Maybe the most important part of The Simpsons legacy was airing some of the most biting left-wing satire seen on TV at the time. Sam Simon, who passed away Sunday, was a key force behind the creation of the show, the world, and the characters, and he served as an early producer and showrunner.
Simon also wrote several beloved episodes, including the one with the three-eyed fish, which has become a beloved icon of The Simpsons and environmentalism. ‘Two Cars In Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish,’ by Sam Simon and John Swartzwelder, which aired in 1990, is a spot-on satire of politics and elections that’s only gotten more relevant.
The episode starts with Bart catching the famous three-eyed fish in the river near the nuclear plant. That triggers a safety inspection of the plant, where inspectors wade in knee-deep nuclear goop and find a plutonium rod used as a paperweight. After Mr. Burns fails to bribe the inspectors, he wanders the halls drunk and despairing over the $56 million he needs to spend to make the place safe. That’s when Homer provides a key piece of advice: “If you were governor you could decide what’s safe and what isn’t.” Mr. Burns decides to run for office.
The idea of running for office to give a sweet deal to the industry where you made your fortune isn’t at all far-fetched. Pat McCrory worked for Duke Energy for nearly 30 years, and is now North Carolina’s Governor. Duke contaminated North Carolina’s water, and was subject to a $99,111 fine, a pittance for a company with $19.6 billion in 2012 operating revenues that gave $300,000 in direct campaign contributions to Pat McCrory and $760,000 to the Republican Governors Association. That was before Duke spilled tens of thousands of tons of coal ash waste into North Carolina’s Dan River.
This is only the most clear-cut version of private business running government for their own ends. Between insidious lobbying by businesses and the democracy-warping effects of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, it’s not a stretch to say that corporate interests have more control over government than people do. In another dig at Republicans, Burns’ only policy position is repeatedly pledging to lower taxes “whether those bureaucrats in the state capital like it or not.” Replace the state capital with DC and you’ve summarized the platform of dozens of current Republican members of Congress.
Burns makes a TV ad where an actor playing Charles Darwin explains that Blinky the three-eyed fish is really a more evolved “miracle of nature.” It’s a perfect analogue for present-day Republican efforts to introduce false science whenever possible to cast doubt on climate change and promote the idea that fossil fuels can keep on burning forever. Watching on TV though, Moe is convinced, saying “I wish the government WOULD get off his back.”
The climactic scene where Mr. Burns has a staged photo-op dinner with the Simpsons to show his connection to the common man sends up the constructed nature of campaigning perfectly. “Can I ask him to assuage my fears that he’s contaminating the planet in a manner that may one day render it uninhabitable?” Lisa asks the campaign aide. “No dear,” he says, “the card question will be fine.” After the dog jumps on Mr. Burns affectionately, the aide refers to “the statesmanlike way you handled the pet incident.” These scraps of personality are all the reporters subsist on. That sets things up perfectly for Marge’s sabotage, where she cooks Blinky for dinner, and Mr. Burns reveals he’s not as comfortable with the “miracle” fish as he made it seem.
Unfortunately, in the real world there’s no Marge to save the day, no single act of exposure to show that polluters are only okay with poisoning the world as long as they’re insulated from the effects.
The three-eyed fish episode is just one of countless times the show has taken on society and injustice in its historic span. In ‘Much Apu About Nothing,’ Springfield residents call for a city bear patrol, then are quickly outraged by the $5 tax needed to fund it. So Mayor Quimby blames it on illegal immigrants and calls for their deportation.
In ‘Last Exit To Springfield,’ Mr. Burns reflects fondly on the days when union organizers could be murdered, then decides to try and take away the employees’ dental plan, resulting in a strike where the workers heroically prevail.
In ‘Mr. Lisa Goes To Washington’ Lisa wants to see the memorial to Winifred Beecher Howe, the women’s rights activist who “appeared on the highly unpopular 75-cent piece.” In the same episode, the corrupt congressman tells Lisa she could be a senator someday. “We have quite a few women senators,” he tells her. “Only two,” she responds, “I checked.”
Many of the problems these episodes exposed have only gotten worse. But identifying and mocking right-wing hypocrisy became an essential part of The Simpsons contribution to our culture, leaving marks of its influence on stars like John Oliver. And surely a good deal of the credit for that goes to Sam Simon.