This episode explores, with startling pertinence, the consumerism that drives our cherished national holidays, the seductive power of populism and the dangers of seeking quick fixes to big problems
Homer: You signed my name? I feel so violated!
Marge: You’ve signed my name lots of times.
Homer: But this isn’t like a loan application or a will; you signed away my dignity! And I’m going to get it back.
It’s easy to forget how great The Simpsons was, and depressing to think of how far it has fallen. The show has languished for two decades, never managing to reach the bar it set itself in its first ten years, when it cemented itself as one of the greatest TV shows ever. Though I’m a huge fan of the series, its staggering, three-decade lifespan means that The Simpsons’ has spent twice as long on the backburner as it spent being hip, relevant and, well, good.
‘Trash of the Titans’ aired on 26th April 1998. It is the 200th episode of The Simpsons and appears towards the end of the show’s ninth season. By that point, the show was already past its best. That’s not to say that season 9 was bad: the period between seasons 4 and 8 of The Simpsons contains some of the best television I’ve ever seen and coming anywhere near that in terms of quality is still impressive. But there were signs of creative decay, characterised in large part by an overreliance on celebrity cameos and pop culture references to drive episodes.
‘Trash of the Titans’, it must be said, is not even that great an episode. That it was included on The Simpsons’ Greatest Hits, a compilation released in 1999,probably has more to do with it being the 200th episode than it being one of the standout episodes in The Simpsons’ back catalogue. When you think that the Greatest Hits compilation also included the 100th episode, ‘Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Badasssss Song’, and the first, ‘Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire’, neither of which stack up particularly well against great episodes like season 4’s ‘Last Exit to Springfield’ and the wonderful, two-part ‘Who Shot Mr. Burns?’, it seems that what they called “greatest hits” was more a collection of milestones than a showcase of the best that The Simpsons offers (excluding ‘Bart Gets an F’, which thoroughly deserves its place on the compilation).
Still, while ‘Trash of the Titans’ might not be one of the best Simpsons episodes, it is, for me, the most important. The Simpsons has always been known for the social and political commentary weaved into its episodes, and at no point in the show’s history is this commentary as pertinent today as it is in ‘Trash of the Titans’.
In case you haven’t seen the episode, I’ll give a brief introduction before beginning my analysis, although I would definitely recommend you watch it anyway. An altercation between Homer and the local garbagemen results in the Simpsons’ trash being left to mount in the front yard. Homer, much to his family’s exasperation, vows to stick it out, determined that the garbagemen will crack before he does. He seems to be vindicated when he wakes up one morning to find their front yard cleared of all the garbage. As he trumpets his victory over city hall to his family – “it’s just like David and Goliath, only this time, David won!” he tells them – Marge breaks to him that she wrote a letter of apology to the sanitation commissioner on Homer’s behalf, effectively ending the feud. His pride dented, but not vanquished, a furious Homer marches to city hall to retract his apology. He is warmly received by Springfield’s incumbent sanitation commissioner, Ray Patterson (voiced by Steve Martin), who expresses his regret to Homer that they couldn’t work things out. But Homer refuses to let the matter drop and goes to register as a candidate for the sanitation commissioner job, pitting him in a head to head election battle with Mr. Patterson.
Consumerism and Public Holidays
Marge: Happy Love Day, everyone!
Lisa: Come on, Mom, the stores just invented this holiday to make money.
Homer: Lisa, don’t you ruin another Love Day!
“Trash of the Titans” begins in a top-floor boardroom in a skyscraper overlooking downtown Springfield. The bottom floor of the same building is a popular department store run, we gather, by the bigwigs convening at the round table high above them. A man with a flowchart is reeling off sales reports from public holidays throughout the year. When he tries to brush off the “usual Summer lull” – there being no Christmases or Easters to profit from – he is dragged out of the room by goons. Then the blinds are drawn and the remaining suits set about contriving a new holiday to boost profits during the Summer.
Cut to the Simpsons’ house, where the family is celebrating “Love Day”. Lisa, having seen through the whole thing, is the only person to call it out for what it is: a bogus “holiday” fabricated by retail giants to boost sales. She is shut down by Homer, who in turn rejects the talking teddy bear Marge has bought him when he realises it’s not the model he wanted. Bart, equally uninterested in the singing jack o’ lantern he is given, tosses it aside also. In the next scene, the toys, along with the wrappings, ribbons and cards, are stuffed into the bin. “What a terrible waste,” remarks Lisa.
In an age when rampant consumerism shows no sign of abating and sales records are topped year on year as holidays like Black Friday continue to make headlines, it is refreshing more than two decades after ‘Trash’ aired to see The Simpsons lampooning the corporate manipulation of our public holidays and how gleefully the public goes along with it. I particularly love Lisa and Homer’s interaction in this scene. It neatly portrays how anybody who objects to the status quo is told to lighten up, to get off their soap box, as if speaking against the gross commercialisation of something were to speak against the thing itself. It’s indicative of how skilfully big retailers have manipulated public holidays to their own ends, embedding themselves in the public consciousness as representatives of those holidays so that consumers fail to see, and thus stop caring about, the dividing line between the vulgar and the sacred. For example, people in the UK often say, “you know it’s Christmas when the Coke adverts come on”, or something similar. Coca Cola wants you to think of their product when you think of Christmas, hence all the manufactured sentimentality behind its TV ads. But if one were to argue that we shouldn’t be told when to start feeling warm and fuzzy by a multinational corporation co-opting the spirit of Christmas to boost profits – at a time ostensibly about selflessness and giving – people would probably tell that person that they lack Christmas spirit. And as much as we might all claim to hate the over-commercialisation of Christmas, you have to hand it to Coca Cola’s marketing team that they’ve managed to make their product so synonymous with the spirit of Christmas that they pretty much get to dictate when the holiday season starts.
This is pretty typical stuff for big companies. There’s an old cliché in marketing that you’re not being sold a product, but a feeling. The best companies at doing this are the ones who sell you things you don’t need or that might kill you. Coca Cola, McDonald’s and Marlboro could hardly market their products on the strength of their nutritional qualities or medical benefits (though that’s not to say they didn’t in the past), so instead they plunge huge sums of money into running elaborate ad campaigns that align their products with the value systems of their target markets. This then gives the impression that those products in some way represent a desirable mindset or lifestyle. Their TV adverts tend to depict young, fun, sexy people travelling the world and going to awesome parties with their young, fun, sexy friends, all the while capturing their memories on their iPhones or looking fly in their Air Max shoes or staying refreshed with a nice glass of Coca Cola. And when we – the insecure, couchbound, friendless losers that we are – see these awesome people living their awesome lives, we want some of what they’re having. So, we buy the products that we think will give us a piece of that lifestyle, or at least make it seem that way to the people around us.
In ‘Trash of the Titans’, this corporate manipulation is taken to a comical, but not unthinkable, extreme. In the absence of a holiday during the summer months to boost sales, the high street simply invents one. And of course, the ones who gain the most from Love Day are the corporations who drum into us the importance of spending money to make these holidays what they are. What is only fleeting satisfaction (if even that) for the recipients of a talking teddy bear or a singing jack o’ lantern is more money in the pockets of the retail stores.
It is fitting that an episode about trash should begin with a commentary on the excessive consumerism and obscene amounts of waste that go hand in hand with holidays like Christmas and, indeed, Love Day. It is in Homer’s taking out the waste from the Simpsons’ Love Day celebrations that we come to the altercation between him and the garbagemen that I mentioned earlier. Following Marge’s apology letter, which solves the problem, Homer marches to city hall to demand his apology back and, while he’s at it, “fight city hall”. Here, he meets for the first time Springfield’s incumbent sanitation commissioner and his soon-to-be political rival, Ray Patterson.
Homer: Oh Ray, are we going to let politics get in the way of our friendship?
Ray Patterson: Friendship?! You told people I lured children into my gingerbread house!
Homer: (Laughs) Yeah, that was just a lie.
Ray Patterson: Simpson, the American people have never tolerated incompetence in their public officials. You are going to crash and burn, my fat-headed friend.
Homer: See? We’re still friends. Come on, give us a cuddle.
Ray Patterson represents establishment politics in its beigest form: competent yet unremarkable, present but non-invasive. He operates behind the scenes, so out of sight that we’re only meeting him now for the first time, even though he’s been in his post for sixteen years. His business-as-usual approach to his job is wielded by Homer as an affront to the people of Springfield. “Aren’t you tired of waking up early and dragging your garbage to the kerb?” Homer asks a gathered crowd during a rally in the town square.
Homer is the Sophist to Patterson’s Plato, swapping political nous for inflammatory rhetoric. In true populist fashion, he diverts attention away from real issues and towards himself. If Patterson is sensible, pragmatic and driven by delivering to the people what he knows they need, Homer is his opposite: a firebrand without the least bit of political expertise who builds his platform on likeability, relatability and lyrical, overblown promises that pay no heed to political feasibility or budgetary restrictions. His initial aims when first confronting Patterson in city hall are at best vague and at worst recklessly provocative: “I want to shake things up, Patterson, stir up some controversy, rattle a few cages!”
Then why, when watching this episode, do we find ourselves rooting for Homer? Perhaps it’s our general disdain for the establishment; perhaps it’s just because he’s one of the main characters. There is just something enticing, something irresistible about Homer as a political candidate. His buffoonery during the first public debate is exasperating to his seasoned political rival, and hilarious to the rest of us. For the Springfieldians gathered in the town hall, it is a breath of fresh air. At this point, we’re just along for the ride; nobody is seriously contemplating this fool actually winning. But we love to watch him make a mockery of the establishment and give us a good belly laugh while he’s at it.
But because nobody considers him winning, we give him a platform for no other reason than that he is entertaining to watch. What’s worse, we’re so swept up in his ridiculousness and by how square he makes his opponent look that we’re blinded to the danger of electing somebody as dangerously incompetent and irrational as him. Homer masks his ineptitude behind a veil of witty remarks and cheap jabs at his opponent. And the more we listen to him, the more we can’t help but love him. He’s eccentric, charismatic, and genuinely funny. Watching this outsider from the working class take on the established political order is a catharsis we can scarcely resist. Homer makes us cast aside our rationality and succumb to our basest, most anarchic instincts. Against all rationality, we want to see this guy win.
Patterson, exasperated by the lowering of a serious political debate into cheap jibes and personal attacks, and equally baffled by Homer’s ability to rally the masses to his support, issues a final desperate plea to whatever good sense remains among the people of Springfield. “If you want an experienced public servant, vote for me,” he says, “but if you want to believe a bunch of crazy promises about garbagemen cleaning your gutters and waxing your cars, then by all means, vote for this sleazy lunatic.”
Homer wins the election in a landslide.
Once in office, Homer sets about implementing his campaign promises, only to find that Springfield’s sanitation budget is not quite as elastic as he might have cared to consider. His department winds up broke and unable to pay its staff, prompting them to strike. To recoup all the money he spent on expanding his department’s range of services (which mostly involved taking people’s trash out for them and cleaning up their spilt drinks and dirty diapers), Homer needs to come up with a plan, and fast.
Burying the Problem
Homer: “Look at all that beautiful garbage! Other cities don’t want it, so they pay me to dump it in this old, abandoned mine.”
Homer drives the family to an abandoned mine which he has converted to a dumping ground, where trucks from cities around the country are busy offloading trash into the unused mine shaft – a service for which they have paid Homer’s department handsomely. While he hasn’t quite stooped to selling drugs to replenish his department’s empty coffers, as his family had suspected of him, Homer’s solution is every bit as reckless as it is lucrative. As Marge puts it, he has turned Springfield into America’s trash pile.
While Homer’s solution to his department’s cashflow problem might make us laugh, it reflects real-life politicians’ tendency towards short-term solutions, especially those that make them a quick buck. Homer pats himself on the back as his pockets bulge once again and he can appease his workers, while Springfield’s underground, for now out of sight, bulges with trash. Lisa, ever the voice of reason, protests: “but Dad, you can’t just cram garbage under Springfield forever!” Her concern earns her a pat on the head from Homer.
This part of the story is a beautiful illustration of how so-called solutions often attack only the surface of the problems they are employed to solve. What’s more, it shows how when politicians turn to short-term fixes, the consequences – direct or indirect – can be devastating. It’s kind of like when politicians try to rebalance the nation’s budget by slashing funding for emergency services, and then act clueless when more people start dying in the streets (or, more appallingly, try to deny any link between the two).
Homer’s hubris is ultimately his downfall. During a round of golf with Mayor Quimby, all of the garbage from the other cities that Homer stuffed under Springfield bursts out, inundating the town. Quimby calls a town hall meeting in which Homer is stripped of his position and Ray Patterson is brought back in from the cold. Patterson, however, turns down his old job, telling the people of Springfield, “it’s so gratifying to leave you wallowing in the mess you’ve made. You’re screwed. Thank you. Bye.”
By this point completely overrun with trash, Springfield becomes unliveable, and in the final scene we see how the problem is solved: the whole town is transported by truck, building by building, to an area five miles away which will become the new Springfield. Lisa despairs, wholly unconvinced that the people of Springfield will act any better in their new home than they did in the old one: “We’re just going to trash the new Springfield, too,” she remarks bluntly as their house zooms down the highway on the back of a truck. Homer, who you might think would have come to heed Lisa’s persistent appeals to reason, dismisses her yet again: “yeah, but what are you gonna do?” he shrugs as he lets the empty packet of chips from which he has been eating be blown away in the wind, presumably to add to the pile of trash that is old Springfield. In all the years I’ve watched this episode, I actually didn’t pay any attention to this little action until writing this article. Showing Homer nonchalantly toss his empty chips packet off the moving truck neatly encompasses the human species’ failure – or refusal – to learn from its actions, as well as the apathy we tend to show towards our environment.
In this article, I’ve talked about how “Trash of the Titans” explores consumerism, populism and the tendency towards seeking short-term fixes to big problems. But the ending of this episode is what really sends the message home, bringing all of these issues together in a final warning to humanity. What happens to Springfield and its people in this episode is simply a microcosm of what is happening in the world. Everywhere, voters are being swept up in bold rhetoric behind which hide callous, arrogant leaders for whom self-aggrandisement is more important than building a better world for everybody. Crazy promises and ‘alternative truths’ are being proffered to the masses in exchange for votes, and people are being elected more on the strength of their personalities than their political expertise. The consequences speak for themselves. This episode shows that populism is a dangerous thing, but also that if we don’t learn from our mistakes then we are doomed to repeat them.
The fact that there could be millions, if not billions, of new planets to settle is a double-edged sword. While providing us with the opportunity to start anew when we mess up, it also gives us that safety net for when we do – and we will – mess up the place we live in. Knowing that we can jump from planet to planet provides us with little incentive to mend our ways. For sure the idea of exploring other solar systems and settling new planets is exciting. Growing up learning about famous explorers of the past made me yearn for a time when there were still continents to discover here on Earth. Space travel represents just that, the dawning of a new era of discovery and travel, a fresh start for humanity. But I worry that as we explore more of the universe, as the breadth of knowledge outside us widens ever more, we’ll never stop long enough to look inwards, to examine and root out our own destructive tendencies. The Earth, our Springfield, is fast becoming a place we may no longer be able to call home. Perhaps it’s time to start fixing ourselves on the inside so that we may better treat our environment. Otherwise, to paraphrase Lisa, we’re just going to trash the new Earth, too.