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Postmodern Village
est. 1999
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The Simptoms: Animus, Anima, and Anime—Big Pharma Out Phoxes the Psyche
by Mary Chino Cherry

As animated TV series for adults have grown more sophisticated over the past two decades, their inherently recursive nature has begun, itself, to be reflected in the parodic mode of the medium. Witness The Simptoms, MDTV's latest offering, rounding out their Sunday evening block nestled between reality hits and amateur competition shows like The Virus and Survivor: Cancer Island. While it bears a strong resemblance to Matt Groening's ür-animated series over on Fox, The Simptoms reverses the script. Where The Simpsons satirizes American life through the means of a parody of the Great American Sitcom, The Simptoms re-establises the order by reinforcing capitalist and corporate values through parodying The Simpsons.

Based around a nuclear family consisting of father Haldol Simptom and mother Merk, son Benzo, daughter Lexapro, and baby Marplan, the series is set in the “everytown” of Scheringville, where the major industry is, unsurprisingly, a drug manufacturer. Unlike the series it parodies, though, the loving CEO of the drug company, Mr. Bristol, seems to genuinely have the best interests of his community at heart. Mr. Bristol is frequently seen volunteering at soup kitchens and in the background of key scenes helping old ladies cross the street. The Simptom family at the show's center, also, instead of being bumbling fools, layabouts, or problem children, are presented as competent and caring, hero-types combating the chaos and threat of the natural and social worlds around them.

The show's villains, then, are also the subjects of its parodic “humor”; Side-Effect Bob, for example, the arch-nemesis of the Simptom family, has been known to create plots to give the entire town hives, only to be foiled by the careful prescriptions concocted in the Simptoms' kitchen. Krazee the Clown, another common Simptom evil-doer, is a master of disguise, able to morph himself into sub-characters such as Ditters von Dysthymia and Seymour Schizo. He is generally vanquished by whichever Simptom family member seems appropriate to his latest guise: Lexapro for Ditters, Benzo for Bippie Bipolar, and so on.

From a purely rhetorical point of view, then, The Simptoms follows McLuhan's notion of the medium being the message to its logical end: the point of (re)visioning a popular TV animated series this way is not to parodize TV or animated comedies intended for adults; it is to move product, to use the medium as the major communication of the efficacy and relevance of products in the lives of those watching the shows. The core demographic, the 18-34 year-old males at which most animated series are aimed, actually fails to “get” most of the jokes of most of the shows. Adult animated series these days constantly reference material outside the experience of this demographic: pop songs they're marginally too young for, classic films they haven't seen, feminist theories they haven't read. The main action (the parodic text to the satire's subtext) is generally easy for the core demo to grasp: Bart Simpson getting bullied, Homer's pathetic love of donuts and beer, the essential family dysfunction from which most of its members come. The message the medium sends, then, is that shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy are what the cool kids are watching, even though the strictly satirical elements being delivered by the nerds and geeks who write the shows are being picked up only by the 5-10% of the educated elite who happen to both watch the shows and get the jokes.

What The Simptoms has done is use the parodic part to capture the cool kids while delivering the idea that the drugs they represent are universal solutions to real problems. The joke is on the people who don't understand, essentially, that they're being sold.

The same companies which have their products represented as characters in The Simptoms have long used traditional network news shows to flog their products. These programs appeal to Baby Boomers who, since they can remember, have looked to them as voices of authority and respectability, authority and respectability that the drug companies have harnessed to make their products seem safe, scientific solutions to problems of life and health. By sponsoring these shows, the pharmaceutical industry seems to be saying that Cialis, for example, is serious medicine for serious people, a simple pill to solve the problems of mature, responsible people on the go, a way for those whose mettle has kept capitalism going from the Cold War on to keep going despite the laziness and stupidity of the X-ers and Millennials, thank you very much and God bless Diane Sawyer.

But, as those same establishment news shows keep telling us, the generation targeted by The Simptoms thinks in a fundamentally different way. While just as subject to traditional hype as others, those who grew up and came of age in the '90s and 2000s think of themselves as savvy consumers of media. They look to the parodic mode as a sort of hipster code: all's well that's done “ironically.” The depth of true dramatic irony, however, is lost in translation: the very rules they claim to flaunt by engaging in this form of parodic play are defined by the corporate entities that supply the means of production, distribution, and copyright. The Matrix was a revelation to this generation because it described something they were too immersed in ever to see on their own, an idea that Marx understood quite well: the game is rigged so the house always wins.

The Simpsons has managed, over the years, to still wink at the other players during the poker game through subversive jokes interspersed throughout—the source of its little-appreciated satire as noted above. What The Simptoms represents is something both more callous and more sinister: the subjugation and cooptation of irony for the sake of what is, after all, the same old disingenuousness necessary for the corporate sales pitch to take place.

Here we get into a neat little, well, irony: for satire to work, the intended audience must be in on the joke. So the true audience of The Simpsons as satire is the 5-10% who get the deeper references, who are clued-in to the subversive elements neither the core demo nor the corporate executives who greenlight the shows are able to detect. This is how irony, properly speaking, uses a false front in order to be genuine, in order to get at some very real tragedy or injustice. This is something straight parody is unable to do. Thus irony, properly done, is masked truth-telling, using the forms of misdirection to show the clear outlines of the man behind the curtain. Salesmanship is its opposite: it may be parodic, but it cannot be satirical. The point of salesmanship is not to tell the truth about the product but to best depict the lie, which is always the same: this product is the one that will change your life.

Thus with all such attempts to capture the parodic posturing of the hip: conservative Christianity's embrace of “contemporary worship” styles that mask medieval theology, Kentucky Fried Chicken transforming itself into “KFC" to mask its association with unhealthy food and the racist traditions of the rural South, GMAC's transformation into the chummy-sounding Ally Bank after it helped crash the economy in 2008.

The Simptoms as a concept may, in fact, work. It may solidify the brand image of prescription medications with its target demographic. But as satire, of necessity, it is doomed.

Works Cited

The Simpsons. Creat. Matt Groening. Fox. Television.

The Simptoms. Creat. PhRMA Foundation. MDTV. Television.