Bad Dream House

"Take thy beak from out my heart / And take thy form from off... my... door." (7F04)

“Take thy beak from out my heart / And take thy form from off my door.” (7F04)

This was the original Treehouse of Horror, and even if you were to accept the idea that the first two sketches aren’t much good — which is a pretty dubious proposition — the final act pushes this over into greatness. Other versions of Treehouse of Horror might be funnier, or more creative, but “The Raven,” as portrayed by “The Simpsons,” is one of those divinely inspired comedic moments, the sort of thing that changes the way you see the original work forever. I cannot now read “The Raven,” or even hear bits of it, without immediately picturing Homer as the antagonist, or Bart as the Raven. And so far as I’m concerned, the poem really does go “– here I opened wide the door — this better be good — darkness there, and nothing more.”

As far as one-off sketches go, it’s one of the best things this show has ever done.

Tar is Not a Plaything

"I deserve it! I am nature's greatest miracle. SAY IT!" (7F02)
“I deserve it! I am nature’s greatest miracle. SAY IT!” (7F02)

Harvey Fierstone makes this episode. Much like Albert Brooks’ various characters over the years, Fierstone’s Karl lingers even though we never see him again. It’s the show’s first dalliance with gay culture, and it’s interesting to see how LGBTQ issues have made their way into the show over the years. Back in 1990, this was pretty much the only way you could get gay culture onto TV — you had to make it campy, you had to make it non-threatening, and it always had to exist in some kind of outside context that had nothing to do with the main characters (at least, beyond the bounds of the episode). This was the first kiss between men on network television, like, ever: the first kiss between actual, live men came a full decade later (on “Dawson’s Creek,” of all places). This shouldn’t really have surprised anyone — Matt Groening had been drawing Akbar and Jeff cartoons for years before “The Simpsons” ever came around — but it’s a sign of how far the show was willing to push the envelope at the time.

Karl himself is a fascinating character. I spent some time digging into the story of Samson to see if there’s some kind of Biblical parallel, and it turns out there isn’t, so how it is that this guy turned up in Homer’s life at exactly the right time, threw himself on the grenade, and walked off isn’t entirely clear. But his commitment to his boss, and his devotion to service, is truly remarkable — even if the things he convinces Homer to do are pretty penny ante stuff. If you look at what Homer “accomplishes” in his turn as an executive, it’s small potatoes… but I think that’s sort of the point: Homer isn’t a guy possessed of a great deal of ambition, drive, or the belief he’s capable, or even entitled to try. Viewed through the lens of contemporary life, there’s even more pathos than you expect: this is, fundamentally, a story about the tyranny of lower middle-class life, and how success can be arbitrary, capricious, and dependent on very shallow externalities — none of which have anything to do with who you are as a human being. 1990 is too far back in time for me to remember whether these kinds of anxieties were present in families back then, but today, there’s a significant number of people in the United States who feel helpless and stuck because of their economic circumstances, and it’s not entirely clear why they’re never able to get ahead. (Well, actually, that’s not totally true — but I’ll undertake liberal ranting another day.)

The discussion about men’s clothing comes at a time when we’re talking about presidential candidates and their inability to find clothes that fit properly, so that was going through my head as I watched this episode, too. Stay tuned: we’re coming to electoral politics in a couple of episodes.

I Will Not Encourage Others To Fly

"Yes ma'am." (7F03)

“Yes ma’am.” (7F03)

When you look at the cultural impact of “The Simpsons,” it helps to remember that “Bart Gets an F” aired over twenty five years ago. A lot has changed since then. Back in 1990, this was pretty much the most controversial show on television; it was crossing a lot of boundaries, attracting a lot of attention, and drawing a lot of fire from people whose views were not considered wildly out of sync with society’s. If you listen to the DVD commentaries on a lot of these episodes, you get to learn all kinds of interesting things about Fox, censors, and social pressures on the show runners. Today, of course, the idea of showing a main character failing at something so fundamental seems normal, even expected; when this episode first ran, it was shocking. James L. Brooks was apparently quoted as saying he didn’t care, because it reflected reality — kids try and fail in school all the time — and depending on TV characters to be role models was stupid. I’m amazed that this kind of thing was even up for debate, but as the saying goes, the past was a foreign country (and they did things differently there).

“Bart Gets an F” shows a lot of the elements that form the backbone of Season 2. There’s some fairly meaningful storytelling, an interesting B plot, a significant amount of highbrow material, and a fair whack of pathos. Bart’s anguish over his failures is palpable, and still feels real in a way that a lot of TV drama doesn’t (never mind comedy): we’ve all been that person who, for whatever reason, just can’t make something work. Speaking to relatively universal sentiment is something the show has done well with in the past, and here we see the beginning of the show hitting its stride with this kind of narrative arc. To me, the more interesting part is the final act — the desperation of prayer, the miracle of reward, and then the struggle to fulfil a mortal’s end of the bargain. There’s deep theological content here; Bart’s acknowledgment of God’s contribution to his D- notwithstanding, it begs the question whether divine intervention ever carries with it the burden of reciprocation. Even if you’re not into the metaphysical issues, some of the set pieces — Martin’s transformation into one of the cool kids, the interrupted Continental Congress session, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it joke therein (“don’t sled on me”) — are worth the price of admission.

The Return of “Now I Watch All The Simpsons”

Hi.

You might remember me from a few years ago, where I embarked on a project I called “Now I Watch All the Simpsons” (archived here), which was discontinued prematurely. It turned out that Season 1 was a lot more of a slog than I remembered — there wasn’t a lot to like, and the show was very clearly trying to find its own voice. While the material was fresh and new, it suffers tremendously in comparison to later seasons (but not, mind you, in comparison to much later seasons). It didn’t seem like I was going to get around to reviewing the rest of the first season, so that brought the project to a screeching halt.

Later, I realized that hey, this is my goddamn blog, and my goddamn project, and I can start reviewing again whenever the hell I want. So that’s what I’m going to do. “Now I Watch All The Simpsons” is starting again, and I’m starting again with Season 2.

Hello? Hello? Is this thing on?

Self-promotion

I had an essay in October’s issue of “The Wheel of Dharma,” the monthly publication of the Buddhist Churches of America. If, upon reading, it seems somewhat decontextualized, that’s because it is: I wrote it last year as part of the Institute for Buddhist Studies program I was working on at the time, and you can see the question to which I was responding at the beginning of my section. In the essay I sort of kind of half-assedly pick a fight with George Tanabe, and I wanted to expand on my thoughts — they gave us an 800 word limit in the program, and there wasn’t really room to work through what I was trying to say.

You probably have to read Tanabe’s essay for yourself. He’s not entirely wrong, but I think his suggestion that we westernize our practice is, and I say that as someone who didn’t actively choose to become a Buddhist (I was, as the article notes, born into this faith tradition). The roots of the problem are historical: Jodo Shinshu practice, in the United States and Canada, looks a lot like Protestant practice, and that’s not an accident. The earliest Buddhists in the US deliberately set their temples up to be as much like western concepts of church as possible, so as to not raise the ire or suspicions of their neighbors. The fact that people got together on Sundays, sang hymns, and generally behaved like a church meant that Buddhism could be accepted as a church, and that was fairly critical for survival back then.

Tanabe argues that a lot of the ritualistic practices of Jodo Shinshu need to evolve into the modern era. He talks about transforming the gathas from organ-based pieces to works featuring percussion, guitars, and hip hop styles. I… don’t really know how that’s going to go over, to be honest; I’ve only ever heard one truly good religious hip-hop piece:

(In fairness, I am perhaps not the right person to evaluate this argument, because I’ve never really liked the gathas anyway. Having said that, we sung the wasan in Kyoto a number of years ago, all 3,800 of us at the 750th anniversary service, and it nearly moved me to tears, so yeah, I dunno. But I digress here…)

My biggest problem with Tanabe’s essay is this paragraph:

Thirdly, the rituals, and especially their languages, remain aesthetically beautiful but often have no communicable meaning. Sutras written in classical Chinese are chanted with Japanese pronunciations that constitute a special language of its own, being neither Japanese nor Chinese. For many (including some priests), it is mumbo-jumbo. The texts themselves deserve better treatment than that, and need to be chanted in translation or some other more meaningful form. Ritual aestheticism has its attractions, but only to connoisseurs and seldom to younger people or strangers.

I don’t know about that. If we’re trying to appeal to folks who know what western church looks like, the fact that they’re even considering becoming a Buddhist means they don’t like western religions and they don’t like being in western churches. I’m not suggesting we need to amp up ritualistic practice and become even more monk-like than we already are — Rennyo himself eschewed the idea of having specific rituals and specific acts of worship, and asked followers to concentrate on the concept of entrusting in the Primal Vow — but, having established these rituals are part of the liturgical style, we shouldn’t be so hasty to throw them out. True, nobody understands the sutra chanting. But trying to chant in English is just downright weird; I actually find it much more disruptive and spiritually disconnecting. Jodo Shinshu doesn’t have a tradition of meditation (it’s Buddhism for people who lacked the time to be Buddhists, basically), and a lot of western converts want meditation-type activities, so why not look at the sutra chanting as a form of communal meditation? It’s not silent, but it does do a hell of a good job at shutting your brain up for ten minutes or so and forcing you to focus on your breathing.

Basically, my issue with Tanabe’s argument is that he thinks we need to modernize and westernize to attract followers, trusting in the power of the dharma to grow the community. I don’t agree. I’ll support ordaining priests here (or, at least, giving candidates the option of being ordained in North America or in Kyoto), I’ll support trying to find ways of extending the teachings to contemporary problems of morality and ethics. But you need to get people interested, and you don’t do that by making the whole thing look like everything else — you gotta stand out, somehow, and we already do a pretty good job of standing out. Tanabe is right in that we need to have some way of showing casual visitors what it means to be a Buddhist, and what it means to be a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist in particular (the most common question I get is “so how come you like beer so much?”), but it goes much further than that. The outreach needs to be directed at engaging people on a personal level, creating the space for conversations about the Primal Vow and the idea of entrusting. So you need to create a modern-day “evangelical” version of Buddhism to help get people interested — but only after they’re curious, and as humans we tend to not be that curious about things that seem familiar.

I think the hybrid ascetic practice we’ve managed to evolve is pretty good for that purpose: there’s enough of a sense that you’re engaged in something that’s old, it’s different enough from western church as to be worth paying attention to, but it’s accessible enough that if you want to learn more, you can. At the end of the day, people who are interested in Buddhism aren’t coming to temple because they want rock and roll and hip hop, they’re coming to temple because in their minds Buddhism has to do with peace, serenity, introspection, and mindfulness. I’m not saying you can’t get that with bitchin’ tunes and memorable hooks, but is that really what people want?

Relics

New York Times: A Time for Revisiting Real Fears. In which the writer visits a number of places in Ukraine, and reflects on a few artifacts from the nuclear past that never happened.

No one is building backyard fallout shelters or conducting Civil Defense drills as they did during the Cold War. More people seem worried about the next Fukushima than the very real possibility of a nuclear attack. In a talk last month, Gareth Evans, an Australian diplomat, politician and spokesman for disarmament, described this surreal disconnect: “That the world has managed to survive nearly 70 years without a nuclear holocaust — deliberately or accidentally initiated — is not a matter of the inherent stability of nuclear deterrence, or the wisdom of statesmen and the systems they oversee, but rather sheer, dumb luck.”