Postmodernism, Metanarratives and The Simpsons

A while back, when I wrote about creativity, I made a passing mention to postmodernism, a philosophy that had, and still has, a huge impact on the cultural landscape of the last fifty years or so. I thought it might be a good idea, at some point, to put out a few words on what postmodernism is, how it’s shaped culture and what seems to be happening to it today. Since it is such a big part of our media today understanding exactly what it is and what it’s doing, and how we can take advantage of it to make our own stories better.

Let’s start with the basics. Postmodernism is a philosophy that specializes in breaking down and analyzing metanarratives. What is a metanarrative? In short, Joseph Campbell.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces is the magnum opus of a writer and mythologist named Joseph Campbell and in it he describes the narrative arc of the typical mythological hero and what that narrative arc means symbolically. This foundational narrative arc, the hero myth, is a basic metanarrative. I’m not planning on running through how the hero myth works in general, that’s outside the scope of our discussion (but more on it in a few weeks). What’s important is that this metanarrative embodies a certain idea, namely that going out of what’s familiar, struggling and overcoming, then returning to make your home a better place is an admirable way of life, something that people – and in it’s original codification, men in particular – should aspire to do.

The catch to postmodernism is that it doesn’t stop with breaking down metanarratives. Another component of postmodernism is that it interprets them as deliberately benefiting those that tell them at the expense of others and then tries to dismiss them using irony, satire or other methods that trivialize them. In the case of the hero myth postmodernism would likely characterize it as an attempt to prop up some kind of masculine hegemony by idealizing the man who goes out and overcomes obstacles as the heroes of society.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s it was common for heavily plot driven TV shows to introduce some kind of conspiracy theory that sought to spin cover stories for events and hide their true meaning from the public. The X-Files and Heroes both did this, for example, as did The Golden Compass in YA literature. These are classic postmodern devices. The people who set up these conspiracies hide the truth from the rest of the world so they can manipulate the public to their advantage.

While this idea that everyone is using you is one of the biggest appeals of postmodernism; stories where that’s the basic premise quickly boil down to a trite “be yourself” and end with the protagonist leaving whatever group he conformed with before and quickly conforming to whatever group he joins up with. Hardly the stuff of greatness. Instead, we must look someplace surprising for the greatest triumph of postmodern media.

We need to take a few minutes to discuss The Simpsons.

I’m not an expert on this show. I’ve watched maybe two full episodes and caught parts of others. Much of what I’m going to say is lacking in nuance. But I think I’ve got the core of the idea and it does seem to carry a lot of postmodernism in it.

The late 1980s and 1990s featured a lot of really wholesome sitcoms with a narrow focus on single families and the things that happened to them. The Cosby Show, Family Matters, Full House and Home Improvement were all examples of this basic mold: Reasonably well off family, educated and caring father present in the home, loving mother struggling to find a balance among all the things pulling her home in different directions, kids about average in school and dipping in and out of trouble as the plot demands. The metanarrative says that these families were the kinds of people you might know or even want to be like and ultimately, while it might not always be pleasant, it was more good than bad and you could make it work if you tried. The Simpsons… didn’t try.

Homer is stupid and uninvested in his family… until it looks like they might fall apart, then he puts in just enough effort to maintain the status quo. Marge keeps the family above water by being the voice of morality but said morality is never based on anything stronger than Marge herself. When she has breakdowns or is otherwise absent her regulating effect on the family vanishes. Bart rebels against authority but never learns or accomplishes anything by it. Lisa overachives but never finds satisfaction through it. The Simpsons family is the perfect rejection of the family sitcom metanarrative – watching The Simpsons is funny (arguably, I don’t find it laugh out loud funny and for me that’s the litmus test) but it’s not anything people really want to emulate. Or even have around them in real life. Rather than pushing postimodernism The Simpsons just is postmodern.

A lot of people loved The Simpsons in the early days of the show. Unfortunately almost everyone agrees that it has now “jumped the shark” or lost the spark that made it what it was. How this happened is interesting, as it’s a case study in why postmodernism doesn’t work as a way of life or creativity, even if what it does can be useful.

The Simpsons was a classic case of postmodernism. It deconstructed the prevailing metanarrative of happy, functional families in funny situations and gave us a new, fresh take on a dysfunctional but (debateably) funny family that was funny partly because of how it contradicted the prevailing metanarrative. After five or six years the entertainment landscape shifted and The Simpsons began to loose relevance. More shows were mimicking the way The Simpsons lampooned the old media landscape and the founding writers were beginning to run out of ideas to satirize the old sitcom formula with. Ultimately Family Guy would come along in 1999 and satirize The Simpsons by taking their format and stuffing it full off pop culture references and painfully drawn out gags that went nowhere to poke fun at the overly complicated and often absurdist gags The Simpsons relied on. The Simpsons had gone from deconstructing the metanarrative to being the metanarrative and new shows were deconstructing it in turn.

The Simpsons was breaking down before the first epsidoe of Family Guy. The inherent weaknesses of postmodernism came to full force in an episode of the eigth season called “The Principal and the Pauper”, in which the principle of the local elementary school, a well established character, had all his backstory thrown out the window when it was revealed the real principal had died in the Vietnam war and his identity was stolen by an army buddy. This is classic postmodernism – what you think is true is a façade manipulated by someone else for their own convenience and must be broken down so you can put your own façade in place. This not only happened with the Principal’s character but the show itself – by this point the original writing team was gone and new writers were asserting their own vision for the show with no regard to what others had done before.

Eventually Family Guy would eat The Simpsons alive, overtaking that show in the ratings and building a new formula that The Simpsons would mimick until the two shows inevitably crossed over because they had become indistinguishable from one another.

Postmodernism does something very useful for a writer. It teaches you how to break down the elements of a story and really understand what they are doing. But it also teaches you to view these story elements and their thematic import as inherently suspicious. Once idetified and broken down metanarratives must be replaced because they can only come to exist because those that created them were seeking to bend them to their own advantage. But a study of postmodern storytelling shows the fallacy in that thought – postmodernists build metanarratives of their own, as often as not without meaning to do so. This leads to a wild orgy of deconstruction and reconstruction that often winds up chasing its own tail until the stories become indistinguishable from one antoher and, very frequently, lacking nuance, depth or anything interesting at all, really.

We see this in the lifecycle of The Simpsons and how it intersected with other shows like Family Guy. We see it in the incredible slump of Marvel Comics as its books have leaned more and more on postmodern, deconstructionist characters and storytelling. We see it to a lesser extent in modern art and music, where rules of pleasing visuals and sounds are largely rebuilt over and over again instead of carefully passed on to the next generation.

The sitcoms of the 80s, while capable of great entertainment, were stuck in a rut and The Simpsons attempting to break out of that mold was a worthy goal. By the same token deconstructing metanarratives has a lot of value for the author and it can help you make stories fresh and relevant again. But when you do, consider that, once you know how that metanarrative works, it might be worth keeping in place so you can make it work like a well oiled machine rather than replacing it.