The Deep Nerds vs. The Common People

Noted Simpsons aficionado Big Daddy Drew always includes a Simpsons quote in his weekly NFL preview column up at sports gossip blog Deadspin.  This week, he went a little bit further:

Gratuitous Simpsons Quote
“Tough times, huh? I’ve lived through twelve recessions, eight panics, and five years of McKinleynomics. I’ll survive this.”

That quote comes from the Burns Casino episode, which is one of my favorites. I usually get all Jamboroo Simpsons quotes from The Simpsons Archive. In terms of thoroughness of research, the site’s more comprehensive than the 9/11 commission. It’s got quotes, background details, all that shit.

And then, there are the reviews. I like to check out the reviews of classic episodes from time to time. Most were written right after the episode aired. And the reviewers are absolutely fucking BRUTAL on the show. Look at this review from the $pringfield episode. It’ll sound familiar:

Neil Berkman: I thought it was by far the worst Simpsons episode ever. Not a laugh in it. I could pull a better cartoon out of my…Hey kids!! Bill Oakley, if you’re reading this, sorry, but that episode was the absolute bottom of the barrel. Just when I was regaining some faith in the show after the dismal start of the season…

Snippets from five more:

overall, I would have to say that a fully complete plot was lacking. Rating: C/C+…

…Well, as a story and plot, it was rather fair…

…it had the form of a Simpsons episode, but there was just something terribly wrong with it…

…the plot was weakly developed…

…Didn’t work for me. Kissinger, Cooney, and Goulet were excellent, but I didn’t get the Howard Hughes thing, so I was going “Huh?…”

Keep in mind, this was from Season Five, during the peak of the show’s powers (Season 4-6 pretty much represent the Mona Lisa of television comedy). We’re talking about fucking brilliant episodes, and the SNPP community shit all over them. Is it any wonder the show’s writers threw up their hands and eventually put the show on autopilot? I’d give my prostate for the show to do episodes this good again.

I too would give up my prostate for episodes of that caliber.  But Drew, whose writing I greatly enjoy, makes a small, though common, mistake when he mentions the “SNPP community”.  He’s applying the credibility of ordinary people to a tiny and highly select group.  SNPP didn’t get started until 1994 and that episode capsule wasn’t put up until 1996.  Those ridiculously stupid reviews, however, are from right after the episode aired, in December of 1993.  That means they came from some BBSes or, more likely, Usenet.  Do you know who was using alt.simpsons in 1993?  This guy:

Ye Olde Computer Nerd

That image has been kicking around for who knows how long because it’s the perfect depiction of a computer nerd.  In fact, when I punched “nerd computer” into Google Images it was 5 of the 20 pictures on the first page.  There are boxes of 5-1/4 inch floppy disks, a dot matrix printer, and one of those very old IBM keyboards that had the Function keys (F1-F12) off to the left instead of along the top.  Even if the image on the monitor didn’t already look photoshopped (more than once if you look at the edges), you’d know it was fake because that is a monochrome monitor (or at most 4-color).  I’m no computer historian, but that looks like mid to late 80s to me and I would know because I had computers just like that one.

Do you know what it took to get on-line in those days?  First you had to physically go to the library, because that’s where they had the list of telephone numbers that could be dialed with a modem (note the phone line in the picture) that would connect you to a local BBS.  General ISPs were almost nonexistent and even if you did get on-line there wasn’t much content to interest the non-hard core nerd.  Earthlink wasn’t even founded until 1994.

The early, and often very harsh, criticisms of the show you can still see on SNPP come from this extremely narrow slice of the population.  Remember that Season 6, which as far as I’m concerned is that last of the truly perfect seasons, what Drew calls “the Mona Lisa of television comedy”, ended in the spring of 1995.  The great seasons of The Simpsons almost completely predate what we think of as the internet. 

It’s both lazy and distorting to ignore that fact.  This is from that Morgan Spurlock interview we posted about yesterday:

And don’t bother trying to convince Spurlock that “The Simpsons” has slipped much from its earlier glory-days hysterical heights – a criticism that those involved with the series have been hearing since approximately season III.

Were there on-line criticisms of the show during Season 3 (1991-1992)?  Of course there were!  Go to any capsule for Season 3 on SNPP and you’ll find at least a couple of negative reviews for even the most beloved of episodes.  Their opinions have outsized prominence because they were amongst the first people to discuss popular culture on-line, but the population that generated those reviews is extremely non-representative of Simpsons fans.  It’s highly skewed towards the techiest of the early 1990s nerds who were, to put it mildly, an abnormal set of people.

That there was at least some on-line criticism of the show from almost the beginning, and that said criticism is ridiculously harsh, should NOT obscure the fact that in this day and age, indeed since the turn of the century at least, there has been a solid and growing contingent of Simpsons fans who feel the show has badly lost itself.  To ask, as Drew does, if it’s any wonder that the show is on “autopilot” misses point.  The only thing the fans, both those who carp online and those who don’t, ever did wrong was to keep watching and buying long after the show itself turned to shit.  That the writers, producers, and hangers on became gun shy because anonymous nerds wrote mean things on the internet defies all reason.

I hear this on the Season 12 commentaries all the time, “Oh, people on the internet bitched about this”.  First of all, so what?  Second, that doesn’t mean they weren’t justified in their bitching.  And third, internet snark is not a reason to suck at your job.

5 Responses to “The Deep Nerds vs. The Common People”

  1. 13 December 2009 at 11:50 am

    Wow. I posted a shorter rebuttle to the idea that ‘because people bitched at the show in 1993, or whatever’ it makes the bitching at the current show pointless, because the current show is just as good as it was in ’93” on the NHC.

    I even said the net was populated with nerds like the guy in that picture and noone would belive me.

    • 2 Charlie Sweatpants
      13 December 2009 at 12:47 pm

      With the possible exception of “it’s still better than most other television”, “people have always complained” is the pro-Zombie Simpsons argument I find the most flat out illogical. Not only does it try to hold me responsible for other people’s opinions, but it tries to hold me responsible for other people’s opinions I don’t even agree with. I just don’t see how the fact that a hard core computer nerd wrote something dumb on Usenet in 1993 has any relevance at all.

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