“How about it, Luann, will you marry me, again?” – Kirk van Houten
“Ooh, no.” – Luann van Houten
“Uh, well, uh, can I have my shirts back at least?” – Kirk van Houten
“Okay, you heard the lady, why don’t you take it outside, alright?” – Pyro
“I’ll be back, prob-probably.” – Kirk van Houten
To reinforce my point from last week that there’s really no way to change the show enough to make it interesting again without also destroying whatever is left of its appeal, I’d like to point out the Zombie Simpsons enforced absurdities of this list of “The 10 Most Significant, Lasting Changes on The Simpsons”. Here’s the abbreviated version:
10. Barney’s Sobriety
8. Patty’ Lesbianism
7. Ling, Selma’s Daughter
6. Maggie’s Gun Skills
5. Lisa’s Buddhism
4. Milhouse’s Parents’ Divorce
3. Lisa’s Vegetarianism
2. Apu’s Marriage
1. Maude’s Death
The first thing that jumps out is the prevalence of Zombie Simpsons on that list. Six of them (1, 5, 7-10) happened post Season 10. Beyond that though, we can see the shoddy nature of many of these supposedly significant and lasting changes. Yes, Selma went to China to adopt a baby, but I’ve seen every episode since the beginning of Season 20 and I can’t recall a single time her kid was even mentioned. Barney’s sobriety seems to come and go (the article mentions this), but even when he is sober they still usually just stick him in Moe’s like nothing ever happened. I don’t think Patty coming out even counts, since they hinted that she’s gay all the way back in Season 2 and when they finally did bring her out of the closet it turned out that she was in love with a dude.
I bring this up not to take potshots at the list. Sometimes you have to stretch to get to ten (#6 is plainly not a real thing), and that’s just life on the internet. I bring this up because all of those post-Season 10 episodes were schlock episodes, that played things seriously but then didn’t actually have much of an effect on the show. The episode where Barney dries out was really pathetic in a lot of ways, but after all that heavy handed emotion they couldn’t bring themselves to actually change his character. Flanders being a widower was a bit more effective, but it hasn’t really done anything to change him or his kids (who are almost never on the show anymore anyway). Pretty much every episode about Flanders now involves him finding love, which got old about ten seasons ago.
If you compare that type of “hey, we’re doing an emotional episode!/psyche everything’s normal!” mentality with the Season 8 entry on the list, Milhouse’s Parents’ Divorce, you can see things are a lot different. To be sure, that episode has a few downer moments, but it was also done directly in the face of sitcom convention. If you listen to the commentary for “A Milhouse Divided” (which I did), one of the big themes they had was that they wanted the divorce to be permanent. Standard teevee had a lot of “divorce” episodes, but they always ended up with the characters getting back together. Here they deliberately went away from that and made the change lasting. Zombie Simpsons, swamp of unthinking sentimentality that it is, caved to comedy convention in Season 17 and Season 19, but for a few years there actually was a payoff.
More to the point, adding a baby (or eight), killing off a character over a contract dispute, having characters suddenly fall in love, and doing promos with women kissing women are all hallmarks of a television show on the down slope of its run. Zombie Simpsons managed to make that even worse by basically ignoring many of its own changes after they happened. Neither Selma’s daughter, Lisa’s Buddhism, nor Barney’s sobriety have had much of an effect in subsequent episodes. They were toss-offs posing as permanent changes, single episode ideas that meant so little to the core of the show that they could be safely done without compromising the similarity to The Simpsons that is the only reason Zombie Simpsons is still on the air.
On the rare occasion they do bring up one of the changes they made, it’s basically an excuse to rerun the same things that happened in the original episode. How many times have Apu and Manjula been frustrated with having octuplets? How many times has Flanders pined for a companion?
Most of these purportedly significant and lasting changes have been neither, and the few that were lasting haven’t been significant. Even if many of these episodes hadn’t been plodding and heavy handed, Zombie Simpsons would never make genuinely significant changes because doing so would a) be a tacit admission that they’re out of ideas, and b) make them look even more like the undistinguished FOX animation that they are.