- By John Hugar
2001 was the height of my Simpsons obsession. That might sound odd when you consider it’s 10 years later and here I am writing a post for a blog dedicated to dissecting every flaw of the show’s later years, but trust me, back then it was different. These days, while I still love The Simpsons and I still love talking about them, I am, in fact, capable of carrying on conversations about other subjects. For 11-year-old me, that was quite a challenge.
I had been into the show since 1997, but my love for it was pushed into the stratosphere primarily due to the internet. Instead of just watching the show, I could now glean every bit of information there was to glean about the show. Episode titles, production numbers, animation goofs, and thanks to SNPP, full transcripts of nearly every episode.
Of course, the internet didn’t just exist for facts about the show, but opinions. Long, rambling opinions like this one. That’s where I was a bit flustered. As someone who thought the show could do no wrong, I was stunned at how many people thought the show had gone downhill in the recent years. This was right around the end of Season 12, when Mike Scully’s reign of terror, stupidity, and jockey elves was coming to an end. Everyone seemed to agree on two things: 1. The show wasn’t what it used to be. 2. It had a chance to get better under its new executive producer, Al Jean.
I didn’t really I think the show had gotten worse (11-year-olds have an unfortunate tendency of finding Jerkass Homer amusing), but I understood that other people did, and I could recognize what traits they didn’t like. As a result, when the Jean episodes started airing, I found myself rooting for all the ugly Scully traits to vanish so that everyone could go back to agreeing that The Simpsons was the greatest show in the history of the universe.
Of course, that never occurred. A lot of things have happened during Al Jean’s now 10-year reign as Executive Producer of the show, but a return to the quality of the early years is not one of them. Now, that isn’t to say Al Jean didn’t do anything right (although I’m sure some would feel that way). If anything, I look at his all-too-lengthy run as a bit of a mixed bag.
For me, the Jean era can by divided into two categories. Seasons 13-16, which were either a noble failure, or a minor success, depending on how generous you want to be, and everything after that, in which the show gets more generic and less recognizable from The Simpsons each year.
When Al Jean took over the show, it seemed like his goal was to fix some of the errors that had occurred in the Scully era (the wacky third act twists, the ultra-stupidity of Homer, etc) and bring the show back to what it was in the early days. Unfortunately, this didn’t work for a variety of reasons. One was that rather than trying to break new ground and reach new creative heights, the show was engaging in a self-conscious effort to seem like The Simpsons.
That sort of thing rarely works. Whenever something tries to imitate itself, the results almost always end up seeming like an inferior version. Like when the Rolling Stones made Steel Wheels. Sure, it was a decent album, and it was better than, say, Dirty Work, but the band was obviously trying to imitate the standard Stones sound, rather than create something original, and as a result, it wound up being vastly inferior to classics like Let It Bleed and Exile On Main St.
The same problem plagues early Jean era episodes. You can tell they’re trying to tap into what made the early years great, but they don’t quite get there. Take “Sleeping With The Enemy” from Season 16. It’s a well-liked episode on the internet, and really, it’s not too bad. It does, however suffer from a lot of attempts to imitate better episodes that don’t quite work.
Both the main plot and the subplot in this episode are surprisingly emotional for such a late-period episode. The main story involves Nelson coming to live with The Simpsons after Marge discovers how lonely and neglected he feels, while the subplot involves Lisa struggling with body image issues, and bordering on anorexia. Both plots have potential for emotional resonance, and naturally, they both go for the gusto.
This happens in one scene when Bart, frustrated over having Nelson sleeping in his bed, comes into the living room and finds Nelson, crying over his estranged father. Except he’s not just crying, he’s also singing Barbra Streisand’s “Papa, Can You Hear Me”. This is where a potentially poignant moment gets ruined by overkill. For one thing, how the fuck is a 10-year-old boy so familiar with Streisand’s work? Especially one who was previously one of the toughest kids in school? Secondly, even if Nelson does have a secret penchant for 70s lite Adult Contemporary music, the scene would’ve been so much better if Nelson had just been crying, and maybe saying “I miss you, Papa”. Having him sing such a sappy song took an emotional scene and made it simply melodramatic.
Once this is over, a similar problem occurs in the scene involving Lisa that comes immediately after. Lisa decides to have one piece of cake to let herself know she still has self-control. Except it doesn’t work. She starts eating more and more until she dives into the cake and makes snow angels (cake angels?) in it. This just flat out makes no sense. It might be the single most out of character thing Lisa has ever done, and naturally, Jean is doing it to tug at the viewer’s heart strings. As with the Nelson scene, a lighter touch would’ve worked a lot better (maybe Lisa just eats a large portion of cake and then begins crying?), but he wants to let you just how serious the scene is, and as a result, it seems a lot less serious.
I use this episode because it’s the definitive example of how Jean’s attempts to revive the feel of the Golden era didn’t quite work. There’s plenty of good lines here (one favorite: Nelson saying his tadpoles “seem crude by comparison” to the hot dog Marge gives him), but he goes for schmaltz rather than true emotion, and it the episode suffers as a result.
I still think the first 4 years of Jean’s run did spark a minor improvement, because while episodes like “Sleeping With The Enemy” didn’t reach the heights of the best years, they also didn’t feature the ridiculous plot twists and zany-for-the-sake-of-zany silliness that dragged the Scully era into the ground (note: a few episodes did this, with “Helter Shelter” and “Strong Arms Of The Ma” being the worst examples, but it was no longer the rule).
If Jean’s run had ended after Season 16, I think we’d look at it as a lot more of success than we do now. “Maybe he didn’t completely save the show, but he did improve on a lot of the major problems,” we’d say. But no, that couldn’t be the case. He had to keep going, and that’s when the show to started to really go off the deep end.
For me, Season 17 marked the greatest decline from one season to another in the show’s history. Why? Because rather than become overly wacky like it did in the Scully years, it became overly generic. Episodes became indistinguishable from each other, and in general, it felt like the episodes were coming off an assembly line. This problem continues to this day, and is one of the biggest problems with Zombie Simpsons: the show lacks the traits that used to distinguish it form other shows.
Put it this way, even in the dregs of the Scully era, I can usually recognize an episode form its opening scene. The family at Costco? Oh, it’s “Simpson Safari”. Homer sets off the smoke alarm? Must be “Pygmoelian”. In the post-2005 episodes, things are so generic and indistinguishable that it often takes me until 5 minutes into episode for me to know which episode it is. And these are episodes I’ve seen multiple times. Far too often, the shows just blend into each other.
That, I’m afraid, is what Al Jean’s legacy would be. Rather than being the guy who didn’t quite save the show, but made it a bit better and put it on the right track, he’ll be known as the guy who seized the power and took away all the things that made The Simpsons what they were. Yes, Scully was responsible for that to, but at least his failures had personality, and he left when it was time to leave. Jean continues to act as the shows decidedly unbenevolent (nonbenevolent?) dictator with no end in sight. Being the Simpsons nerd I am, I’ll keep watching, hoping things get a little better (hey Season 22 was probably a little better than Season 21, maybe), and enjoying the one or two legitimately good episodes each year, but the show seems set in its bland, inferior ways now, and as much as I admire his superior work, it seems like Al Jean deserves the majority of the blame for that.