14 December 2013

Because it was on TV: The Complex Evolution of The Simpsons and Why New Isn't Bad

We've reached a tipping point, folks. Actually, at this point we're probably at least ten years past the tipping point, if not farther. Nostalgia is a weirdly powerful force that prevents us from having a genuinely critical eye towards what's on the screen. There is surely a lot of hate towards The Simpsons among fans, which has been going on for literally decades now, but I'm here to suggest that's misplaced. This seems to happen to just about every long-gestating show, even one that doesn't recycle its cast or production team like The Simpsons. SNL is another wonderful example of a show that exists in cycles where fans get overly attached to a handful of cast members without recognizing the talent replacing them. Of course, sometimes Charlie Rocket replaces Bill Murray and anger for the good ol' days is justified.

That's neither here nor there. The Simpsons, by the very nature of their longevity, have changed and morphed over the years, mostly adapting to stay relevant in an adult-oriented cartoon genre they helped to create and usher into the mainstream. I believe that fans of the show, myself included, for a long time had equated this adaptation with inferiority. This ideal version of the show existed and canonized itself in my own mind. Evidence of my hypocrisy should already be apparent when I say that my greatest appreciation of the show comes from Seasons 4 - 8.
Santos L. Halper

That's what I'd consider the meat of the series. Seasons 1 - 3 tend to be a little rugged and basic, but many fans appreciated that nature and consider even my "Golden Age" to be a little too wild and ridiculous. Thus, everyone has their own period to fall in love with. I always liked this early middle period for its classic moments, sophisticated yet precise storytelling, and universe expansion.

So, what happend with Season 9? I'd argue that things started getting wackier with Season 8, with much more high concept episodes such as "You Only Move Twice" (S8;E2), "The Homer They Fall" (S8;E3) and "Mountain of Madness" (S8;E12). It has a tremendous amount of self-commentary already, though ("The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochy Show" [S8;E1], "Homer's Enemy" [S8;E23]) as well as solid character-centric episodes ("Hurricane Neddy" [S8;E8], "Grade School Confidential" [S8;E19], "The Secret War of Lisa Simpson" [S8;E25]). Seasons 9 - 12 would consist of more of the former than the latter, with jokes turning more towards wacky rather than subtle.

The amount of "classic" moments would seem to dwindle from Season 13 on. Then again, this may only be due to an inability to memorize 25 seasons of a series. You'll find that I have an intimate knowledge of what is now barely a fifth of the entire series. I can only pick out a few favorites from this time that come to mind ("How I Spent My Strummer Vacation" (S14;E2), "There's Something About Marrying" [S16;E10], "Future-Drama" [S16;E15], "Milhouse of Sand and Fog" [S17;E3], "24 Minutes" [S18;E21], "You Kent Always Say What You Want" [S18;E22]). I'll generally interpret these years as pretty rough, but that's only because they were different. The pinnacle may be "That 90s Show" (S19;E11), which features revisionist history less in tune with the tongue-in-cheek commentary of previous flashback episodes and exists more as a hollow parade of pop culture gags. I have a few theories as to why this era, beginning around the turn of the century, was painful:

1) The Loss of Phil Hartman. This may be a stretch, but to when Phil Hartman was murdered in 1998, the world not only lost his live action comedic gifts, but a tremendous amount of Simpsons characters, most notably Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz. To this day I still consider Phil Hartman's death one of the more significant comedic losses of all-time, and Gil Gunderson, though amusing in his own right, never had the panache of Hutz as the inept family lawyer.

2) Phil may be a stretch, I mean, characters come and go, but more important at the turn of the century suddenly The Simpsons found itself with plenty of competition, from South Park to Family Guy, and even their closer neighbors Futurama and King of the Hill. Nowadays, it's even crazier, with American Dad, The Cleveland Show, Bob's Burgers, Archer and plenty other adult-oriented cartoon shows to watch, many of which are damned good. Family Guy especially though, forced The Simpsons to re-discover its own identity amidst genre and pop culture satire, and South Park's insanely quick turnaround caused The Simpsons' 9-month delay in commenting on contemporary events look dated. For many years in the early noughts, the show didn't know what it should be, so it spun off in many weird directions in an attempt to differentiate itself from both its earlier years and from its competitors.

That brings us to now. Starting from Season 20 or so on, the show has gotten incredibly good once again. It has gained an ability to hit deeper and harder than it ever has ("The Squirt and the Whale" [S21;E19]), while simultaneously moving into refreshingly experimental ways, most notably in its couch gags, some of which carry on for three or four minutes. The most famous of these lately are probably the ones by Banksy and Guillermo del Toro, but it's now a regular thing for the show to open with some cray sequence.
"Homerland" was vintage Simpsons - a pitch perfect
episode-centric parody of a show with
significant cultural cache that I've never seen.

Rather than regurgitating itself, the show has come to appreciate its own history while pushing itself in new directions. It's found its identity as the grandaddy of all cartoons and acts fully irreverent, perhaps more so than it did when it began. It's a show with nothing to lose. The Simpsons has always done everything it could have ever wanted to do. As soon as it accepted that fact, it was able to crank out some new really great shows, some with a great outside-the-box experimentation, like "Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words" (S20;E6), "Moe Goes from Rags to Riches" (S23;E12), "The Saga of Carl" (S24;E21), and this year's "Homerland" (S25;E1), "Four Regrettings and a Funeral" (S25;E3), and "Labor Pains" (S25;E5).

In effect, the show has gone full circle. It's not dependent on anything. Similar to the kind of renegade attitude it had when it first started, since there's actually less of a critical eye on them now, with no one seeing how they react to Family Guy or whatever, the show is able to do whatever it wants. With the twenty-five year proven track record and its status as an American institution secured in the 90s, it is free to be as great or shitty as it wants to be. Nothing it does matters any more. With nothing to lose, the writers are even more free to completely break form and create any kind of episode, sketch, short story, canon-questionable episode it wants. Season 25 so far has been spectacular. It comes on tonight at 8:00 pm EST on FOX.

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