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Category Archives: The Simpsons
The Simpsons: Reinvention, Acceptance, and Why “Summer of 4 Ft. 2″ Is One of the Show’s Greatest Episodes
When The Simpsons parodied The Great Gatsby this season, it tapped into one of the novel’s major themes — the uniquely American desire for reinvention. For centuries, people have come to the United States, or sought unspoiled frontiers within it, in the hope that new surroundings would allow them to become new people. Regardless of whether that’s an attainable goal or a false fantasy, the impulse to start anew is buried deep within the American psyche.
But it’s also within an eight-year-old girl struggling to overcome her innate nerdiness and make a few friends. As I discussed on The Simpsons Show Podcast, “Summer of 4 ft. 2,” is one of the series’s best and most resonant episodes because it captures that universal desire to remake ourselves, and yet realizes that in the personal, affecting tones of a lonely kid with the simple want of friendship. Even in a family full of unusual people, Lisa Simpson is a misfit, and that makes her quest for her first real friend(…ship bracelet) an undeniably poignant one.
One of the great things about the Simpsons as characters is that they can pretty much do anything or be anything. You can put Our Favorite Family in whatever kind of story you’d like, from a standard domestic squabble to a world-threatening catastrophe, and for the most part, the characters are so universal and recognizable that they’ll still fit regardless what sort of narrative they’re dropped into. It’s part of what makes the show’s Treehouse of Horror franchise work — these characters can be slotted into any number of spoofs, pastiches, and homages, because they’re firm but malleable enough for it to click no matter the setting or plot.
But as I discussed with Robbie and Matt on The Simpsons Show Podcast, I often find that my favorite episodes of the show draw back to the quieter and more relatable stories for these characters. I warm to the ones where they feel like real people going through trials that we can all understand, accented with that trademark Simpsons irreverence.
That’s what’s so striking about “Marge Be Not Proud.” In a series that can claim some of its greatest triumphs in the guise of monorails gone awry, and city-threatening comets, and town-hopping, knife-wielding, Machiavellian maniacs, The Simpsons makes such an impact in this episode by stepping back from the commedia dell’arte-style flexibility of its characters, and focusing on the specific and down-to-earth story of a boy and his mom experiencing one of those moments that makes them see each other in a different light.
One of the most persistent narratives about how and why The Simpsons fell from grace is that, at some point, the series lost its tether to reality. The argument goes that the tone of the show was always meant to be exaggerated, but also ultimately grounded, and that as the series got on in years, its quality suffered as it moved further and further away from the conceptual limits that kept The Simpsons at least nominally within the real world.
And yet “You Only Move Twice,” one of show’s most acclaimed episodes, also features one of the most outlandish twists in Simpsons history. After Homer moves the family for his new job in faraway Cypress Creek, it turns out that, unbeknownst to him, his cool new boss, Hank Scorpio, is actually a Bond villain. The twist isn’t depicted by way of subtle hints here or there or a last-minute reveal. Instead, the episode spends much of its run time ensconced in city-destroying lasers, ineffective death traps, and flame-thrower battles to repel the U.S. military, the very sort of farfetched fare that typically rankles diehard fans.
Then, to add to the absurdity, at the end of the episode, Scorpio seizes the East Coast and gives Homer a special parting gift — ownership of the Denver Broncos, replete with the team practicing on The Simpsons’ front lawn. It’s so far from reality, not to mention the standard rules of the show’s universe, that the series doesn’t even begin to address these developments in later installments. It’s exactly the kind of ridiculous, game-changing-yet-ignored ending that hated former showrunner Mike Scully and current ruler of The Simpsons roost Al Jean are routinely excoriated for today.
So why does this work so well in “You Only Move Twice”?
The political leanings of The Simpsons are surprisingly hard to pin down. As I discussed with Matt and Robbie on The Simpsons Show Podcast, the natural impulse is to take the series as a left-leaning show. In creator Matt Groening’s Life in Hell comic strip (the primogenitor of The Simpsons) Groening wears his liberal bent on his sleeve. Springfield’s most prominent moment in the “culture wars” of the early 90s culminated in a real life kerfuffle with President George H.W. Bush, which was immortalized in “Two Bad Neighbors”. And the show in general has a propensity to take the stuffing out of anything revered or traditional.
On the other hand, Springfield has a corrupt, sleazy, largely ineffectual mayor who’s a page ripped out of the Kennedy family tome. The show has featured Bill Clinton hitting on Marge and describing himself as “a pretty lousy President.” And The Simpsons is still one of the few shows on television to depict its main characters regularly going to church and emphasizing family values, however fractured the show’s take on those values may be.
The easy answer then, and the one offered by the show’s ambassadors when questioned, is that The Simpsons is an equal opportunity source of satire, plenty willing to get its licks in on both sides of the aisle. While that’s true in a general sense, I believe the show still represents a particular political worldview, at least to the extent that a series which has had so many cooks walk through the doors of its kitchen can be said to have a single perspective.
The story of Lisa on The Simpsons is, in many ways, a tragic one. More than any other character on the show, she does not really fit into Springfield. That means that when she’s facing the type of complex problems that bother a sensitive young woman like herself, there’s little hope for a helping hand from someone who could address those problems with a level of understanding beyond her own.
Bart loves his sister, even if he can only admit it in a roundabout way, but he’s a brat whose bad behavior draws his parents’ attentions away from a child who needs it just as much, if not more. Homer, as Lisa acknowledges, means well and cares about his daughter, but he’s in so far over his head when it comes to the big questions nagging at her that he’s not much help beyond a good hug. That leaves Marge, perhaps the least-regarded member of The Simpson family among the show’s fans, as the only character on the show who “gets” Lisa.
Marge’s connection to her daughter makes her the emotional core of episodes like “Moaning Lisa”, particularly within the more grounded confines of The Simpsons’s first season. Even if Marge is, at times, a little too provincial to truly connect with her daughter’s world-weary concerns, she understands that Lisa is a remarkably precocious child, and that along with the insight and intelligence that will hopefully give her a better life someday, Lisa’s greater potential comes part and parcel with a greater set of challenges as well. The throughline for the episode, heavy stuff though it may be, is Lisa and Marge working through these types of challenges.
Say what you will about “Stunning and Brave”, the season premiere for South Park’s nineteenth season, which centers on Caitlyn Jenner and the public’s reaction to her transition, but in that episode, series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone had a point they wanted to convey about Jenner and the surrounding media hoopla. In classic South Park style, the quick production turnaround let them have their say while the topic was still fresh in everyone’s minds. And while their commentary may have been crass, with plenty of room to disagree, Trey and Matt had a clear viewpoint and message behind their work that came through in how South Park handled the issue.
The Simpsons’s much longer production cycle means that it’s always going to be playing catch up when it comes to addressing the issues of the day. The show has tried to work around this obstacle, trying everything from turning the show’s lagging response time itself into a joke, making their easier-to-animate chalkboard gags more topical (including in support of South Park), and more recently, creating short topical clips meant for viral internet consumption. But as a general rule, the creative minds behind The Simpsons have had to wait patiently to speak their piece in the national dialogue. Until now.
Enter The Simpsons: Tapped Out, a mobile “freemium” game (the likes of which South Park has previously taken aim at), featuring the denizens of Springfield in a Farmville-meets-SimCity type of environment. Within this game, there are various “quests” — brief in-game tasks that feature minor storylines (often rehashes or sequels to the show’s most notable episodes) with small bits of written, interstitial dialogue to break up the action and add a little flavor to a mode of game play that can otherwise become repetitive. The fact that nearly all of this dialogue is conveyed via comic book-esque speech bubbles, without the need for voice acting or animation, allows it to be much more timely than in the game’s televised counterpart.
It’s in these bits of written dialogue that The Simpsons offered its take on the Caitlyn Jenner story, by having a little-known Springfield mobster become a woman as part of a bid to overthrow the local government, only for the character to just as quickly transition back to being a man, without fanfare, after the citizens turn on him. It’s odd not only for the peculiar nature of this riff on the Caitlyn Jenner story in and of itself, but because the Jenner takeoff seemed tossed off into an unrelated storyline, with no real criticism or commentary behind it.
The Simpsons has never addressed Homer’s alcoholism more directly than it did in “Duffless”, and for good reason. As I discussed with the fine folks at the The Simpsons Show podcast this week, Homer’s love for beer is such an essential part of who he is to the general public, that it’s almost as synonymous with him as his dim-wittedness or his love of donuts. That essentially means the show can never truly change this facet of Homer’s personality, which, in turn, makes it pretty unlikely that The Simpsons will ever explore the issue in any greater depth than it did here. It’s a serious topic to tackle in the first place, and it’s a tough one to get right when you have to leave an iconic character the way you found him, to the point that he’s basically not allowed to make any sort of change for the better. Thus the series, as a general rule, tends to sidestep the issue.
Don’t get me wrong, The Simpsons frequently makes references to Homer’s vigorous beer consumption, but it’s generally played for laughs and never taken terribly seriously. I don’t have a problem with that either. Sure, at a big picture level there may be something mildly pernicious about depicting someone who drinks as much as Homer does never suffering any lasting consequences from it, but (1) The Simpsons is a comedy show, not an after school special and (2) Homer is, entirely independently of his drinking, already a terrible role model who rarely, if ever, suffers consequences for anything. Heck, the show centered an entire episode around that idea. If Homer Simpson is the example by which people live their lives, then they have bigger problems than one-too-many Duffs.
Now that Harry Shearer has agreed to return to The Simpsons, we will never know whether showrunner Al Jean’s earlier statement that the show would recast all of Shearer’s parts was an empty threat. It would be a tall order to replace characters as diverse and as central to the series as Ned Flanders, Mr. Burns, Waylon Smithers, Principal Skinner, and Reverend Lovejoy, not to mention God, The Devil, and Hitler.
But I’m inclined to believe that Jean really meant it. During tense contract negotiations in 1998, Fox executives went as far as hiring casting directors in five states to replace its disgruntled stars. And as hard as it is to imagine someone new voicing Dr. Hibbert, let alone Bart Simpson, this latest round of negotiations may have proven a proposition that has vexed and delighted the show’s die-hard fans in equal measure — The Simpsons may never end.
I was just a kid when I began watching The Simpsons religiously. That meant that, at the time, a good portion of the show went completely over my head: homages to classic movies, references to snuggling, jokes about Richard Nixon. It also made revisiting the show as an adult a wonderfully enriching experience. While the exquisite construction and sheer hilarity of the series enraptured me as a kid, I discovered deeper layers of storytelling, humor, and commentary in the show as an adult that I could never have fathomed in all my young fanaticism. But that naivete also meant that I completely missed how unremittingly dark the series could be in an episode like “Homer’s Enemy”.
Now The Simpsons is no stranger to dark comedy. It’s often employed in the tragicomic stylings of characters like Moe Szyslak or Hans Moleman, who suffer repeatedly for our amusement and turn up again no worse for wear. But there are few moments in the show’s canon that can match the pure black comedy of Frank Grimes’s descent into madness, or the conclusion of his debut episode, where the denizens of Springfield are laughing at Homer’s antics, while Grimes is lowered into his grave after an untimely death.
Many explanations have been offered for the creative decline of The Simpsons, from standard seasonal rot to the alleged tyranny of former showrunner Mike Scully. But one of the most persistent theories has been that when Matt Groening created Futurama with Simpsons writer David X. Cohen, he took the best of The Simpsons’ staff with him. While the work of Cohen and other former Simpsons scribes who migrated to Futurama like Ken Keeler, Bill Oakley, and Josh Weinstein cannot be overlooked, the truth of the series’s fall from grace is far more complicated.
But it’s not hard to see why the Futurama theory is so appealing. Futurama came about right when The Simpsons started to lose its fastball. And though Futurama has had its fourth, and presumably final, series finale, while The Simpsons marches on, in many ways Futurama feels like the spiritual successor to The Simpsons’ greatest years. No other show has been better able to replicate the peculiar alchemy of Springfield—the combination of a cynical worldview, a devotion to absurdist humor, and an undeniable grounding in real heart and character moments—than Futurama.