On Sunday night, “The Simpsons” responded with snapshot brevity to the most recent criticism that one of its longest-running characters is culturally insensitive.
Last fall, Brooklyn standup Hari Kondabolu debuted his documentary “The Problem With Apu,” in which the comedian of Indian heritage weighed whether the Fox show’s Indian-born convenience-store clerk, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, did “more harm than good as a representation of Indian Americans,” as The Washington Post reported last November.
“You start to feel embarrassed to be an Indian,” the filmmaker told The Post’s Lavanya Ramanathan of such characterizations. “Because there’s only one representation.”
Well, on Sunday night, “The Simpsons” team offered its retort. Shortly before the new episode aired, “Simpsons” showrunner Al Jean even tweeted: “New Simpsons in five minutes. Twitter explosion in act three.”
The episode, titled “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” centers on how the Simpson family puts aside its electronic devices and tries to turn to books instead.
Marge runs into repeated issues of sociopolitical insensitivity, however, when a favorite book from her childhood is viewed through a 21st-century prism. As Marge reads to daughter Lisa, one story’s “cisgender” heroine gets an au courant update. Soon, Marge has altered so many fairy tales with attempted cultural correctives that the stories are stripped of their narrative arcs and emotional journeys.
At that point, there’s “no point” to such stories, Lisa says. But what’s a storyteller to do, Marge asks.
“It’s hard to say,” young Lisa replies. “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
Cut to a signed Apu photo on the family nightstand. His inscription reads: “Don’t have a cow.”
As Jean anticipated, critics soon took to Twitter.
Kondabolu tweeted that the show’s response to the Apu criticism was a “sad” turn, and he lamented that the show’s takeaway from such criticism seemed to be only that it was an issue of political correctness. He viewed the long-running show’s response as “a jab” against progress.
Several others on social media, including CNN host W. Kamau Bell, referred to the scene as a “toothless response” to accusations of stereotyping. Bell declared this the moment that “The Simpsons” effectively died and saw the choice to put the “don’t have a cow” sentiment in the mouth of Lisa - the Simpson who’s so often the progressive champion of the marginalized outsider - as the ultimate absurdity. (Bell noted that he is friends with Kondabolu.)
Others on social media, though, sided with “The Simpsons” over what they called a “non-issue.”
And Jean popped back onto Twitter to defend Lisa’s dialogue and point out that Hank Azaria, who voices Apu among his many characters, won an Emmy for his “Simpsons” work two decades ago.
Three years ago, Azaria defended Apu as being just one representation of a character of Indian descent among many now on the pop landscape - albeit a “funny one.”
Added Azaria: “I’ve done every possible nationality on the show. Granted, Apu has sort of got very popular. But I’m an equal-opportunity offender, if I’m an offender.”