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the Complete Review
the complete review - television

The Simpsons

John Ortved

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To purchase The Simpsons

Title: The Simpsons
Author: John Ortved
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2009
Length: 293 pages
Availability: The Simpsons - US
The Simpsons - UK
The Simpsons - Canada
  • US subtitle: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History
  • UK subtitle: The uncensored, totally unauthorised history of the world's greatest TV show by the people that made it
  • With a Foreword by Douglas Coupland

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Our Assessment:

B- : ultimately too jumbled oral history

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Washington Post . 8/11/2009 Louis Bayard

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A)s tasty as a pink-glazed donut with sprinkles, as refreshing as a Duff beer and as piquant as a curry slushy from Kwik-E Mart. And doubly delightful because, for once, the heroes are writers." - Louis Bayard, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Simpsons is essentially a work of oral history about the popular animated TV show of the same name, which is now "the longest-running entertainment program of all time". Along with bits from interviews he conducted, John Ortved has taken public comments and pieced all of this together into a book. There is commentary by Ortved himself throughout the book, offering background information as well as his own opinion, but the bulk of the text consists of sound bites -- usually no more than a few sentences long -- strung together. The book is divided into chapters which focus on different aspects of the show, and all the personalities involved, as well as the changes the show underwent over the years.
       As the subtitle(s) have it, this is an "unauthorized history", meaning that neither Fox nor James L. Brooks, nor the current staff of the show played along (see also Ortved's interesting account of what that involved). While Ortved does present sound bites from some of them, quoting from public pronouncements made in other publications, clearly their points of view are not well-represented. This turns out to be a considerable problem with the book, because despite Ortved's best efforts to fill in the blanks -- often fairly elaborately -- there's a great deal that remains missing and unexplained. (Disappointingly lack of authorization means there are, of course, also no illustrations; oddly, there are a few scraps of actual Simpson's-dialogue, but not nearly enough (and nowhere near what surely would have been permissible under fair-use principles).)
       Ortved also seems unsure of exactly what kind of book he wants to write. While he presents the founding history, as it were, fairly well, the later years (indeed decades -- this is one long-running show) are presented largely as one long blur (in part also because Ortved thinks the show essentially jumped the shark after the first few seasons). Ortved makes a great deal of the influence of the show, cultural and otherwise, but doesn't make that case in a very cohesive way, bringing it up now and again, but not following how it changed, especially after the initial incredible impact the show had. There's far too little sense of ebb and flow and shift and change in a book that is meant to be a history, and, for example, his claims (and quotes to that effect as well) that in its later years The Simpsons simply isn't that good any more hardly seem an adequate excuse for not discussing those years in more detail.
       The Simpsons does offer some interesting information about the early years of the show, and the principals involved in creating this juggernaut. Characters like Matt Groening, who created the characters, producer James L. Brooks, and a host of the writer-talent are introduced and described, and a good deal of this is fairly interesting; there's also not enough of it -- due, in part, no doubt, to so many of them not speaking with Ortved. Unfortunately, Ortved isn't (or doesn't care to be) much of an investigative reporter, and is happy enough remaining largely hands-off about, for example, Groening after the initial success of the show. There are a few episodes Ortved gets into -- including the end of the close friendship between James L. Brooks and Jerry Belsen -- but far too little. (As Ortved notes, James L. Brooks is so omni-powerful in the industry that no one wants to piss him off, and hence it's hard to get anyone to say anything about him, but even just the limited account here has him come across as a shit of the foulest and largest proportions.)
       There are many juicy titbits, but Ortved doesn't go nearly far enough in exploring most of them. Some things remain un- or under-explained: Tracey Ullman battled for a greater share of the cash-cow in a court-case -- but then there's the brief mention that she appeared as a guest voice in season two. Was this before they went to court ? A good-will gesture ? Or, if there were such doubts about the show when it first went on the air, how did it come about that: "Before the first episode had even appeared, there were already forty-five licenses sold to merchandisers" ?
       Ortved offers interesting bits of information throughout, but there's little follow-through; worse, too many of the quotes are fawning, simplistic statements presented entirely uncritically -- down to the downright silly, as in one 'executive consultant's' explanation of how: "the show encourages people to know more about the world around them" -- because:

It gets into jokes about Russian literature, and it encourages you to go out and know more about the world and experience more in terms of art and culture, because the writers are so smart and well read.
       The narrative meanders somewhat aimlessly far too often, too, and is occasionally repetitive. The focus on what went on behind the scenes is defensible -- after all, the show-summaries (and, on DVD and in reruns, the shows themselves) are available elsewhere -- but there's little which one feels one learns enough about. (In part that is because Ortved does, indeed, uncover a lot of interesting characters and some fun stories (especially when it's about money) -- he just doesn't take most of them far enough.)
       Ortved, too, offers dubious generalizations, especially when he tries to convey the incredible influence of The Simpsons (or at least the incredible influence he's convinced they've had). He might be more convincing if he didn't make the claim (twice, no less, though in different words) that: "Next to pornography, it was hard to find an online subject more popular than The Simpsons".
       Unauthorized, there's too little of the actual The Simpsons in The Simpsons -- and not enough else of anything else to make up for that. Ortved certainly doesn't dig nearly deep enough into the history, especially the later years. There are interesting views of the writers' rooms, but Ortved also does far too little with the quotes he gets (such as taking some of the statements on more critically), and is far too willing to accept and use entirely toothless (and pointless) commentary. For an oral history it is only intermittently well assembled.
       Fans of the TV show might enjoy some of this, but it's hard not to be frustrated by this assemblage.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 October 2009

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The Simpsons: Reviews: The Simpsons: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Canadian journalist John Ortved was born in 1980.

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