(I want to clarify in this essay on racial stereotypes that I’m white)
Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is the most controversial aspect of The Simpsons here in 2018. Comedian Hari Kondabolu released a documentary in late 2017, The Problem With Apu, that analysed the character’s effect on pop culture and racial dynamics for Indian-Americans that has sparked arguments a debate on his worth. Call me cynical, but I think the dearth of Indian-American characters at the time and the state of the world in the Nineties means that Apu could have been played, written, and directed by Indian people and he still would been used as a weapon of racial harassment and as a racist insult. At the same time, the decision not only to cast Hank Azaria as the character but to ask him to play a cartoonishly caricatured accent (there’s an interview with Azaria in Kondabolu’s film where he specifically says he tried to pitch a realistic Indian accent before being directed otherwise) is embarrassing and racist, an entirely unnecessary act that acts as a massive blindspot in the show’s otherwise forward-thinking progressiveness. Defenders of the character often bring up the fact that he’s one of the kinder and more reasonable characters in the show; I find this a drastic oversimplification of the question of representation and really dodging the issue. I don’t want to throw The Simpsons out of culture; I do think it was responsible for harm to Indian people, and I think we should acknowledge that as Simpsons fans, and that we should hold present and future creators responsible for their actions and prevent another Apu situation from happening in the future.
So, the episode shades in more of Apu’s character. The opening act is some prime Simpsons satire, showing the parasitic relationship between Apu and Homer as the former is cynically indifferent enough to sell expired meat at jacked-up prices and the latter is lazy and slovenly enough to buy and eat it; the show is just as cynical about small business owners as it is plutocrats like Mr Burns. At the same time, it plays off racial stereotypes in terms of how hard Apu is willing to work, which to me is both something specific about the image of Indian convenience store owners specifically and non-Americans in general. The Simpsons is in the grand tradition of American stories that views Americans as especially lazy and spoiled, especially the white middle class, compared to their peers around the world and especially compared to non-white countries like India or China. The Sopranos holds to this belief and found a particularly beautiful way of expressing it: “That’s the trouble with you Americans. You expect nothing bad to ever happen, while the rest of the world expects only bad to happen. And they’re not disappointed.”
The Simpsons is simultaneously more cynical and more honest – Apu being a hard worker doesn’t make him any less craven (that, to me, is the real value of Apu as a character – he’s neither more nor less saintly or evil than anyone else on the show). It’s also not here to prove a point; what we have here is the earliest form of “the family take in a Springfielder” (love that we’re still getting first-time stuff about halfway through the Golden Era), and it’s one of the best, once again finding a perfectly logical way for the characters to cross paths with the family again, as both Homer and Apu make choices that bring them together. Honestly, it’s hard for me to analyse the plot itself. This is a lean, mean, joke-making machine.
Chalkboard Gag: I will not go near the kindergarten turtle.
Couch Gag: The family pop out from behind the couch, and Maggie pops out of the cushions.
This episode is written by Greg Daniels and directed by Mark Kirkland, and this was Daniels’ first full episode. This episode was part of Mirkin’s vision to bring the show back to character more after the absurdity of season five, which is interesting considering discussion of this season as the most absurd.
James Woods guest stars, and his turn to horrific nastiness the past few years does not dampen his appearance here, with so many wonderful throwaway gags (“How can it be the same movie if they’ve changed my character from a tightly wound convenience store clerk to a jittery Eskimo firefighter?! Uh huh. Uh huh. Mmm-hm. Well actually, that’s – that’s a pretty good explanation.”).
This is the first episode with a genuine, non-diegetic musical number, “Who Needs The Kwik-Mart”! My favourite joke about India is “This is the traditional pose of apology”, for the killer absurdity of “Now that I think about it, it may be a little confusing.” There’s a lot of Barney in this episode for some reason.
The entire subplot with Woods is a reference to The Hard Way. When Kent asks Homer to go undercover, he quotes JFK. Homer and Apu riding mules to the airport is a parody of Lawrence Of Arabia. James Woods references True Believer and Chaplin.
Iconic Moments: 3. “It’s true, it’s true! We’re so lame!” | “Karma can only be portioned out by the cosmos!” / “He’s got me there.” | “I’ve learned life is one crushing defeat after another until you just wish Flanders was dead.”