Kurt Vonnegut once said writers are terrible conversationalists because they use up all their wit for their writing. Never was this more true for me than during a conversation I had last month with my friend Monica about The Simpsons. It was the day the show was celebrating episode number 400. When The Simpsons presented its last three divisable-by-100 episodes, I had been planted in front of my TV set in Buffalo. But while my curiosity lingered about what number 400 would be like, the show had sunk to such a low point by then that it would not prevail this time. I told Monica what I thought about The Simpsons, and she challenged me:
"It's still smart and funny and well-written, isn't it?" She asked.
I fumbled my way through my defense before sheepishly admitting she was right. It can still be pretty good sometimes. There was no way I'd be able to defend my stance against the show there and then without looking like a fool. The observation of Vonnegut had won out then. But right now, I can finally gripe about the show proper. In my hands are the three most dangerous weapons a writer on the defensive can possess: Pen, paper, and spare time. The Hammer of the Gods is firmly poised above my head, ready to be brought down in one single, swift, crushing deathblow.
Here we go.
Feel free to skip this paragraph if it strikes your fancy, for it will contain no opinion or new information. The Simpsons started as an animated short on the Tracy Ullman show in the late 㣴's. In the 㣾's, the show became a satirical juggernaut which picked up fans through sharp wit, an astounding rate of jokes that were actually funny, and a handful of popular T-shirt phrases. After the millennium, it jumped the shark in a way no show ever has before and few shows probably ever will again. The Simpsons has jumped the shark so many times, creator Matt Groening would do well to just rent the airspace directly over the poor creature's nose. Maybe he's been preoccupied with preparing the release of next month's Simpsons movie. Maybe he's still upset at the cancellations of The Critic and Futurama. Maybe he's devoting the bulk of his time to drawing more Life in Hell comics.
The writers of The Simpsons have worked themselves into a nasty dilemma. The show has been on for so long now that it's done everything twice, and in some cases three times. It coasting along on the strength of its extraordinary first ten seasons now. Clearly no good at improvisation, they try to compensate by using clichéd plots which go too far off in one direction to get the show wrapped up at the end of the required 22 minutes. When that happens, the ending is often a cheat. Many of the plots themselves have fallen into the old "what if" trap. What if this character did this? What if that happened? What's happened is that the writers have exhausted their creative power because Matt Groening wants to suck just a little more life out of his greatest creation.
Even the jokes have become very predictable. This is an especially noticeable problem in the travel episodes, in which the Simpson family leaves their home confines of Springfield to visit some exotic locale. These travel episodes, as noted by journalist Chris Turner in his excellent book Planet Simpson, subject the audience to every stereotype the writers can cram into a half-hour time slot.
It was very convenient of the writers to shift the focus of the show from Bart to Homer. Homer is fat, bald, and lazy and the writers, by shifting the focal point to him, have officially become at least the last of that trio. It's not that Homer is a bad character; he's consistently been one of the funniest on the show. But part of the reason for that is because Homer is often a stand-in for Groening's Warner Brother cartoon influences. Warner characters presented an in-your-face style of humor which has clearly rubbed off on Homer. The implication is if Homer has enough screen time getting his head crushed by bridges, skiing with his legs wide open so small hills of snow can whack his groin, and getting raped by pandas, people will forget the wit and satire which once carried the show.
This is not to lay the blame solely at Homer's feet. During the show's run, the supporting cast swelled easily into dozens and probably into hundreds. Various episodes have opted out of focusing on the Simpson family completely. Characters like Moe, Apu, and Aunt Selma have become so well-developed, they are frequently used as fall cushions whenever inspiration is running low on the drawing board. It's good to have such a strong supporting cast to carry a show, but there's something very abnormal when you have hackneyed ideas like Moe becoming Maggie's favorite babysitter. A recent episode in which Ol' Gil – a character who was once destined to remain inconspicuous at best – played a major role reeked of desperation.
There are celebrity voices being trotted to and from the Simpson studio at a machine-gun-like rate. When The Simpsons was first finding its legs, a celebrity appearance was a special thing. It meant someone had really noticed the show and thought there was something truly special about it. Whereas an appearance was once a way for a celebrity to earn an extra aura of cool, it's now a way for celebrities to confirm their fame. Celebrities have become so regular, it's as if you're not really famous until your yellow likeness has passed through Springfield.
The stories – and the endings to many of them – have managed to do the impossible by becoming too farfetched for me to suspend my disbelief in Springfield. Flying saucers, I can handle. But episodes like Homer losing Lisa and Bart becoming a better musician than Lisa almost seem too possible. Even when imaginations are stretched, what happens is that a particular episode will try to go in too many directions at once. It's very painful to watch. Concept episodes come along every now and then, and these can be hit-or-miss. An excellent episode which parodied VH1's Behind the Music right down the the commercial cuts and narrator was one of the most brilliant half-hours of television I have ever seen. Another episode in which a particular day was viewed through the eyes of three family members was pretty stupid.
The way The Simpsons keeps going, it's going to end its run not with a proper finale, but with a ratings crash. It's going to end having had more bad seasons than good ones. I say this having been a foremost defender of this once-powerful pop culture machine for years. A lot of people still see it that; visit jumptheshark.com and see just how overwhelming the votes against The Simpsons ever making the leap are. Then again, it's also worth noting that many of the show's fans these days probably weren't even alive when it began its run. They can keep defending The Simpsons if they want to. But from here on out, I'm afraid I can't.
I remember when the Simpsons first appeared on the Tracy Ullman show. I was seven. And ever since the first full-legnth episode aired in 1989, I was hooked. I have so far, collected all of the DVD sets. But I think I'm going to stop at the 16th season. It hurts me to admit it, but I am one of those nay-sayers who believe that the show's greatness is on the decline. Remember the good ol' days when Conan O'Brian was part of the genius writing team behind every hilarious Simpsons joke? … more
The Simpsons, created by Matt Groening, was originally a series of animated shorts that first appeared on the Tracy Ulman Show on April 19, 1987. The shorts revolved around a family of five: Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie. These little cartoon interludes were such a huge hit with viewers that in 1989, the Simpsons shorts were adapted into a half-hour series for Fox. The first episode was called "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" and shows how the family dog, Santa's Little Helper, saves an otherwise ruined Simpson Christmas. Other characters that are introduced in that first episode are Marge's sisters Patty and Selma, Bartendar Moe (though in later episodes, Moe's hair changes color from black to gray/blue) and local drunk, Barney. We also hear for the first time the voices of Wayland Smithers and Monty Burnes, though they don't make an appearance. Controversial and cutting edge from the start, The Simpsons' success has lead the show to a groundbreaking 20th season. Though there has been some criticism regarding the decline of the show's comedic writing from its early years, the continuing success of the Simpsons brand is hard to deny. The movie version, which debuted just last year, opened to an ethusiastic and profitable reception (grossing $526,622,545 worldwide), and the DVD collections of seasons past have repeatedly topped best-sellers lists--not to mention the vast amount of Simpsons merchandise that's sold around the globe. The eternally youthful Simpson ...