'The Problem With Apu': TV Review

The Problem with Apu Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of truTV
Only half a documentary, but a good half.

Hari Kondabolu and truTV's documentary will make you think twice about your feelings for Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.

For 624 episodes and counting, I've been a devoted viewer of The Simpsons. I've seen every episode, most multiple times, and I bristle whenever somebody negates the quality of the recent seasons just because the quality of the first 10 or 15 seasons was so high. And if you asked me if the character of Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, voiced by Hank Azaria, was a caricature with severely retrograde elements, my answer would probably have been something along the lines of "Yes, but…," bringing up certain elements of layering and evolution that the character has experienced over the years.

If nothing else, truTV's new documentary The Problem With Apu, written by and starring comic Hari Kondabolu, has probably quashed any desire to bring up caveats in my hypothetical response. A brisk discourse on hegemony and representational inequality, the doc lays out its thesis against the character's acceptability in 2017 (to say nothing of 1989) with such clarity, it's hard to imagine it generating an adversarial response more cogent than that hoary classic "It's a joke, stop taking it so seriously," which is no response at all.

The problem with The Problem With Apu is that, at 49 minutes, it's half a film. Directed by Michael Melamedoff, the doc makes its primary case, has a couple of talking heads including Kondabolu admit they aren't sure what can or should be done, and ends abruptly and frustratingly.

That case can be summed up simply: Although representation of South Asian actors and characters has increased and improved on television and in movies in recent years, it's still relatively minuscule, and when The Simpsons premiered, South Asian characters were basically nonexistent. So for the one prominent South Asian character on TV to be a frequently deceitful convenience store proprietor with a cartoonish Indian accent voiced by a white guy? That's bad. It's bad for a generation of South Asian children growing up and seeing only that one representation of their culture and having fellow kids judge them based upon it. It's bad for the older generation that had their immigrant experience represented in only this one way on TV for millions or maybe even billions of viewers. It's just bad.

Kondabolu, who started his war with Apu in a segment on W. Kamau Bell's FX talk show in 2012, conducts a wide range of interviews, including man-on-the-street segments, a sit-down with his parents and even a chat with former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. John Ortved offers The Simpsons history and film critic John Powers explains why Apu is such a disappointment in the face of the Satyajit Ray trilogy that gave him his name.

Mostly, and best of all, Kondabolu sits down with an impressive assortment of his peers, ranging from decorated trailblazers like Aziz Ansari and Kal Penn, longtime standup veterans like Russell Peters and Aasif Mandavi and a room of up-and-comers like Hasan Minhaj and Aparna Nancherla. There's no unified single response. Because of Apu, Penn hates The Simpsons, though he gives a pragmatic explanation for how he came to co-star in Van Wilder as a character named Taj Mahal. Utkarsh Ambudkar offers a unique perspective from his own experience voicing Apu's wholly assimilated nephew and the regret he and Kondabolu share about an alternate take Ambudkar gave in the recording booth is perhaps the doc's best moment.

It's finally so simple and incontestable a main point that I wanted to hear anybody try to contest it, to try to defend a character who has outlived whatever limited window of acceptability he might have had.

The quest to land an interview with Azaria lasts the entire documentary, and you can sense nearly everybody holding back from a full-on condemnation of the Brockmire star, though there's little doubt that Melamedoff and Kondabolu aren't just viewing Azaria as a paycheck-collecting innocent bystander.

Of all of the writers in the history of The Simpsons, the only one who appears in a new interview — several are heard through secondary podcasts or DVD commentaries — is Dana Gould, and not to take anything away from him and his ample contributions to The Simpsons, but his capacity on the show came so far after Apu's initial conception and development that there's little of substance he can say. Gould offers predictable comedy liberal arguments about how you have to be able to joke about anything and how archetypes are how you write 22 episodes of a show per year, but Kondabolu's eviscerations of those protestations are nearly effortless. It's one man making a thoughtful and personal point, and another half-heartedly taking one for the team.

Not all documentaries need to "show both sides," but it becomes disingenuous when Kondabolu declares, "I realize some of you think I'm some annoying PC social-justice warrior" and then calculatedly skips those voices, and disappointing when Kondabolu and friends wonder what can be done about Apu now and there's nobody around to make it into a real conversation.

Still, there's great virtue in getting that conversation started and, in under an hour, The Problem With Apu does that well.

Premieres: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (TruTV)