“This past summer, all of America was trying to solve the mystery of who shot Mr. Burns, then they found out it was the baby.” – Troy McClure
Twas the summer of 1980, and America was atwitter over a television cliffhanger about who had shot a character named J.R. on a primetime soap opera called Dallas. T-shirts were produced, bets were placed, and, if the Wikipedia article titled simply “Who shot J.R.?” is to be believed, that year’s presidential contest even got into the act with jokes and buttons. When the shooter was revealed that autumn, it became one of the highest rated events in television history. Dallas was already a hit, but after the shooting stunt it would reach new heights, becoming the #1 show in America for three of the next four seasons.
Fifteen years later, The Simpsons ran a parody cliffhanger, replacing J.R. with their own Charles Montgomery Burns. The summer of 1995 saw the country flooded with advertising sporting the image of Mr. Burns and his potential assailants, though the ads themselves had basically nothing to do with who had shot him. (The late 1990s advertising boom for collect calling services remains puzzling to me. I’ve never been able to figure out who was making so many collect calls that national ad campaigns were worth the expense.) The parody, though just an echo of the original, was big enough to merit its own exhaustively footnoted Wikipedia page.
Sixteen years later, Zombie Simpsons has brought us a different kind of cliffhanger, one that doesn’t manage to parody anything and is altogether more boring, more hapless, and less interesting. Instead of cooking up a satire or turning the whole endeavor into a joke, they plopped down an improbable romance and a half assed web page (which I will not link). Their marketing tie in isn’t a series of nationwide commercials, it’s a handful of downloadable images that a few people will put on their Facebook pages for a day or two. How the mighty have fallen.
Worse, Zombie Simpsons has bumbled into the desperate trap of so many flailing comedies: manufactured romance. Teasing audiences with unresolved sexual tension, even the comedic kind, has been a survival instinct of television shows since the days of vacuum tubes and Newton Minnow. Vicarious frisson and suggestive endings are trotted out in the hope that they’ll create the kind of curiosity that can withstand an entire summer’s worth of commercial interruptions. So what Zombie Simpsons has done is take two worn concepts and attempted to rub them together, hoping for a little spark of attention, or at least a fleeting second of pop culture relevance. But the cliffhanger and the contrived love story they’ve produced are too threadbare to do anything but disintegrate against one another.
The problem isn’t that Zombie Simpsons is engaging in a publicity stunt. The shootings of J.R. and Mr. Burns were just as shameless. The problem is that Zombie Simpsons is engaging in a publicity stunt that’s doomed to fail and be instantly forgotten. The people who cooked up “Who shot J.R.” succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, and the parody of it on The Simpsons is probably remembered by even more people than the original here in 2011. Both were noticed, and commented on, and talked about by people far outside the scope of the usual audience. In these nosier times, this far more timid and cliched stunt doesn’t stand a chance. There will never be an – ugh – “Nedna” Wikipedia article, at least not one that isn’t swiftly nominated for deletion for falling pathetically short of even the most generous definition of notability.