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‘Simpsons’ Seek Safety and Numbers?

I love “The Simpsons,” but. . . .

This marketing cult of Bart and family--from the fast-food tie-ins to the toy line that Mattel is hawking for Christmas to the ever-present T-shirts to the just-released, airwaves-flooding, impossible-to-miss “Do the Bartman” video--is really starting to grate.

Now don’t have a cow, man.

It’s encouraging to see genius and creativity rewarded with profits, and all of the products are real cute and, as a bonus, don’t promote mass destruction. Moreover, “The Simpsons” is not the first supremely innovative cartoon, whether originating in print or on TV, to become a virtual industry that rolls out lucrative commercial spinoffs by conveyor belt.

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Check out “Peanuts,” for example. And I should point out that the coffee mug I filled this morning bore a panel from “The Far Side” showing a family and dog positioned in front of a blank wall poised for something great, the father in an easy chair, the kids on the floor with their heads resting on their hands. The caption: “In the days before television.”

In the days before its marketing success spilled onto the shelves of video and other retail stores, however, “The Simpsons” did indeed seem funnier. All of this exposure, including Fox’s moving “The Simpsons” to an 8 p.m. Thursday time slot opposite NBC’s 800-pound Godzilla, “The Cosby Show,” almost seems to have given “The Simpsons” an unbecoming aura of slickness and sleekness. As a result, the series seems less special.

A peculiar charm of “The Simpsons” has always been its ability to walk a fine line between underground and over-the-counter by not allowing the glitter of commercialism to eclipse its subculture scruffiness. This gave it a unique luster. But now it’s the marketing side that seems to loom largest.

The question of whether success spoils is an old one, and no one is yet ascribing spoilage to “The Simpsons.”

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Unlike the two other Fox series that have found relative success in the ratings--the uneven “Married . . . With Children” and the increasingly unfunny “In Living Color"--"The Simpsons” has a shot at greatness. There is still probably more truth about families in “The Simpsons” than in any other series in prime time, for example. And last week’s episode, with Homer barely surviving Bart’s efforts to be a daredevil by jumping Springfield Gorge on a skateboard, was fairly funny.

But this week’s squishy one, a repeat of the fall premiere in which Bart almost flunks out of school, is more typical of this season. “The Simpsons"--whose ratings are solid but still significantly beneath those of “The Cosby Show"--has gotten softer as the marketing of its characters outside the series has expanded.

And will softer now lead to safer?

Acknowledging that the series has been guilty of “cheap shots,” co-executive producer Sam Simon has said that “The Simpsons” next season will moderate its jokes about the nuclear industry. This follows criticism of the series by one nuclear-industry group and a subsequent tour of the San Onofre nuclear plant in San Clemente for Simon and some of his Fox colleagues.

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“The Simpsons” guilty of cheap shots?

Guilty and proud of it, one would think.

Homer, whose hapless employment at an unsafe, pollution-spewing nuclear plant has been comic nourishment for some episodes, is the biggest cheap shot of all, a gross exaggeration and below-the-belt attack on fathers and parenting everywhere. Just about every aspect of Homer is exquisitely unfair, and three cheers for it.

Leave heartwarming to the herd. Cheap shots are “The Simpsons’ ” best shots, the cheaper the better. In this case, meanness is an attribute, and the series is especially good when being nasty toward the Establishment, whether education mills or the church or the nuclear industry. Yet . . . .

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“No more three-eyed fish,” Simon has now mandated, referring to a recent episode in which pollution from the nuclear plant where Homer works created a mutant fish in a nearby stream.

So what’s wrong with mutants? “The Simpsons” and its characters are themselves mutants in the very best sense. While Fox and the show’s executives are doing the Bartman all the way to the bank, too much warmth may be ruining just about the only three-eyed fish in TV’s mainstream.


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