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
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
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.
The Simpsons. Creat. Matt Groening. Fox. Television.
The Simptoms. Creat. PhRMA Foundation. MDTV. Television.