November 4, 2001
By A. O. SCOTT
There's a scene from ''The Simpsons'' that has been looping inside my brain since Sept.
11. It comes from ''The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson,'' a four-year-old episode
of the Fox show. During a family trip to Manhattan, Homer finds himself on a cartoon
version of the plaza between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. There, waiting
for a traffic officer to remove the boot from his pink family sedan (while his family is
taking in a Broadway musical about the Betty Ford Center), Homer meets a vendor
selling an exotic delicacy called Khlav Kalash. He buys some, washing it down with
many cans of crab juice. When all that crab juice takes its inevitable toll, Homer runs up
107 flights of stairs, only to discover that the men's room in Tower 2 is out of order. But
that's not the only surprise: Tenement-style clotheslines are strung between the two
skyscrapers, and the windows open to reveal surly New Yorkers yelling at each other to
It's a great joke. But it plays differently now. For one thing, the image of New Yorkers as
brash, contentious and impatient has abruptly vanished from the national mythology. And
the picture of the skyscrapers as a noisy, gemutlich neighborhood now seems more
poignant than ridiculous. Recently, as ''Simpsons'' fans on the Internet have begun
speculating that ''The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson'' will become a ''lost
episode,'' vanishing forever from syndication, I've found myself wondering how recent
events will affect Springfield, the Simpsons' hometown.
This is neither as facetious nor as trivial as it may sound. Since the towers fell, there has
been much debate about how the terrorist attacks and their aftermath will affect popular
culture. The discussion has been maddeningly inconclusive, but one clear theme has
emerged: The easy laughs we took for granted two months ago seem to belong
irrevocably to another era. This feeling, combined with a creeping tendency to stigmatize
the immediate past -- to look back with shame at the old days when we were so
complacent, so emptily clever -- makes an unabashedly silly show like ''The Simpsons''
seem especially vulnerable.
But I hope that little will change about the indomitable four-fingered family that resides
in a pink bungalow on Evergreen Terrace. For nothing has summed up the promise and
confusion of American life in the post-cold-war era better than ''The Simpsons.'' Nothing
else has harnessed the accumulated energies and memory traces of the civilization with
so much intelligence and originality.
Since its debut in December 1989, the show -- brainy and populist, sophisticated and
vulgar, gleeful in its assault on every imaginable piety and subversively affirmative of the
bonds of family and community -- has remained remarkably vital. Granted, the revelatory