Ahh, the Simpsons. America’s first family, they were teaching the world how to laugh at itself long before the Kardashians were a glint in a plastic surgeon’s eye, and despite being yellow, having a finger missing and being stuck with creepily Dorian Gray-style unaging children, they’re still more real than all the Real Housewives of wherever-the-hell-and-why-do-we-care.
The Simpsons are successful for a three-fingered handful of reasons. They’re relentlessly inventive, with a townfull of characters to keep the plotting fresh and suggest plenty of real-world and pop culture pastiche. They’re rarely afraid to be funny, even at the expense of sacred cows, and perhaps most particularly, the emotions almost always feel real. They’re frequently undercut with comedy, but not where they need to stand. Bart and Lisa annoy the young bejesus out of each other, and aren’t afraid to fight like normal siblings do, but they’re also, ultimately, realistic as brother and sister, able to see their connection as sometimes more important than their differences. The relationships rarely descend into schmaltz except for the purposes of undercutting, but The Simpsons are not afraid to let emotion have its moments.
If that’s true of Bart and Lisa, it’s so much more the case with Marge and Homer, the mother and father of the brood. They are, if anything, the best televisual representation in generations of the difference between love and romance, the difference between being in love, all hearts and flowers and grand romantic gestures, and loving someone, patiently, through the ups and downs of life.
Let’s make no bones about this – Marge Bouvier was going places. She had the brains and, compared to her two sisters at least, she had the beauty and the joie de vivre in the Bouvier clan, however much she was scarred by her mother’s socially conservative (and, more to the point, socially accepted at the time) instructions to take all her negativity and doubt and push it deep down inside herself. She had just begun to find her voice as a student when she discovered Homer J Simpson. To be fair, even then, it was hardly love at first sight – at least not on Marge’s part. Despite agreeing to go to the prom with Homer, she went off with the slicker, more handsome Artie Ziff on the night. Only when Ziff proved himself to be a creep did Marge really see Homer, and when she did, she was impressed by the simplicity of his adoration and his need of her.
Homer J Simpson is a not wholly inaccurate distillation of white male American confidence and self-belief. He embodies the shortcut, the get-rich-quick, the half-assed at the expense of real applied effort, and he succeeds in spite of himself, a point that’s been made in the show’s universe more than once. He’s not afraid to try anything, and expects to be good at it irrespective of not having any experience, and he never does anything as much of a downer as ‘learning from his past.’ In one sense of course this can make him a wrong-headed, self-aggrandising, entitled boor of a man, and in his marriage to Marge, we’ve winced at his actions many times – from forgetting anniversaries to dashing the hopes of young daughter Lisa, to stealing the thunder of his diligent, artistic wife by suddenly becoming the infant terrible of the fashionable art scene, to getting the Simpsons deported from a couple of handfuls of countries, events, and holiday destinations.
But, and this is the important thing, his dunderheaded refusal to learn that he’s not the be-all and end-all is endearing to Marge, and to us, because it represents something positive at the core – the have-a-go, grab-life-by-the-throat spirit that says to each of us, yes, just maybe, we too can tour with a rock band, jump a gorge on a bike, become a famous artist, go into space or win the love of our life. Maybe we can’t, maybe we’ll fall flat on our face or fall painfully into the gorge – but we can’t know that for certain until we try. Homer’s winning of Marge, and their subsequent life together, is proof that there are no ‘leagues’ in love and attraction except the ones we construct in our own heads. Anything is possible if you let your heart speak through you.
That said, it’s also important that Homer’s brash self-centred stride through the world depends on everything being all right with Marge and the kids. He assumes it is until they forcibly tell him it isn’t, but if and when that happens, Homer always, always means well, and wants to fix it. That sense of the importance of having a happy wife, and kids that at least aren’t heartbroken goes through the flabby yellow core of Homer J Simpson, perhaps stemming from his own upbringing of heartbreak when his mother left, and the brusque wisdom of his dad. He takes it as a point of principle to do his best for Marge and the kids. Even at the expense of his hopes and dreams, Homer does the right thing – as when he had finally achieved his pin-money dream job, and then Maggie was announced. Homer felt the wrench of pride, certainly, but he ate it, grovelled to get his family-supporting job at the power plant back, and sentenced himself to a life of drudgery again, because of that fierce commitment to his wife and family. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, he gets things wrong, he lets them down in his self-important, macho strides into the world, he makes Marge cringe sometimes in the execution of some hare-brained scheme or other. But that’s what she sees in him – that commitment to doing the right thing, and that absolute adoration of her.
Both the senior Simpsons in their time and their turn have felt the pull of temptation, the opportunity of another life, the hope for more with someone else than they have together. But both in their own way know that what they have together is strong, is special, and is worth sacrificing other dreams for. Homer’s goodness is simple, and in a complicated world, Marge responds to it. Marge’s kindness is pure, and Homer breathes it like he breathes oxygen. Ultimately, they’re in this world together for the long run, prepared to back each other even through their doubts, their dull patches, their fights and silences. Marge and Homer are a couple of genuine grown-ups, not afraid to still act like teenagers now and then. More than the laundry-white but other-judging Flanders and Lovejoys, and certainly more than the Van Houtens, who went the other way and found they didn’t have enough in common to weather the storms of mid-life opportunity, Marge and Homer are a functional, loving couple who will grow (at least in flash-forward) old together. They’re the epitome of long-term love in an uncertain TV world.
The odd couple is a great recipe for geek-heaven. Arguably it’s the relationship between the Doctor and all his companions, it’s the relationship between Kirk and Spock, and while there were frequently more of them than the classic two, it was the relationship that underpinned The Avengers. It also worked in harder core cop shows like The Persuaders, The Sweeney, the Professionals, and the all-time classic, Starsky and that singer-guy.
But if you were a British teen in the mid-80s, there was only one odd couple cop show you cared about – and that was Dempsey and Makepeace.
Dempsey and Makepeace had everything – kicking 80s theme tune, London backdrop in the mid-80s, when the city was where every kid who wasn’t there wanted to be, cool New York guy Dempsey, played by easy on the damned eye Michael Brandon, ice hot posh girl Harriet Makepeace, known gloriously as Harry and played by Glynis Barber (then riding high on the back of her role as Soolin in Blake’s 7 and eponymous hero Jane in a show that dabbled with combining live action and early CGI), preposterous plots with just enough taking it seriously from the two leads to convince you they were realistic, and a love story that gave no quarter and didn’t stop either of the central characters from being able to kick your ass if you got out of line. It was like smashing Starsky and Hutch’s equality of partnership together with the coolness of the Avengers’ women like Kathy Gale or Emma Peel, and for the first time, being in a decade where that equality of lead status was acceptable without being played for cute.
While set in contemporary London, and somewhat fetishizing the city as the place where all things were possible, it still, in its day, carried a note of fantasy, showing British police carrying guns, which elevated it from standard British police fare to special unit status, immediately putting it in the category of shows like The Persuaders and The Avengers. But there was far less whimsicality in Dempsey and Makepeace’s special unit, SI 10, than was allowed in those other shows – they carried guns and got involved in demented situations, but they were always, by the standards of their predecessors, comparatively believable and played for real, more likely to deal with drug smugglers and financial swindles than megalomaniacs intent on taking over the world.
The dialogue too was a cut above some of those other Brit fantasy shows, the writers basing their work more in character than cheesy lines and plot developments – that was what made Dempsey and Makepeace quite so hard to quantify: it sat between the hard-as-nails British cop shows The Sweeney and The Professionals and those more fantastical shows, The Avengers and The Persuaders. But always, if given a choice, it fell on the hard-as-nails side of the coin.
What Dempsey and Makepeace had above all the shows of its ilk that came before (and arguably after it) though was chemistry. That was because there had never been an odd couple cop show where the cops were destined to fall in love – the very same year in the US, Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd were beginning the same journey in Moonlighting, but with more comedy and a heaping helping of cheese which was denied the comparatively gritty British offering. The chemistry factor was brand new in the arena, almost by necessity – there was never any special chemistry in The Avengers, and it would have been unthinkable for broadcast in the 70s had the Starsky and Hutch bromance become anything more, but this was the 80s, and Harry Makepeace could more than hold her own with the boys (in fact, in the very first episode, she entirely flummoxes Dempsey), so it was suddenly the right time for an odd couple cop show that could become an odd couple romance, while still delivering all the villain-kicking and villain-shooting action a nation of crime-geeks demanded and giving 80s girls a role model, albeit one with a silver spoon in her mouth.
Unlike the Moonlighting vibe, Dempsey and Makepeace’s romance was played in a typically British fashion – understated, quite frustrated and never entirely resolved, though the final season saw them getting closer and closer to some resolution of their feelings. But in many ways, the show delivered an archetype for crime shows and crime novels for the next thirty years and counting, where police business and personal emotions are mixed and twisted, duty and passion fighting for control in a situation made impossible by convention and rules, but impossible to ignore by the dictates of the heart. The chemistry at the heart of the show eventually developed into a real-life romance between Brandon and Johns, and on into a marriage which continues to this day.
The legacy of Dempsey and Makepeace is a peculiar one – from the dawn of the 80s, British drama had begun to show working policewomen as heroes – in 1980, the BBC launched Juliet Bravo with Stephanie Turner as Inspector Jean Darblay, who was followed in the same show by Anna Carteret as Inspector Kate Longton, both fighting a combination of crime and the residue of 70s male chauvinism. The show ran until 1985, and while important in its own right, there was a degree of rural charm to the whole thing, set as it was in Lancashire in the north of England. During the same period, ITV, the UK’s commercial channel, was running The Gentle Touch, a much edgier, London-set show, with Jill Gascoine making UK TV history as the first woman to headline a British police drama, as Detective Inspector Maggie Forbes. Both shows had ended the first wave of female cop shows in the UK by 1985 (while in the US, Cagney and Lacey was hitting its stride as a more straightforward ‘female Starsky and Hutch’ take on the situation). Dempsey and Makepeace picked up one half of the baton, with Jill Gascoine continuing to run with the other half in a follow-up show called C.A.T.S Eyes, launched the same year. C.A.T.S Eyes took the idea of female empowerment forward in a mostly female environment (the show was set in a secret unit, fronted by an all-female detective agency, and actually had more in common with Charlie’s Angels than The Gentle Touch). Dempsey and Makepeace took the mantle of ‘woman kicking ass in a world that men still think is their own’ and turned it into something intensely watchable, establishing Makepeace as being able to more than handle herself, without in any real way diminishing Dempsey’s skills or his ability to likewise look after himself. If the first half of the decade had been about policewomen fighting to be taken seriously in British society and culture, Dempsey and Makepeace was an olive branch that said ‘We’ll still kick your ass if we need to. But if we don’t need to, we can work with you.’ It set the seal on more equal partnerships between men and women in police procedurals for at least three decades to come, and rewrote a formula which is still paying writers dividends today.