The Confusing State Of The Simpsons
When people talk about The Simpsons, they tend to come to one of two conclusions. There’s the “It’s just fucking awful now” crowd, which insists that the show has not produced a single laugh since 1997, and there’s the “It’s still good!” crowd, which completely denies that there has been any decline, and that The Simpsons is as good as ever, and the fans who think otherwise are just a pack of ungrateful curmudgeons.
Of course, neither group is completely right, and like so many things in life, the truth lies somewhere in the creamy middle. The Simpsons is still capable of generating laughter, just not the kind of frantic, side-splitting laughter that defined the show’s golden era.
But why even bring this up in the first place? After all, every time someone mentions modern Simpsons, the conversation inevitably turns to the quality of the modern episodes, and little consensus is ever attained. Well, this Sunday the show will be reaching an unbelievable milestone with its 500th episode. Let’s think about that for a second. This show came on the air in 1989, a time when its competition included Cheers, Night Court, and The Wonder Years. You have to wonder if any show should last that long. Imagine if Seinfeld was still on the air, and Jerry was in his late 50s, slowly growing senile, and still pretending that rhetorical questions are comedy (“What is the deal with colon polyps?!”).
It’s pretty much impossible for any show to continue to be good after this long. Every idea has been tried out, every character has been developed, and just about every vacation destination has been visited.
The Simpsons has definitely suffered in this regard. Countless new episodes are retreads of older episodes, and they just don’t have the same impact. Just look at last Sunday’s episode. It involved Lisa falling in love with a faux-intellectual played by Michael Cera (because no one told the writers that Juno is already 4 years old, and the kid is already past his prime), and then dumping him because it turned out he wasn’t as cool as she thought. In this episode’s 22-minute run-time, we learned absolutely nothing about either character. It had no emotional resonance to speak of, and just felt like a perfunctory, by-the-numbers plot, for a show that used to be capable of doing much better.
In comparison, way back in Season 2, viewers were treated to one of the most brutally honest, and ultimately beautiful Simpsons episodes ever in “Lisa’s Substitute.” In this episode — which a lot of you probably know already — Lisa develops an intense crush on her substitute teacher (who, in a weird nod to educational romance, is voiced by Dustin Hoffman), whose intellect and good looks make him the complete opposite of Homer. As the episode goes on the juxtaposition between him and Homer becomes more and more stark, and Homer looks more and more boorish, until Lisa finally explodes and calls Homer a baboon in one of the most memorable moments in the entire series run. It was at this point that Homer realizes what a dick he can be, and has a sweet-but-not-schmaltzy reconciliation with Lisa to end the episode, with both characters having grown considerably. There was nothing even close to that in Sunday’s episode.
But hey, that might be an unrealistic expectation. After all, that was one of the most emotional episodes in the show’s history. Almost nothing else they’ve done lives up to that. No, I would’ve just settled for an episode that told an interesting story, and made me care about was going on. Sunday’s episode completely failed to do that — it served as nothing more than a pale reminder that, yes, Michael Cera still exists.
And yet, there have also been a few pretty good episodes as of late. A particularly strong one was “The Book Job,” a parody of The Italian Job, in which Bart, Homer, and a gang of co-conspirators attempt to write a Twilight-esque tween-lit novel in the hopes of raking in millions with a lucrative book deal. This episode worked because it had a plot that wasn’t re-used (and actually made sense), and because the writing was considerably sharper than most recent episodes (two standout jokes: Homer referring to guest star Neil Gaiman as “British Fonzie,” and the Twilight series originally being about a Jewish Golem, but being changed because “no one wanted to join team Schmool”). It was the rare episode that reminded us what The Simpsons is capable of at its best.
So yes, things have been up and down of late, with the end result that being that The Simpsons are much better than the worst crap that pollutes the airwaves, but they can’t hang with comedy juggernauts like Community, or Parks and Recreation either.
So, should the show be canceled, as so many have claimed in recent years? Eh, it’s hard to say. The show certainly isn’t what it used to be, and the continued string of mediocre episodes diluting the syndication pool is not exactly helping its legacy. Then again, in a world where Rob Schneider gets to have a sitcom where he marries a Mexican so he can make jokes about Mexicans, and Tim Allen can star in a blatant retread of Home Improvement that can’t even clear that show’s rather low bar, a few more seasons of The Simpsons operating below its optimum level would hardly be the worst thing in the world. The show’s current contract guarantees that there will be two more seasons, bringing the grand total to a nice, round 25. That seems like a good total to end on, since even the most durable shows have to die at some point.
In the meantime, when Sunday rolls around, I plan on getting drunk off my ass, forgetting all about the disappointing later years, and just celebrating the fact that my favorite show somehow managed to last this long. Woo-hoo!