Saturday, October 24, 2009

Things I Hate: The Simpsons

I should clarify. The first seven seasons of "The Simpsons" comprised the best run of TV shows in history. The following 24 years (or whatever) have been dogshit. So 7 years of the best TV ever plus 47 years of detestable shows = hate.

I was reminded of this recently when I made the mistake of watching a recent episode. It started just fine, had twists and turns and satire ... and ended up completely emotionally hollow. Characters were reduced to caricatures and cranked through the pointlessly insane motions of the plot. Not a single moment felt attached to reality or had the least bit of heart. It was all a cynical exercise in churning through jokes.

And older "Simpsons" episodes did have heart. Each started from a place of common understanding, some situation that any family can relate to. The family dog has puppies. The bratty kid goes too far when he shoplifts. The father betrays his wife's trust one too many times and is kicked out. From these starting points, the episodes would often go in hilariously bizarre, absurd directions, but they would usually do it temporarily, and then return to a grounding of relatable human behavior. The last few moments would usually have some sort of sweetness to it. I've cried at many an old "Simpsons" episode. Remember when Homer meets his mom again after decades of estrangement, and when she goes back on the lam, he sits on his car and looks at the stars? It gives me chills just thinking about it.

Nowadays, the show is too busy speeding through the joke-manufacturing machinery of the plot to reveal any emotion or human insights. Instead of starting from relatable premises like "Homer has heart surgery" or "Lisa becomes a vegetarian," now an episode will be "Homer becomes a paparazzo." What? Why? So the "Simpsons" writers can make fun of celebrity culture, basically. And hey, who else on TV is doing that? (Answer: Everybody. There are entire channels that do nothing else.)

Of course, the classic episodes were far from 100% sunshine and light -- they were probably 99% cynicism and negativity. But it was a wonderfully insightful brand of cynical negativity. I don't know if this is the best example, but here goes: In one episode, Bart got one of those little spongy things that you put in water and it's supposed to grow to a big dinosaur. He, of course, imagines it will immediately sprout into a 20-foot-tall T. Rex and start eating Lisa. So he excitedly sprays the hose on it, and it slowly grows about two inches and then coasts into the sewer. I remember going through the exact same experience when I was a kid. It was a funny, pleasant shock to see it on screen.

Granted, the new episodes will have funny moments now and then. Sometimes one will have some sort of tiny insight like the one I just described. But to get to those moments you have to wade through lots of labored, contrived, two-bit satire of innocuous pop culture phenomena. That's the other thing -- they constantly lambaste showbiz nowadays, picking easy targets that even the schmucks on VH-1 can make fun of: Paris Hilton, boy bands, etc. And in the process, they always make fun of Americans for being obsessed with it all -- but by expending so much energy ridiculing the most insignifcant little Hollywood trends, the "Simpsons" writers are clearly just as obsessed, if not more. And by the way, satirizing pop culture ephemera guarantees that your show won't age gracefully. Nobody watches old Rich Little clips any more.

But you can't criticize "Simpsons" episodes without inviting the "Worst. Episode. Ever." response from its defenders. That's the one where they make fun of hyper-critical "Simpsons" fanboys who really need to get a life. And I have seen said fanboys in action on "Simpsons" fan sites, picking apart some of the classic episodes and damning them for a few imagined flaws. That's not what I'm doing here. Apart from most of the first season, in which the show was really just getting its sea legs, I think the first seven seasons are uniformly brilliant. I have my favorites ("Lisa the Vegetarian," "Lisa's Rival" -- I guess I like Lisa), but I really don't have much criticism for any of them.

My point is here that I'm not being petty or grumpy-old-man-ish -- I'm just lamenting the fact that the greatest show ever has become a depressing shell of its former self during the past 150 years or so. It's like if Usain Bolt followed his record-breaking run with 72 solid hours of victory laps. No, it's actually sadder than that -- it's like if Orson Welles gave up on making the greatest movies ever and instead settled for being broken, morbidly obese commercial pitchman ... oh, wait.

And Fox will never stop cranking out the episodes until people stop watching. And people probably won't stop watching, because shitty Simpsons is still better than half the crap on TV. That, and people are idiots. So the Simpsons, as a show, as an entity, will continue on its path from going from the best show in TV history to being the worst. Sigh.


Amy Mancini said...

It's really nice to see that I'm not alone in this sentiment, Ed. I haven't watched a new episode of The Simpsons for years and years because I got to frustrated with just what you said. They seemed so frenzied and disconnected, like watching a music video. My favorite classic episodes are also Lisa one. Like the one where she's so upset because the town motto is "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man." Genius. Is that also the silver tongue one? I can't remember whether those are two different episodes, but just the other day, I was chuckling to myself about the priceless scene where Bart overhears Lisa crying out in her sleep, "Don't leave me, George Washington!" I think that was the silver tongue one.

Anyway, well said. I agree.

emily said...

I agree with you, of course, but I kind of feel as though it goes without saying. I mean, in high school, and even college, I remember friends quoting the Simpsons the next day. I haven't watched an episode of the Simpsons in about 6 years, and I haven't heard of anyone else watching the Simpsons either (I actually wasn't sure it was still on). I think it's telling that Marge just posed for Playboy. That means: YOUR CAREER IS OVER.

Chris E. Keedei said...

Yeah, this is defnitely old news -- I tried to give it a new spin by not just saying that it's worse nowadays but also saying it's now officially a terrible show, as a whole. But even that's probably old now.

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