Review: John Ortved’s The Simpsons, The: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History

Simpsons, The: An Uncensored, Unauthorized HistorySimpsons, The: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History by John Ortved

Let’s start with the best part of this book. Ortved offers up a history of The Simpsons, probably the most important (and certainly the most culturally relevant) show of our time. There’s a trove in information here in the genesis of the show and about the principals behind it. And Ortved’s done his homework. Although he doesn’t always speak to the principals, he sees to it their voices – Matt Groening and George Meyer stand out in particular – still appear, albiet from other sources. His book explains how, and more importantly why, the show came to fruition and rose to become, well, The Simpsons.

For all that, though, the book is still maddeningly elusive: at times it comes very close to matching the masterful Live from New York, but it never quite gets there. Some of this is easy to figure out: the show hasn’t ended, so the narrative arc is still open; James Brooks is still so powerful in Hollywood, nobody wants to get on his bad side; etc. He mentions early on a lack of cooperation from people still involved with the show. This hurts the book: not only are many voices only here from other stories (more on that later), but some of the ones that are refer to stuff they can’t tell.

Despite that, there’s some very good chapters here. The one profiling Meyer and John Swartzwelder is especially great, as is the one on guest stars. But the book wanders as it goes on, first wandering around it’s own timeline, jumping from era to era. Finally, it goes from a history of the show to an analysis of it’s legacy, with Ortvet passing judgement.

It’s frustrating to see a entertaining book go this route: he goes from being a narrator to a critic, mixing history with his opinions about when the show started to sink . He editorializes about later episodes of the show, going into detail about how it’s become what it used to mock. By book’s end, it’s just as much about Family Guy and South Park as it is The Simpsons. It not only distracts from the good history early on, it negates it: of course it focuses so heavily on the early seasons. They’re the only ones Ortved thinks are any good.

Is it worth getting for fans of the show? I’m not sure. Ortved goes back, again and again, to a New Yorker history of the show and a Believer profile of Meyer. I haven’t read the originals of either, but other reviews have suggested they say essentially the same history in much fewer words (and for less money).

Maybe there’s a sweet spot somewhere, where somebody can be a big enough fan to want to read a 300-page book about a show but not big enough to have read many of the stories Ortved quotes. Maybe someone in that spot would enjoy this book. I certainly though I was. But even then, the constant editorializing makes me hesitant to recommend this book. It’s not a bad read, but it’s one that could have been a lot better and a lot less frustrating to finish.

Rating: 6/10


2 Responses to “Review: John Ortved’s The Simpsons, The: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History”

  1. December 5, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    Entertaining book, and his points about the crappy Family Guy and South Park are spot on. I wish he’d talked more about entertaining subversive mainstream material that has sprung in Simpsons’ wake, like Sifl & Olly, 12 Oz. Mouse, and so on. Also if I remember correctly this book actually dismisses the hilarious The Critic. No pun intended, but perhaps the book IS too critical but man someone needs to give it to FG and ESPECIALLY South Park which is just awful nonsense nowadays.

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