Managing Bright Spots
As The Simpsons ended its 17th season, there were again two distinct camps of fans, the current and the ex. The current watch the show casually but more or less faithfully to the tune of eight or nine million each week, and count among their ranks countless TV critics who still commend the show’s brilliance or place it on best-of-year lists. In other words, these viewers resemble the dedicated fan base of any aged, quality program.
The exes, though, act more like spurned lovers than anyone who ever gave up on Friends or Will & Grace. There are Simpsons fans, easily found on message boards and newsgroups, who say the show has lost its edge, intelligence, warmth, and, most importantly, its laughs. The more reasonable estimates place this drop-off in quality around the ninth or tenth seasons, but there is no shortage of less measured reactions that track the show’s “decline” back to its eighth, sixth, fifth, or even third seasons. They all agree, though, that the 2005-2006 Simpsons season was sub-par, and some even called it unwatchable.
I sympathize a little with these outraged former fans because the truth is that a typical Simpsons episode today does not stack up to one picked at random from a decade ago. But the outrage is not based on awfulness per se. The Simpsons has not gone down the tubes so much as it has fallen to earth. It has assumed the rhythms of a typical decent sitcom, good episodes mixed with mediocre episodes. What once seemed immortal is now clearly human.
This can seem like a major comedown after the spectacular seasons three through nine, mixing satire and surrealism into pretty much the most amusing, smartest television show ever created. But still, Season 17 (!) had its pleasures sprinkled throughout. Though this decade’s Simpsons yet traffics in gimmicky trips to other locales (Italy in “The Italian Bob,” India in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bangalore”) and fantasy anthologies that rip off the treasured Halloween specials (“Simpson Christmas Stories,” “The Wettest Stories Ever Told”), storylines that rely on cheap, outlandish gags that should be left to the likes of Family Guy.
The stronger episodes, however, continue to satirize topical issues. In “Monkey Suit,” Lisa fought the teaching of creationism at Springfield Elementary. Religion and science were both ribbed: religious extremists produced anti-evolution propaganda, while a scientist could hardly contain his enthusiasm for denouncing God when testifying for evolution in court. Earlier in the season, in one of the series’ patented pop-culture spoofs, Groundskeeper Willie made a fine Scottish male version of Eliza Dolittle in “My Fair Laddie” (I’m not sure what possessed the writers to spoof a half-century-old Broadway show in 2006, but the effort was entertaining).
Other episodes focused on the Simpson family: Homer and Marge’s marriage provided material for no fewer than five episodes this season, and another three fell into the Marge-centric column (in “Marge’s Son Poisoning,” Marge and Bart bond, and Bart unexpectedly becomes a mama’s boy; “Bart Has Two Mommies” combined a story about Marge mothering Rod and Tod Flanders following Bart’s kidnapping [not, as Lisa noted, “ape-napping”] by a bereaved ape). These storylines nudged the show away from the frat-boy sensibility that occasionally invades it. But many Marge stories relied on stereotyping, rather than developing, the character: she’s an inadequate housewife; she has strong maternal instincts; and above all, she loves Homer despite his insensitivity.
This continued all the way up to the season finale. “Marge and Homer Turn a Couple Play” mixed convoluted laughs (a Hindenberg reference chased with an allusion not exactly to 9/11, but to 9/11 jokes) and abject laziness, including yet another rendition of a favorite fallback routine, padding out a middling joke (such as, in “Play,” Homer trying in vain to get Marge to uncross her arms) with repetition that is supposed to be funny through sheer absurdity. To my recollection, this worked exactly once in the show’s history, with the infamous Sideshow Bob rake gag in Season Five. Yet the writers press on.
The Simpsons continues to manage bright spots (sometimes these are more most visible from a distance, as many episodes look better after being viewed a second or third time, in syndicated reruns). And despite its less frequent genius, it has been funnier than most shows, for longer than any show. I won’t, then, join the chorus of disgruntled nerds, calling for the series’ cancellation. Such a complaint didn’t mean much in 1998, and it may mean even less now. I will suggest, though, that with a feature motion picture (next summer) and a 20th season coming soon to screens near you, the bright men and women behind the scenes might want to start thinking, with their customary intelligence and irreverence, about the end.