Josh Drummond makes a heartfelt plea for Simpsons fans to cho-cho-choose to put the show out of its misery.
On May 14, 2015, my bosom swelled with an unlikely emotion: hope. The news had just broken that Harry Shearer looked like he was leaving The Simpsons. Shearer is the voice of some of the show’s best-loved, most recognisable and plot-centric secondary characters. He’s also been vocal, in recent years, about the decline of the show. It was hard to see how it could continue without him.
“F****** finally!” I thought.
Then it emerged that the show would apparently be going on without Shearer, and my bosom unswelled like a stomped balloon.
The Simpsons need no introduction, but I suppose I should give a brief one – in case any readers have been recently resurrected from (a pre-1987) death and subsequent cryo-sleep. It’s a show about a weird-looking yellow dysfunctional family living in the dysfunctional town of Springfield.
It was created by Matt Groening, formerly best known as the cartoonist of the absurdly clever and funny Life In Hell. The Simpsons was, for a long time, TV’s sharpest satire, and was by far the best thing on the box throughout the ’90s. It was just so fucking good.
As Mainland Cheese teaches us, good things take time to go bad. The Simpsons took over ten years.
They were good years. When I think back, I get a logjam of brilliance in my head and find it nearly impossible to pick any one standout. To pick one at random: Deep Space Homer, a brilliant episode that manages to satirise NASA, Married with Children, Home Improvement, the treatment of science by media, The Right Stuff, 2001: A Space Odessey, and any number of other topics (superintelligent space apes, anyone?) with equal aplomb.
My God, it’s full of funny. The best bit is when Kent Brockman – the maniac news anchor who I always thought bore an amusing resemblance to Paul Homes – sees a (hugely magnified) ant swim past a camera in the spacecraft. Fortunately I know the quote in its entirety without having to look it up.
“Ladies and gentlemen, uh, we’ve just lost the picture, but what we’ve seen speaks for itself. The Corvair spacecraft has apparently been taken over – ‘conquered’, if you will – by a master race of giant space ants. It’s difficult to tell from this vantage point whether they will consume the captive Earthmen or merely enslave them. But, one thing is for certain: there is no stopping them; the ants will soon be here. And I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords. I’d like to remind them as a trusted TV personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground sugar caves.”
“I, for one, welcome our new (insert thing) overlords” has worked its way into the vernacular, as have ten thousand other Simpsons quotes. If you grew up in the 90s, or were merely alive, there wasn’t any escaping the show’s imposing cultural imperialism: your brain got colonised by The Simpsons and there’s no getting rid of that influence.
Today, whenever I attempt to write anything the least bit funny, I can go back over it and play a game of spot-the-Simpsons. There will be, on average, several overt references, a few allusions, a couple of callbacks. It’s usually unintentional. They’re just there. Like the giant space ants, I welcome them. Of course, the show’s influence extends beyond hacks and nerds. It achieved the impossible. It was smart and accessible. Consequently, you carry the germ. We all do.
‘Deep Space Homer’ is not my favourite episode, though. That goes to ‘Mother Simpson’ (Episode 8, Season 7). To recap: Homer’s long-lost mother comes back when he fakes his own death. Turns out she’s an ex-hippie who nuked Mr Burns’ germ lab (with antibiotics). Mr Burns spots her and Homer at the post office when Homer’s picking up two decades worth of missed care packages. (That’s what happens when you don’t tip your postman at Christmas!) Hijinks ensue, some of the best in the series’ history.
The episode ends with a finale that is – for me at least, but I suspect for others too – genuinely touching, sweet and sad. Homer bids goodbye to his mother, who yelps “D’oh!” when she clouts her head on the electric hippie van that’s come to pick her up. As the credits roll, he sits silently on the hood of his car, under the stars.
You’d never get that moment today. If I had to pick a point where The Simpsons started to go bad – it would be the Mel Gibson episode, ‘Beyond Blunderdome’. It aired a while before Gibson started to go to seed with an almost rabid enthusiasm, and contains the following, hilariously ironic, exchange.
Gibson: The problem I have is people love me so much, they never criticise me. I speed all the time but the cops never give me a ticket. If I don’t pay my taxes, the IRS pays them for me.
Marge: Oh, you poor thing.
Gibson: It’s hell being Mel.
Sure, this episode features some pretty great lines and a hilarious shifty-eyed dog that would later become an Internet meme. But when it aired, it was the Worst Episode Ever. Homer, who took over narrative steering duties from Bart around season two, when the show really found its feet, was becoming a weird parody of himself. Critics have dubbed his character devolution “Jerkass Homer”. It was a far cry from the oafish – but ultimately decent and loving character – depicted in ‘Mother Simpson’.
Fast-forward to the present day and I don’t know what the fuck is going on. I find the modern Simpsons nearly unwatchable. Less because it’s utterly bad (it still beats a lot of free-to-air telly pretty easily) but because it’s such a sad, strange shadow of its former great self. Any consistency the show had is gone.
Guest stars serve no purpose, appearing only to say “Look, I’m [insert celebrity name here]!” The core and secondary characters exist as weird reverse-Platonic ideals of themselves. Their only job is to dumbly service plots that look more and more like they’re desperately contrived to differ from what the writers have already done.
Ironically, this state of affairs is conveyed best by what is probably the show’s ultimate Couch Gag: a sly, surreal, utterly unsettling and LOL-inducing two-minute opener by maverick animator Don Hertzfeldt.
It’s sad that the best thing the show has done in years is a commentary on its own creative decline, which people are all too aware of – even if they’re not fans. I talked to a 21 year-old friend of mine about shows we mutually liked (excellent purportedly-but-not-really-for-kids cartoon Adventure Time featured heavily) and she mentioned she hated The Simpsons.
“What?” I said, genuinely shocked.
“It’s just try-hard and boring and weird,” she said.
I didn’t understand why at first – how could anyone actually hate The Simpsons? But I figured it out. Kids these days didn’t grow up with The Simpsons when the show was at its best. They’ve been watching for the last 15 years, which have comprised the years fans refer to as “the long decline”. It has been all downhill – aside from a brief spike in quality that was partly wishful thinking around the The Simpsons Movie era.
Probably the best example of just how screwed up the series has become would be the 300th episode, ‘Strong Arms of the Ma’, in which Marge becomes addicted to steroids for some reason. She gets a bad case of roid rage and… well, I’ll let Wikipedia do the talking:
“When Homer refuses Marge’s sexual advances the night before the [bodybuilding] contest, she callously ignores his worries and then proceeds to pin him down and rapes him, before leaving him completely sore and exhausted to take care of the kids the next morning.”
What the fuck, right? That was in 2003, by the way. Three years later – not long before the quite good, almost old-school quality The Simpsons Movie – Matt Groening would say of the show: “I honestly don’t see any end in sight. I think it’s possible that the show will become too financially cumbersome … but right now, the show is creatively as good or better than it’s ever been. The animation is incredibly detailed and imaginative, and the stories do things that we haven’t done before. So creatively there’s no reason to quit.”
Yup. The problem is that the show hasn’t become too financially cumbersome, even ten years later. One of the show’s best characters Troy McLure – lent life by the late Phil Hartman – presciently made the point in ‘The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular’.
“Yes, The Simpsons have come a long way since an old drunk made humans out of his rabbit characters to pay off his gambling debts. Who knows what adventures they’ll have between now and the time the show becomes unprofitable.”
If only it would. Perhaps it can. Perhaps Harry Shearer’s departure can be the impetus. It would be nice to think it would spark a mass exodus of the core cast – but I doubt it. There may be another way, though. The Simpsons has steadily been shedding viewers. I believe that long-time fans – still watching successive Worst Episodes Ever all these years later – hold the key to the show’s fate.
If all the old fans stopped watching, perhaps there would come a tipping point and Fox would finally cancel the show. We must be kind enough to kill The Simpsons. After all, they’re already dead. They died a long time ago.
Don’t mourn. The networks can just throw on an old re-run, and everyone will know the difference.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.