The Long, Slow, Painful Death of The Simpsons

Twentieth Century Fox

I can say without any exaggeration that The Simpsons has influenced me more than any other television show in existence. As a child I would watch in the presence of my older brother, noting what he found humorous, so I knew when to laugh.  He would often explain why something was funny, since my 8-year-old self missed most of the high-level humor.  For instance, when Homer becomes a big brother to a poor child named Pepi, Pepi says, “Papa Homer, you are so learn-ed.”  Homer corrects him, “It’s learned, son.  Learned.”  If you don’t know how the word is really pronounced, the joke is lost.  I believe this kind of humor, this “high-level” humor, is what made The Simpsons a great (perhaps greatest) comedy.  It’s not what makes it great because, let’s face it, the show hasn’t been good for about 13 seasons.  Right around season 10, it started the long and steady decline toward mediocrity.  Now, when I do give it another chance, it is like visiting an old friend who is dying of a painful terminal illness.  It’s sad, it’s tragic, and it’s at the point where you just want their suffering to end.  The Simpsons needs to die.

It’s hard to begin.  How does one describe the comic genius that made The Simpsons special?  Well, here are 2 clips that I’ll use as examples.  This first one comes from ” Deep Space Homer” in season 5.  We’ve just seen a shot of Homer’s space shuttle and an escaped ant moved past the camera.  Here is Kent Brockman’s reaction.

As a member of the media, Kent Brockman is prone to sensationalism.  We see it in an earlier episode in which Kent claims, ” I’ve been to Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and I can say without hyperbole that this is a million times worse than all of them put together.”  He is referring to a rebellion at Bart’s summer camp.  The writers are poking fun at how ridiculous the news media can be in an attempt to make a story more interesting.  But what really makes this funny is that Kent clearly believes his own sensational claims.  He jumps from one radical conclusion to the next and even accepts that the invasion is a foregone conclusion, which is why he is already trying to convince the ant overlords that he can be useful.  This is very silly, but we in the audience can see the work of intelligent people behind the scenes.

In this next clip, we find Mr. Burns attempting to win Homer’s trust.  Homer has become the head of the union at the power plant and Mr. Burns is threatening to remove their dental plan.  This clip comes from season 4, and the title is, “Last Exit to Springfield”.

There is this Infinite Monkey Theorem that assumes if a monkey were to hit the keys on a typewriter into infinity, it would eventually write Shakespeare.  A variation is that an infinite number of chimps (or some really high number) banging on typewriters would eventually produce some great piece of literature.  I actually wrote about this in A Universe of Infinite Chimps.  Anyway, in the clip we can see that the monkeys are smoking and focusing intently on their work, just like a bunch of human writers.  They are also chained to their typewriters.  I’m sure the writers who wrote this scene were thinking of themselves.  When Mr. Burns reads what the monkey wrote, it turns out to be the first line of Charles Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities.  But the monkey wrote “blurst” instead of “worst”, so Mr. Burns completely overlooks the incredible feat and judges the animal like he would some great author.  It plays on our expectations, and Mr. Burns’ sincerity and serious tone throughout the exchange makes for the perfect contrast to the ludicrous event.

The main point I want to make with these clips is that the early episodes were cleverly written by intelligent people who were aiming high at their audience.  Sure, there is plenty of slapstick to be found, but slapstick is only funny if it’s carried out by a person or entity with dignity and intelligence.  The Simpsons often referenced classic literature and film in these great episodes.  Even now, I find myself discovering things that I first learned from The Simpsons.  Perhaps I’ll recall a scene after watching  a classic Alfred Hitchcock film, or Citizen Kane.  In 6th grade I got a congratulatory letter sent home for knowing what the scientific name for the Northern Lights was: aurora borealis.  I learned that from Principal Skinner.

As I’ve previously mentioned, it was around season 10 that the show started to suffer creatively.  If you search around the internet you’ll see a consensus on this moment in the show’s history as the beginning of the end.  Some blame the shift toward a younger audience.  Some blame new producers, or the exodus of Conan O’Brien from the staff (though he left after season 5).   Others simply believe that the show had run out of clever ideas, like any long-running program.  I’m sure there were a number of reasons for the decline, but the fact remains that The Simpsons has shuffled on into an endless sunset.

Here’s a preview of the first episode of season 23.

So here we have Homer in a ridiculous situation with a celebrity guest star.  This is the norm.  Critic Jim Schembri of The Sydney Morning Herald summed it up pretty well when he wrote,  “Now the show has in essence fermented into a limp parody of itself. Memorable story arcs have been sacrificed for the sake of celebrity walk-ons and punchline-hungry dialogue.”  He is absolutely correct.  Once rich characters have been emptied of intelligence, emotion and dignity for the sake of selling out to the lowest common denominator of humor and entertainment.  It’s pathetic, and a lesson in the cost of pride and greed.

This show is a cash cow, and has been for many years.  The voice actors make millions and the producers make even more.  They have nothing to prove and nowhere to go.  I imagine Matt Groening, the creator, has become much like George Lucas.  Both men made something that the people loved, and they gained incredible wealth and fame.  But at some point they lost touch with the original vision, and traded it all for just a little more.  Look at this quote from Groening in 2006.

I honestly don’t see any end in sight. I think it’s possible that the show will become too financially cumbersome… but right now, the show is creatively, I think, as good or better than it’s ever been. The animation is incredibly detailed and imaginative, and the stories do things that we haven’t done before. So creatively there’s no reason to quit.

You know that once a storyteller starts focusing on the “incredibly detailed” animation, he has lost his soul (i.e. James Cameron with Avatar and George Lucas with everything since Star Wars Special Edition).

It saddens me that The Simpsons now has more mediocre and bad episodes than good and great ones.  It also saddens me that I wish for its swift death, so that the memory of what was right isn’t overshadowed by what is so very wrong.  All we can do is re-watch those episodes from the golden age, and hope that future generations will understand that The Simpsons was at one time the greatest show on television.  And not because it was the most popular, or the longest- running, but because it was clever and profoundly hilarious.

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Posted on September 18, 2012, in Popular Culture and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Well done, you’ve nailed it on the head. They are appealing to the lowest common denominator. I was the biggest Simpson fan, never missed an episode. I literally can’t remember the last time I watched a new Sunday night episode. It’s been so bad for so long I don’t want to tarnish the image.
    You’ve selected some great clips, The labor union episode might be the best ever. It reminds me of some of the other brilliant episodes; Frank Grimes, Homers Gun and Cape Fear.

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