This week marked the start of the 15th year of The Simpsons (Channel 4, often). The other day I went to a talk by Tim Long, the executive producer of the show, who said that it was popular in almost every country in the world, with the exceptions of Germany and Japan. He thought that failure in Japan could be due to the fact that the Simpsons have only four fingers on each hand, which might imply they were gangsters — Japanese yakuza have a finger chopped off at initiation. ‘I like to believe that because it’s cool,’ he said. My guess is that these are two societies which exert strict control over their children and who might find Bart Simpson an alarming role model.
This international popularity brought in vast sums to Fox television. This means that the writers can poke fun at Fox as hard as they like, the network being terrified that they might take their talents elsewhere. And they are considerable talents. Watch an episode and you’ll see that not a single line is wasted. There is no filler. Homer: ‘What are you two kids fighting about?’ Bart: ‘We’re arguing about who loves you most, Dad.’ Homer: ‘Aw, gee!’ Lisa: ‘Yes, he says I do and I say he does.’
Celebrities — show-business types, politicians, and so on — queue up to appear on the show, and the producers have the fun of humiliating them. One of Long’s favourite stories is about Mick Jagger. When he came to LA they put him up in a cheap motel. An aide phoned to say that Sir Mick expected, at the very least, a whirlpool bath. So they found him a room with a Jacuzzi, but he had to feed it with quarters.
This week’s episode, based on Hallowe’en — so we’re only six months late — was not a classic, though it had wonderful moments. Homer kills the Grim Reaper with a bowling ball, but inherits his scary cloak and scythe, which give him the power to deal death. He’s uncomfortable. ‘I might occasionally kill out of anger, or to illustrate a point, but I am not the Grim Reaper!’ he pleads. I loved the scene in Stockholm: ‘Nobel Prize Ceremony,’ says the marquee. ‘Winners Drink Free.’
The Simpsons remains scathing about the whole of American popular culture; in this country perhaps we incorporate our satire on television within television. So there is a certain smugness about our view of the show — we may be awful but we’re not as awful as the Americans — which makes it all the more pleasurable. And the Simpsons are very loving with each other. When George Bush Sr said he wanted families to be less like the Simpsons and more like the Waltons, he got it precisely wrong.
But how to satirise Midnight Man (ITV, Thursday)? It’s a three-part thriller about how evil government forces try to destroy an unshaven, truth-seeking journalist, played by James Nesbitt. Someone was clearly terrified that this character might not be interesting enough. So he has a phobia for daylight, and can only go out at night. And he has a little daughter, to whom he reads books about the Kennedy assassinations. He eats Pot Noodle in the car. He steals famous people’s rubbish and invariably finds fascinating material: invoices for child porn, pregnancy testing kits. His enemies are evil American neocons and their British allies. A civil servant whose name he revealed committed suicide. Few of us have packed as much into a life as he fits into a week. He is utterly unlike any journalist I have ever met.
Nevertheless, I was drawn into the show, with its gorgeous mistresses and smooth-talking evil-doers, right until the very end when they kill James Nesbitt’s wife on her doorstep. I have known many investigative journalists, some of whom have written articles which were extremely discomfiting for the powers that be. Yet not one of them has come home to find their wife with a bullet through her forehead. Not one! The art of thriller writing is to keep one foot in the surreal, the unthinkable and the horrible, and the other firmly in reality. Skip to one side or another and you’ve lost. I’m afraid that as the wife hit the doormat, I laughed. I shan’t watch the last two episodes. I’m afraid the little girl is going to be next.
The world snooker championship (BBC2, passim) finished this week. Did you know that they sometimes put on plays at the Sheffield Crucible? Hard to see when they find the time. Snooker was the first great success of colour television (they actually tried to show it in black and white in the early 1960s — ‘He is aiming for the brown ball; that’s the green ball on the right...’). But it is like chess with movement; the fascinating moments often come at the end, when a frame can depend on a wonderful blend of mental strategy and physical skill. No wonder that, when it’s on, it occupies far more time than the soap operas.