A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

In Defense of The Simpsons' Later Seasons

In 1989, television blessed us with two gifts: Twin Peaks and The Simpsons. Both were eye-opening; for many members of my generation, these shows showed us what television could do, what pop art could do--indeed, what any art in any medium could do. Both shows boasted a knowingness about their medium and genre, combined with a desire to blow up the conventions of that medium and genre in ways that earned them the now somewhat trite descriptor "postmodern."

One of those shows is coming back; another never left. People have mixed feelings about the former: many are justifiably skeptical that, at this point in their careers, David Lynch and Mark Frost are capable of recapturing what made the show great 25 years ago. But most people--many of whom harbor lingering feelings of frustration about how network meddling led to a disappointing second season, premature cancellation, and inadequate closure in the form of Fire Walk With Me--seem genuinely excited about the show's return.

People also have mixed feelings about the latter, with many feeling that The Simpsons has overstayed its welcome. In fact, during a discussion of Twin Peaks, I was recently challenged to make an argument for the past 15 seasons of The Simpsons. Well, okay, here it goes.

First, some very general TV history: Some time around the late 90s (I'm not sure exactly when), the economics of network television necessitated the inclusion of an additional commercial break, meaning that half hour sitcoms went from about 24 minutes of content broken into three acts, down to 21 minutes of content broken into four acts. This change fundamentally altered the style and content of TV comedy. On older shows like Cheers and Seinfeld, the comedy tends to arise from the plot, and those shows took time to introduce guest characters, place the characters in a situation, explain that situation, and allow tension to build before a punchline. Network shows in the 2000's don't have that luxury, and successful shows of the new millennium, like 30 Rock or Parks & Recreation, have to be punchier in their humor, with jokes that rely on quick first impressions or on running gags that don't need to be set up. This change in story structure also explains the rise of the cutaway gag on shows like Scrubs and Family Guy, as well as the quick flashback on shows like How I Met Your Mother. It even plays a part in the ascendance of single-cam sitcoms over multi-cam sitcoms, since single cam allows for faster pacing, as does the lack of a laugh track.

Some may say that this change was creatively stifling, but really, it's a matter of taste. Personally, I'll take the higher joke density of 30 Rock over the thick plotting of Cheers any day. But it's undeniable that the transition hurt a lot of sitcoms. A lot of writers' rooms, including The Simpsons', were filled with people accustomed to the three act structure who couldn't figure out how to be funny in four acts. Right around the turn of the century, a lot of shows like Friends and The Simpsons saw a noticeable dip in quality. It didn't help that The Simpsons' showrunner at the time was Mike Scully, who simply wasn't that good of a writer. Scully was responsible for penning such decidedly mediocre episodes as "Beyond Blunderdome" (the Mel Gibson episode) and "The Parent Rap" (in which a judge orders Homer and Bart to be tied together by a tether). Scully's tenure as showrunner, from 1997 to 2001, was around the time that a lot of people from my generation stopped watching the show regularly.

When people wax nostalgic about The Simpsons, they often invoke episodes like "Homer at Bat," "Kamp Krusty," or "Marge vs. the Monorail"--episodes from what is considered the show's peak, the third and fourth seasons.

You know who was showrunner during those seasons? Al Jean.

You know who took over after Mike Scully in season 13, and has been showrunner ever since? Al Jean.

Now, I'm not saying that the show is as good now as it was in 1993. So much has changed--about the show, about television, about American culture, and about our generation--that that sort of evaluative claim strike me as an apples-and-oranges problem. What I am saying is that The Simpsons of the past ten years has significant merits that deserve appreciation on their own terms--that the show, as run by Al Jean and written by a staff that knows the four act structure--manages to maintain the spirit of the original while displaying a sensibility that is different, but no less valid.

I've been watching a lot of The Simpsons World, the new app featuring every episode ever, and as the random shuffle feature jumps from early season episodes like "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie" to recent episodes like "Married to the Blob," something interesting happens. I find myself feeling the same nostalgia that everyone feels for the old episodes, but my familiarity dulls the experience of actually watching them, while the episodes of the past ten years--some of which I've seen once, some of which I've never seen--feel surprisingly fresh. The argument that The Simpsons has lost its satiric edge feels less convincing when rewatching episodes like "There’s Something about Marrying" or "Smoke on the Daughter," the latter of which features Homer smacking a cigarette out of Lisa's hand and shooting it four times with a handgun, exclaiming, "I can't believe how easy it's in this country to get cigarettes!" This quick gag playing on Homer's cognitive dissonance vis-a-vis guns and cigarettes isn't even the best satiric line in the episode; in another scene, Bart tells Homer,  "Dad, you never win in a fight against animals. Remember your war with the worms?" to which Homer replies, "That was not a defeat, that was a phased withdrawal."

The more you look, the more moments like this you find in episodes from the past ten years: Julian Assange inviting the Simpsons over for "movie night" consisting of an Afghan wedding being bombed ("At Long Last Leave"); Moe conspiring with Neil Gaiman to steal credit for a YA novel ("The Book Job"); an episode set in the 90's that concludes with this dialogue:
Homer: At least we know there'll never be a President worse than Bill Clinton. Imagine, lying in a deposition in a civil lawsuit. That's the worst sin a President can commit!
Marge: There will never be a worse President. Never.
Homer: Never. ("That 90's Show")
These moments don't serve as cultural touchstones, not because they aren't as witty or insightful as material from The Simpsons' earlier episodes, but because we as a culture have moved on from them. The higher brows have South Park, lower brows have Family Guy, and The Simpsons is an afterthought. But I sense that, from The Simpsons' perspective, that's just as well. The show's status as the old grey mare of the primetime animation landscape is freeing, affording them the space for experimentation in storytelling structure--as in "The Seemingly Never Ending Story," "Eternal Moonshine of the Simpsons Mind," and the "future" trilogy: "Future-Drama," "Holidays of Future Past," and "Days of Future Future." They've also experimented artistically, especially after their transition to HD. The show recently received praise for its Lego episode "Brick Like Me," but that episode's spirit of playing with artistic styles is on display in "Married to the Blob," with its tribute to Hayao Miyazaki; and "Yokel Chords," with its "Dark Stanley" segment; as well as in "MoneyBART," "Bart Stops to Smell the Roosevelts," "Diggs," and "Clown in the Dumps," with opening credits produced by guest animators Banksy, John Kricfalusi, Sylvain Chomet, and Don Hertzfeldt, respectively.

But of course, the heart of the show isn't its satiric content or its artistic content, but its humane treatment of its own characters. Everyone on The Simpsons is, in one way or another, a lovable loser, and at a time when Seth McFarlane and others often present deeply misanthropic views of their own characters, The Simpsons provides us with ways to empathize. In the past ten years, the show has given secondary characters like Moe and Comic Book Guy some genuinely sweet love stories, and has presented us with guest characters who we find ourselves genuinely caring about. Last year's episode, "Diggs," stands out in my memory. While in no way the classic that, say, "Stark Raving Dad" is, "Diggs" presents us with an view of mental illness that is as compassionate and perhaps even more real.

The most recent "Treehouse of Horror" is a brilliant example of The Simpsons at its best, featuring one segment in which Bart and Lisa attend school in Hell, and another parodying the films of Stanley Kubrick. The final segment sees the family haunted by the ghosts of their former selves. Lisa tells the ghosts, "Noble spirits, your time has passed"--likely a nod to all of those who feel that the show has overstayed its welcome. But Lisa isn't saying that the show's time has passed, only that the version of the show that existed in 1989 can't come back. Bart responds with a belch, and Lisa calls him out, saying, "That was unmotivated!"--a reminder that the early episodes are not uniformly the paragons of wit that many of us remember. Its flaws--unmotivated jokes, over-reliance on guest stars, a tendency towards schmaltz--were there in the show's first ten years just as they have been in the past ten.

Later in the segment, Homer is tempted to leave Marge for the ghost of past Marge, and present Marge convinces him to say, telling him, "I know everything you've done, and yet, I still want to be with you." The feeling of familiarity evoked here--of an old relationship wizened by time--is the appeal of later seasons of The Simpsons. The show's core characteristics--its wit, its artistic sensibilities, its characters--have undeniably changed, but they're still there. And I still want to be with it.

Addendum: My brother Curtis and I are of like minds, and he provided his argument "Why I Still Love The Simpsons," over on his blog a few months ago. It's worth a read.