Wednesday, May 13, 2009

What’s The Matter with The Simpsons?


Now finishing up its 20th season, The Simpsons is one of the best and most successful television shows ever. It’s not just a TV show – it’s a cultural touchstone.

Nonetheless, I feel that anyone who would argue that The Simpons is one of the greatest shows in history must also concede that there is a noticeable difference between the show now and the show during the time that made it great, the Golden Age that I define as seasons 2 through 10.
As of 2009, The Simpsons is still a good show, but just good, not great. And dare I say it, lately it’s been less than good, and the general trend has been pointing downward for at least the last five years.

While hard statistical evidence of this is impossible to come by, there is some subjective support for this idea. From the Wikipedia article on the show:

“In 2003, to celebrate the show's 300th episode "Barting Over", USA Today published a pair of Simpsons related articles: a top-ten episodes list chosen by the webmaster of The Simpsons Archive fansite, and a top-15 list by The Simpsons' own writers. The most recent episode listed on the fan list was 1997's "Homer's Phobia"; the Simpsons' writers most recent choice was 2000's "Behind the Laughter."

Granted, the series’ sheer number of episodes makes it harder to single out only 10, but when audience members believe your best work is over a decade ago, something’s not right.

The reason I wrote this article is not to be snarky or mean-spirited, but merely to provide some brief, friendly feedback on one of my all-time favorite shows by describing what I see as the reasons The Simpsons has lost some of its mojo.

The characters have stopped evolving. This is not entirely the show’s fault. Unlike dramas, which allow more room for characters to grow and change over time, American TV comedies put a premium on getting characters to stay the same, to resolve whatever conflicts arise and return everything to normal by the end of the show or the season. As a result, there is only so much a viewer can know about a character before there isn’t much more to know.

One advantage the The Simpsons writers had in the early seasons was that no one knew that much about the Simpson family. By now, the characters have been fleshed out to the point where there’s nothing unknown about them, and any deviations that might happen in a character’s personality are sure to get fixed before the end credits.

The result is a TV series that’s becoming as predictable as a standard Sunday newspaper comic strip. Bart, in particular, no longer has anything interesting to do. After 20 years of “Eat my shorts!” and “Cowabunga!”, his attitudes and pranks have grown as stale as his brief stint as the “I didn’t do it” boy on Krusty the Clown’s TV show.

The clunky cultural references. One of the two things that made the first 10 seasons great is how the writers incorporated references to other TV shows, movies, history, art, literature, economics, music, politics, religion – in other words, American culture. Sometimes the references were random throwaway lines, sometimes they were key to the plot – Homer and Marge dropping of Maggie at the Ayn Rand School for Tots. Bart reassuring Lisa that he’s familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda. Mr. Burns answering his phone with the greeting “Ahoy-hoy.” No other show in history was as clever at incorporating visual and verbal Easter eggs into a sitcom format.

These jokes and sight gags were rapid fire. In some episodes it seemed like every other sentence was an adroit one-liner or verbal double-take. And if you missed something, you better have been taping the show because they’re not waiting for anybody to keep up.

Then something happened along the way, and the joke delivery philosophy changed to the idea that if something if something is funny for 2 seconds it would be even funnier stretched out to 30 seconds. I think it all started with Sideshow Bob and the rakes. That specific bit was inspired, but it became a trend that has not stopped. Single jokes that might have merited a few moments of screen time in the first decade now taek up entire plot lines.

And on the occasions when the Simpsons do name-check a cultural figure it’s written in broad strokes and given extended screen time, as if the writers need to make absolutely sure everyone knows who they’re talking about (“Omigod! It’s EDGAR ALLEN POE!!!”). And more of the references are from people or events from hundreds of years ago, usually in one of those increasingly tiresome episodes that feature a trio of short stories.

Especially in the last few years, the show that brought Americans a vision of what George Bush I would be like as a neighbor has steered clear of current political topics. Granted, the show has never been provocative on the level of The Daily Show, but in the last eight years I can’t remember if they’ve ever taken any serious jabs at George Bush II, Dick Cheney, Barrack Obama, Sarah Palin, or any other participants in a deep pool of political theatre. To me, this is clear evidence that …

The producers are avoiding serious, controversial, and heartfelt subjects. The other thing that made those first 10 seasons great is how the writers seemed to appreciate that comedy is often rooted in decidedly unfunny subjects, and cartons are a great way to address those subjects in a way that makes you think as well as laugh. Deft handling of issues like martial fidelity, mob violence, homophobia, xenophobia, compulsive gambling, and gun control is what the Simpsons used to do best.

The stories also creatively address the conflicts that happen between family members, as well as the pains of growing up. Episodes like the one where Bart gets an "F" and has to fight to not get held back a grade, or the one where he sells his soul to Milhouse, are both funny and surprisingly touching. They are also critical to the characters’ makeup. Without that “touchy-feely” stuff, Bart’s just a pre-teen jackass whose antics are literally 20 years old.

Marge’s exasperation with Homer’s failures as a husband, Homer and Lisa’s running battle to understand each other, Lisa and Bart’s love/hate sibling relationship – interpersonal stuff like this made the show so much more than the brightly colored slapstick that surrounded it.

In contrast, many of the plots after season 11 are standard sitcom-y plots, and pretty lame ones at that. The season 11 final episode “Behind the Laughter” would have made perfect series ending, but the show kept going and is now closer than ever to living down to that pseudo-documentary’s criticism of relying on “trendy guest stars and nonsensical plot lines.”

Highlights from this season: Moe dates a little person! Marge and Homer get remarried, and Patty and Selma don’t like it so they kidnap him! Lisa tries to fit in with the Cool Crowd…in TWO episodes! Wake me when its over.

I think the reason for also this random, pointless mayhem is…

The show is trying too hard to be like other cartoon comedies. The Simpsons’ current creative staff was raised in a world dominated by Comedy Central's South Park, Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, and Fox’s Family Guy and American Dad. I enjoy all of these shows, but they take a very different approach to delivering jokes than first-decade Simpsons, namely, "Never use a scalpel when you have a sledgehammer handy."

The Simpsons has always employed humor in broad strokes but lately has been relying way too much on the same slapstick and broad shock tactics as these other shows, the result coming off like Poochy the Dog, that awful amalgamation of what marketers think the audience wants to see.

Homer is usually the centerpiece of these antics. Speaking of which…

Homer went beyond stupid. Homer Simpson has always been lazy, ignorant, selfish, crude, angry, reckless, and careless. That’s what makes him so appealing. Early in the show’s run, he also regularly displayed shocking levels of wit, clarity, compassion, and a unique “in-your-face humanity” that is sorely lacking in his current incarnation.

It’s a short hop from amusingly dim-witted to brain damaged, and at some point during the Second Decade the show’s producers pole-vaulted over that line, and you don’t have to be Frank “Grimey” Grimes to be annoyed with the results. What was more a befuddled middle-aged Everyman is now a barely-sentient caricature.

The Simpsons Movie. I have to throw this one in because there was a lot of hype when the film came out, especially among diehard fans. It wasn’t a dud, but it was hardly worth all the fuss either. The film’s 7.7 rating on the Internet Movie Database, putting it squarely in the “good but not great” category, bears this out. These days, with movies like Ratatouille and WALL-E as competition, animated features need to bring something special to the table. I don’t think The Simpsons Movie did that, nor did it do much to recharge the franchise.

I expected something more from this project than a two-hour Simpsons episode. The TV show’s most significant innovation this season, switching to digital wide-screen format, only emphasizes how the movie is basically an extended episode with some rude words thrown in.

The Simpsons is one of those shows with built-in staying power. It’s still getting good ratings, so there’s no reason to think it won’t be around at least a little while longer. While I no longer make Sunday nights at 7:00 Central Time appointment television, I still watch the show and look forward to seeing what they come up with next.

2 comments:

  1. On your comment on Homer becoming dumber, it`s not just him. All of the family have become dumber. Marge keeps making dumb comments (I cringe every time she says something), Bart has become an evil psychopath and Lisa, who read at a 9th grade level, now gets low marks in the third grade. I don`t know what happened.

    On another note, another problem with the show is this thing that they`re doing in recent seasons. Before, jokes occurred naturally and they were funny. Now, they make every other line a joke hoping that one will be funny. Case in point, in the octuplets episode, when the babies are being introduced, every time one of them is named, someone in the audience says something and not a single one of them is funny. "He`s thinking what we`re all saying"? How is that funny?

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  2. Sometimes, I wish the show would just end. It's still not too late to go out on a moderate-note (I think it's too late for a high-note). Plus, with KOTH almost gone, if the Simpsons was gone, I would have no reason to stay in on Sundays. (If that's too subtle, I say death to Seth McFarlane, long live the new flesh).

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