February 20, 2012

It’s Not Always Sunny in Springfield

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On Sunday night, The Simpsons aired its 500th episode in what is now its 23nd season, furthering its claim as the longest running sitcom of all-time. The majority of Cornellians have only secondhand knowledge of what a world without Homer was like. Springfield, USA’s most prominent nuclear family has outlasted the USSR, the Y2K bug and Dick Cheney. Yet what really makes its survival impressive is that the show has been dying for nearly a decade.

Now before I rant, let me emphasize that my adolescence was defined by this show. The Simpsons replaced The Magic School Bus as my favorite program by the time my first tooth came loose, The show was my religion and six p.m. every weekday night was my mass. Yet as I moved into my teenage years, other interests (sports, girls, recreational drugs, homework) began taking up more of my time, time I could no longer spend watching Millhouse or Apu. But what cemented my divorce from the show was the universal acknowledgement by fans and critics alike that its quality was melting down faster than a nuclear radiator under Homer’s supervision. While the exact point of its downfall remains hotly disputed amongst media scholars and dudes who live in basements, there is no denying that by the mid-2000’s, the show’s dialogue was getting simpler, its jokes were getting flatter and its plots were getting dumber. I simply couldn’t handle it anymore. The revolutionary show that could once boast Conon O’Brien as a head writer had become a sitcom bland enough for a Jay Leno audience to enjoy.

I returned to Springfield via Hulu this weekend to watch the five most recent episodes, partly out of respect and partly out of curiosity. I respected that it had reached No. 500, a milestone that deserves recognition, no matter how ugly the breakup may have been. And I was curious to see if Homer and the gang had regained any of their old form, ditching the daft dialogue for its bygone satirical bite.

The short answer is that the show still stinks. The long answer is that it only mostly stinks. There were a handful of socially conscious moments, like when the smartphone-owning Lenny gets trapped underneath a car and yells “Help, ­I don’t know how to use the phone on my phone.” Another funny scene shows a dejected Otto, the town’s deadbeat bus driver, walking out of a store called “The Needle Exchange” when he discovers the store’s name is referring to sewing. There were other sporadic one-liners that would have fit well into a Colbert Report script (the Republican National Committee tells Homer, “Simply pick the white male candidate you want”), yet overall, the current manifest of The Simpsons is to its early seasons as the spinoff Joey was to Friends. The show flounders because it lacks confidence in the intellect of the viewer.

In one scene, Lisa expresses hesitation about the condition of the house. Marge responds by saying “Lisa, this house is not an embarrassment.” Then there is a long pause in which nothing happens. This by itself would be funny. The script has set the viewer up for something embarrassing to happen (i.e. Homer runs through the hallway naked, or the upstairs bathtub falls through the ceiling), thus Marge’s silence is ironic. Yet all potential for humor vanishes when Marge feels the need to explain all this aloud. Describing why something is funny tends to make less funny, and being walked through a joke makes you feel kind of stupid.

All of this makes me wonder if the dense quality of modern Simpsons episodes reflects the modern state of the average American’s intellect. Apologies if this statement comes off as being overly snooty (I’m no Nova-watcher myself), but what if the show’s current tendency to speak slow and hold its viewers’ hands through ever joke is done out of necessity, and not merely out of lazy writing? The Simpsons has been renewed for two more seasons, meaning that it will be at least a full quarter century of life on Evergreen Terrace. While I wish the show the best, I am not sure I’ll be able to handle reviewing many more episodes as the family that changed America approaches No. 600.

Original Author: Brian Gordon

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