How the Mighty Have Fallen:
the Decline of the Simpsons
by Don Osborn
This is a difficult column for me to write, because it feels like I am excommunicating a family member. That's a bit hyperbolic, but truth be known, I sat on the floor a couple weeks after my 17th birthday (that was over 15 years ago people) and watched "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire," the first half-hour episode on the then-unknown Fox network. I taped it. I loved it. Since then, I have watched and taped every episode (not always in order, but I do have them all). For years before the show was credited as having redeeming social value, I defended it, mostly against my parents. I've laughed, I've thought, I've even felt! I'm one of the biggest Simpsons fans I know.
And so it is not without some grief, hesitation, and remorse that I say... the show needs to end... now.
I have known this for years, but each season always has a few highlights, a few shows that make wading through sub-par episodes worthwhile. This year, though, there have been few to none. After last week's embarrassing clunker "There's Something About Marrying," this column had to be written.
One does not have to go too far back in the show's past to find moments of brilliance. The show's ultimate heyday is typically thought to wane after, say, the 6th season or so. Still, wonderful episodes were frequently written right on through let's say the 12th season. I'm not going to pinpoint the exact moment of demise, unlike Bart pinpointing the exact second when Ralph's heart rips in half due to Lisa's rejection. Suffice it to say that over the last few years my weekly taping and viewing of the Simpsons has been mostly out of obligation rather than out of desire.
So let's compare and contrast what I would call a classic episode, with this latest clunker. For the classic episode I'm not even going to go all the way back, but cite one from Season 9 called "The Cartridge Family." It's a good one to use because it, like "There's Something About Marrying," deals with a social/political issue.
To keep it fairly simple, we'll talk about the humor in each episode, as well as the way the episode deals with its "issue." Oftentimes, and when the show is working best, the two are combined. It could be a totally separate column to discuss whether or not the Simpsons should even take on issues like these, but they have, and sometimes successfully.
At any rate, let's look at some of the humor highlights in "Cartridge." It begins with a satirical take on Americans' yawning interest in soccer. A soccer game is scheduled for Springfield stadium with such exciting prospects of "fast kicking, low scoring, and ties!" The game begins and the crowd is going nuts with excitement and cheering. This excitement quickly tapers off when, as many Americans view soccer, the players simply kick the ball back and forth to each other with nothing apparently happening. So as an American how do you react? Like Homer, you cry "boring!," of course, and tear the stadium apart in a completely meaningless riot. The stadium riot leads to city-wide riots and eventually Homer's desire to purchase a gun for his family's protection. End Act 1. The first few minutes of this episode are packed with witty, clever site gags and dialogue. Here is a classic scene, containing a line I've used a number of times myself:
Gun Shop Owner [to Homer]: And this is for shooting down police helicopters.
Homer: Oh, I don't need
anything like that... [paranoid]...yet. Just give me my gun. [grabs for
Gun Shop Owner: Sorry, the law requires a five-day waiting period. [Homer and Gun Shop Owner tug back and forth on gun.] We've got to run a background check.
Homer: Five days? But I'm mad now!
[The owner finally pulls the gun away
Homer: I'd kill you if I had my gun!
Funny stuff right? I'm smiling as I read script and recall the great scenes. I re-watched the episode (now that's what I call research!) and laughed pretty hard a few times. But not only are the best Simpson episodes funny, they are smart. When they deal with issues of the day, they do so skillfully.
The issue of gun ownership and gun control is handled very well in this episode. We have already seen why waiting periods are probably a good thing ("but I'm mad now..."). That idea is expanded in a classic Simpsons moment. Homer sits in a chair on his front lawn, gunless, while Tom Petty's "Waiting is the Hardest Part" plays mournfully. Passing by Homer are choice targets (if he only had a gun!): a truck with a large Target store icon; ducks waddling, Patty and Selma on a tandem bike, and Flanders on a riding lawnmower.
Homer shows his new gun to Marge and says "this is the thing you point at whatever you want to die." In its own way, this causes you, yes, laugh, but also think about the serious uses of guns. Are they just for target practice? Killing people? Or as Krusty says later, for "family protection, hunting dangerous or delicious animals, and keeping the king of England out of your face"?
Homer has Bart flinging the family dishes into the air, in the backyard, while Homer shoots them down. When he misses one he walks over to it, angry, determined, and says "see you in Hell, dinner plate," before blasting it to bits. When he reveals to his NRA group that he opens beer cans by firing his gun, or uses it to turn the TV off, or strangely enough, on, they are repulsed. They are portrayed not as crazy gun toters, but as responsible gun owners who think Homer is reckless. They actually kick him out of the club and out of the meeting, never mind that it's at Homer's house.
"The Cartridge Family" does not preach, but it provokes. It demonstrates many sides of the issue by showing them in various scenes, usually quite funny. It might have certain positions that it favors, but it does not hit you over the head with a rifle. The viewer is left to decide his/her position. It triumphs in just about every way.
With that said, let's look at some of the humor in the recent stink bomb "There's Something About Marrying" (some info most of the way down HERE). As with many episodes of the last few years, the jokes have been cheapened into painfully prolonged site gags, and out-of-nowhere attempts at random humor that fall completely flat. Examples of both to follow.
The episode begins with Bart and Millhouse setting a trap for an unsuspecting passer by. A bottle of beer is wired to a suspended watermelon hanging overhead. When the beer is grabbed, the melon will fall. Millhouse makes the point to stress it is a seedless melon. So? Here is an example of the random humor: Barney comes along and somehow removes the beer w/o getting the melon dropped on his head. He then says something to the boys, chirps "BEEP BEEP," and darts off, literally, like the Roadrunner. Huh? For the most part the universe of the Simpsons, has its rules that are usually only broken during the Tree House of Horror episodes. But here is an out-of-the-blue attempt at humor that just falls flat.
Next a guy literally falls off a turnip truck at the feet of Bart and Millhouse... OK so that is funny. Bart and Millhouse agree to show him around the town and give him a flavor of the local color. They proceed to play one prank after another on this dolt, most of them not funny (a "radioactivity" sign near the power plant is explained as the place where they do "radio... activities," and then commence doing the Twist. Ugh.) The guy ends up being a travel journalist and he later gives Springfield a horrible review thus sending the town into a financially bankrupt state due to the lack of tourism.
At the town meeting to figure out how to resurrect the town's tourist business Lisa proposes legalizing same-sex marriages and the town goes for it. Moe thinks he'll capitalize on the "gay guys" by making fancy drinks. Here is an example of how bad the writing has become.
Moe: What's in a martini?
Sideshow Mel: Gin and vermouth.
Moe: And that makes a what?
Sideshow Mel: A martini.
Moe: Never heard of it.
Trust me folks. It would be impossible to catalog all of the examples of poorly written jokes and random humorous site gags. I won't even go in to the repetitive knock on the Fox network. How many times have they done that now? Along with humor that pales in comparison to episodes of yonder years, the way that the issue of gay marriage is addressed is also more preachy and less thoughtful.
In "Cartridge Family" the viewer is presented with a number of possible viewpoints and left to weigh them. Here, you're told what to think. Marge to Lovejoy: "as long as two people love each other I don't think God cares whether they have the same hoo hoo or ha ha." Also in this scene Lovejoy doesn't want to engage in a discussion on the issue with Marge (you can see what the writer's think of religious folk at large and, sadly, they are at least somewhat accurate) so he rings the church bell to drown her out. OK that might be funny for a second, but the writer's (what's a stronger word for "beat") this dead horse for, I timed it, 15 seconds. That is a long time people. OK we get it. All preachers and religious people are homophobic and everyone should accept gay marriage as a viable alternative. I never thought I watched the Simpsons for this kind of moralizing.
Still, there are moments of good comedy, and I don't want to lead you to believe the show is all bad all the time. Homer has a couple good lines when Patty comes out as a lesbian to the Simpsons family. Marge is, unbelievably, surprised. Homer: "yeah big surprise. Hey Marge, here's another surprise, I like beer. ah hah ha." And when Marge is relieved about not having to worry that Patty might steal her husband, Home quips: "I'd be a lot more worried about me leaving you for a sausage patty rather than your sister Patty."
But is it worth sitting through episode after episode, week after week, bombarded by unfunny, random jokes, and every now and then self-righteous preaching? I wish I could say yes, but instead I have to say... end it. Hey, it was a good run, but end it now with some shred of dignity before it gets any worse.