Tuesday, August 15, 2006

When did The Simpsons start to lose it?

The eighth season of The Simpsons is out on DVD today, and it's the one that will force a lot of casual Simpsons fans out there to question when, exactly, it will be time to stop buying the sets because the mediocrity to greatness ratio starts to tilt more towards mediocrity.

It's a popular topic of discussion among TVheads, though. When, exactly, did this show, one of the longest running in television history (heading in to its 18th season) and one of the most critically acclaimed, begin to lose it?

The popular consensus among many netheads is that The Simpsons never had it (this position was most popular when Family Guy was still off the air, before it came back and most people realized that there wasn't that much there to begin with). While I'm sure there are people out there who have always hated The Simpsons (my parents, for two), this attitude smacks of "Well, what have you done for me lately?"

Honestly, The Simpsons is still a pretty good show. There are few episodes that don't have a few chuckles in them, and the last season, guided by Al Jean, one of the show's earliest showrunners, was actually pretty solid all around, especially since Jean and the writers have been turning their focus back on the central family and trying to tell less fantastic stories featuring that family (in this, they can't win -- many Simpsons fans complain just as much that the show is no longer telling fantastic stories as they complained that the show was telling fantastic, non-family-oriented stories). It's no longer the best comedy on television (not by a long shot), nor is it even the best animated series (trumped by South Park, The Boondocks and King of the Hill), but it's still an entertaining show filled with fascinating characters who have entered the cultural lexicon. Indeed, Jack Shafer of Slate has argued that we'll know my generation has taken over the media when Simpsons quotes start turning up in headlines, since the cartoon was a cultural touchstone for we Gen-Yers like rock and roll was for our parents.

In short, if it's a Sunday night, I'm probably still watching The Simpsons. So know that when I say the show "lost it," I simply mean that it descended from the heavens to sit among mere mortal television series.

But the show is a shadow of its former self. The stories often don't make coherent sense, the jokes have the sense of a writing staff throwing everything it can at the wall to see what sticks, and the show often has the sense of one that is trying too hard to stay cool (the series actually parodied Evita a couple of seasons ago -- a cultural reference that was surely lost on much of its 20something fans). At times, you can see the strain on the show, which has ceased to be a landmark in the culture wars and has become something parents watch with their kids. In nearly everything -- offending the sensibilities of parents, sheer breakneck pacing, outlandish stories -- it has been passed up by shows like South Park, Arrested Development and Family Guy, and it shows that the series would like to regain that cachet (indeed, the show has engaged recently in a silly "war" with Family Guy that reflects well on neither series).

So when did the show start to lose it?

The conventional wisdom is that the first season of the show was hit and miss, but well worth watching for just how revolutionary it was (it played in to the blue-collar revolution of the late 80s and early 90s that probably started with Roseanne and reached its ratings apex with Home Improvement). The second season is thought to play more heavily to the "hit" side of the ledger, offering up classics like The Way We Was (the flashback to Marge and Homer's prom) and Lisa's Substitute (one of the show's most emotional hours, featuring a last-minute ghost-write by James L. Brooks himself that resulted in one of the most touching scenes in TV history).

And then you hit the golden years, the really good ones. Seasons 3-7 are the show's argument for being the best series of all time, a stretch of five years when the show didn't produce a single dud episode. The series was the foremost satirizer of American culture, and it didn't forget to tell small, personal stories that could create genuine emotion. The core cast expanded, adding all of the chracters who would become good characters to base stories around. Finally, this was when the show worked on all three of its levels -- it worked as a character-based sitcom, as a "spot the pop-culture reference" game and as a satire.

Seasons 8-10 are when the show started to have a couple of duds every now and again, if the CW is to be believed. The show started to get a little too loopy, and it slowly lost the sense of a strong emotional center that kept it afloat earlier in its run.

Everything after season 10, in the CW, is to be avoided. The show had a few chuckles per episode but mostly felt tired and strained. It wasn't helped by Matt Groening defecting to do Futurama, certainly.

I have a few problems with the conventional wisdom, obviously, but if you're looking for an excuse to buy season eight, look no farther. Season eight, despite the few episodes that don't really work, is well worth your cash, if only for The Simpsons Spinoff Showcase, The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show and Homer's Phobia. As with any Simpsons set, it's going to offer more laughs than just about any series you can buy.

On to the problems.

The central problem with the conventional wisdom is that it presupposes that the show's forays into wackiness are what killed it. In reality, the show was skewing toward the wacky very early, inserting cutaway gags and bizarre storylines that couldn't quite be called realistic. Indeed, the start of the show's golden years corresponds directly with when the show started to do more outlandish stories. Unfettered by a need to write scripts that could be cheaply filmed (since it was, after all, a cartoon), The Simpsons discovered it could tell stories in literally any genre and used those genres to its advantage.

But one can't exactly say that Mr. Burns bringing in a team full of MLB superstars to win a softball tournament is a realistic plotline (and that's from an episode that would make almost any Simpsons fan's top 20), even if it's coupled with a really strong story about how Homer longs to be the team's superstar.

Plus, the show was already showing signs of strain in season SEVEN. In short, The Simpsons got to a point where it used roughly three plots per episode (one per act), and it zoomed through those plots so quickly that one could feel the writers getting whiplash (one could more properly call this the John Swartzwelder method, as the writer, who has been with The Simpsons since season one, first wrote scripts full of bizarre throwaway gags and rapidly unfolding plots -- in his own way, Swartzwelder is one of the most influential people in television history). There are a few episodes in season seven (Bart the Fink leaps most readily to mind) when it feels as if the writers abandoned internal logic and just threw plot points to the wind. The episode is still fun, but it doesn't feel like a well-told story.

I really think that when people complain about The Simpsons getting bad, they're not talking about it getting too outlandish or it getting too unfunny. They're talking about the individual episodes abandoning internal logic in an attempt to cram in more, more, more jokes and plot points.

This trend, to my mind, reached its worst point around season 13 and 14, when the show often commented on how little sense it made cheerfully, as though it were happy to do so.

As I said, though, the show has been getting better, and that's largely due to a show-runner that believes in telling simple stories. While the show can never be what it was, it can take a shot at it through focusing on what made it great -- emotion, satire and well-told stories.

1 comment:

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