[Enjoy this D’OHverthinking It guest post from Chris Morgan!]
We all have a touchstone in our lives. The one thing we hold closest to our hearts. The one thing we can always rely on. For some it’s family or religion. For others it’s bees (apiarists mostly). For me, it’s The Simpsons. As far as I am concerned it is the most glorious thing mankind has ever accomplished, and you can take all your airplanes, polio vaccines, and wheels and jump in a lake if you disagree. On December 17th, the show celebrated its 20th anniversary. There have been 450 episodes, and I have seen every single one of them.
Of course, people have been complaining about the show for years. Cries of “Worst episode ever” have been heard for so long, they were able to deal with it in “The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie” episode (my personal favorite) and that was all the way back in season eight when the show was still fantastic. I have never been one who likes to bemoan the show. If anything, I am a Simpsons apologist. Yet even I must admit the show is a mere shadow of what it used to be. In fact, I don’t even really look forward to new episodes anymore. I merely sit down in front of my TV (or my internets, more often) and hope for the best. I no longer love the show, but I cannot bring myself to leave them. You know, like most marriages.
In fact, and I it depresses me to even have to say this, but last season me and the show had our lowest moment; I couldn’t make it through the full episode. It was just too bad. It was the episode “Double, Double, Boy in Trouble” in which Bart meets his exact double who, get this, comes from a rich family! Hilarity didn’t ensue, soul crushing did. I made it through leprechaun jockeys. I made it through raccoon families that look like the Simpsons. I couldn’t make it through this.
These days, I truly think the show is at its worst. Now, all Simpsons fans have their own theories and reasons why the show doesn’t have the same impact it used to. Many feel that the characters aren’t relatable anymore. Some blame this on former show runner Mike Scully, who was the executive producer from season nine until season 12. He allowed the show to devolve into silliness (he oversaw the aforementioned leprechaun jockey fiasco). Brilliant Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder has a penchant for allowing his writing to devolve into complete absurdity if it isn’t kept in check (as any of his novels can attest to) and under the watch of Mike Scully that didn’t happen. Scully also subjected us to the scourge of humanity that are show writers Tim Long and Carolyn Omine, whose names on the “Written By” credit always gives me the chills. Omine’s writing style would fit in better over at Family Guy, as she has an annoying habit of including off hand pop culture references in her work (look no further than the episode where Homer becomes an ice cream truck driver for reference). Long’s writing suffers from being too silly, too over the top, and usually lacking any heart. He’s the man behind the leprechaun jockey episode I keep referencing, as well as the episode where Bart becomes a member of a boy band whose music is used to subliminally recruit people into the army. Really.
However, since Al Jean (who co-show ran seasons three and four with Mike Reiss before creating The Critic) took over the show in season 13, things haven’t really gotten any better. Some other common complaints are that Homer has gotten too stupid and/or too mean. Over at the website “Bone The Fish” which is apparently the spiritual successor or Jump the Shark which was bought by TV Guide and turned into a gossip website, the number one moment listed is when the show killed off Maude Flanders. This, in a roundabout way, brings me to why I feel the show isn’t as good as it used to be. Here was a character people came to know and love who was suddenly and callously killed off. As the episode “The Principal and the Pauper” dealt with, viewers get really attached to the characters on a show. However, I feel that is no longer possible with The Simpsons and that is the main reason for both its sagging quality, and thus its sagging popularity.
Why are these characters we once knew and loved no long knowable and loveable? Well, because it’s nigh impossible to really have a feel for the characters anymore. The show has had six different show runner eras involving nine different people. They have had countless different writers. This, combined with the need to create new stories after so many years, has led to writers ascribing traits to characters they once didn’t have. Many times, these traits are contradictory to everything we knew about the character. Often, they are tossed aside and the character returns to the way they use to be, or develops entirely knew characteristics. I’m not merely talking about the various degrees of Homer’s stupidity. I am talking about the core, basic traits of these characters and their moral and ethical standing.
Take, for example, Bart Simpson. He’s never been my favorite character, but he has for the most part been alright with me and is, of course, a key member of the show. In the early years, when Bart became the breakout star, recording novelty records and shilling crumbly candy bars, he was the focal point of the show. It was a show about Bart the mischievous son rebelling against the harsh authority figure, Homer. The show started to focus more on Homer as it went on (and in later years focused more and more on secondary characters) but Bart’s character remained essentially unchanged. He was the prankster, the class clown, a modern day Dennis the Menace right down to the slingshot.
However, he was mostly harmless, and thus likeable. That was, until the episode “Please Homer, Don’t Hammer ‘Em” written by Matt Warburton (one of the more subversive writers the show has ever had). The A-story is all well and good; Marge finds a love for carpentry but needs Homer to be the face of the operation because nobody in town takes a female carpenter seriously. The episode gets into gender role stuff and Homer’s fear of being emasculated by Marge. It is all well and good. The B-Story is where I have an issue. It turns out Principal Skinner has a very serious peanut allergy. As in, even touching peanuts can bring him to the brink of death. Bart finds out about this, and decides to use it to his advantage. Instead of using this information to pull off harmless pranks or get some leniency in school, however, he instead forces Skinner to do some really creepy and weird things, one of which involves filling his pants with cats and dynamite. A ridiculous notion, perhaps, but a disturbing one nonetheless. So, to reiterate, Bart is forcing Skinner to do really unpleasant and messed up things by means of essentially threatening to kill him. With that, the modern day Dennis the Menace was turned into a straight up sociopath.
Juxtapose that with, say, the episode “Bart the Mother” from season 10. In this episode, Bart accidentally shoots a bird, is torn up inside by it, so he rescues its eggs to help them hatch. Even when they turn out to be bird killing lizards, he still protects them and saves their lives. This is the exact same character acting in completely opposite ways. This is confusing, this is maddening, and this leaves you unable to say who “Bart Simpson” is anymore. Additionally, the Bart Simpson of the later episode, the one brandishing a peanut on a stick for evil, leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. It renders the character completely unlikeable for the rest of the show’s run, or at the very least unsympathetic. You can’t undo the actions of the characters within the show, even a show such as The Simpsons which tells mostly stand alone stories with their episodes. In an episode this season, a plan by Bart to make Mrs. Krabappel more fun ends up getting her fired and he feels terrible about it. He plans to get the new teacher fired so she can get her job back, but then thinks better of it, because he wants to believe there is still a bit of goodness left inside him. Sorry, Simpsons writers, but that ship has sailed. You can’t suddenly re-ascribe old character traits to Bart. How, exactly, are we then supposed to reconcile the events of previous episodes? Had this latest episode taken place in an earlier season, I may have enjoyed it. However, at this point it just rang hollow and annoyed me.
Now, let’s take the other Simpsons child (I, like Homer, am ignoring Maggie), Lisa. There is often a problem with Simpsons episode in where Lisa has to act like a child. Early in the show’s run, they needed a voice of reason and rationality within the family, and with the other characters tied up with their own roles that fell to Lisa. She has always been exceedingly smart, so world wise and intelligent than if it wasn’t an animated show it would ring as false and annoying to me. However, occasionally to tell a story they need her to act like a child which means taking on traits that, while typical of your usual eight year old, does not jive with her character. Take, for example, the episode in where Lisa develops a fear of the cemetery that is put up outside her bedroom window. Normally, Lisa would be too pragmatic and rational for this, but there is no other way for The Simpsons’ writer to tell this story. Since most of the time when Lisa acts her age it is part of a story of emotional depth rather than hollow zaniness, I usually let it slide. However, I could certainly see it bothering some people.
On the other hand, here is a recent example of Lisa acting in a way that completely flies in the face of everything we know about her as a character. In the episode “Pranks and Greens” Bart befriends an aging prankster (played by Jonah Hill so you know it’s hilarious) and tries to help him turn his life around. The genesis of his decision, however, comes after Lisa snarkily calls the two of them losers. Repeatedly. In an obnoxious voice she has never before used. With his finger and her thumb in the shape of an L on her forehead. At the end of the episode she does this again when she finds out that Jonah Hill’s character has gotten a job writing for Krusty’s show in an oh so hilarious meta gag about the show’s writers, and indeed all television writers (and perhaps even all aspiring television writers, such as yours truly). In this episode, Lisa exhibited a side of her we hadn’t see in the 446 episodes before this one or the one after it; Lisa, the arbiter of cool.
Throughout the entire run of the show Lisa has been an unpopular, awkward, social outcast. She rarely, if ever, is shown to have friends. Take, for example, the episode “Summer of 4 Ft. 2” in which the Simpsons stay at the Flanders’ beach house. Nobody’s signs Lisa’s yearbook at the school year’s end. Why? Because she is unpopular. Why? Because she is an overachiever who never missed class and apparently undertook the kind of disturbing task of timing how long people used the restroom. She desperately tries to change herself at the beach house where nobody knows her. She succeeds to some degree, despite Bart’s attempt to sabotage her (which he later regrets, again flying in the face of the later Bart), and we all feel good for her after she, and her friends, accept her for who she is. The point of this episode, as well as the point of Moby Dick, is be yourself.
Lisa, the liberal, the Buddhist who seems kosher with most religions (including Wiccans), the vegetarian who learned a valuable lesson about not forcing your opinions on others from Paul and Linda McCartney, suddenly is dismissing all television writers as losers? I could see her pointing out to Bart that his new hero’s life isn’t all that impressive, but to do it in the way she did it just didn’t ring true with me. As such, it was really quite annoying. Needless to say, I did not like that episode.
There are many other examples. Whenever they try and give Moe a semblance of a heart or a conscience despite so much evidence to the contrary never works for me. Homer being virulently homophobic in one episode (though he admittedly becomes more tolerant late in the episode), then living with two gay men and suddenly become more effete (for the lack of a better term) in a later episode, and then in an episode after that holding up a sign saying “Death Before Gay Marriage” in a protest, before quickly discarding it and becoming a minister to perform gay marriages. However, these are all example of character traits that have been suddenly adopted and discarded at the whim of various writers. The very history of these characters has been messed with as well. I speak, of course, of the dreaded retcon episode.