Georgian animators are hoping a local television makeover of The Simpsons will mimic the American animated series' two decades of success. But the show, The Samsonadzes, walks a thin line between originality and flat-out imitation of the world's best-known cartoon family.
Shalva Ramishvili, the show's producer and creator, says that his idea was to create a program that is reminiscent of The Simpsons without being an actual copy. "I like The Simpsons, too. It is a cult cartoon for the USA. We needed to do something great, something that is different than everything else," said Ramishvili, who produced a political satire cartoon TV series under ex-President Eduard Shevardnadze. "In the [Georgian television] market, there is nothing like this series. There are no cartoon series and we decided to do it."
Launched six weeks ago on Imedi TV, The Samsonadzes feature the bulging eyes, mustard-toned skin, four-fingered hands and character movements reminiscent of their American counterparts. The series' opening shot -- a camera zooming down through the clouds into a candy-colored anonymous town -- is more than a little reminiscent of the presentation of The Simpsons hometown of Springfield.
But story differences exist. The Samsonadzes are a nuclear family in the Georgian sense: the father (Gela), mother (Dodo), daughter (Shorena) and son (Gia) live with Gela's parents, a frequent occurrence in family-centric Georgia. While Gela shares Homer Simpson's limited intelligence -- the first episode featured his finding a job as a bank's copy machine attendant -- Dodo is a sexier, more aggressive take on quiet Marge Simpson.
Georgia's Caucasus mountain range and the family's crazed parrot Koke -- not Bart Simpson on a skateboard -- take center stage in The Samsonadzes opening frames. Ramishvili said that the openings resemblance to The Simpsons is deliberate. "The first reaction is the most important. That is why," he said of The Samsonadzes introduction.
Neither Ramishvili nor Imedi TV discussed licensing issues with 20th Century Fox, the current owners of the The Simpsons' copyright. Ramishvili says that he does not see any need for a license since The Samsonadzes are a family comedy, a universal genre that Fox cannot copyright. "If we were making The Simpsons, with the same personalities, that would be different," Ramishvili said.
A spokesperson for 20th Century Fox did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
Some local viewers argue otherwise. In a short clip filmed by the media assistance organization Internews Georgia, Simpsons' fans in Tbilisi expressed anger at what they perceived as an awkward attempt to duplicate their favorite characters.
Irina Kharabashvili, the head of The Samsonadzes' animation team and designer of the characters, countered that the similarities with The Simpsons run just yellow-skin deep. Animators scrapped a more regular shaded skin color when they found that the color left The Samsonadze characters bland and washed-out, she explained. Five fingers were swapped for four as part of a standard animation technique to make characters appear funnier and distinct from a real person.
Kharabashvili maintained that the series' focus on Georgian family and Georgian humor makes it distinct from The Simpsons, despite the characters' resemblance. Georgia is not the only country to have fallen prey to Simpsons' mania. YouTube features clips of The Singhsons, a so-called Indian version of The Simpsons that contains fewer distinctions from the American series.
Georgia's record on observance of intellectual property rights creates a basis for lingering controversy. "Misunderstandings of copyright and licensing are pervasive in Georgia, where little appreciation of intellectual property rights exists," contended Microsoft Corporation representative Zurab Munjishvili, who has battled multiple local cases of alleged Microsoft software piracy.
Georgia is a post-Soviet country and the Georgian mentality is a post-Soviet mentality, he said. "In the Soviet era, Georgians could not lay claim to individual copyrights the government took everything from the people -- their intellect, too," Munjishvili said.
The Washington, DC-based International Intellectual Property Alliance, a collective of associations representing US industries frequently targeted by international copyright violations, named music, software and movies as among the top problem areas for Georgia in a 2005 report. Two of the most popular Georgian websites http://www.avon.ge and http://www.gol.ge -- provide hundreds of songs, films and cartoons for free downloads.
But chief animator Kharabashvili said such practices have nothing in common with The Samsonadzes: "It looks like [The Simpsons] and it is close because the idea is about family. But it is nothing closer," Kharabashvili said.
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.