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‘The Simpsons’ Decides There’s No ‘Problem With Apu’

“Something that started decades ago, and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect,” Lisa bemoans during Sunday night’s episode, which comes five months after comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary addressing racial caricatures in entertainment through Apu’s character

Apu sweating Fox/Ringer illustration

In November, the comedian Hari Kondabolu released The Problem With Apu, a documentary about racial caricatures and typecasting in American entertainment. In his documentary, Kondabolu frames his accountability campaign around the Simpsons character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon’s voice actor, Hank Azaria. Kondabolu, the son of Indian immigrants, has described Azaria’s performance as “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” In The Problem With Apu, Azaria first engages Kondabolu reluctantly via email before avoiding any climactic confrontation on camera. The Simpsons finally answered Kondabolu with a Sunday-night episode in the show’s 29th season designed as its definitive defense of Apu.

In “No Good Read Goes Unpunished”—an episode in which Apu doesn’t even appear—The Simpsons answers Kondabolu with an ambivalent, but nonetheless arrogant defense against political correctness. Marge rediscovers her favorite childhood book, The Princess in the Garden, and excitedly decides to share it with Lisa. Gradually, it dawns on Marge that the book—a colonial novel written around a young, white heroine—is filled with grotesque racial caricatures. At bedtime, Marge revises The Princess in the Garden to render the protagonist as “a cisgender girl named Clara” who “lived in South America, fighting for wild horse rescue and net neutrality.” Frowning, Lisa observes that the purification of Clara’s character has made her bland and flattened her arc. “Kinda means there’s no point to the book,” Lisa supposes. Mind you, Lisa says this before she’s even read the book. Somehow, Lisa has deduced that The Princess in the Garden is necessarily good, and that the book’s racial characterizations are a key component of its greatness, even as those characterizations give Marge, the book’s actual fan, pause. Marge means well, and yet the mother’s reluctance to recite imperialist fantasies to her young daughter is presented as naivety.

In a dream sequence, the episode brings to life the fictional Princess in the Garden author Heloise Hodgeson Burwell, as well as the late Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling, to subject them to cursory ridicule for their quaint sensibilities. Through spoofing Kipling’s genre, the episode suggests that all art, but especially great art, ages poorly under updated political scrutiny. It also suggests—rather classically, as far as this sort of obliviousness goes—that critics only ever raise these objections in retrospect. “Something that started decades ago, and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect,” Lisa bemoans. Here, the character briefly adopts a menacing, accusatory tone, implying an absolute cultural collapse if critiques such as Kondabolu’s gain too much traction against too many cherished subjects. As Lisa speaks, the camera cuts to a framed photo of Apu, smiling, on her nightstand, and so the viewer is meant to understand that the beloved Apu is a potential casualty in all of this. “Some things will be dealt with”—in the passive voice—“at a later date, if at all,” Marge concludes.

A sizable portion of “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” seems designed to answer Kondabolu’s critique, and yet it amounts to a pretty thin restatement of what Azaria already communicated (via email) in Kondabolu’s documentary: The Apu problem is too unfavorable, and too essential to the show’s general outlook on humor, for The Simpsons to process publicly and in good faith. In the documentary, the impasse seems partially designed by Kondabolu in having focused so exclusively on Azaria, who never seems to have real power over the fate of his character. In “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” the show makes it achingly clear that the Apu problem is the show’s own choice, the show’s proud fault.

The show does, however, struggle to complicate its own arrogance. After Lisa has soured on her mother’s revisions, Marge meets two university professors who eagerly identify themselves as Burwell devotees. “Burwell’s whole life was a protest against conformity,” the first professor insists. “Heloise Burwell is a lesbian icon! Her ‘offensive’ stereotypes were actually a self-consciously ironic protest against her own oppression,” the second professor adds.

“How much of that do you actually believe?” Marge wonders.

“Most,” the second professor replies.

Marge’s encounter with the professors is the episode’s singular note of self-deprecation: The conversation suggests that the charitable interpretations of Burwell’s work are rooted in racial biases, self-deception, and stubbornness. It’s a peculiar scene that doesn’t get to serve as a narrative breakthrough; Marge doesn’t relate her insights from her encounter with the professors back to Lisa. Their conversation goes unfinished. Elsewhere in the episode, Bart becomes obsessed with The Art of War, and so the author Sun Tzu is brought to life and briefly voiced by the Chinese American comedian Jimmy O. Yang. In The Problem With Apu, Kondabolu stresses that his frustration with Apu is largely due to his being voiced by a white actor doing a haphazard accent. Yang spares Sun Tzu that manner of indignity, and so you’d assume that Kondabolu’s critique has prevailed, to a partial degree, upon the producers. Azaria voices more than a dozen characters on The Simpsons; the fact he didn’t voice Sun Tzu, too, in a humiliating fashion doesn’t seem to have ruined the show. If only the writers were thoughtful enough to have drafted a complementary narrative response—if not yet a resolution—to Kondabolu’s problems with Apu.