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The Sociology of Avatar, The X Files and The Simpsons

Scouring "Avatar," "The X Files" and, yes, even "The Simpsons" for sociological subtext.
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After watching the premiere episode of House, I confidently predicted the Fox medical drama would be dead on arrival. I was certain the viewing public would not respond to a program based around such a cold, arrogant character. And the questions it posed — Is there a God? Does anyone ever tell the whole truth, even to himself? In the end, don't we always choose self-interest over altruism? — were not ones the American Idol crowd was especially interested in contemplating. I gave it six weeks, eight tops.

House is now in its sixth season and remains among the 10 most-watched programs in America. What's more, it has yet to succumb to sentimentality. The central character's bleak view of life — inspired in part by his chronic pain — is challenged by other characters, but never completely refuted. The possibility his misanthropy is justified always hangs in the air.

So what gives this cerebral, contrarian series its mass appeal? In the highly enjoyable new volume of essays, Homer Simpson Marches on Washington, Sara Jordan and Phillip Gray of the University of Hong Kong argue that Dr. Gregory House is sort of a fantasy figure: a professional who, due to his unique gifts, can get away with ignoring the rules.


For those forced to conform to the sometimes senseless regulations of a bureaucracy, watching Dr. House defy authority figures provides intense vicarious thrills. "Through his genius, his self-made autonomy and his sarcasm," they write, "House provides a cathartic release for all those trapped in the regulated life of mass man."

While that's not my personal point of entry into the show, Jordan and Gray are undoubtedly onto something, and their viewpoint is expressed in crisp, concise prose. The same can be said for all 15 essays in this lively volume, edited by University of Wisconsin political scientists Timothy Dale and Joseph Foy. A variety of pop-culture artifacts — primarily but not exclusively television series — are analyzed to discover the sociopolitical assumptions that underpin the storytelling. Ideologues looking for dastardly examples of liberal (or, for that matter, corporate) propaganda will be disappointed; the worldviews uncovered here don't fit neatly into such categories.

Take Paul Cantor's analysis of The X Files as a prescient look at the unsettled, evolving global power structure. Chris Carter's 1990s science fiction series about a pair of FBI agents "was one of the darkest and most unnerving shows in the history of television," the University of Virginia English professor writes, "especially in the way it dwelled on the nightmare aspects of globalization. ... Again and again, The X Files suggested that in a globalized world, threats would take more shadowy, diffuse and mysterious forms, difficult to pin down and hence difficult to deal with." One decade's science fiction is another's unnerving reality.

Even programs that would seem to wear their politics on their sleeves are analyzed in provocative ways. Marshall University's Jamie Warner takes the long view of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart by noting that its central villain isn't one particular party or even the

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shallowness of the news media, but the "permanent campaign" mentality that essentially prevents anyone in government or politics from addressing issues honestly. Stewart, she notes, "is a truth-teller in an environment where no truth goes unspun."

The volume has its missteps. An essay on Rosie O'Donnell's tumultuous stint on The View breaks no new ground, and it's questionable whether M. Night Shyamalan's horror film, The Happening, a critical and commercial failure, deserves the in-depth treatment it receives here. But most of the essays are revelatory, in that they analyze familiar works through unexpected lenses. Diane Relke notes how the Star Trek franchise values the humanities more highly than hard science. Matthew Henry surveys the spirituality of The Simpsons, which conveys a genuine appreciation of community and compassion even as it satirizes the wrathful-God emphasis of fundamentalism. In one episode, Bible literalist Ned Flanders implores his feuding fellow Christians: "Can't we all get together and concentrate on our real enemies: monogamous gays and stem cells?"

Wonderful line, but do jokes, however clever, change minds? Put it this way: If fictional television had no impact whatsoever on political opinion, I doubt conservative commentators would still be referencing 24 as they defend the use of harsh interrogation techniques. As Time magazine's Joe Klein noted in a recent comment on the environmentally conscious movie Avatar, "the zeitgeist is a subtle thing." Opinions are not exclusively shaped by political discourse.

With Americans increasingly turning to news sources that fit their ideologies, movies and television may become the last common meeting ground. This reality makes the astute analysis of Homer Simpson Marches on Washington all the more valuable. Murrow and Cronkite may be gone, but Bart and Homer endure. The startling thing about this volume is you close it thinking that tradeoff may not be so bad after all.