Monday, December 1, 2008
What's Wrong with The Simpsons
I figured it out. America's favorite yellow family must be vampires. In fact, all of Springfield USA must be vampires too, because nobody has aged a day since season one began in 1989. If time had been a factor, Bart would be around 30 years old today.
Since The Simpsons have been renewed until at least 2013, I think this discussion is long overdue. In theory, it looks like an advantage to have an entertainment medium in which characters remain forever young. However for a show as long-running as The Simpsons, the advantages ended around season 8 or so (and that was back in 1997!).
Once upon a time, The Simpsons WERE set in time. Marge and Homer had an origin story. They had been high school sweethearts in the 1970s. This made sense because Homer was supposed to have been in his mid 30s in 1990. The math checked out. But, nearly two decades of episodes have passed since then and that has not been kind on the reality between The Simpsons' universe and our own.
Live action sitcoms can't ignore their actors getting older. If a family-based sitcom survives long enough, its once cute tots grow up to go to college. Unfortunately, by that point, most sitcoms have long worn out their welcome and try to remedy the situation by adding new tots into the mix. Despite the fact that most sitcoms don't manage to stay as sharp as they once were, there is at least the potential to tell new stories that might reflect the characters' changing lives.
I remember what it felt like to attend junior high for the first time, graduate high school, get a driver's license, go to college, get a job, and how my social world and values changed again and again. Bart and Lisa (and Maggie) are forever stuck in grade school and any attempt to age up their situations would only ring false. That is, unless they were able to grow.
The first deathblow to The Simpsons relevancy occurred with the 1997 debut of South Park on Comedy Central. Before then, Bart Simpson was a role model for underachievers everywhere. He talked back to adults. He got bad grades in school. But, he was really a safe modern-day throw back to Dennis the Mennis, even complete with sling shot in pocket. On the other hand, South Park's Eric Cartman cooked his friends parents and then fed it to him.
The second deathblow was that beyond season 10 (and that's being generous), The Simpsons had said all they had to say and could only repeat themselves with diminishing returns. How telling it was that even the recent Simpsons feature film recycled nearly all its plot elements from earlier TV episode plots. For instance, Homer getting attached to that pig? That was very similar (but less funny) than Homer getting attached to the lobster (Pinchy) from episode "Lisa Gets an 'A'" (the seventh episode of The Simpsons' tenth season. It aired on November 22, 1998.) How about Homer ruining the whole town and making it unlivable? That happened already when Homer made the town a toxic landfill in "Trash of the Titans" (the 22nd episode of The Simpsons' ninth season and the 200th overall. It originally aired on April 26, 1998.) The family losing faith in Homer? Marge and Homer's marriage on the rocks? Lisa dealing with a new love? All tackled in the TV episodes to far better results.
Live action sitcoms debut with their characters being a certain age and (within a season or two) find the balance or blend of qualities that might define that show's voice. As the actors age and grow, the balance changes and eventually every sitcom runs out of juice. The physical transformation of the aging cast makes that change perfectly clear, giving it a visible face. An animated sitcom such as The Simpsons does not show its age so readily. One has to actually watch an episode made between 2001 and 2009 to see the rot just below the surface. By the show's final curtain call, it the bad seasons will far outnumber the good.