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The Simpsons Folder


What is Up With The Simpsons?
Matinee Magazine, April 3, 2001 By Rob Morlino

Another year of The Simpsons continues the show’s decline, with an occasional bright spot.

A little more than a year ago I sat down and wrote a review of sorts concerning the state of The Simpsons, then late into its eleventh season. To be precise, it was actually more a reaction to the episode “Alone Again, Natura-Diddly”, which saw the death of Maude Flanders. The episode was, for me, emblematic of the series’ decline, and the review as I wrote it stemmed mostly from my distaste for that one episode. I had no idea it would be as widely read or reacted to as it continues to be–I still get emails every so often from people who either vehemently agree or disagree with what I said about the show a year ago.

One trend I noticed early on: the emails from people who were royally pissed at the fact that I dared to suggest that The Simpsons was less-than-stellar of late tended to be high on knee-jerk hysterics and tremendously low on reasoned arguments. Maybe they only felt it necessary to shriek insults and attack my opinion without providing any counter-arguments of their own. Or maybe, and I know I’m asking for it here, maybe there aren’t any arguments to be made beyond, “Are you a [unflattering adjective] [derogatory noun]? The show is as funny as ever!” I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who watch the show every week and enjoy it, and I’m glad they’re able to. But anyone who insists that those of us who perceive a decline in the show’s quality are ludicrously out of touch are, I think, deluding themselves.

Incidentally, my favorite email response to the article remains one from a kid at Florida State, who derided my opinions, then suggested that I was taking the show way too seriously, since, you know, I had written a whole review of it. Then he told me about how he was writing a paper about just that kind of person for his class, “Writing on The Simpsons: Parody, Satire and Pop Culture.” I took no small amount of pleasure in pointing out the irony to him.

In any case, had I known what I was getting into a year ago, I doubt I would have said anything different, although I may have taken my time and been somewhat more eloquent and rational. But I stand by what I said about the show then, and nothing in the year since has caused me to have a change of opinion about where the show is going. If anything, I like the new shows even less, and, had I not written off the series as a lost cause a year ago, I would continue to be disheartened to see what has become of a show that formed the basis of an entire post-modern lexicon for me and my friends.

For a while I’ve been kicking around the idea of doing a “sequel” to the original review, looking at the entire season of shows since then. But to be honest I haven’t even seen every episode over the past year. When I’ve got too much else to do, I don’t go out of my way to watch the first-run episodes anymore. They ceased being worth it long ago. I still catch the pre-decline classics when I can in syndication. It seems, at least to me, that the less you watch of the new ones, the less quality is detracted from the better bulk of the series. But what I have seen of the new episodes in the past year has only convinced me further of what I already believed.

Strange, too, though maybe not at all, that the show gets worse and worse even as it enjoys an unprecedented level of popularity. We’re in the middle of a Simpsons merchandising explosion the likes of which hasn’t been seen since, well, the very beginning of the show, when the series was less about pointed satire then it was about selling Bart tee-shirts that told grade school teachers across the nation to eat his shorts or not to have a cow on a daily basis. So I guess in some ways the show has come full circle. Only now it’s Monopoly games and collector’s trading cards, along with some stuff that’s admittedly cool, like the new action figures or the soon-to-be-released complete season DVD sets, the latter being the item that those of us who miss the really great seasons have really been waiting for. In spite of the popularity, though, Fox continues to churn out episodes rife with problems, not the least of which is this: they ain’t funny.

At the root of that ailment is the fact that they lack heart and have no real center. For example, the recent “Tennis the Menace” episode, which exemplifies the current formula of having act breaks shift nearly the entire direction of the show. The story starts off with a talent show at the old folk’s home, then turns into Grandpa’s funeral arrangements, suddenly becomes about the Simpsons having their own tennis court and everyone in Springfield wanting to play them because Homer’s a lousy player, then becomes about inter-family strike as Marge and Bart take up sides against Homer. Rather then forming a cohesive whole, the various plots threads merely serve to plot the episode along and provide the setup for numerous hyper-real sight gags, which have become the show’s new staple.

Pick any random joke from the current season, and likely it’s the result of a dialogue springboard. In the season opener, a weak entry about the town splitting up over a new area code dispute, Homer has his torso slashed open by a badger, his internal organs exposed and blood leaking out. It was a throwaway gag, meant to gratify only at the moment of its presentation, and it was summarily forgotten. Most of the writing these days is based on this principle. Worse, many of the weaker elements about the show are fodder for self-reflexive humor. The whole badger encounter at the beginning of the season premiere followed the pattern of an inciting incident that serves as a device to introduce the main element of the plot, such as the retirement home talent show. When Homer picks up the phone to dial animal control, he discovers the new area code, and thus the focus shifts away from the badger entirely. When the animal appears in the kitchen window, Homer says, “Go away! We got bigger problems now!” And of course, they do. Problem is, the bulk of the episodes are increasingly written around that formula. Each event merely sets up the next; there is no center. And without a strong center, the episodes are entirely disposable.

The most recent one, aired on April Fools Day, was unfortunately not a joke. Well, it was, but you know what I mean. Aside from suffering the same weak humor and plotting of most recent episodes, it presented an offensive portrayal of Africa. A grocery baggers strike led to the Simpson family getting a free trip to Africa from the makers of Animal Crackers. First of all, it’s been widely reported that the average American thinks of Africa as one big country, not a continent comprised of many diverse nations. I’m pretty sure George Dubya himself made a comment at some point that expressed that ignorant sentiment, though I couldn’t find it anywhere in Bushisms so I can’t back that up. But you know what I’m talking about.

The episode in question sought to do no more than reinforce the stereotypical idea of Africa that the average American has gleaned from decades of crap like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The Simpsons arrive to vast open plains inhabited by bushmen who live in grass huts and are cohabiting with animals, naturally. Not a building with electricity is in sight, but there is a big tree house for the Simpsons to stay in. And when they arrive there, a gigantic spider the size of a small horse devours Homer’s luggage. There are not, for God’s sake, giant spiders in Africa who eat luggage. The continent and the countries that comprise it are not inhabited exclusively by people who live “really close to nature,” i.e. live in huts, crouch in the trees, and eat bugs. But try telling all that to someone who’s been reared on “Third World” nonsense and tunes in to have it reiterated in Prime Time.

At some point, The Simpsons stopped caring how it engaged status quo mentality. Not important, you may say, but at one point the show did just that. Even episodes as late as the one where Homer got a gun and joined the NRA contained enough consideration and intelligence so that both sides of the gun debate had reason to like the show. It used to walk that philosophical line carefully, being just transgressive enough to satiate liberal college students while still affirming the kind of values that made conservative parents fall in love with the show.

Now that care is gone, and what we have left is the utterly unsophisticated handling of political themes. This season’s “Lisa the Treehugger” episode is a prime example. In that story, a big redwood tree is going to be cut down to make way for a parking lot or a theme park or something along those lines (the exact details escape me, but then the details don’t really matter anymore) and a group of activists organize to save it. Rather than coming at the recent portrayal of activism in the media from a satirical angle, the episode lazily affirmed that portrayal. The activists were portrayed, per media-generated prototype, as rich white kids whose sole motivation seemed to be staging attention-grabbing stunts, who had no real social or political cause to speak of, but of course they all knew about Burning Man and wore Birkenstocks and dreads. The Africa episode also had bad self-reflexive jokes: Bart makes a comment at some point that isn’t sensible to anyone in the room, and he shrugs it off by saying, “I haven’t said anything in a while.” Who’s supposed to laugh at this?

I’ve gone on at length about why I don’t like the show as it is. But to be fair, I have to admit that I do chuckle occasionally during the new shows, though the frequency varies. And not all of them are awful. In fact, this season’s earlier “Worst Episode Ever” was far from it. Though it took a character who’s successful because he comes in small doses and put him at the center of the episode (in this case the comic book guy), a practice that rarely works, the show was consistently funny from the beginning, when Lisa took a bottle of “Ms. Butterworth”–a post-feminist revision of the portly syrup maid as a miniskirt-clad businesswoman with a cell phone–and said, “Let’s have a breakfast meeting.” That was immediately followed by Homer’s “antacid trip”, where he consumed baking soda that had sat in the back of the fridge and absorbed the odors of years of meals; his head filled with images of pies and sandwiches against a background of images and sounds from decades past, including Johnnie Cochrane’s utterance of “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”, Nixon’s resignation announcement, and the moon landings. The scene was nothing short of exceptional, and the back-to-back laughs, followed by plenty of others, made “Worst Episode Ever” a season standout. Pity that it’s in the minority.

And there was still plenty to complain about, from the absurdity of Bart and Milhouse running the comic shop, to the continued practice, relatively new to The Simpsons, of having celebrity appearances who aren’t voiced by their real life counterparts–in this case Gallagher. They didn’t used to do that, and it was better practice then. But overall it was a good episode, and perhaps that’s reason enough to want the show to continue–for the occasional return to the former quality which, even sparingly, is still better than most of what’s on television these days. (It’s somewhat a moot question since Fox has locked it up for as many years to come as they can squeeze out of it.)

I’m also aware that many people aren’t to be convinced that the show’s been much better. That’s cool; there are just as many people, judging from the emails I’ve received over the past year, who agree with me. Clearly, the new shows are tailoring to one side. I question how long the other will be willing to stick around. But then, that’s been the problem all along: the recent explosion of the show’s popularity, capped by that weird year-long “Simpsons Global Fanfest”, one of the most skillfully marketed non-events in television history, along with the Simpson family star on Hollywood Boulevard and all the new merchandise, has left the people who liked the show best when it wasn’t popular out in the cold. These people knew that The Simpsons should have been winning Emmys throughout the middle of its run, rather than for the uneven, uninspired “Behind the Laughter” season finale from last year, whose tone was uncomfortable and sacrificed any affection for the show the producers had left. It won for Most Outstanding Animated Program. It was not. But then, there was no way a Simpsons episode of integrity would ever win an Emmy. Those awards are not about quality. Real transgression is rarely, if ever, encouraged on television.

And then there’s the promise of a Simpsons feature film, discussed for years but never brought to fruition. I read an item in the New York Post recently that hinted at a movie in the works, that would be set a few years in the “future” of the Simpsons universe, and would possibly involve Bart losing his virginity to a Mrs. Robinson-type. These comments were attributed to series creator Matt Groening, who has made more than a few tongue-in-cheek remarks about the show over the years, so it’s very likely these rumors won’t amount to anything. I sincerely hope not.

Until anything happens, I’ll continue to enjoy the classic episodes while occasionally watching the new ones in the hopes of catching a glimmer of the early brilliance. But the series has lost me as a loyal first-run viewer, and I suspect I’m far from alone in my situation. And in case the detractors of this opinion think I take pleasure in that statement–I don’t.

But I wouldn’t leave everyone who agrees hanging without an alternative. There is an animated program that has taken the place of The Simpsons as TV’s most enjoyable half-hour of edgy satire. It found a home on the very same network. It’s structured nearly identical to Groening’s show. And it’s damn funny. Problem is, you can’t see it now, and you might not see it anytime soon. A lot of you know what show I’m talking about. Maybe some don’t. Come back next issue and we’ll talk about it.

Until then… read a book.