 2018, when his new teacher was… Ned Flanders.
The occasional half-watchable episode aside, it’s hard not to feel like the current team behind The Simpsons sees the show as a kind of fragile tapestry where if they changed or removed Apu the whole thing would fall apart. If they started getting rid of stale or worn-out characters and situations, where would they stop - literally the entire show is past its use-by date.
Hanks Azaria’s suggestion to bring new perspectives into the writers’ room is one way to save The Simpsons. But maybe the real solution to the problem with Apu is just to let the show finally die.
The Problem with Apu is now streaming at SBS on Demand: