Simpsons Momentarily Subversive

If you were one of the people watching The Simpsons last night (sucker), you may have noticed something a little different about the opening sequence!

The “couch gag,” if one could call it that, was storyboarded and directed by the pseudonymous Britain street artist known as Banksy, whose distinctive graffiti has shown up across the UK and the US, and whose work has been auctioned off for millions of dollars to limousine liberal luminaries like Brangelina.

Showrunner-for-life Al Jean told the New York Times he seeked out the ostensibly underground (despite having a publicist) “art terrorist” and asked him, via a series of messengers, if he’d do the opening, later receiving the storyboards without ever meeting the mystery man. Although 5% was cut out by request of Fox Broadcast & Standards, Jean insists the final product was as close as possible to Banksy’s original intention.

The response has been enormous – Banksy became a “Trending Topic” on Twitter last night (which is, like, super-important and stuff) and there are currently hundreds of news stories about it – which I’m sure makes up for the 29% decline in ratings from last week. It’s to quantify these things, but I think it’s safe to presume this will get more attention than other recent Simpsons “viral” stunts, from the godawful Ke$ha thing to the Itchy & Scratchy parody of Koyaanisqatsi (in the old days, The Simpsons usually generated buzz with actual episodes instead of context-free YouTube clips, but I guess that’s the way things are now in the New Media Landscape).

Max Read of Gawker said it made The Simpsons funny again, with a caveat:

Admittedly, that’s a pretty low bar for the show, which is in its five millionth season and now serves mostly as a platform for celebrities who want to make gentle fun of themselves but find Saturday Night Live too edgy.

Cartoon Brew’s Amid Amidi was less impressed, declaring that Banksy’s statement “lacks potency because it was created by the same mass production infrastructure that he’s protesting.”

Personally, I think it was cool and kinda ballsy, two adjectives that have not been used in conjunction with The Simpsons in at least a decade. They’ve really socked it to Fox (“And we can’t watch Fox because they own those chemical weapon plants in Syria.”) and Korean animators (like this scene from “Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie”) before, but not with the boldness and pretension of this opening, which I’m sure, despite the mitigating dark humor and fanciful hyperbole, made the average Simpsons consumer squirm uncomfortably a little bit. The most surprising thing about it is that it’s completely unexpected for the current show, which recently served as a 30-minute advertisement for American Idol.

Also, I don’t think that criticizing Fox and the vast Simpsons merchandise empire while being on Fox and being paid for it by Fox necessarily negates Banksy’s statement, whatever it is. Critiquing mass media from inside mainstream venues has been part of Matt Groening’s philosophy for quite a while now – item 10 of Gary Panter’s 1980 “Rozz-Tox Manifesto,” which was borne about by a conversation between Groening and Panter, states “By necessity we must infiltrate popular mediums.” []