The Problem With Solving the Problem With Apu

For a brief, shining moment, The Simpsons became relevant again last week. The controversy over the Apu character — given oxygen with last Sunday’s episode of the generation-spanning cartoon — will not be an easy one to resolve (assuming it gets a resolution at all).

The critics sure have a fair point, don’t they? The decision to place an Indian-American behind the counter at Springfield’s local convenience store (he first appeared in Season 1’s “The Telltale Head”) played heavily on stereotypes, down to his sing-song catchphrase, “Thank you, come again!” A TV show created and debuting today would not dare include a character like Apu.

But what to do about that now?

Like many Springfielders from the early days of the series, Apu was a two-dimensional side character — part of the gallery of minor players who added critical detail and texture to the world around the five main Simpson family members. There were many similarly stereotypical characters, even when those stereotypes played less on race: Mr. Burns was the evil corporate raider and jerk of a boss; Nelson Muntz was everyone’s elementary school bully; Lionel Hutz was the smarmy personal injury lawyer we’ve all seen on daytime television commercials.

Thirty seasons on, many of those characters have evolved to include more nuance; they’ve been used by writers less for laughs and more for plot elements. As defenders of the show have noted, this includes Apu. He has lost and regained his business. He married and started a family. He had an affair, then reconciled with his wife. He hangs out with Paul McCartney.

Perhaps most importantly is this: Where Apu’s ethnicity, background, and religion are played for the most memorable or effective laughs, the setup puts the audience on Apu’s side.

In Season 4’s “Homer the Heretic,” after Springfield’s volunteer fire department (which includes Apu) saves the Simpsons’ home from a blaze, Reverend Lovejoy tells Homer, “God … was working in the hearts of your friends be they Christian, Jew, or [as the point of view shifts to Apu] …miscellaneous.” We’re with Apu when he protests, “There are seven hundred million of us!”

In “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song,” when a recently-fired Principal Skinner shares the plot of Jurassic Park as his idea for a Great American Novel, it’s the immigrant Apu who gives voice to the audience through a tirade demonstrating the cultural literacy and awareness which escapes the unhip Skinner.

And in what may be his best moment on the show, Apu demonstrates his enthusiasm for his new home country in “Much Apu About Nothing” by launching into a detailed explanation of the causes of the Civil War — before an impatient citizenship test administrator interrupts him and tells him, “Just say ‘slavery.’”

If The Simpsons had axed Apu in 1990 or 1991, they would have been getting rid of a two-dimensional, stereotype-drive character whose presence was, at the very best, insensitive. If The Simpsons retire Apu tomorrow, they will be getting rid of an Indian-American character built up with a more involved backstory. Apu is a cherished part of The Simpsons’ cast today not because the stereotype of an Indian-American running a convenience store resonates with fans, but because his personality has earned a place in much of Simpsons fandom’s heart.

It’s hard to say that a show should eliminate a good character now because of a bad characterization 30 years ago.

Then again, maybe the fact that there was so much opportunity for backstory and development is the real problem. Since the advent of syndicated reruns and continuing with Netflix, Hulu, and digital over-the-air channels like MeTV and Cozi, we have been able to see old television and cringe at their dated values. We may shudder at the racism when Gilligan and the Skipper stokes fear of headhunting South Pacific Islanders, or wonder how many sexual harassment claims Starfleet received about James T. Kirk, but we don’t have to worry because such characterizations are obvious relics of another cultural era. Apu’s problem is that he can’t be judged against the time frame of his creation; his television show is still running.

A show can’t keep the same basic setup and still be edgy and subversive for thirty years, because the nature of what is edgy and subversive naturally changes. And the religious fans of the 1990s won’t necessarily defend today’s product; they’ve grown up. (If you were, like me, a ten-year-old like Bart when the show started, you are now a late-thirtysomething contemporary of Homer.) The ratings show that the audience has eroded steadily. Former fans have launched blogs to track, episode-by-episode, the show’s declining quality.

The loudest voices belong to the critics by default. Cynically, that means controversy may be what The Simpsons wants at this point. If there are fewer supporters, perhaps detractors can drive ratings.

How does it get resolved? It might not have to. The criticisms of Apu will always have validity, but they may not always have volume. (Remember, the past week of discussion about Apu may have been prompted by Hari Kondabolu’s 2017 documentary, The Problem With Apu, but it was the show that fanned the flames by answering Kondabolu’s accusations.) Sure, there would always be some noise about Apu, and that noise might help siphon off some viewers, but the slow leak deflating the audience is a 20-year trend anyway.

If the producers do decide to act, they could quietly retire Apu by simply not including the character in any future episodes. After all, would anyone notice if there wasn’t an episode featuring Apu over the next five seasons?

More likely, sometime in the next few years, would see an unsatisfying, ratings-grabbing Apu send-off episode. It would feature prominent guest voices of those (like Kondabolu, if he’d do it) who were critical of the character. The episode itself wouldn’t be funny, just exploitative.

Sadly, either option presents a common downside: Each would end any character developments or evolution in how Apu is presented. The early-1990s episodes featuring the flat, stereotyped Apu exist, and there’s no changing that. The audience, to the extent there’s an audience left, would miss out only on the best possible version of Apu.

Only the promise of the future would get erased, not the mistakes of the past.

Grassroots messaging and mobilization consultant