A May episode of the Simpsons, “The Fabulous Faker Boy”, features a small Russian immigrant family in Springfield, and a view takes away the impression that the writing staff hasn’t met a Russian immigrant since 1997.
Marge decides to give Bart music lessons, and after several failed attempts at matching a teacher among the normal townspeople, The Simpsons arrive at the house of a Russian family. The daughter is Zhenya (Bart, pronounces her name Zenya), the father isn’t given a name, and the mother, who the man offers to show a picture of to Marge, is dead. They agree to exchange driving lessons for piano lessons and toast with vodka. The father finishes the bottle himself, and off they go to ride.
Bart only agrees to go to the lessons because he thinks the teacher is pretty. The lessons instigate a fantasy for Bart in which his teacher sings a sexy-jazzy song in pseudo-fake Russian, and their bed to consummate the relationship is in Lenin’s mausoleum. Mr. Ulyanov gives Bart the thumbs up. With an endorsement like that, what could possibly go wrong in this love affair? The strict teacher crashes the piano cover on Bart’s fingers to wake him out of his daydreaming, and the drunk-driving father crashes through the side of the house.
Later when he reverses in the car, the Russian man says he wants to go backwards, like the Russian economy under Putin. Marge warns him to stop making Putin jokes. He says that she sounds like the police. You can accuse Vova of many things, but the economy hasn’t exactly gone in reverse under his tenure. He then bribes Chief Wiggam with bluejeans.
At a final recital, Bart cheats by placing a CD into the modern piano, and thanks “Zenya.” Hasn’t he heard of Napster?
Too many corners were cut not only in the treatment of the characters, but in the jokes as well.
For one thing, there is the music. The music of Chopin is background to much of this episode, and as virtuoso pianists and composers go, not a bad choice. Still, if they wanted to comment on Russian immigrant culture, they could have at least picked a Russian composer to showcase.
The writers of The Simpsons may have been showing their age by making two counterfeit jeans jokes about Russia in only one episode, but they aren’t completely unfamiliar with Russian culture. The jokes at the expense of Russia are recklessly counterbalanced with a few hat-tips to a vague sense that there is still high culture in Russia. Yes, for a country that doesn’t speak a language most Americans learn in high school, Russia has produced more than her share of world-renowned writers, poets, politicians and music composers. Zenya plays piano and the father is bereaved.
But these positive references to Russia are juvenile and the jokes fall flat. Zenya is good at piano and beautiful, but this is hardly even a concrete stereotype of a Russian immigrant girl, but more a reflection of a stereotype processed through the cartoon world. Her father wants to be a limousine driver and drinks. I think they were just confusing a generic alcoholic limousine driver immigrant with a specifically Russian one. He doesn’t warrant a name (the internet suggests his name is Slava, though I don’t recall hearing it during the episode). The man is a lying, cheating drunk from Russia, and we, as an audience, are apparently to like him because when he puts marge in danger it isn’t deliberate. You know, anything goes when you’re under the spell of vodka! The only insight into their lives we really get is the deceased wife, but she is forgotten as soon as the joke about her passes. These characters aren’t even filled with color.
The most interesting part of this episode is the robot-chicken parody during the credits. Robot-chicken often parodies pop culture cartoons and merchandising which the Simpsons has certainly profited from. The best part of this episode is the on-screen note warning of a Justin Bieber cameo that you may or may not want to not watch “depending on your beliefs.” He tries to get into the under-ten youth contest. So, take a look at the link, depending on your beliefs.
This is a disappointment in comparison with the culturally adept, but now ancient, first season Simpsons. In an early episode “The Crepes of Wrath” , Bart is sent on an exchange program for horsing around at the dinner table with Lisa, and when his replacement student comes from Yugoslavia, he and Lisa get into an even more brutal fight about the injustice of Capitalism. At dinner, he attacks the one percent. “Mom, don’t let him use statistics at the table,” Lisa says. In this episode, Bart’s captor-vintners in French are a least vintners and Bart learns a little culture and some French. Real French. These jokes were deeper and sharper than what we see now.
Bart’s success comes from cheating, and the never-named Russian father consoles her saying, “Marge, in Russia, everyone succeeds by cheating.” I’m afraid, unnamed Russian man, in Russia, not everyone succeeds.
Russia has come up in the American consciousness more than it had in previous years, and the consciousness is pretty foggy. People often ask me what Americans think of Russia. I hope that this isn’t a good representation.