By PJ Grisar
Let The Simpsons sinkhole ope beneath our unworthy feet.
Every episode of the original, jaundiced nuclear family will soon be available online via a monstrosity called Simpsons World. God help us all. It strains every fiber of strength and concentration given me to not break off from writing this sentence and gorge on the prefatory marathon, which began on FXX today, like Milhouse and Bart with an all-syrup Squishee.
On viewing, my pupils would dilate to three-times their normal size, like Homer when he ate the Guatemalan Insanity Pepper, or the medicated Mr. Burns in that X-Files spoof episode. My brain would develop a crayon-shaped occlusion, and I would claim a level of rabid monomania that outdoes Lisa and her Dash Dingo addiction. Following my binge I would collapse into a Homeric stupor with much drooling, but not before I sound the refrain of the octoparrot: “Please kill me.”
There’s a reason for this. From the ages of ten to maybe fourteen, The Simpsons were my life. A comforting constant for a kid inclined to quote and allergic to real life friends. My life was scheduled around its nightly airings (7-8) on Fox. My sister, who judged my sense of time to be less than adequate. manufactured a shorthand for me, quantifying half-hour time chucks in Simpsons episodes. That doesn’t hack it for me anymore, and not just because of the elision of commercial breaks brought to us by DVD and VOD. No, my entire sense of time collapses when I watch it. The exercise obviates any sense of temporal distance. I get nostalgic itch. The experience of witnessing something I remember so precisely from so long ago deposits me so firmly in another moment that it’s hard to get comfortable. But I’m not alone in that discomfort or, for that matter, the ostensible shrinking of my timeline, the residents of Springfield are right there with me.
In nearly 25 years no one has aged a day. A few have died, some have remarried and many have managed to get their four fingers on smart phones. The current writers, maybe more than any group before them, are in the unenviable position of remaining relevant while staying true to the show’s roots—never mind that it has been deracinated every time there was a regime change in the writers’ room. Early double digit seasons were rough as many veterans tried to commandeer a novel energy concocted by a group of relative upstarts. This new team, who you can be sure were reared on the early stuff, have done so with varied success, and it’s not entirely on them. No one, it’s safe to say, had the foresight to prepare a series bible beyond a handful of years. It was unprecedented for a sitcom in 1989. It was unheard of for an animated show. And so we now have a show striving for commentary on a culture it itself is thoroughly entrenched in and a part of. But that commentary until recently was broad enough to not be time-sensitive. Its competition has changed that.
Because it’s animated The Simpsons can stay in their age-locked stasis.* It would be wrong to break from the formula. But unlike a Family Guy, or even a South Park,the outside world which Springfield has always proved such an adequate and intricate mirror for has changed so much since its days on The Tracey Ullman Show, that the fissures are spreading. The lack of technology or a more contemporary spoof seems conspicuous in the world post-Family Guy or South Park. Not that the comparison is fair.
In terms of continuity, Family Guy has the benefit of absurdism. It has never been particularly concerned with being topical, mining much of its humor from the 80s. It also began life in a world with internet and had a long sabbatical which warped any concern for consistency–we were right back where we started, never mind the year. South Park has seen the kids progress, ever so slowly, from one grade to another and has such a preoccupation with being up-to-date (see Six Days to Air) that it always feels in the Now.
The Simpsons is another animal entirely. It is profoundly character driven. That’s not to say there aren’t jokes. Sight gags abound, quotables are countless, but in the early going, in James L. Brooks’ writers’ room, lessons were learned, if not hugs exchanged. Part of the fun of watching a Simpsons episode is seeing how we get from point A to B to C by way of tangent. But in between the scattershot set ups, the decisions that are made (whether vocational for Homer, chicanery for Bart, or romance for Flanders…) are the work of characters with agency and feelings—though sometimes those feelings will change in service of the joke.
In Family Guy that’s inverted. They will, at times, drop the drumfire of jokes in service of something called plot. In South Park, the most purely satirical of the animated serials, we almost always finish mouthpiece soapboxes. Neither of the newer franchises can pull off an ending with as much heart as “Lisa’s Substitute” or “And Maggie Makes Three.”
But with the growing popularity of Family Guy and South Park, the show feels its own age. Of course it feels the impetus to include newer things–that’s the only way to say something new. But, more and more, gimmickry is also being resorted to. This season will see the death of yet another character as a viewer grab. Celebrity cameos (a long-running a convention) are doubling rapidly and are featured in more episodes than not. The novelty of “Treehouse of Horror” or the Troy McClure clip shows are becoming the normative mode. And that, I think, may actually be the direction to go. Having seen two episodes of the two most recent seasons, I came away hating one and loving the other.
The first, Dangers on a Train (they’re getting punnier) was a more typical early season format. It involved a fair deal of sentiment. For their anniversary (how many have they had now?) Homer buys Marge a mall train that had some significance for their early life as a couple. To get the MacGuffin du jour Homer needs to feign an injury. This frustrates Marge and almost forces her into the arms of a man who, unlike Homer, is interested in keeping up with Upton Rectory—a Downton Abbey approximation. He’s voiced by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane and she meets him via “Sassy Madison” a website which, like its real life analogue Ashley Madison, is a way to arrange affairs for married men and women. Because it’s topical, I guess. The scenario is played. Bob’s Burgers (the show’s heir apparent in my eyes) did it with a love tester—not inhabited by the spirit of Grandpa Simpson—and did it better. It feels forced. And it resolves itself in exactly the same way all other such disagreements Marge and Homer have had. “You really do care.” The audience doesn’t.
The next episode is a delightful and intentional mess. This is the deep dive. It’s called The Kid is All Right and in it, Lisa finds her intellectual match in new student Isabel (Eva Longoria) only to find out she is, alas, a Republican and runs against Lisa for a post at Springfield Elementary. This episode, without pandering, leverages the show’s greatest strength at this juncture: its gallery of characters. This was a post-modern Simpson that tells the story while winking at the absurdity of its own endurance. It feels like it may just be probing the audience to see who’s still watching or who’s paying attention.
The episode begins with one of the longest couch gags in the show’s history—a Tex Avery-Merry-Melodies-style sequence called “Silly Simpsony” wherein the population of Springfield have instruments for torsos (Cletus’s clan’s a jug band, Apu is a sitar, Barney’s a tuba and, of course, Lisa a saxamaphone). It immediately sets the mood for something a bit more off-kilter than we’re used to. And it delivers that.
What follows is a string of fifth-tier character cameos, a few solid runners and callbacks, and references to the larger continuity of the series. It’s a Simpsons devised for the fans and made of fan service, and, while bloated, the mechanism works surprisingly well and manages to keep the spirit of the show intact while infusing it with salutatory modern elements. It’s earned these tropes.
Early on we have Groundskeeper Willie take a selfie with a scarecrow squeeze—like, he’s making out with it—while Lisa walks the school grounds, forlornly crooning “One” only to discover, via iPad search that Harry Nillson “died after suffering a heart attack on Valentine’s Day”—contemporary stuff. Not the Nillson. The iPad. Lisa goes on to meet Isabel in the library and in her, allay her loneliness a while though, we get a sense that like many of Lisa’s matches this one will not be built to last—if simply by virtue of being a guest voice. But Isabel’s another addition to the pantheon–she has her own Simpson’s Wiki. Everyone stays in the continuity and can still be put on standby if only for a later crowd scene.
Back home, Maggie smashes a play-doh likeness of baby Gerald (the Monobrow Baby). How far does that go back? About a minute later, Milhouse makes an appearance, after a mere mention. Now we realize how developed the mythology is. Dramatic Personae can be summoned at any moment—this episode leaves the door open for anyone and anything at the service of a joke. It pulls Mr. Bergstrom of Lisa’s Substitute fame off the back bench to butter Lisa’s vegetables (“They were buttered by someone who loves you” Marge calls from downstairs). It throws together a cabal of conservative Springfieldians from the prominent to the obscure (Mr. Burns, Superintendent Chalmers, Krusty, Rainier Wolfcastle and Count Dracula) at a place called Phineas Q Butterfat’s Ice Cream Parlor—which has never made an appearance before, though Jeremy Freedman, the Squeaky Voiced Teen of course is working yet another minimum wage job there—to ply her with ice cream and to let them back her bid for second grade rep. The episode even thumbs its nose at fair use by having a character that resembles Pig Pen from Charlie Brown come in for all of two seconds to disparage “grooming” certain words work like invocations here. The show’s just having fun with its roster.
The A plot has become almost secondary. Pat lines like “Ooh, a budding friendship,” from Homer on receiving a call from Isabel to “If you can’t tell, Lisa I’m a Republican” (Isabel in their joint presentation on FDR) indicate a certain going through the motions that leaves enough air for Maggie playing a pantomime bartender, a political mudslinging game with Bart. and allusions to things in the shows distant past—Nelson’s relationship with Lisa which, who knew, he got a tattoo to commemorate. Other highlights include Isabel informing Bart, after twenty-plus years, what “Ay Carumba” really means; nightmares featuring the still-alive ghosts Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, and John Kerry; and a photo album from the 80s which shows ALF receiving a Congressional Medal of Honor from Bush Sr.
Here we have the brilliance, then. In a sequence where Marge reveals to Lisa her own Conservative streak in the Reagan administration (and where Bart and Homer do the Superbowl Shuffle) we have an episode that straddles both of the times it exists in simultaneously—one foot in the late 80s, where it began, and another in the present where Clinton can shill one of his Humanitarian aid programs (“You used to be fun,” says Homer) and reference Chris Christie at the same time. It’s a world where Lisa has a cellphone, but it’s also a world in which she’s still a second grader. It’s stasis, for all the change it presents.
The episode ends with a presidential debate between Lisa and Isabel moderated by a hologram of Anderson Cooper–we know from an earlier look into her future (“Bart to the Future”) that this is one Lisa will win albeit a bit later than first projected—2056 not 2030—so, with all the new, the timeline still kept its relative bearings
As Groundskeeper Willie hangs up the “School Elections Today” banner in the old banner shed, which also houses such classics as “Whacking Day: School Closed” (Season 1), “The New Funzos are Here” (Season 11), “Coping with the Dome” (The Simpsons Movie) we know we are far from the Banner Years. But seeing these reminders hang, like retired numbers in the Baseball Hall of Fame, gives us pause and a sense of time passed. This is the progression we all can chart so readily given this scourge and gift that FX is giving us.
*To defer to canon (or non, depending on your bent) the “Behind the Laughter” special does offer us some insight into the stuntedness of at least Lisa—mandatory hormone pills. Though I for one think it may have something to do with the proximity of the power plant and the years upon years of Homer driving home with a rod of rare plutonium at the start of each episode.
The Simpsons is on literally like, all the time, and now owns one channel (FXX) for over a week before opening the floodgates to Simpsons World in October. It will take you approximately 202 hours to watch everything. If you feel compelled to, please seek professional help.