In the early ‘90s, The Simpsons was the most important show on TV. Primetime’s first cartoon series furnished my generation’s lexicon with quotables, broadened our range of pop culture references and introduced us to the non sequitur, a style of humour that would become a mainstream standard, now used to sell Old Spice and Bud Lite.
Most influential were the self-reflexive jabs poking holes in mass culture’s cherished conceits. The Simpsons gave us a crash course in critical analysis, lampooning religion, government, education, and especially exposing the absurdities of TV, brazenly bashing purveyors of schlock, including the show’s own Fox network. The Simpsons taught more than a few of us snarky young folk how to be subversive.
But that was a long time ago. Last Sunday – 20 years since the show’s premiere – residents of Springfield trudged onscreen for their 450th episode looking more like yellow zombies than TV revolutionaries.
Twenty years is a long time in series TV. Only a cartoon cast could shamble that long. Alas, the writers have resorted to tired devices their predecessors used to mock.
The plot of Lucky #450 centred on Krusty the Klown’s career going bad and the ensuing drama. Krusty has already seen his career take a dive in Season 4, and revived it with The Krusty Komeback Special. But recycling material can be forgiven when most viewers weren’t born when the originals aired.
The first five minutes had some guffaws when Krusty’s show was usurped by an eye-wateringly girlie princess voiced by Anne Hathaway, but about eight minutes in this one circled the drain.
Apparently the final scene of the episode was supposed to be a sarcastic jab at Seth McFarlane’s show Cleveland running in the next time slot, but because reshuffling moved Cleveland, we were left with Krusty and his princess bride drifting downriver in Paris, cursive script flowing over the screen to tell us “Thanks for a wonderful twenty years. The best is yet to come.” If this is a tongue in that cheek I didn’t get it.
Back in the series’ heyday, writers would introduce a shaggy dog premise, then perform associative acrobatics leading to the actual plot, and still manage to hang all the fun on a human story. The animation was superb, replete with Chuck Jones’ elastic absurdities and cinematic grandeur as needed.
Now the visual style has atrophied and the characters feel like finger puppets worked by network hacks. No surprise when the credits rolled that ex-executive producers James L. Brooks and Matt Groening now act in a token capacity as “Creative Consultants.”
After Episode #450, Fox aired a documentary by Morgan Spurlock, director of Supersize Me, a series of interviews with celebrities talking about the legacy The Simpsons have left behind … and are still leaving behind. Like The Rolling Stones, The Simpsons might be past their prime, but we fans can still cop a charge off our nostalgia for the way things were. We can even buy a Homer doll.
And that’s the problem.
The Simpsons have become the very thing they taught us to question: a meaningless institution. Fox may be able to wring a bankable comedy out of the series for years to come, lumped in with three or four other derivative cartoon sitcoms. But face it, The Rolling Stones suck and The Simpsons are dead.
For those with an insatiable appetite, visit The Simpsons site.