Attracting the adults
Adult cartoons attract huge audiences in the US. Hicham Safieddine wonders whether the Arabised Simpsons will do the same here
Gulf-based TV network MBC is hoping The Simpsons, the adult cartoon that has dominated airtime in North America for a generation, will prove equally popular among Arab audiences, with a little help from some of Egypt's top comedy and drama stars. The half-hour cartoon serial, popular for its humorous depiction of a stereotypically dysfunctional American family, is being aired throughout Ramadan under a new name and with themes selected to suit its target audience.
If the show proves a hit the network will consider unleashing other adult cartoons onto the screen. The show "will form the backbone of the network's attempt to create a new category of adult cartoons", says a press release issued by the network. It is being aired throughout Ramadan in the prime time 6.30pm slot.
Arabising foreign serials is nothing new and TV programmes like Al-Simsim ( Sesame Street ) and cartoon soccer serials such as Captain Majid and Captain Rami are now staples of the schedules. But the latest bid to turn an American household cartoon into a ratings success poses new challenges. To make the serial as accessible as possible the network has changed the family's name to Al-Shamshoon. Homer, the forgetful lazy father who hangs out at seedy bars and commits follies left, right and centre, is Omar. His son Bart, who enjoys skateboarding, bubble gum, and playing pranks on his sisters Lisa and Maggie, is known as Badr. Marge, the motherly glue that holds the family precariously together, is Mona. Viewers also get to meet other characters, including Crusty the Clown (now Me-armish) and sinister tycoon Mr Burns. With Homer Simpson's voice performed by Mohamed Heneidi, Marge by Rogeena and Lisa by Hanan Turk, the show is attracting both adults and children. But it may take more than celebrity voiceovers to turn curious viewers, kids and adults alike, into hardcore aficionados.
David Samuel, a 25-year-old fan of the English-speaking Simpsons, thinks the Arabic version comes across as warm and natural, though not as funny as the original. He still feels it is destined for success given the high-profile actors involved and as long as episodes steer clear of the sometimes "obscene" humour that occasionally pops up in the English version. Samuel also thinks attracting adults is going to take time, "since it is a cartoon adults will only show interest if their kids start watching it. And the kids will like it if it teaches them something about life in an entertaining way. It is important the episodes have an educational value and are not simply fun for fun's sake."
By contrast, Nadia El-Kholi, professor of English literature at Cairo University who specialises in children's literature, finds the cartoon refreshingly free of didacticism. As she sees it, The Simpsons brings in a new style of cartoons that is rarely found in this part of the world. "One of the problems we have with children is that everything has to be moralistic and with a message, and sometimes we forget the real value of simple entertainment specially for the age group of 12 to 17 year olds that is neglected. The Simpsons can offer this type of cartoon that has not been explored before," El-Kholi comments. The pure entertainment value of the serial can be gleaned from instance such as when Bart makes fun or squares off with his father Homer in constant family disputes over watching TV or other trivialities. El-Kholi also says the programme offers an alternative to the beautiful and too-good-to-be-true Disney- like characters that dominate kids cartoons. "Many of the characters in The Simpsons are ugly, weird or plain normal and so people are comfortable watching it and can identify with them." But El-Kholi also noted that the programme is nicely dubbed and contains references to Egyptian and Arabic culture. These include meals the family shares for dinner such as Egyptian meat dishes and fuul (fava beans), unlikely choices for an American household.
The Arabised version uses Egyptian colloquial Arabic, and, whether or not moralistic, adapts and rewrites certain lifestyle aspects of the original. References in the English version to sex, alcohol, and other taboos in Muslim culture are largely absent in the Arabic version. Instead, the episodes selected focus on familial and social malaises in a not-so-provocative manner. These include stories highlighting the role of the mother, in this case Marge, that goes largely unappreciated by the rest of the family, or the negative consequences of figures that are idolised by kids -- like Crusty the Clown -- turning to crime.
Actress Hanan Turk, who plays the character of Lisa, thinks the show is an exciting experiment with a lot of potential. "I feel the changes made to the show to suit an Arab audience will ensure its popularity," says the actress, who is more than happy with her character. "I like Lisa a lot because she is the intellectual in the family," she told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Her voice was a challenge to mimic but after some training and a few trials my performance improved." Turk thinks the show's references to American lifestyles will provide an opportunity for Arab viewers to judge -- either negatively or positively -- the values presented.
With hundreds of episodes to choose from -- the English show is now in its 11th season -- Al-Shamshoon may be able to sustain its Arabic-modified identity for quite a while. And if some of the humour and insights into American culture are lost in translation, the compensation is an original sense of drama dressed in light comedy.