Nothing lasts forever. In time, the continents will crash into each other once more, the sun will swallow the planet and, at some point long after that, The Simpsons will end. But that isn’t to say that it’s incapable of moving with the times before then. Because, in yet another nod to shifting tastes, Homer Simpson has revealed that he will no longer attempt to strangle his son to death.
In the third episode of the current 35th season, Homer greets his new neighbour by shaking his hand. When the neighbour comments that he wasn’t expecting such a firm grip, “See Marge, strangling the boy paid off,” replies Homer, before acknowledging that he doesn’t actually do that any more. “Times have changed,” he adds.
The move has, inevitably, riled a number of feathers. The famously tolerant GB News shrieked that The Simpsons had gone woke by refusing to depict any more scenes of an adult human repeatedly gripping a 10-year-old child by the throat so hard that he struggles for breath and his eyes bulge. Twitter has similarly been ablaze at the snowflakes in charge of their show and their apparent disdain for child abuse.
However, it’s worth pointing out that the episode wasn’t about Homer reaching a point of realisation about never strangling Bart again. It was him pointing out that he doesn’t do it any more. And he really doesn’t. Homer hasn’t strangled Bart since season 31. An entire global pandemic has come and gone in the time since Homer last strangled Bart. The fact that nobody noticed until Homer verbally acknowledged it is either a sign that the outrage machine often operates outside the realms of basic human context, or that people don’t really watch The Simpsons any more.
Either way, despite the howls of the naysayers, this is probably the right thing to do. Homer strangling Bart never sat particularly well in the bigger picture of The Simpsons. Back in 1992, when the show was in its infancy, president George HW Bush publicly remarked that American families needed to be “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons”. The line went down badly, because it only demonstrated that Bush didn’t understand The Simpsons. Yes, they were dysfunctional and often at loggerheads with one another, but the Simpson family was bonded together by a tight and permanent love. If you watched the show, you understood this perfectly.
However, it was nevertheless a loving family where the patriarch routinely punished his son by strangling him. I basically came of age with The Simpsons – I was Bart’s age when it first started airing – and the strangulation gag always seemed a bit too near the knuckle to me. I couldn’t properly verbalise at the time, but to me it undermined the basic premise of the entire show.
What’s more, it was never actually funny. The strangulation gag was unyielding in its rigidity. Other running gags, like the prank calls to Moe, could evolve and change over the years. And yet, with staggeringly few exceptions, Homer always strangled Bart in the exact same way. It was an overdone catchphrase. Even if times hadn’t changed, it would still be the weakest part of any episode.
But times have changed, and this is a sign that The Simpsons is doing its best to keep up. It wasn’t always like this. By sticking to its guns when Hari Kondabolu made his documentary The Problem with Apu, keeping Hank Azaria as the voice of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in the face of growing criticism, The Simpsons was dragged into a long and ugly public spat. Compare this to its quiet recasting of Black characters like Carl, Lou and Dr Hibbert, replacing Azaria with Alex Désert and Kevin Michael Richardson three years ago, and you’ll see a show that doesn’t want to get its fingers burned again. Also, it might just be coincidence, but since doing this, The Simpsons has regained a lot of its old form.
And there are always workarounds. I mentioned the strangulation development to my children, who hoover up episodes of The Simpsons in vast quantities on Disney+. At first, they were just as appalled as the worst recesses of Twitter. “It’s a classic gag!” my eight-year-old wailed. “Why are they taking this away from us?” I explained that it might not be very good for a TV show to depict scenes of a father strangling his children. Eventually they agreed. And then they suggested that Homer could punch Bart instead, or maybe throw him around a bit. So, if Matt Groening happens to be reading, maybe this could be an acceptable way forward.