[14 March 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s the great debate among Simpson‘s fans: which season of the series is the best. Not the best written, or the funniest, but which series of shows from the phenomenal animated classic deserve to be enshrined in the formidable fanboy Hall of Fame. Thanks to the Internet, and its perpetual emotion machinery of blogs, websites, and newsgroups, this argument has only grown larger, and more ludicrous in stature. There are those for whom the timeless element of the cartoon cavalcade stopped around Season Four. Others will barely breach the domain of double digits. And of course, there are many who will follow the series until the bitter end, convinced that any Simpsons is better than none at all.
Believe it or not, the creative element behind the show are well aware of this ongoing infighting amongst the fans. They even address the remarks and ridiculousness they’ve read on World Wide Web message boards. All throughout the commentary tracks that accompany every episode of The Simpsons, The Complete Seventh Season, new to DVD from Fox, show runners like Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, writers like David S. Cohen and Mike Scully, and even show creator Matt Groening goof on and grumble at the logical and lame complaints made about the series. For them, Springfield’s infamous family was never meant to follow a single show business conceit. When it needed to be serious and sensible, it was. When it cried out for a little weird wackiness, that was accommodated, as well.
It’s a brave balancing act that the series does, one that has its obvious examples scattered all throughout the Season. The Simpsons’ seventh go-round would see character driven fare (“Lisa the Vegetarian”, “Bart Sells His Soul”) outrageous social satire (“Much Apu About Nothing”), a wealth of wonderful guest stars (the rock bands as part of “Homerpalooza”, the late, great Phil Hartman in “A Fish Called Selma”) there is even a celebration of the counterculture (“Mother Simpson”) and some none too subtle jabs at an ex-President named Bush (“Two Bad Neighbors”). Yet all this variety is just too spicy for some Simpsons fans. They argue that the unrealistic episodes (Homer joining a touring rock festival, Bart berating a one time Commander in Chief) takes away from the subtler, more sensitive shows (like when Lisa learns that animals have feelings, too).
But there is an equally vocal contingent that believes that no series should be stuck doing the same old shows. They weep whenever the focus shifts to the family in crisis (Bart’s brief seasonal love affair with shoplifting from “Marge Be Not Proud”) or self-righteous seriousness (Lisa’s decision to out the hometown hero in “Lisa the Iconoclast”). To them, The Simpsons shines when ancillary characters get their own substantial showcase (as when Krusty gets busted as a tax cheat in “Bart the Fink”) or when the storylines shift to other members of the family (like Grandpa Simpson’s tontine with Mr. Burns from the improbably titled “Raging Abe Simpson and his Grumbling Grandson in ‘The Curse of the Flying Hellfish’”).
For some reason, the two ideologies in the fan camps just can’t meet and make nice. They have to bombard each other with senseless slams and repeated ridicule, as if the Internet were a life or death dispute that they have to win less the planet be doomed. The truth is that seasons like number seven are what make The Simpsons such a timeless comic treasure. Beginning with the conclusion of the season six cliffhanger “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” and ending with Lisa learning a few valuable life lessons in “Summer of 4 Ft. 2”, the narratives make no attempt at consistency, wanting instead to explore any and all comic possibilities within a certain single storyline. A good example is “Radioactive Man”, about the time when a Hollywood production came to Springfield, and Bart decided to try for a shot at stardom. The plot peels off level of lampooning, from comic book blockbusters and typical Tinsel Town traits, to the notion of guest star Mickey Rooney as the one sensible soul in all of motion pictures.
It’s similar to what happens when the Simpson children become the foster charges of that Bible-quoting odd duck, Ned Flanders. All throughout “Home Sweet Home-Diddly-Dum-Doodily” we get comic comments on religion, the government bureaucracy behind child welfare, and the notion that parenting can be taught in a couple of classroom sessions. When Flanders discovers that horror upon horror the Simpson siblings have never been baptized, religion and the notion of familial bonds get a hilarious nudging, as well. Indeed, one of the endearing qualities of the series is its attempt to both mock and make meaningful the ideals and ideologies it picks on. Unlike its soul mate in satire, the mindbendingly brilliant South Park, The Simpsons value the sacred cows they are slaughtering. The jokes are not just mockery for meanness’ sake.
Even when the series challenges its previously placed parameters, the results are always well intentioned and excellently realized. When a hobo discloses that he created the character of Itchy the Mouse, the resulting legal battle ends the reign of Bart and Lisa’s favorite cartoon show. But unlike a previous episode which focused on violence in animated offerings for kids (Season Two’s “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge”) “The Day the Laughter Died” decides to use the premise to dismantle classic clichés. Chester Lampwick doesn’t want the money to better his overall lot in life. He just wants a rocket car and a solid gold house. He’ll still shine your shoes, if you let him. Similarly, the Simpson kids fail to actually solve the problem. Instead, a couple of scarily similar looking children, Lester and Eliza, save the day. It all becomes very disquieting, and could conceivable leave fans raised on a strict adherence to typical entertainment guidelines more than flummoxed.
Why this becomes a matter for conflict and contradiction is downright flabbergasting at times. When looking at the overall quality of the show, how it can effortlessly mesh multiple pop culture references and spot-on spoofs into its narrative (“22 Short Films About Springfield” manages to make fun of Pulp Fiction, wacky sitcom hijinx, and Laugh-In style blackouts all within a 22-minute time frame) begs the question of quality. Granted, individuals can grumble that a wonderful premise like Bart getting a fake ID (“Bart on the Road”) ends with a rather anticlimactic trip to an abandoned world’s fair, or that “Homer the Smithers” never fully takes on the subject of Mr. Burns’ assistant and his long hinted at lifestyle choice, but these are microscopic missteps in what is, consistently, the funniest show on television.
It’s silly to say then that the Seventh Season doesn’t stack up. In many ways, it was the defining moment for the series, when old and new ideals finally found a keen common ground from which they could work. Granted, much of where an entire season goes comes from those in charge, and Weinstein and Oakley constantly explain how they wanted to keep the story’s scales in constant check. Sure, they swung wildly out of whack on occasion, but they were never as out of sync here as they would become.
In truth, the real argument lies in what individuals expect from their mass media entertainment. Would The Simpsons have survived if the show stayed on the real life sitcom as animated cartoon track that defined season one? Or better yet, would a Flintstones like freakishness, where one week the boys of Bedrock could be figuring out family matters, the next they are dealing with dapper extraterrestrial entities, keep the show fresh enough to last?
The answer is, to quote Grandpa during the finale of the fantastic “Mother Simpson”, “A little from Column A, and a little from Column B”. It’s the variety and variables in the series make-up that allows it to linger long after other shows have used up their social shelf life. Combined with more memorable, quotable moments en masse than any other television series, period (even Homer’s exasperated grunt, “D’uh!” is in the dictionary) and a benchmark consistently set for bettering itself, it is perhaps the one TV series that could go on indefinitely. As long as the future funny business is as smart, savvy, and savage as what was created for its 1995- 96 run, there’s no reason why it can’t. Only the continued bickering of the devoted may be able to drag it down. It might be time to call a truce before we lose our one real respite of clever, and crass, comedy on the small screen.