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The Setting of the Simpsons

The main characters were originally created by Matt Groening as part of a series of original animated segments for The Tracey Ullman Show. Over the course of the series Groening has used many of the themes present in his long-running comic strip series, Life in Hell. (For instance, the idea of creative school children constantly being persecuted and suppressed by totalitarian grown-ups stems from the strip.)

The Simpsons is set in the fictional United States town of Springfield. Throughout the show's history fans have tried to determine where Springfield is by taking the town's characteristics, surrounding geography and nearby landmarks as clues. However, both the town itself and its location are fictional. Nearly every state and region in the U.S. has been both suggested and ruled out by conflicting "evidence" of a location for Springfield, so that the town could theoretically be anywhere. For example, in the episode "Behind the Laughter" the Simpsons are described as "a northern Kentucky family". In a later airing the location was changed to "southern Missouri." Also, in the episode "Sweet & Sour Marge", it is mentioned that Tennessee is to the south of Springfield which would put them back in Kentucky or possibly, in Virginia. Some people claim, and with evidence from an episode suggesting they live near the West Coast of the United States, that they are from Oregon; this theory also makes some sense because the show's creator, Matt Groening, grew up in Portland.

In one episode at a graveyard the characters throw dirt that blots out the grave of Adlai Stevenson (either the Vice President or Presidential Candidate of the US) who was a well-known politician based in Illinois, implying Springfield, Illinois. Creator Matt Groening has stated that Springfield has much in common with Portland, Oregon, the city he grew up in (see Matt Groening's Portland), and the name "Springfield" was chosen because virtually every state has a town or city with that name. (See Where Is The Simpsons' Springfield? for more information on this issue.)

Animation scholars and fans have noted the series uses the medium of animation to its advantage, allowing the show to take place in many settings and feature a far greater cast of characters than a live-action sitcom. The cost of having an episode of The Simpsons take place in the mountains, Europe, the city park, or a cruise ship on the ocean (all of which simply use drawn and painted backgrounds) is hardly more than placing the family in the more conventional sitcom settings of a living room, a kitchen, and perhaps one or two related settings. This allows for far more flexibility in plot development than a typical live-action sitcom constrained by physical limitations and logistics.

The show's basic premise centres on the antics of the family: Homer and Marge, and their children Bart, Lisa and Maggie as well as their pets Santa's Little Helper  the dog  and Snowball II  the cat. (Snowball I was run over and killed earlier in Simpsons history. In a later episode, Snowball II is killed, along with replacements Snowball III and Coltrane. Snowball IV survives and is renamed Snowball II to save money on dishes.)

Homer, a safety inspector at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, is a generally well-meaning buffoon whose short attention span often draws him into outrageous schemes and adventures. Marge was once intelligent and sophisticated, but has come to conform with the stereotype of housewife/mother. Bart, the oldest sibling, is a troublemaker and classroom terror ("a vile burlesque of irrepressible youth" is how Lisa once described him) who thinks of himself as a rebel while Lisa is a brainy student, vegetarian, Buddhist and jazz music fan who dreams of a better future (she is referred to as "the future of the family"). Maggie is an eternal baby. Despite the fact that numerous years (and birthdays) clearly pass (for example, many Christmas episodes), the Simpsons do not appear to age. Some characters' ages have fluctuated throughout the years; this is most likely due to simple oversight on the part of the writers.

The show also has a vast array of quirky supporting characters, including co-workers, teachers, family friends, extended relatives, and local celebrities. Many of these characters have developed a vast cult following of their own. For a comprehensive list, see characters from The Simpsons.

Episode plots rarely follow any sort of linear course, often taking several digressions to move storylines in unexpected directions. For example, the description of the 2003 episode "Dude, Where's My Ranch?" offered to Shaw Cable subscribers reads: "After David Byrne turns Homer's anti-(Ned) Flanders song into a monster hit, the family vacations at a dude ranch, where Lisa falls in love."

Authority, especially in undeserving hands, is a constant target of the show's often sharp satire. This probably explains the often strong negative reaction to the show from social conservatives. This negative reaction was most pronounced during the early seasons of the show. Nearly every authority figure in the show is portrayed unflatteringly: Homer is thoughtless and irresponsible, the antithesis of the ideal 1950s TV father though he always comes through for his family in the end. Marge Simpson is also of the 50's stereotype category, and exercises tyrannical control over her family to ease her own loneliness. Springfield police chief Clancy Wiggum (voiced by Hank Azaria in an Edward G. Robinson-influenced tone) is obese, stupid, lazy, corrupt and not overly concerned with constitutional rights (not to mention that he somewhat resembles a pig). Mayor Quimby  who sounds like John F. Kennedy  is a corrupt, spend-thrift womanizer. Seymour Skinner (who sounds like Charles Kuralt), the principal of Springfield Elementary School, is an uptight, humourless bachelor who lives with his domineering mother. He has frequent flashbacks to his capture and imprisonment by the Viet Cong, and in early seasons, Skinner was repeatedly likened to Norman Bates in Psycho though this ultimately was dropped later on in the series. Ms. Edna Krabappel is Bart's, and sometimes Lisa's, depressed elementary school teacher who is impatient and ignorant of her class, and demands darkness and silence when she is hung over. Reverend Lovejoy, the pastor of the local church, is judgemental and moralistic (but only regarding other people), with a monotonous voice that always puts Homer to sleep during Sunday sermons. While most of these characters are more incompetent than truly evil there is one true sadist: Montgomery Burns, owner of the Springfield Nuclear Plant and Homer Simpson's boss. Evil and cruel, Montgomery Burns is aided in his campaign of terror against the residents of Springfield by his trusted assistant Waylon Smithers, who secretly harbours an unrequited love for Burns.

In a somewhat ironic twist, during the more recent years of Simpsons production, some social conservatives have come to embrace the show. One of the main explanations of this shift is that the Simpsons portrays a traditional nuclear family among a line-up of television sitcoms that now portray less traditional families. The show has toyed with the possibility of extramarital affairs, such as when Homer falls for a female nuclear technician who shares his love of donuts, or when Marge's ex-boyfriend Artie Ziff tries to rekindle their old romance. Nevertheless, these affairs never occur, and by the end of every episode, Homer and Marge's marriage is strongly affirmed. Social conservatives and some evangelical Christians have also pointed to the positive role-model of devout Christian Ned Flanders, whose fretfulness is occasionally ridiculed but whose decency never wavers despite constant provocation from Homer. In several episodes, God actually intervenes to protect the Flanders family, invoking such Protestant concepts as Predestination. As compared with the Simpsons family, the Flanders family is relatively well-off and less dysfunctional, fulfilling certain theories expressed by sociologist Max Weber in his seminal work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

The show also routinely mocks and satirizes show business conventions and personalities. Krusty the Clown has an enthusiastic following among Springfield's kids, but offstage he is a jaded, cynical hack, in poor health from a long history of overindulgence and substance abuse. He will endorse any product for a price. Kent Brockman is a self-important, spoiled TV news anchorman with little regard for journalistic ethics possibly thanks to the fact that he won the lottery in one episode. Viewers also learn that Brockman went by 'Kenny Brockelstein' in the 1960s, but that he anglicized by the time the Simpsons episodes of the 1990s take place. Even Rupert Murdoch -- whose corporate empire includes The Simpsons' broadcast network, Fox -- has been gently spoofed in a couple of episodes.

The plots of most episodes focus on the adventures of one particular family member, frequently Homer. However the plots have never been very predictable or constant and tend to be very character-driven. Recurring themes in episodes include:

  • Homer gets a new job or attempts to make money in a get-rich-quick scheme.
  • Marge attempts to escape the monotony of keeping house by finding employment or taking up a hobby.
  • Bart causes a large problem and attempts to fix it.
  • Lisa embraces or advocates the merits of a particular political cause or group.
  • The entire family goes on vacation. (Because of these vacations the entire family has been to every continent on Earth with the exception of Antarctica.)
  • Grandpa Simpson or Grandma Simpson needs help sorting out issues from their past and calls upon the main Simpsons family.

There are several types of scenes that recur often and have become conventions of the show's storytelling style. Examples of these stock scenes include:

  • A scene at the very beginning of the show in which the family goes somewhere together, like a cartoon festival or a cider mill. After a few minutes there, the main plot begins.
  • A scene, often near the middle of the show, in which Homer and Marge are in bed together discussing the events of the story so far.
  • A scene in which the family is eating dinner together and talking about the events of the plot. Conceptually this is very similar to the "Homer and Marge in bed" scenes, but including Bart and Lisa.
  • A scene in the morning in which Marge is preparing breakfast, and the kids and Homer are eating before going to work or school as they talk about what they are going to do. This is often near the start of the episode.
  • A scene in which Homer is at Moe's Tavern escaping the hassles of work and family to be with his friends.
  • A scene in which one or more Simpsons are watching a TV program, which the viewer watches along with them.
  • A crowd scene, in which the entire town of Springfield convenes to witness some notable event, protest something, attend a civic meeting, or even start a riot. Many recurring minor characters appear and speak.
  • TV anchorman Kent Brockman reporting on the events of the plot.
  • Scenes that cut from the main action to show what a secondary character, like Krusty or Mr. Burns, is doing at the time.
  • A fantasy in which one of the Simpsons imagines how something might turn out.
  • A scene where someone shows up in the Simpsons' living room for no reason.

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