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”.