“This’ll be the last season.” – Homer Simpson
Even before the faux retrospective season finale “Behind the Laughter”, there was a melancholy to Season 11. In more than one episode, the show consciously looked back on what it had done while at the same time making changes that ensured it would never be the same. Where Season 10 did much to destroy Homer Simpson as a comedic character, Season 11 would see many of the secondary characters melted down into hapless puddles that only vaguely resembled the characters they had once been.
Some of these changes were gradual. Moe had originally been one of the least likable characters on the show. He owned a dank, dilapidated bar, the meager income of which he supplemented by running a number of side-line criminal schemes. The one time he did hire a waitress, he sexually harassed her at her interview and later had sex with her. The next season, when asked by Homer if he’d ever felt “unattractive”, the leg breaking loan shark replied with an unequivocal, “No”.
Season 9’s “Dumbbell Indemnity”, which finds Moe desperate for female companionship, began the process of transforming him from an unsympathetic lowlife into a lovelorn lonely heart. But in that episode, Moe at least went about impressing his new girlfriend in very Moe ways, committing numerous acts of fraud and landing Homer in jail before contemplating grave robbing. By Season 11’s “Pygmoelian”, heartsick Moe had taken over completely. He was desperate for someone, anyone, to like him, and there was only a scrap of the unrepentantly bitter bartender he’d once been.
The unlimitedly callous and evil Mr. Burns suffered a similar makeover. Where Burns had once been a ruthless sociopath, now he was often kind hearted, sensitive, and helpless. Season 10’s “Monty Can’t Buy Me Love” first showcased the new, gentler Mr. Burns. In it, the same character who once lamented “What good is money if it can’t inspire terror in your fellow man?” is shocked and horrified to learn that people don’t love him. He’s so saddened by this that he embarks on a series of outlandish stunts (accompanied by Homer, naturally) to win the public’s love. In Season 11’s “The Mansion Family”, a frightened and weak Burns blithely hands the keys to his home over to Homer, an act that would be unfathomable for the man who used to release the hounds on anyone (including children) who dared disturb him at Burns Manor.
If these had been one-off occurrences, that’d be one thing, but these newer characterizations became permanent. In Zombie Simpsons, Burns is more likely to be an incompetent sad sack than a heartless tyrant, and Moe spends far more time pining and helping others than he does smuggling rare animals and violating the health code. By turning Moe into a wet blanket and Burns into a sensitive fop, the show made Springfield a gentler and less threatening place, and in doing so made itself more like traditional sitcoms where even the most unlikable characters have redeeming qualities and hearts of gold. Similar gradual devolutions affected Lisa (from precocious girl to trend following cause junkie), Ralph (dimwitted kid to walking punchline), Superintendent Chalmers (petty public servant to Skinner’s constant companion), Lenny and Carl (from work buddies to some kind of odd gay/not gay/life mate duo), and several others.
In addition to those slower changes, Season 11 also saw the show, like so many aging programs before it, shake things up with single episodes that resulted in long term character developments. Among other things, Season 11 has Barney stop drinking, Apu become the father of octuplets, and Maude Flanders die. Each of those episodes involved the kind of enduring plot developments that the show had previously abhorred.
“Days of Wine and D’Ohses” is an episode so focused on Barney’s realization that he’s an alcoholic that it might as well have been an after school special. Barney had always been comfortable being a drunk; he was arguably one of the few genuinely happy characters on the show. Here he became instantly self conscious in a way that was presented as sad rather than funny. Not only did that run counter to classic Simpsons in terms of tone, but all the seriousness turned out to be for nothing. Instead of having Barney quit drinking and become a changed character, they kept him at Moe’s, sitting on his familiar barstool (albeit drinking coffee) to crack wise as if nothing had changed.
“Eight Misbehavin”, the octuplet episode, begins with Apu and his wife Manjula (herself only introduced in Season 9) deciding to have kids. The “new baby” concept has been around as long as television itself, and it’s an unmistakable sign of a show on the wane. Just three years previously, in “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show”, The Simpsons had made fun of this tendency with the fake introduction of new family member Roy. Now the show actually did what it had so recently parodied.
Worse, Apu and Manjula didn’t simply have kids, they had kids with the help of the show’s new superstar, Jerkass Homer. For no discernable reason other than the desperation of the writing staff, Apu and Manjula turn their sex lives over to the tender supervision of Homer, who does things like write them corny love scripts and slip Manjula fertility drugs. This type of plot, in which otherwise sane characters allow Homer intimate access to their lives, would become a regular feature of Zombie Simpsons. Homer was no longer the anonymous failure that made him a television hero; he was an energetic and rambunctious Loony Tune.
The same Jerkass Homer fixation occurs in “Alone Again Natura-Diddily”, the infamous episode in which Ned Flanders becomes a widower. Despite the fact that Homer’s manic stupidity is the cause of Maude’s accidental death, Flanders essentially makes Homer his new best friend. In between bouts of Homer acting out, the entire episode is characterized by the heavy handed television melancholia that it had once avoided like the plague.
Moreover, it wasn’t as if the show had never dealt with death before. Season 6’s “Round Springfield” saw Lisa’s idol Bleeding Gums Murphy die, and it never lingered over the sadness. In Season 4, Homer had been through life threatening heart surgery. Neither ground to a halt for sad string music, which “Alone Again Natura-Diddily” does several times.
Worst of all, though, was what the episode did to Ned Flanders, onetime foil to Homer Simpson. When The Simpsons began, Ned’s very existence was a constant source of Homer’s unhappiness. Flanders was everything that Homer wasn’t: fit, good looking, smart, well liked, and successful. Their entire relationship was based on Homer’s envious contempt and Ned’s perpetual forbearance. But with his wife dead, Ned stopped being an object of envy and became an object of pity, someone Homer had to help instead of despise. The change makes for more heartwarming stories, but does little for comedy.
These episodes introduced the kind of developments that are widely recognized as hallmarks of fading television series. Death, new characters, and sad twists on familiar faces reek of desperation, of change for the sake of change. As the show continued, there were several episodes that focused on Apu and his eight kids, as well as Flanders searching for love, and Barney coping with sobriety, but none of them did anything new. It was the same stories, repackaged and repeated in the hope the audience wouldn’t notice or care.
Like Homer, the rest of Springfield now bore only a surface resemblance to the characters they’d once been. But this newfound enthusiasm for character development created another problem that has endured throughout Zombie Simpsons. As the show became more emotionally heavy handed it also became wackier. And instead of doing one or the other, it tried to have it both ways at once.34 The episode would be dour and serious, but there was no payoff for the audience. No matter how sad the proceedings, everything was back to normal (or very close to it) by the time the credits rolled. The result is emotional episodes about sober Barney and widowed Flanders that don’t follow through, leaving the characters changed but unchanged, and still able to react to Homer’s antics.
Season 11 is rife with tone deaf juxtapositions like that. In addition to dead wives, multiple births and droning sobriety, Season 11 sees Homer use a full size motorcycle as a sword to rescue Marge, pirates kidnap half of Springfield and drown many of them, and an episode that ends with racehorse jockeys turning out to be magical, subterranean elves.35 Not only was the deft touch for tender or heartbreaking moments gone, but the stories that had grounded those moments had been replaced by adventures that Bugs and Mickey would consider outlandish. The show hadn’t previously been sappy or stupid, and now it was being both at the same time.
These traits can be seen in spades in “Hello Gutter, Hello Fadder”, the sixth episode of Season 11. The episode follows Homer as he bowls a perfect game, becomes an overnight celebrity, tries to kill himself, and then bonds with Maggie. The result is so emotionally jerky as to border on whiplash. Ham fisted moments are crammed into every other scene, while at the same time the events depicted are so hyperactively silly as to be incoherent.
Homer attempting suicide had been handled with both humor and class in Season 1. There his family found his suicide note and rushed to save him, the act of which gave him a newfound sense of purpose that drove the whole plot forward. In Season 11 he’s thwarted because he dives off the same building where Otto is bungee jumping. It’s a falling scene worthy of Wile E. Coyote or Daffy Duck; Homer and Otto even manage to have a conversation in midair.
Just a few minutes later, Homer gets sucked out to sea before being pulled from deep underwater by his infant daughter. When things like that are happening, it’s safe to say the show has dropped even the pretense of realism. Yet it continually expected the audience to take it seriously as it plays sad string music over Homer’s inability to connect with Maggie. The contrast between the sappy sentiment and the cartoonish slapstick is jarring, and indicative of a show that’s forgotten what it’s doing.
The season ends with “Behind the Laughter”, as good a candidate for a series finale as there’s ever been (perpetual show runner Al Jean has even said as much).xv Like “Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie” three years before, “Behind the Laughter” is the show acknowledging its longevity as well as its critics. And like its musical namesake, the episode chronicles both the rise and fall of the program, even taking time to mention explicitly the famously loathed “The Principal and the Pauper” from Season 9.
It’s all very tongue-in-cheek, but even this most friendly of overviews can’t help but subtly display some of the real problems with the show. As part of its fake “Behind the Music”-style story, the episode has Homer discuss a painkiller addiction he developed from doing stunts and getting hurt over the years. The first thing that plays is a brief clip of Homer falling down the cliff from Season 2’s “Bart the Daredevil”. (Which, it should be noted, is played for laughs and not suspense.) After that, the screen splits into four segments, each one displaying an extended clip of Homer getting hurt. The clips are continuous, so the audience is shown four long scenes of Homer in constant pain. Of the four, one is from Season 9 (Homer’s head getting crushed in a drawbridge), two are from Season 10 (Homer being badly beaten by Groundskeeper Willie, Homer falling from the sky) and the fourth is from earlier in Season 11 (Homer smashing his crotch into snow banks).
Once they’re done playing those long clips, the camera pans back to show Homer in front of a screen talking about getting hurt. Two more clips play in the background, sequentially. The first is from Season 6, the second is from Season 8, neither lasts more than three seconds. Pressed to find long clips of Homer getting hurt, they went with Season 9 and after; when they needed just a brief clip it was Season 8 and before.
In another display of the schizophrenic attitude the show had toward the well justified criticism it has received, the episode ends with an admission of decline but couples it with a tease about the future. After the narrator says “So, whether choking their son or poking some fun, the Simpsons will keep on gagging for years to come”. That’s followed by a shot of the family in a television editing room looking at themselves on the video monitor in what turned out to be the story setup of the Season 12 finale. On the monitor, they say:
Marge: I can’t believe it, we won another contest!
Homer: The Simpsons are going to Delaware!
Lisa: I want to see Wilmington!
Bart: I want to visit a screen door factory!
That’s followed by Homer, standing in the editing room, saying “This’ll be the last season”. The editor solemnly nods.
Continue to Chapter 12: Zombie Simpsons.
Notes and Sources
xv. “‘Simpsons’ exec producer Al Jean on renewal: ‘This isn’t an end but a beginning'”, by Dan Snierson, 8 October 2011, http://insidetv.ew.com/2011/10/08/simpsons-al-jean-renewal/