Monday, October 19, 2009

The Simpsons: Musings on a Show in its Twenty-First Season

d'oh I wonder, how many of the seven-to-eight million people who watch The Simpsons on Sunday nights have been watching it since its primetime debut in 1989?

I was four years old in 1989, so I can’t say with any degree of confidence what I was doing – I can say that I must have been watching The Simpsons at some point during its second season, because after Bart went to Hell we were told we couldn’t watch the show anymore.

Fast forward to the seventh grade, and after much pestering I was finally allowed the privilege to watch again. I had missed its golden years, but at the time the wacky and over-the-top humor of the show’s 11th and 12th seasons was appealing to me, and our local Fox syndicate was showing older episodes twice a day five days a week – I quickly immersed myself in the series, learning every episode and every gag and every quote.

Even in those days, it seemed like The Simpsons had been on forever, and that was like ten seasons ago. So what’s the deal with this show? What’s wrong with it? Why is it still on?

It’s pretty common knowledge that the show is not what it was fifteen years ago, and that’s not meant to be a compliment. The show is, simply put, less funny, less original, and less memorable than it was in its heyday.

This isn’t surprising, really – not many things can perform at their peak for more than two decades. What is surprising is that even twenty-one years in, The Simpsons can usually elicit a few solid laughs per episode, and is still occasionally capable of great episodes.

Some things on the show aren’t working so well anymore – the voice actors still come in and record their lines ably, but compare an episode from the first eight seasons (or, hell, even The Simpsons Movie) to any recent episode of the show and the degree to which most of them are phoning it in becomes clear.

The writers’ room is also in desperate need of new blood – in the first half of its run, The Simpsons changed “showrunners” (read: head writers) every two years or so. A change in showrunner often brought a perceptible change in style, since each showrunner had his own comedic sensibilities and creative goals. The Simpsons enters its twenty-first season with the same showrunner it had in its thirteenth season, and he doesn’t look like he’s ever going to leave – bring in some new people, guys. Spice things up a bit.

In the same vein, the show has become ludicrously overstaffed with “producers,” people who likely come to work only to pick up paychecks. Do me a favor and watch how long the credits go on after the show starts – it’s absurd, and much of the show’s present-day blandness can probably be attributed to Too Many Cooks.

Too Many Cooks might also be responsible for its attention deficit disorder – while earlier episodes had a pretty clear Point-A-to-Point-B progression, latter-day Simpsons entries take one of two approaches: the disjointed approach, where the Cause in Act I is only tied to Effect in Act III by the flimsiest possible narrative thread, or the lazy approach where the family goes to some annual festival and then Homer decides that he wants to be a mechanical engineer.

For all of the bad decisions being made in the writers’ room, The Simpsons animators consistently bring their A-game. In particular, watch the first act of this year’s Treehouse of Horror for some excellent animation. The show’s transition to digital color and switch to high-definition has kept it looking fresh, and even if it’s not always funny to watch, it’s almost always pretty.

What the show misses the most is its emotional center, which has been absent since the tenth season or so. Many of the show’s best episodes connect with the audience in a meaningful emotional way, reminding the viewer that while the show is a cartoon it’s also supposed to be about a family – this was its original conceit. Change is inevitable, of course, but there’s good change and bad change.

In closing, why is The Simpsons still on? It’s not because of its ratings, which are consistently okay but rarely outstanding. It’s not because the show is a critical darling, because it has been on so long that it’s more an Institution than a TV show that you actually sit down to review based on a given episode’s merits. So, why?

Sadly, this pretty much sums it up. The lesson is clear: don’t kill a cash cow before you have to.