“I had a feeling it was too good to be true. Every time you get a million dollars something queers the deal.” – Homer Simpson
Since the marathon started last week, there’s been far more Simpsons commentary on the internet than I could possibly hope to keep up with: podcasts, blog posts, articles, the never ending firehose of Twitter, you name it. For the most part this has been very enjoyable. Usually, the only time people start talking about the show is when they do another publicity stunt. Some are linked to their most recent guest appearance or meaningless 50th/100th episode milestone, others some new line of merchandise, or, more recently, the killing of a character and doing crossovers with Family Guy and Futurama. For the most part these get dutifully written up by the usual sycophantic entertainment news sites and that’s about it. The marathon, however, has been different.
Starting last week and continuing through the weekend (Seasons 7 and 8 were on most of Sunday), there was an avalanche of people actually talking about The Simpsons instead of Zombie Simpsons or the latest officially licensed crap. Even better, it was an overwhelming tidal wave of love: people talking about how the old episodes are great, dark, cynical, smart, heartfelt, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Perhaps most encouraging, at least on Twitter, was the huge number of people watching with their kids. Nine-year-olds whose parents grew up on the show got sucked into things like “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy” and “Bart of Darkness”.
However, there was one persistent undercurrent to all the comity and enjoyment that kinda bugged me, and it’s gotten worse as the marathon has switched into Zombie Simpsons. Namely: there’s an almost unspoken taboo against mentioning how much the show has gone to seed.
Before I get into a couple of examples, let me say that I completely understand this. People just want to discuss or praise the show; they don’t want to have an argument with some pissed off fanboi who may or may not turn out to be a flaming troll asshole. This is why you’ll often see articles about the show (and this has been everywhere with the FXX marathon) start with some kind of disclaimer about how people complain too much, “blah blah blahing” away criticism of later years, and similar. It’s simply easier to preempt people from calling you a bitter, uncool Comic Book Guy type than it is to deal with it after the fact. (This exact phenomenon came up in comments on Wednesday.)
What makes this so annoying from the point of view of a Zombie Simpsons critic is that, no sooner have people made this disclaimer, than they proceed to talk about favorite episodes, gags and stories that come exclusively from Season 9 and earlier. This is why I called the idea that the show is as good as ever a “Soviet fiction“. Everyone knows the show isn’t anything like what it once was, they just don’t want to say so explicitly because to do so is to invite trouble, trolling, and pointless arguments that have been hashed and rehashed countless times already.
You can see this phenomenon in spades in two recent discussions of the show: one on a WHYY Philadelphia program called “Radio Times” and the other on the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast. Production wise, these are a step way above your standard blog rant about the show, and yet that same reluctance applies.
The “Radio Times” episode aired last week, and the producers were kind enough to email me about it. Here’s the description:
Today, the FXX network begins its 276 hour-long marathon of every episode of The Simpsons ever. This is to commemorate the launch of the expansive SimpsonsWorld application, which will provide access to every episode, as well as a searchable database of the show’s transcripts. Today, we discuss the 25 year-old series, its impact on American culture, and why it merits such an expansive service. We’re joined by DAVID BIANCULLI, television critic for WHYY’s Fresh Air and founder of TVWorthWatching.com, KARMA WALTONEN, lecturer at UC Davis’s University Writing Program and co-author of The Simpsons in the Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experience with the Wisdom of Springfield, and Simpsons writer and co-executive producer, MICHAEL PRICE.
That uncomfortable fact probably sails over the head of just about everybody (of the people actually participating, my guess is that only Waltonen and Price even realized it). And while the deterioration of The Simpsons isn’t something that’s strictly necessary to bring up, it’s still a glaring omission to not even mention what is easily one of the most widely debated aspects of the show. Not discussing it at all is like pretending Michael Jordan retired after 1998, Bobby Fischer never went publicly crazy, or Emily Dickinson lived a long and happy life. This is a Philadelphia based program, they probably love Rocky 1, but they wouldn’t do a show on it and not even mention the franchise’s crash landings in various sequels. Yet the collapse of The Simpsons is so potentially toxic that no one brought it up even to disagree with it.
The same can be said of the Slate Culture Gabfest episode about the marathon. They don’t have a Zombie Simpsons writer whose work they nonchalantly ignore, but they do have a discussion of the show and what makes it “timeless” that repeatedly cites single digit seasons as being among the finest and most influential things ever done . . . all while saying not a word about the later and far inferior season which at this point constitute the bulk of the episodes.
Like the WHYY program, the silence on the decline of the show is deafening. They dance around it, even saying that they don’t follow the show any more and citing what seasons (single digits) they think constitute the part of the series that makes it still relevant even twenty years after it was broadcast. Nobody talks about the later years, because, again, doing so just invites trouble.
This misleads the audience by omission. A healthy chunk of the Culture Gabfest discussion is devoted to whether or not kids decades from now, who probably won’t get references to Cheers or Phantom of the Opera, will still laugh at something like “Flaming Moe’s”. Their consensus is that, yes, kids in the future will get it, because you don’t actually need to know Cheers to enjoy it any more than you need to have seen Citizen Kane to get “Rosebud”. (For the record, I and plenty of other people had probably seen “Rosebud” fifteen or twenty times before ever watching Kane.) But “Flaming Moe’s” and “Rosebud” are light years of quality and timelessness away from, say, the Lady Gaga episode, or the popped eyeball episode, or even the “picture a day” YouTube episode.
Again, I understand the reluctance. Criticizing the show and saying that it isn’t as good as it once was is to invite the most boring and annoying kind of discussion. I wouldn’t call the e-mails I routinely receive “hate mail” (no one has, for example, threatened to drink blood out of my genitals (<- asshole)), but they tend not to be kind. And one of the very first comments we ever got on this site way back in 2009 was to call me a pedophile. It’s aggravating and time consuming even before you get into refuting the same tired arguments over and over again.
But if you want to talk about why the show is “timeless”, you are doing your audience a disservice if you don’t talk about the difference between The Simpsons and Zombie Simpsons. The show is a global cultural phenomenon to which basically nothing else can even be compared, and those early seasons are a literary goldmine whose breadth and depth touch on an all but unlimited array of immutable human subjects: love, failure, humiliation, redemption . . . the list goes on. There’s a reason Karma Waltonen can teach a kaleidoscope of college level topics through the lens of The Simpsons.
That’s why I’m not kidding when I compare The Simpsons to William Shakespeare and Mark Twain. Twain had a #1 bestseller one hundred years after he died, and people still make new and innovative Shakespeare adaptations for stage and screen because in both cases the writing is just that good. Are high school students in the class of 2114, 2214 or even later going to be forced to watch “Cape Feare” the same way they’re forced to read Hamlet or Huckleberry Finn? I don’t know, and I’m never going to find out because I’ll be dead by then. But from the vantage point of 2014, you’d be hard pressed to nominate any other recent cultural creation that stands a better chance (or even comes close). After all, there’s already a play that’s been critically acclaimed in New York City and London about how people will be reinterpreting The Simpsons far into the future.
So while it’s enjoyable to see The Simpsons lauded and praised on big name podcasts, public radio, and other mainstream outlets, there’s no getting around the fact that eliding and/or ignoring the show’s precipitous fall makes their encomiums incomplete (at best). The Simpsons itself deserves the praise, but to overlook or conflate it with the shallow detritus its reputation and legacy still manage to keep on the air degrades and distorts both what it means now and how it will fare in the future. It’s a pain in the ass to do, but if you want to talk meaningfully about The Simpsons, you’ve got to talk about Zombie Simpsons.