11 October 2009

Because it was on DVD: The Simpsons Season 12, Biggest Transitional Year in Simpsons History

Recently the 12th Season of the greatest television show of all time, The Simpsons hit store shelves. I of course purchases this DVD collection and watched the whole thing and then the whole thing again with commentary. Like many avid Simpsons fans, I have for many years perceived a declining quality of episodes, personally I trace the start of this decline to around Season 9. Whereas 10 and 11 I contend were pretty awful save a handful of episodes, Season 12 remains special, I believe it's a high quality season that represents a deep breath before a plunge into years of mediocrity.

In this sense, Season 12 is the big turning point year for The Simpsons. It is extremely quotable, still very funny and contains both deeply touching stories and even a great deal of (tertiary) character development. There are a multitude of problems however, thus Season 12 is generally a turning point season.

Production Elements:

There are many external factors tied to the production of the show that had created the slight changes in style starting from Season 9 when Mike Scully became Showrunner. In general this was a departure from Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein's Season 7 and 8 emphasis on the Simpsons family dynamic and grounded stories that came from this point. It was also a departure from consistent Itchy & Scratchy episodes, Sideshow Bob episodes and experimental episodes such as "22 Short Films About Springfield" (S7;E21). A lack of sentimentality and consistency slowly gained momentum.

Starting simultaneously with Season 10, companion Futurama premiered, taking many influential writers such as David X. Cohen and Ken Keeler, as well as director Susie Dietter. This also naturally took a great deal of Matt Groening's focus. Season 10 also featured the unfortunate final appearance of any of Phil Hartman's characters due to his untimely death, a vital part of classic Simpsons piece of humour.

The full results of these subtle shifts came to a head in Season 12. Notable new writers include Tom Gammill and Max Pross, which also saluted a shift in Seinfeld's humour in its Fifth Season, making the stories bigger and wackier. Other additions included John Frink and Don Payne, whose sense of slightly more surreal, "zany" humour also preceded a slight but noticeable shift in tone. Season 12 was also a notable season for having an early episode created in Digital Ink (The first Simpsons episode ever to experiment with this was "Radioactive Man" S7;E2) as well as the longstanding tradition of airing the Treehouse of Horror episode as the season premier, often after Halloween due to FOX's commitment to show MLB Postseason games.

So, let's get into several seemingly nit-picky topics that exemplified the transitional season:

In-Show Elements:

Like I mentioned, I like a lot of Season 12. Like the Oakley and Weinstein seasons, it features both a Sideshow Bob ("Day of the Jackanapes" E13) and an experimental episode ("Trilogy of Error" E18), which are two of the greatest episodes in the season. The majority however, is rife with poorly executed story and joke structure:

There are a tremendous amount of episodes that end extremely poorly. Oftentimes it seems like the shows had a good thing going but couldn't stick the landing. Most notorious are "The Computer Wore Menace Shoes" (E6), "Skinner's Sense of Snow" (E8) and "Day of the Jackanapes." By far the worst ending, an ending which still makes me furious to watch is "The Great Money Caper" (E7). It is admittedly an enormous cop-out that attempts to humourously self-reflect on its hokeyness, but ends up just being...hokey. There are some attempts at sentimental endings ("HOMR" E9, "Children of a Lesser Clod" E20), but none approach the levels of say "Duffless" (S4;E16) or hell even "Lisa's Date with Destiny" (S8;E7).

There are also a few elements of a desperate show caving into pressures long resisted. The novel Johnny Tremaine by Esther Forbes in "Whacking Day" (S4;E20) is elemental into getting Bart to read while he is home-schooled. In "Skinner's Sense of Snow," Bart sets it on fire. It's just an example of the kind of negligence and heartlessness the later seasons were known for.

Continuing this subject the series started using jokes it wouldn't stoop to before. During the commentary for "New Kid on the Block" (S4;E8) writer Conan O'Brien makes fun of people in TV shows screaming angrily but meaning good news (picture a boss saying like "JOHNNSOON! WHY I'M GOING TO GIVE YOU...a promotion!"). O'Brien goes on to say these people sound like they have brain damage. The show went from making fun of this kind of absurdity to falling victim to it, as characters use this joke in "Lisa the Tree Hugger" (S12;E4) and "Worst Episode Ever" (S12;E11). This is one example of the sorts of cliches the series began to expume. In addition to this, the line "The Simpsons are going to Delaware!" jokingly used in "Behind the Laughter" (S11;E22) to demonstrate the staleness and repeated attempts to energize a stalling show is actually implemented in "Simpsons Tall Tales" (S12;E21). In the same vein, Ozmodiar, a little green rip-off of The Flintstones' Great Gazoo, jokingly appeared to the same purpose in "The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase" (S8;E24) but appears for real in "HOMR."

There is a heavy shift in joke style that began in Season 9, annoying little things like reinforcing or adjusting jokes many times or getting in final words. Season 12 also does retain a lot of fun character humour, often with characters who had not previously been thoroughly explored (Arnie Pie arguing with Kent Brockman in "Children of a Lesser Clod" is great, "Luke's father is Chewbacca?! Oh Oh!" ["Worst Episode Ever"] come to mind). Indeed "Worst Episode Ever" is as much Comic Book Guy's as "Homer and Apu" (S5;E13) was for Apu, and in that sense, it feels more like an older season. The fact alone that Comic Book Guy is basically a nameless character (Jeff Albertson, "Homer and Ned's Hail Mary Pass" S16;E8 thank you).

This Season also contains the Jump the Shark moment for both me and a close personal big Simpsons Fan Friend of mine. For me on my first viewing not understanding the references to The Prisoner upon my initial viewing of "The Computer Wore Menace Shoes" really turned me off. I thought it was too weird, too absurd, too much of a departure from meaningful storytelling to be a good Simpsons episode and really lost me at that point. For my friend it was the Panda Rape in "Homer vs. Dignity" (E5) which is pretty awful even now to watch to be honest.

Foreign Elements:

Perhaps the biggest influence on the transition of The Simpsons from a groundbreaking animated sitcom to a mediocre one came not from within but without, the simple fact that it no longer stands alone. In the late 90s / early 2000s, continuing to the present day, from what was once sole Simpsons Territory a plethora of competing shows have sprung. During Season 12 (2000 - 2001) animated shows competing with The Simpsons, not just for audience, but for ideas and innovation included King of the Hill (1997 - 2009), Family Guy's initial production run (1999 - 2002), Futurama (1999 - 2003), The PJs (1999 - 2001), South Park (1997 - Present), and of course, Clerks (2000).

Some of these shows proved deadly. South Park could get an idea and produce an episode in under a week's time. This always gave them the edge on commenting on current events. Their dominating presence on a fledgling Cable Network, Comedy Central, also gave them free reign to push hard ideas that The Simpsons pioneered (compare The Simpsons' "Homer's Phobia" S8;E15 to South Park's "Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride" S1;E4). South Park was able to undercut some of The Simpsons' ability to push the envelope, both politically and otherwise. Of course, South Park is not without its tribute.

Soon The Simpsons was sort of forced into a new role among these many animated shows. At the time of Season 12, most of these would fail, but just as soon replaced with new crap (see American Dad, all of Adult Swim). Indeed Adult Swim represents an aggressive focus on a demographic that The Simpsons had once dominated. The zeitgeisty youthful taste for faster, meaner shows is dominated basically by Adult Swim and Seth MacFarlane. In these times, The Simpsons is like the grandpa of animated shows. If you listen to it once in a while it's got some good things to say, but most of his humour and rantings seem weird and scary to the young people. I honestly can't imagine JUST getting into The Simpsons at Season 21 now. It has its place oddly as a sort of overly educated, literate show, often at weird odds with Family Guy or South Park which were able to amp up the stupidness of their characters and plots very successfully, which pigeon-holed The Simpsons into a role of self-gratification and pop culture icon instead of pop culture teaser.

Let me end by saying that I do enjoy Season 12 a lot, it's probably the last season that I generally enjoy as a whole. I quote "A Tale of Two Springfields" (E2) and "Tennis the Menace" (E12) easily as much as some earlier seasons, I believe "Trilogy of Error" is one of the best written episodes in the past ten years (well maybe that's not too hard) and the "Night of the Dolphins" segment of "Treehouse of Horror XI" (E1) is one of my all-time favourite Halloween moments. That said, the season is one of transition, as it has both these very good moments, but also foreshadows the disenchantment to come. Like I said, the catch is that it is a good season but the LAST good season.

I hope to do more of these Simpsons posts, especially with the big 20th Anniversary in a few months.

G'Day everybody!

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