Some say that The Simpsons has never jumped the shark. I say that these people are fucking brain-dead. You show me an episode from the past ten years that matches anything made in the early 90s, and I’ll pay you a million dollars. The fact is, well over 50% of all Simpsons episodes at this point are maybe better than an American Dad, on a good day.
That’s not to say that the show is without merit. A bad Simpsons episode is, generally, watchable. I mean let’s face it: in a world where According To Jim is watched by human beings, Simpsons is both Citizen Kane and Lawrence of Arabia in TV sitcom form.
But when, and where, did it go so horribly awry? When did new episodes start making Lisa the Vegetarian worth watching? Hard to say. The best I can do is point to a number of trends that have developed in recent years that really get my goat up:
- Continuity within the show: It’s one thing to stick to the established background of the show (Homer and Marge have been married 10 years, Snowball I was killed before the first episode, etc.); It’s quite another to develop various continuing storylines that, I think, are more gimmick than anything else. I’m talking things like Skinner and Krabapple’s relationship, Milhouse’s parents’ divorce, Maude’s death. Stuff like this that dramatically change the status quo (and aren’t that interesting to begin with), and ruin the show. Quite simply, it rings false to have ongoing plots on a cartoon of The Simpsons’ nature. It also makes it where all the Milhouse jokes (for example) now revolve around him being a neglected child, or Ned-based stories are now connected with his being a widower.
- Homer saying something in the couch gags: Go back, say, six years and watch a couch gag. Pretty standard stuff, along the lines of what we grew up with. Starting maybe five years ago, though, Homer started being the focus of these things. Where the family would run in together and then bust into a million pieces, now it’s just Homer being hard done-by. In the ones where something funny is collectively happening to all of them, Homer will be the sole character to say something (usually just a “d’oh”), thereby putting the focus on him at the expense of the other characters. Homer is not the show, damn it, which leads me to the third point…
- Homer being the focus of far too many episodes: Homer, starting as far back as The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson, I’d say, is an annoying character. He yells, he screams, he does very annoying and jerk-ass things to other characters. He is now as far removed from the bumbling though well-meaning father of early seasons as that character was from the weird Walter Mattau-sounding, moderately sensible Homer from season 1. Even his voice is different. Take this character and set 80% of your show around him for the past 10 years, and see how good a program you have.
- Too much Lenny and Carl: We get it. They’re gay or something, and it’s funny cause Lenny has a good apartment and you wouldn’t expect it, and he can be erudite and Carl’s last name is Carlson and how funny is that, man? It seems the last couple seasons feature a Lenny and Carl joke at least once per episode. Lenny and Carl were much funnier when they were just two of Homer’s co-workers who showed up from time to time whose names were known only by yourself and maybe two other kids at school.
- Too much Wiggum/Lou banter: This is very similar to the last point. Every now and again there is a bit of witty banter exchanged between the Chief and Lou. First off, Arnold, the white cop, is funnier than the two of them. Second, a lot of the Lou humour revolves around the fact that he’s black. Comedy of that nature is just too easy and lame (“You see, a white man, he drives a car like this…”).
- Lame variations on the “Homer choking Bart” bit: The old episodes had a few standard gags, like Bart phoning Moe’s and Homer choking Bart. Both fell to the wayside after a while, but the latter has made a resurgence in recent years. The problem with it now is that 1) it happens too often and 2) every time they try to outdo the previous choke by having Bart choke Homer back, Homer choking Bart and Lisa at once, Homer hitting Bart with a telephone while he chokes Bart, etc. It’s not too terribly funny to begin with, so attempts to shock the audience with ever-increasing levels of father-son violence fall flat. It’s like they’re trying too hard to be funny.
- Gross-out humour: There’s a weird trend that developed maybe 5-6 years ago where a lot of gross, disgusting sorta things started showing up in Simpsons, the sort that is more prevalent (and funnier) in Family Guy. Like Homer’s guts being exposed by a badger, or his eyes scabbing over after laser eye surgery. The worst I can think of is one when Ralph put his hand on an open sore on Homer’s knee, and the wound scabbed over the hand. That’s just, on a very basic level, not funny if you’re over the age of 10.
- Sex jokes: What’s with Homer saying “penis” and stuff? And the masturbation gags? This stuff has its place in Family Guy, but is wholly inappropriate in a Simpsons.
- Ralph gags: Ralph sucks as a character now. Everyone picks him as the funniest (usually some girl who hasn’t actually watched it in 9 years), but he’s been lame as hell since, like, season 4. You want proof?
Funny, circa 1994:
Ralph: [whispering] Lisa, what's the answer to number seven?
Lisa: [whispering] Sorry, Ralph. That would defeat the purpose of testing as a means of student evaluation.
Ralph: [pauses] My cat's name is Mittens
Not funny, circa… I dunno, late 90s, early 2000s?:
Ralph: Even my boogers are spicy!
- Way too much Fat Tony: Used to be there was one Fat Tony episode. The good one. The one where Bart works for him and mixes cocktails. Then, years later, he showed up in the one where Homer goes to Krusty’s clown college. Okay, I guess. Kinda neat to see him again after a while. Shortly after, he’s showing up left and right to the point where, today, he will show up a couple times per season. Heck, he will even show up as a bit character, say a single line, and then that’s that.
- Celebrities appearing as themselves: These days, you’ll have a famous actor show up and play themselves for an episode. Not that they never used to do this (James Woods working for the Kwik-E-Mart is easily the best, followed by everyone in the softball episode and Leonard Nimoy), but it seems to me that rarely are they using these guys to play interesting original characters (like Herb Powell, Mr. Bergstrom, Hank Scorpio, Michael Jackson, Lurleen, and Artie Ziff – all characters who are instantly-recognized by even casual viewers of the show). Now we get crap like the rock camp episode with the Stones, Elvis Costello and Lenny Kravitz (essentially a latter day “hullabalooza” episode), Alec Baldwin and Kim Bassinger (back before he used to beat her), Mark Hamill and Mel “Sugar Tits” Gibson showing up to play themselves. And it would be nice if it was funny, but it ain’t. Like I’m to buy that Homer is just hanging around like Mel Gibson’s pal?
I’d go on about nutty plots (Moe turns the bar into a glitzy, post-modern hipster lounge! Marge becomes a carpenter! Homer and Bart own a racehorse!), but, really, is anything today necessarily nuttier in concept than, say, Homer and a few other guys being in a barbershop quartet in the mid-80s? Not really. It’s the execution that counts, and they’re just not pulling them off the way they used to.
Let me leave you with a final thought: in my 4th year, a Simpsons writer by the name of Tim Long came to Western to do his little presentation. Decent enough guy, I guess. During this presentation, he showed a reel of all his favourite Simpsons clips. Most of these were recent (“recent” being 1997 and later), and a large percentage of them were of Homer being hurt in some way (like when he’s skiing over the bumps hitting his crotch, or that whole paragliding sequence before he falls through Alec Baldwin’s skylight). First, these feature jerk-ass, screaming Homer at his worst. Second, they are not funny. It’s way too over the top in an obvious, trying too hard to be funny sort of way (just as when Homer chokes Bart), so it sucks. And if this is what the guys writing the show think is funny, then we’re screwed.