The Simpsons is, by far, my favorite media of all time. This must be established in the first sentence or the rest of this meandering, semi-coherent 2,000 word post isn’t going to make a lick of sense. Consider it on par with Dickens establishing that Marley is dead in the opening line of A Christmas Carol.
I’m 33 years old, yet a Larry Burns figure still manage to find a space on my living room bookcase. So yeah, FXX’s Simpsons marathon which began at 10 a.m. on Aug. 21 has been the best/worst thing ever. Since last Thursday — aside from a fantasy draft on Saturday — the marathon’s taken up a permanent spot on my television. The tradeoff? By Tuesday night every time I closed my eyes for a split second I heard Ruxin from The League mumbling a joke about farts.
The Simpsons has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. The scary thing is, I was in fourth grade when it started — the same age as Bart. Now I’m almost Homer’s age at the start of the series. (I’ve lost track of the series’ most-recent ret-con.) People have been writing about — and complaining — about The Simpsons on the Internet for nigh on 25 years. There is a noticeable change in spirit and dip in quality sometime around Season 9 or 10. One Simpsons site has gone so far as to dub the post Season Nine episodes as “Zombie Simpsons,” in short the same names, places and characters but an entirely different show.
Let’s cut the show’s “golden era” off at the end of Season 9 — there’s a decline here already, but the presence of “The Cartridge Family” redeems the season. That span accounts for 203 episodes, not even half of the series’ total run of 552 episodes (and counting). As I type this there are still seven damn seasons left to go until the FXX marathon concludes on Labor Day. That’s a staggering 12,144+ total minutes of television. To expect each of those 12,144 minutes to be pure gold and wholly original is patently unrealistic.
Consider this: in 1989 America there were three major networks (CBS, ABC and NBC) and a nascent Fox (whoa Bundy!) coupled with, say, 50-ish cable channels. (Remember motels advertising how they had ESPN?) A Simpsons first season episode, “Life in the Fast Lane,” drew 33.5 million viewers. Fast forward to 2014 and network TV is a withering institution; its biggest scripted show, The Big Bang Theory, topped off at around 19 million viewers. In addition there are 100s of cable channels and streaming options like Netflix. The SEC now has its own network on the dial.
By now, unless you’re a Simpsons freak you have to ask: Why
do you waste so much of your time care about a stupid cartoon so much? Well, stupid-head, The Simpsons is probably the greatest piece of culture to hit Western Civilization, that’s why. I established that in the first sentence of the post.
If you disagree, save yourself time and click your browser to something else.
I’ve seen the “golden era” episodes 5-6 times each — at minimum, including DVD commentary. Is there anything else we can say about the undisputed greatness that is Last Exit to Springfield? Honestly, there was nothing new to glean from that era of episodes via a gimmicky cable marathon except warm, fuzzy happy feelings of nostalgia.
But how about the “newer” episodes? Episodes from 2003 or 2013? Would a fresh set of eyes matter? Would I finally be able to look past my disappointment when the show lost its magic around 2000, (ugh, “Bart The Mother”) as I slowly morphed into an Easter/Christmas Simpsons fan, only tuning in for the Treehouse of Horror and or the occasional “event” episode? Would re-watching these episodes in bulk be worthwhile?
Oh right, like I really needed an excuse to watch The Simpsons for a week straight.
Alternately let’s call this: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Homer Never Working at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant & Begrudgingly Accept the Post Season Nine Episodes of The Simpsons.
On to the totally random observations and vaguely coherent points about a cartoon!
* It still amazes me that circa 1989 The Simpsons was considered controversial. Parents, congressmen and the Tipper Gores of the world hated the phrase “Underachiever and proud of it.” The ugly, unflattering truths the show told was taboo for network television in those simpler times, apparently. My own parents weren’t too thrilled about the show, so I think the first time I watched the Christmas episode was on a VHS tape at my friend’s house. I loved it immediately. My dad finally acquiesced in the episode people mistakenly thought Homer was Bigfoot, admitting the show was funny. (Fun fact: this week my dad thought Mr. Plow was Mr. Snow.)
The Simpsons, initially an extension from Groening’s darkly cynical — and really damn funny — Life in Hell comic, was born from an anti-Nixon, anti-yuppie ethos that raged against the pointlessness of modern life circa 1984. Now? The Matt Groening worldview is ingrained in too much of pop culture to even begin to quantify it. Comedy itself post-1990 is The Simpsons. How can a show still effectively satirize culture, when it’s become the culture?
* Part of the timeless appeal of the early episodes — and the run of Seinfeld to a degree — is nostalgia. It takes us back to a world before cell phones and the Internet took over our lives. If I have to explain a rotary phone joke to one of my nieces or nephews someday, so be it.
* Season Eight’s “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” and “Homer’s Enemy” are rightfully considered classics in the show’s canon. Both are extremely meta-episodes, commenting on the state of television — let’s add a new character to freshen things up! — and the show itself — if Homer is such a boorish lout, wouldn’t the average, working man hate him like poor ol’ Grimey?
These ideas work, once or twice.
Post-Season nine episodes (when the unfairly maligned Mike Scully was in charge) take the meta references to another level, as the writers made not-t00-subtle jabs at the “worst episode ever” Internet crowd. Oh right, they even wrote an episode titled “Worst Episode Ever” where Comic Book Guy dates Agnes Skinner … for some reason. Maybe the writers thought the show was about to end, so why not try new things and push convention rather than recycling a tired trope? Or maybe classics like “Marge vs. the Monorail” set the surrealism bar too high, meaning meta-gags were the only way the show could move forward. (Yes, Lisa remarks on the episodic nature of television in “Homer Loves Flanders” in Season Six.)
At some point, the writers started messing around with the constructs of 22-minute sitcoms to the extent the third act or final minute of the show is a total misdirection, justified by “for some reason” logic. For instance, “The Frying Game” ends with Homer about to get the electric chair but it turns out to be an elaborate reality TV prank — replete with a Carmen Electra cartoon cleavage cameo! It’s actually one of the more coherent third acts during this era of the show, which include things like the family going on a surf safari as the credits roll. The only explanation is the writer’s room was collectively hypnotized while someone softly repeated the words “Deus ex machina” over and over for an hour.
I lost track of how many times characters broke the fourth wall asking aloud, “how does any of this make sense?” around Season 12. Even today, I’m not sure if I appreciate those winking acknowledgements to the critics or if it infuriates me that they accepted their sustained, forgettable mediocrity. Once Al Jean returned as showrunner in Season 13, the zany, trope-twisters acquiesced to a degree.
* “Don’t worry, I’m not a stabbing hobo, I’m a singing hobo.”
* Early on the show wasn’t overtly political, at least toward current events — instead favoring broad satire such as Mr. Burns running against Mary Bailey for governor or Bart stumbling upon Barbara Bush in a bath tub at the White House. Season Five’s “Homer the Vigilante” is (I think) the first time the show comments on the 1990 conflict in the Gulf when Skinner’s Stormin’ Norman collector’s plates are stolen (again). By the 2000s the show’s status was established enough that it could frequently mention America’s current foreign policy without anyone so much as batting an eye.
* “I will not do the Dirty Bird.” — probably the only time a chalkboard gag prompted actual laugh-out-loud laughter during the marathon.
* John Swartzweleder’s pennant jokes, bravo.
* The entire cast’s voice work is incredible, but Dan Castellaneta’s ability to turn any line from Homer into a laugh is simply amazing.
* I still have no idea what to make of “The Principle & The Pauper” — the episode in Season Nine where it’s revealed (spoiler) Skinner is a impostor/Swank aficionado named Armen Tamzarian. At least that episode tries to mess with your perceptions about a long-standing character. Other more-meta episodes like “Saddlesore Galactica” — aka the jockey one — are just … well … not very good.
* The perception the “newer” episodes of The Simpsons are unredeemingly bad is wrong. For one, people like me consider an episode written in 2003 “new.” While these episodes aren’t bad, they’re nowhere near the sheer, unattainable greatness from the show’s Golden Era. Is all other artwork “bad” because it is not the Mona Lisa? Are all other hockey players “bad” because they’re not Wayne Gretzky? The new-ish episodes contain funny one-liners and are still watchable, much moreso than say a Two and a Half Men rerun.
* That said, the early Simpsons episodes that we know and love were bleak, cynical and overrun with sarcasm, yet they still had a sentimental quality — attribute that to the presence of James L. Brooks. Even if the family hated one another or zapped everyone at Dr. Marvin Monroe’s shock therapy center, deep down they loved each other. More than that, they felt like real people and even though they were animated you could relate to them. Dammit if some of those early Lisa episodes aren’t affecting. Less affecting? Homer’s selfish, borderline sociopathic, ‘Merica personality in the middle years.
Watching in bulk you notice a gradual shift, as every character morphed into glib, soulless, one-liner factories … sort of like how everyone who grew up watching the show turned out. The show’s long-running commentary of children being raised by television manifested indeed. Call it the “meh” generation.
* If I’m truthful, the new-ish episodes have too many gags. For instance in “She Used to Be My Girl”– featuring Kim Catrell as a name-dropping reporter, hey, at least she plays a character as opposed to a pointless celebrity cameo playing his or herself — Marge cleans a dirty bathtub. Homer has written, “Homer Rules” in grime. That’s a joke right there, but 5.3 seconds later Homer wanders into screen and says, “Good news Marge, I’ve learned to walk naked on stilts.” (Smash cut to something else.)
It’s a typical exchange of jokes filling out time rather than advancing the plot.
* This has nothing to do with the show, but I could really go for a magisterial Dairy Queen Blizzard right now, Ray Hudson.
* Cartoon characters don’t age. The Simpsons starts its 26th season in September. Continuity (and mundane, family-based plots) over a span of that length is impossible. That said, I’ll pretend the episode where Homer mirrors Kurt Cobain never existed. It’s for the best.
* RIP Phil Hartman.
* Buy the Season Four DVD and re-watch a couple times per year. Remember, “Batman’s a scientist.”
* Maybe it would have become overkill eventually, but the more Albert Brooks, the better. Brooks is deservedly lauded for his portrayal of Hank Scorpio in the widely-loved “You Only Move Twice,” but even in the forgotten Season 16 episode “Heartbroke Kid” Brooks brings something special to a small part as weight loss guru Tab Spangler. (The ad-libbing in the credits!)
* Yes, it sucks that FXX cropped the non-HD episodes to fit the 16:9 widescreen format. As someone who still has a box of VHS tapes of episodes recorded off WTIV at 5:30 p.m. after school, I’ll look past the crops for airing the episodes fully intact, without their syndication edits.
* “Dad! Knocking over gravestones is bad luck! … Really? I heard good.”
* Family Guy has been derided as a Simpsons clone — or much worse, famously by South Park — as nothing more than 22 minutes of barely connected cutaway jokes and limp pop culture references. Later on, The Simpsons sometimes isn’t much better. In Season 16’s “Homer and Ned’s Hail Mary Pass” — LeBron James, Tom Brady, Michelle Kwan, Warren Sapp and Yao Ming cameos! — an Italian tour bus drives by the Simpson home (for some reason). Nintendo’s Mario happens to be on the bus (Italians, duh), producing a pointless Donkey Kong recreation for 4.5 seconds. The same thing goes for the writer’s developing an affinity to have Marge spout random pop culture lines such as remarking, “I feel like I’m in the Bourne Identity,” during a trip to visit Sideshow Bob in Italy.
* Oh right, in “Thank God, It’s Doomsday” God says, “Deux es machina,” to explain the rapture-based plotline.
* Cooper Manning appeared in an episode as himself, lest we forget.
* Best. Tweet. Ever?
* I’ve made a mental picture in my head of Conan O’Brien prancing around the writer’s room saying, “the name’s Lanley … Lyle Lanley” as he pitched “Marge vs. the Monorail.” Bless you, Conan. Bless you.
* “Do we want Old Man Patterson here with his finger on the button?”
* Counterpoint to all this criticism? In Season 2’s “Bart the Daredevil”– originally aired on Dec. 6, 1990– Homer jumps over Springfield Gorge on Bart’s skateboard. Okay, we know he doesn’t make the jump, instead falling down the gorge in a stunt that would kill anyone not named Wile E. Coyote.
Then again, maybe the show’s always been an insane, surreal gag-fest without any semblance of reality from the start. “It’s been going downhill since the first Tracy Ullman short,” — a line someone probably wrote on alt.tv.simpsons circa 1989.
My only conclusion here? I’m happy to live in a world where The Simpsons can run uninterrupted for 12 straight days … and so are the FXX programmers.
(This has been the worst post ever.)