20
Jan
10

But It’s Getting Better! (wipes away tear, stomps foot)

Pouting

Image used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user TheNickster.

“Mom, can I go buy one of those long plastic horns?” – Bart Simpson
“Oh Bart, we’ve bought those before and you always just throw them out the car window on the ride home.” – Marge Simpson
“I get bored with them.  But that won’t happen this time!” – Bart Simpson

One of the main arguments of Zombie Simpson defenders is the old “It’s still better than most teevee!” canard.  We here at the Dead Homer Society have pointed out numerous times before that even if we accept that as true it’s still not much of a defense because most teevee is and always has been terrible.  An oft deployed corollary to this argument is the “It’s gotten better the last few years!” refrain.  This one admits that the show has gotten worse, but says that the last few seasons have actually been pretty good, the implication being that all of us Zombie Simpsons critics are just closed minded and joyless.  Much like its parent argument however, this too falls apart when you take just a minute to think about. 

This is a sentiment that has been around literally since the show started going downhill.  The only things that change are the turning points, e.g. “It’s gotten better since . . .  they got new writers/Al Jean took over/the movie came out/they went to HD” and on and on.  Here are two recent examples.  The first comes from a review of the skeletal Season 20 DVD:

Admittedly, the show has been through some rough patches. Recent years have been too reliant on flashback episodes, flash-forward episodes and Simpsonized versions of other stories. Season 20 isn’t immune from this but by and large, it’s one of the better seasons in quite some time.

It then goes on to praise some of the indistinct trash from last season.  And here’s last week’s IGN review of “Once Upon a Time in Springfield”:

All sorts of arguments can be made that the show just isn’t as good as it used to be, and to an extent, it would be hard to argue. But I don’t think you’d have such an easy time convincing people that the current state of the series is bottom-of-the-barrel terrible.

In one form or another people have been expressing this exact argument for years.  The problem is that it never seems to last.  The show has a well established golden age in its first eight seasons or so, but there is no second or third peak era that lots of people will point to as being great.  In this argument the show has always gotten better “recently”, or “in the last few seasons”, or some other nebulous time frame.  It’s a cop out used by people who want to find something – anything – positive to say so they don’t sound like cranky old farts. 

Lest you doubt me that people have been saying “It’s back!” for a very long time, here’s A.O. Scott writing in The New York Times Magazine:

Rumors of the show’s demise proliferated. But the show was clearly not ready to die; new writers were hired, and ratings began climbing. This show is now in such strong shape that a long-contemplated movie may finally be in the works.

Gee, that kinda sounds like maybe it’s getting some of the magic back, but that article was written in 2001 on the eve of the 13th season.  Flash forward six years and here’s the same guy* reviewing The Simpsons Movie:

It is not better than the best episodes — it’s no “22 Short Films About Springfield” or “Homer’s Enemy” or “Krusty Gets Busted” or “Lisa the Vegetarian” — and it doesn’t strain to be. (I’d put it at about the level of “Trash of the Titans,” the 200th episode, with which it shares an environmental theme.)

Notice anything about the “best” episodes he’s citing?  They’re all from Season 8 or earlier and “Trash of the Titans” is from Season 9.  Where was the improvement?  Where are the great episodes that should surely result from the show having been in “such strong shape” in 2001? 

It’s never true that the show has improved recently.  If it were going to get better it would’ve happened by now, after all we’re working on more than a decade since it got really bad.  At the very least within all those hundreds of episodes we should have a stretch of a few seasons where there was a relatively agreed upon return to form.  But we don’t.  All we get are more Zombie Simpsons, year after year. 

While I have no sympathy whatsoever for this argument I do have some sympathy for the impulse behind it.  So many fans are so desperate to like the show again that they can’t bring themselves to snuff out that last trembling ember of hope.  I get that.  I understand that.  But it’s self delusion.  The Simpsons is dead, it died a long time ago and it’s not coming back.  And pretending that it might won’t make it. 

 

*Just for the record I love A.O. Scott in general.  I think he’s the best movie critic working by a country mile.  His review of the 2001 Frederick Prinze Jr. vehicle “Head Over Heels” is one of the funniest and most memorable pieces of pop culture writing I have ever read.  I think you need to create an account at nytimes.com to read it (though I also think it’s free to do so), but if you’ve got a spare minute or two it is well worth your time:

Of course Amanda keeps dating him, though she does begin to suspect that Jim harbors a dark secret. This is perhaps the most ludicrous conceit in a movie that consists of nothing but ludicrous conceits. Freddie Prinze Jr. with a dark secret? The man is so guileless, so transcendently indifferent to anything you might think of as acting that he exists on screen without motives, thoughts or desires.

I hope to never see that movie, but that review is still hilarious nine years after the fact.  More recent, if slightly less potent, examples include his reviews of “Leap Year”, “Whiteout” and “Angels & Demons”. 


21 Responses to “But It’s Getting Better! (wipes away tear, stomps foot)”


  1. 1 Celia
    21 January 2010 at 5:17 pm

    But I don’t think you’d have such an easy time convincing people that the current state of the series is bottom-of-the-barrel terrible.

    Those who do think the sex jokes from The Devil Wears Nada, or the rape joke from Rednecks and Broomsticks (as examples) actually do count as bottom-of-the-barrel terrible apparently don’t count as “people”. “People” is that “silent majority” of whom we always hope we’re a part, whereas everyone else is some other beast.

    I admit that it took me a while to agree that the show was really churning out some tosh most recently. I don’t want the show to be shit. I like The Simpsons! But I kind of find it hard to deny the evidence of my own eyes and ears when, occasionally, that which is supposed to be funny is so unpleasant it causes physical reactions. Not always, of course. But I don’t think the earlier seasons, even the episodes that I don’t like so much, ever made me feel ill. I think that counts as a serious deterioration in quality (even if I am only one insane commenter on the internet)

  2. 23 January 2010 at 11:02 am

    These “it’s getting better” ilk are getting worse every year. For them, they believe the show is going to end in the near future and each year, so they revel in self-dellusion the show will end on a good note. I’m pretty sure when the final season airs, people on the No Homers Club are going to be calling it the greatest thing in the history of the written word, despite it being just as lousy (or worse) than the last 11+ seasons.

    • 3 Charlie Sweatpants
      23 January 2010 at 12:58 pm

      “For them, they believe the show is going to end in the near future and each year, so they revel in self-dellusion the show will end on a good note.”

      I never considered that before but I think you’re absolutely right. For the last ten years or so the general (but mostly unstated) assumption has been that the show only has a year or two left. But it just keeps going and we all keep stupidly thinking, “Surely by now they’ve realize it should end.” When they renewed again last spring my initial thought, even though there’s no evidence for it whatsoever, was, “Only two more years, I guess I can stomach that.”

      • 25 January 2010 at 5:38 am

        If we’re talking about a return to form, I have to ask: why don’t the producers/writers try to make at least ONE episode in the style of the show of the first five years or so? Something with an actual plot, depth, etc? I’m sure there must be loads of scripts dating from the earlier years of the show that were never made. What would be the harm in animating one of them? (well, aside from the obvious harm of totally showing up all of the other episodes.)

        • 25 January 2010 at 8:33 pm

          “If we’re talking about a return to form, I have to ask: why don’t the producers/writers try to make at least ONE episode in the style of the show of the first five years or so?”

          The easy answer, according to Al Jean, is the show is now 2 minutes shorter due to more commercials, but then why do they still have couch gags that seem to go on for 3x the normal length? Smells of BS to me…

          ” Something with an actual plot, depth, etc? I’m sure there must be loads of scripts dating from the earlier years of the show that were never made. What would be the harm in animating one of them? (well, aside from the obvious harm of totally showing up all of the other episodes.)”

          As far as I’v heard, there’s only one full-script (I think it was around Season 9) that was never aired that was to feature Prince as the guest star, but after the writers sent Prince the script for his feedback, it came back rewritten and unusable. For returning to ‘the first five seasons style,’ again, Al Jean says the show’s style is the same from the 3rd Season to the present, to him, the quality is the same as it was back then…at least that what he says publicly. On the otherhand, Al’s old writing cohort, Mike Riess, admitted the show’s ‘human’ side had been washed away over the years, but he also said: “There’s no going back.”

          What I’ve come to feel over the years of reading various interviews with the staff, especially the last decade, is I get the impression the staff would like to quit and move onto other TV shows, but thanks to reality TV, there are fewer opportunities to make it outside of the Simpsons, so Al Jean and the current staff won’t leave and the show just continues to fester along.

  3. 6 calum
    14 February 2010 at 1:48 pm

    stop crying please. The show is good to me so i dont need a big critical essay on it.

    • 7 Charlie Sweatpants
      14 February 2010 at 2:42 pm

      Nobody forced you to read it, nor does any of the above state that you can’t like Zombie Simpsons. Just don’t kid yourself that it’s as good as it was. That’s all.

  4. 8 Lovejoy Fan
    18 July 2010 at 1:59 pm

    Maybe I’m alone here, but whenever I hear this stuff about how the show’s apparently getting better, the first thing that comes to mind is the scene from “Lisa the Vegetarian”, where Homer is chasing the pig.

    “It’s just a little slimey! It’s still good! It’s still good!”

    “It’s just a little airborne! It’s still good! It’s still good!”

    For the record, I honestly feel the show has gotten worse. I know I’m not alone in that, at least.

  5. 5 August 2010 at 11:12 pm

    The “It’s getting better than X Years ago” argument is exactly the same as “They should have canceled it X years ago” or “It hasn’t been funny since X years ago.” Every year, the opinions stay exactly the same, with only the year changing. While your essay seems to make me feel BAD for still liking the show, I respect your opinion and I know that I can’t change yours any more than you can change mine. I’m still going to watch, you’re still going to complain. Personifying the other side as a whiny little kid does not really help your cause, much like me imagining you as Database, only with a forum to complain about that magic xylophone.

    I think one problem lies on perceiving episodes on some unreachable level at some point in the past (nostalgia, overall quality). If you simply judge episodes on their own, several are pretty good, and provide solid entertainment. But if you DO compare it to the earlier stuff, sure they’re going to suck. I’ll fully admit that the show as a whole isn’t as good as the earlier seasons, but I don’t let it get to me. There are still many great episodes since that arbitrary point where you thought it became zombified, but as it has been shown, they’re few and far between, where “meh” outnumbers “groin-grabbingly awesome.” The two that you mentioned “24 Minutes” and “Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind” are just a few of those that fall into “Groin-Grabbingly Awesome.” If you only refer to the latter as “that one where they parody that youtube video,” I highly doubt that you actually watched the episode.

    I also blame the animation itself. While the overall art has been getting better, the individual animation itself has become stiff and unimaginative in the last decade. But the Simpsons isn’t the only show that suffers from this, and outside of the movies where they have the budget to actually animate, I think the only shows with actual fluid to the animation these days are Flapjack and Adventure Time.

    • 6 August 2010 at 12:00 am

      “…much like me imagining you as Database, only with a forum to complain about that magic xylophone.”

      That was alt.tv.simpsons back in the 1990’s. Today, Joe Internet is complaining about the show being terrible and he looks nothing the stereotypical nerdlet straw man the ‘true fans!’ put up. As for the show itself, it’s become a (sad) institution where it’s existence is more important than the quality of the programming it puts out. To a lot of ‘fans’ the Simpsons is like sex–even when it’s bad it’s good.*

      *=alt.tv.simpsons true fan saying from the 90’s. :)

      • 7 August 2010 at 1:18 am

        I’d like to meet this “Joe Internet” that doesn’t consist of the four contributors to this site.

        While I agree that the Straw Fan is no longer the nit-picking Database, we unfortunately now have Comic Book Guy who proclaims “Worst Episode Ever! I will only watch it three more times! Today!” or even the dreaded “Stop Having Fun Guy.” http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StopHavingFunGuys

        And I’ll repeat myself by mentioning the whiny little kid picture at the top. Is this supposed to be me? Because of the tone of the article, I can think it represents the author as well.

        • 7 August 2010 at 9:05 pm

          “I’d like to meet this “Joe Internet” that doesn’t consist of the four contributors to this site.”

          First, not everybody contributes to EVERYTHING on the internet, but a lot of people go online and are into “something”, but because of the stigma that if you’re into a TV show, instead of politics, religion, or facebook, it automatically designates you to be a fat, shut in loser who never left home. Really, fictional TV shows, or news events–everyday people will use the internet to complain and using the CBG as a label of the fans who aren’t happy with the show is like saying to someone that if you own a cellphone you’re a technology geek. This isn’t 1997, anymore.

          Also in your previous post, you said:

          “The “It’s getting better than X Years ago” argument is exactly the same as “They should have canceled it X years ago” or “It hasn’t been funny since X years ago.” Every year, the opinions stay exactly the same, with only the year changing.”

          There is a bit of truth to this, but there’s also a bit of misjudgment here, too.

          First, I’ve read the alt.tv.simpsons since 1994 and started contributing in 1997 and a lot of the hate towards the show back then was due to the showrunners changing every 2 seasons. The biggest outcry came when David Mirkin took over and the fans on alt.tv.simpsons flipped due to the realistic side of the characters were glossed over with zany, cartoonyisms. Two years later, Oakley and Weinstien took over and tried to tone down the gags and reinstate the ‘human’ side of the characters, but the fans complained it wasn’t funny enough. Basically, the constant stylistic changes turned off people who had jumped on at whatever point. However, looking back, these constant terms of Executive producers kept the show fresher and prevented the show from becoming stale.

          Now compare that to the Scully Seasons, and Jean Seasons. The show ceased with changing the EPs and now the show suffers from horrid stagnation. IMO, that’s why everyone keeps searching for a reason to say the show is ‘getting better’–they have so much invested in the Simpsons they don’t want the show to just silently fall by the wayside so they cling to whatever gimmicks that comes along to say it’s better…Jean taking over, the Movie inspiring the writers to do better and work harder, the Movie out of the way making the writers less burnt out, the switch to HD, etc. What’s next? The writing magically improves when the Simpsons go 3D?

          • 7 August 2010 at 11:01 pm

            “First, I’ve read the alt.tv.simpsons since 1994 and started contributing in 1997 and a lot of the hate towards the show back then was due to the showrunners changing every 2 seasons. The biggest outcry came when David Mirkin took over and the fans on alt.tv.simpsons flipped due to the realistic side of the characters were glossed over with zany, cartoonyisms. Two years later, Oakley and Weinstien took over and tried to tone down the gags and reinstate the ‘human’ side of the characters, but the fans complained it wasn’t funny enough. Basically, the constant stylistic changes turned off people who had jumped on at whatever point. However, looking back, these constant terms of Executive producers kept the show fresher and prevented the show from becoming stale.

            Now compare that to the Scully Seasons, and Jean Seasons. The show ceased with changing the EPs and now the show suffers from horrid stagnation. IMO, that’s why everyone keeps searching for a reason to say the show is ‘getting better’–they have so much invested in the Simpsons they don’t want the show to just silently fall by the wayside so they cling to whatever gimmicks that comes along to say it’s better…Jean taking over, the Movie inspiring the writers to do better and work harder, the Movie out of the way making the writers less burnt out, the switch to HD, etc. What’s next? The writing magically improves when the Simpsons go 3D?”

            Oh, I definitely agree with this. Can’t they find someone ELSE to run it? I didn’t like Scully’s run, even going as far as referring to him as “History’s Greatest Monster,” stealing the title from Jimmy Carter. I actually cheered when his show “The Pitts” utterly failed. I thought Al Jean’s return was a bit better at first, and then like you said, began to suffer from stagnation.

            I certainly don’t think that implementing certain gimmicks makes it better, like the switch to HD. Sure, I think the artwork in HD looks AMAZING, but if you don’t have a good story, then you’re just looking at some purty pictures and not much else. I go for the overall quality of an episode (animation, writing, acting, etc) before judging it.

            Also, I shame myself for not finding alt.tv.simpsons until Season 13. I couldn’t really find my way around the internet until then.

    • 14 Charlie Sweatpants
      6 August 2010 at 6:05 pm

      “If you only refer to the latter as “that one where they parody that youtube video,” I highly doubt that you actually watched the episode.”

      Actually that is one I’ve seen. More than one person recommended it as an example of Zombie Simpsons being good, and I found it tediously boring. It’s nothing but flashbacks and the string music of suspense based on two equally stupid ideas 1) that Homer would beat Marge and 2) that Marge would sleep with Duffman(!). What it reminded me of was “Trilogy of Error”, from Season 12. I get that it’s intricately plotted, and I’ll even go so far as to admit that it obviously had a lot more care put into it than most Zombie Simpsons. But multiple flashbacks to reveal a convoluted mystery the premise of which isn’t the least bit believable or funny is not something that has any place is a Simpsons episode.

      Edited to add: Pretty much everything I wrote here about “Trilogy of Error” applies “Eternal Moonshine” as well:

      http://deadhomersociety.wordpress.com/2009/10/28/trilogy-of-error-makes-baby-jesus-cry/

  6. 16 Charlie Sweatpants
    7 August 2010 at 12:08 pm

    @In10Words aka Galileo

    I think you’re reading more into the above piece and the comments than is being stated. I’ll say “Zombie Simpsons sucks” in as many different ways as I can, but it’s rare to never that I’ll say that Zombie Simpsons fans suck. I don’t care what other people like to watch for entertainment, and given some of my own less than refined tastes I’m in no position to cast stones even if I were so inclined. If you like Zombie Simpsons, that’s fine. You don’t have to apologize for that or justify it. I’m not saying that you can’t have fun watching Zombie Simpsons, and if that wasn’t clear then it’s certainly my fault for not making it so.

    All I’m saying above is that anytime you hear someone say “it’s gotten better recently” you should be a bit skeptical. People have been saying that for more than decade, and yet there’s no period where its generally agreed that it got noticeably better, there’s nothing on the post Season 10 part of that IMDb ratings graph where the fluctuations are anything but statistical noise. Maybe Season 22 will be different, anything’s possible, but given the available information (both anecdotal and numerical data), it seems very unlikely.

    • 7 August 2010 at 10:36 pm

      “All I’m saying above is that anytime you hear someone say “it’s gotten better recently” you should be a bit skeptical. People have been saying that for more than decade, and yet there’s no period where its generally agreed that it got noticeably better, there’s nothing on the post Season 10 part of that IMDb ratings graph where the fluctuations are anything but statistical noise. Maybe Season 22 will be different, anything’s possible, but given the available information (both anecdotal and numerical data), it seems very unlikely.”

      Fair enough. The only times in my life where I DID in fact say, “this is getting better” it’s only because I was referring to some small upswing after seasons 10-12 (Dear lord, the bad/meh outweighed the good there. I really liked a lot of season 13 episodes), and then I realized that there were a few more overall “meh” seasons after THAT (I think around 15-18). I think the show is SLIGHTLY better than THOSE seasons, but overall, I think nothing will ever be as great as the show’s heyday. That’s one of those “once in a lifetime” things that won’t come around again for quite some time.

  7. 18 Realist
    6 October 2010 at 3:47 pm

    You’re right! I feel compelled to defend the latest episodes of the Simpsons but I actually feel greatly disgruntled by them. All I see on Sky 1 is repeats of awful season 20 episodes and season 21 episodes and I just feel depressed. When was the last time George Meyer or Jon Vitti or John Swartzwelder wrote an episode? More importantly, how could Al Jean let the innumerable abominations which have been aired be aired? I felt reluctance to admit it but I will admit that the latest seasons of have been unendurably boring. And now I will finish this message so I can feel melancholy and disappointed. D’oh!


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