[18 October 2007]
Lisa: “Mom, doesn’t it bother you that they’re giving you all this attention just because of those [breast implants]?”
Homer: “That’s not true, Lisa. There are a lot of complicated issues here, that can only be explained through song.”
While it might not appear as a perfect bell curve, the 19-season trajectory of The Simpsons follows a steady ramp-up through “kinda funny” to a blissful peak of “hilarious and surreal” and then a steady settling back into “kinda funny”. Sure, the show still offers the occasional hilarious moment—such as Bart and Lisa’s elaborate cardboard fort battle with hundreds of brown-uniformed delivery workers who stream into the backyard like a horde of orcs from The Lord of the Rings—but the show’s not side-splitting anymore, and certainly not as quotable.
Part of the problem might be that, after so much time, the show’s once daring humor seems more like an enjoyable old friend than the vibrant pioneer of animated comedy it used to be. It’s not for lack of ambition on the show’s part, though, especially regarding the musical numbers. Recent seasons have seen an American Idol parody, a full-on Evita homage, and even a stab at My Fair Lady with Groundskeeper Willie at its clearly enunciated center. But the musical segments now seem to suffer the same malaise as the show’s regular comedy, often starting off with a good idea, but rarely flashing that special spark of absurdity that takes it over the top. Alf Clausen’s arrangements are still top-notch, but the lyrical content just doesn’t seem as sharp.
Consequently, Testify, covering Seasons 10 through 18, rarely satisfies. Nothing here equals past favorites like “We Do (The Stonecutters’ Song)”, “See My Vest”, “Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel”, or “Dr. Zaius”. In fact, you forget many of Testify‘s tracks right after you hear them.
The disc is not without a few highlights. One shining moment is the “Everybody Hates Ned Flanders” medley, which includes Homer’s original version, David Byrne’s jittery pop version, a William Shatner trainwreck, and then Byrne’s extended salsa remix (prompting Homer to lament, “I’ve come to hate my own creation. Now I know how God feels.”) It’s always good to hear Kelsey Grammer’s ego-driven portrayals of Sideshow Bob, and you seldom go wrong with Cletus’ hillbilly family (their musical abilities being exploited by Krusty the Clown, they twist a classic moment from The Sound of Music into “I have eight teeth, going on seven teeth”.)
However, too many of Testify‘s songs rely on knowledge of the skits that spawned them (not a real problem for most Simpsons fans, but still), and the snippets of dialogue aren’t as helpful as they were on earlier soundtrack discs. “King of Cats”, a Lion King-on-Broadway parody that was one of the show’s funniest recent moments, loses nearly all of its humor precisely because the visuals are gone. Another problem might be that The Simpsons has always been a little too successful at mimicking the very suckage that it often parodies. “They’ll Never Stop the Simpsons” (in which the writers “boast” of numerous lame ideas they haven’t even tried yet), “Branson” (unfortunately nowhere near as scathing as the show’s stab at New Orleans), and “America Rules” (the family’s musical defense of their patriotism after being imprisoned for un-American sentiments) wear the trappings of ‘70s Variety Hour shows so well that it’s practically painful.
Those issues probably make Testify more of a diehards-only disc than either Songs in the Key of Springfield or Go Simpsonic with the Simpsons. Despite some funny moments, it’s largely a reminder that The Simpsons may continue entertaining for a long time, but that the golden years have probably passed.