Compare & Contrast: Cliffhangers & Cultural Relevance

“This past summer, all of America was trying to solve the mystery of who shot Mr. Burns, then they found out it was the baby.” – Troy McClure

Twas the summer of 1980, and America was atwitter over a television cliffhanger about who had shot a character named J.R. on a primetime soap opera called Dallas.  T-shirts were produced, bets were placed, and, if the Wikipedia article titled simply “Who shot J.R.?” is to be believed, that year’s presidential contest even got into the act with jokes and buttons.  When the shooter was revealed that autumn, it became one of the highest rated events in television history.  Dallas was already a hit, but after the shooting stunt it would reach new heights, becoming the #1 show in America for three of the next four seasons.

I Married Marge6

Fifteen years later, The Simpsons ran a parody cliffhanger, replacing J.R. with their own Charles Montgomery Burns.  The summer of 1995 saw the country flooded with advertising sporting the image of Mr. Burns and his potential assailants, though the ads themselves had basically nothing to do with who had shot him.  (The late 1990s advertising boom for collect calling services remains puzzling to me.  I’ve never been able to figure out who was making so many collect calls that national ad campaigns were worth the expense.)  The parody, though just an echo of the original, was big enough to merit its own exhaustively footnoted Wikipedia page

Sixteen years later, Zombie Simpsons has brought us a different kind of cliffhanger, one that doesn’t manage to parody anything and is altogether more boring, more hapless, and less interesting.  Instead of cooking up a satire or turning the whole endeavor into a joke, they plopped down an improbable romance and a half assed web page (which I will not link).  Their marketing tie in isn’t a series of nationwide commercials, it’s a handful of downloadable images that a few people will put on their Facebook pages for a day or two.  How the mighty have fallen.

Worse, Zombie Simpsons has bumbled into the desperate trap of so many flailing comedies: manufactured romance.  Teasing audiences with unresolved sexual tension, even the comedic kind, has been a survival instinct of television shows since the days of vacuum tubes and Newton Minnow.  Vicarious frisson and suggestive endings are trotted out in the hope that they’ll create the kind of curiosity that can withstand an entire summer’s worth of commercial interruptions.  So what Zombie Simpsons has done is take two worn concepts and attempted to rub them together, hoping for a little spark of attention, or at least a fleeting second of pop culture relevance.  But the cliffhanger and the contrived love story they’ve produced are too threadbare to do anything but disintegrate against one another. 

The problem isn’t that Zombie Simpsons is engaging in a publicity stunt.  The shootings of J.R. and Mr. Burns were just as shameless.  The problem is that Zombie Simpsons is engaging in a publicity stunt that’s doomed to fail and be instantly forgotten.  The people who cooked up “Who shot J.R.” succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, and the parody of it on The Simpsons is probably remembered by even more people than the original here in 2011.  Both were noticed, and commented on, and talked about by people far outside the scope of the usual audience.  In these nosier times, this far more timid and cliched stunt doesn’t stand a chance.  There will never be an – ugh – “Nedna” Wikipedia article, at least not one that isn’t swiftly nominated for deletion for falling pathetically short of even the most generous definition of notability. 

6 Responses to “Compare & Contrast: Cliffhangers & Cultural Relevance”

  1. 1 Chris
    27 May 2011 at 2:44 am

    Everyone involved with this should be embarrassed. You’re right that the Who Shot Mr. Burns publicity stunt was just as shameless, but it was funny. I would expect this type of embarrassing romance from Friends, where everyone on the show has to be with everyone else at some point, but not The Simpsons. The Simpsons were always above that; well, not anymore.

    A Fish Called Selma took two seemingly unmatchable people and put them together, but it was part of a broader joke about celebrity. There is no broader joke here, except for what the show has become.

  2. 2 Joe C.
    27 May 2011 at 3:54 am

    While storylines are more difficult to conjure up for the show nowadays (22 years will do that to you), this particular story is especially embarrassing. The Simpsons knew what they were doing when parodying “Dallas” since they poked fun at plots that were desperate for the audience’s attention. At least the payoff was something that anybody could figure out if they did their own detective work, plus the 2 episodes have excellent humor.

    ZS, on the other hand, doesn’t know what the hell it’s doing since they rely on audience voting to move the “plot” forward. When the audience is the one who decides what should happen on the show, then you know that the creative genius that was once present is no longer there. In fact, it’s been replaced with a brainless, lifeless body that is no more than a shell of its former self.

  3. 3 Stan
    27 May 2011 at 8:13 am

    @Chris: today’s show isn’t far from Friends. You can’t take a show that guest stars Glee for The Simpsons of the 1990s, that was making fun out of such things rather than promoting them to guest stars. They have completely gone merch, they stink, and they keep on that attitude, and unlike even five-six years ago, don’t even cover in shame anymore. This shit deserves to die.

    @Joe: proves to point of Ralphs Wiggums sitting there picking their noses and being the “test audience”. They throw images at them and those morons either laugh or cry. If they laugh, we get to rage. If they cry but it still passes on (for example because a mom of one of the FOX executives liked it), we see Chalmers and Skinner having a daily conversation about shit.

    Funny thing is, they cover up their mistakes if they see that a joke out of this is not imminent. Just like Schaal’s name, if they see nobody laughs at that, they remove it. Brace yourselves, because that voting thing might as well be replaced by a half-assed ending this Fall, if they don’t get enough Ralph Wiggums to vote for their little ad. And they won’t even joke about it, just switch the part and that’s it. It’s not funny, see, the test audience didn’t laugh!!

  4. 4 Patrick
    28 May 2011 at 12:27 am

    Can you imagine if the King of the Hill season 3 finale did that online voting thing as well, seeing as a lot of the KoTH fanbase hate Peggy for some reason :S they would vote on her to die meaning not only would the show structure be changed dramatically and we wouldn’t get that hilarious Peggy/Cotton episode afterwards as well :/

    P.S. Was there ever an episode of King of the Hill that showed how Hank and Peggy first met?

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