04
Aug
11

Where Al Jean Went Wrong: A Closer Look At The Last 10 Years Of The Simpsons

– By John Hugar

2001 was the height of my Simpsons obsession. That might sound odd when you consider it’s 10 years later and here I am writing a post for a blog dedicated to dissecting every flaw of the show’s later years, but trust me, back then it was different. These days, while I still love The Simpsons and I still love talking about them, I am, in fact, capable of carrying on conversations about other subjects. For 11-year-old me, that was quite a challenge.

I had been into the show since 1997, but my love for it was pushed into the stratosphere primarily due to the internet. Instead of just watching the show, I could now glean every bit of information there was to glean about the show. Episode titles, production numbers, animation goofs, and thanks to SNPP, full transcripts of nearly every episode.

Of course, the internet didn’t just exist for facts about the show, but opinions. Long, rambling opinions like this one. That’s where I was a bit flustered. As someone who thought the show could do no wrong, I was stunned at how many people thought the show had gone downhill in the recent years. This was right around the end of Season 12, when Mike Scully’s reign of terror, stupidity, and jockey elves was coming to an end. Everyone seemed to agree on two things: 1. The show wasn’t what it used to be. 2. It had a chance to get better under its new executive producer, Al Jean.

I didn’t really I think the show had gotten worse (11-year-olds have an unfortunate tendency of finding Jerkass Homer amusing), but I understood that other people did, and I could recognize what traits they didn’t like. As a result, when the Jean episodes started airing, I found myself rooting for all the ugly Scully traits to vanish so that everyone could go back to agreeing that The Simpsons was the greatest show in the history of the universe.

Of course, that never occurred. A lot of things have happened during Al Jean’s now 10-year reign as Executive Producer of the show, but a return to the quality of the early years is not one of them. Now, that isn’t to say Al Jean didn’t do anything right (although I’m sure some would feel that way). If anything, I look at his all-too-lengthy run as a bit of a mixed bag.

For me, the Jean era can by divided into two categories. Seasons 13-16, which were either a noble failure, or a minor success, depending on how generous you want to be, and everything after that, in which the show gets more generic and less recognizable from The Simpsons each year.

When Al Jean took over the show, it seemed like his goal was to fix some of the errors that had occurred in the Scully era (the wacky third act twists, the ultra-stupidity of Homer, etc) and bring the show back to what it was in the early days. Unfortunately, this didn’t work for a variety of reasons. One was that rather than trying to break new ground and reach new creative heights, the show was engaging in a self-conscious effort to seem like The Simpsons.

That sort of thing rarely works. Whenever something tries to imitate itself, the results almost always end up seeming like an inferior version. Like when the Rolling Stones made Steel Wheels. Sure, it was a decent album, and it was better than, say, Dirty Work, but the band was obviously trying to imitate the standard Stones sound, rather than create something original, and as a result, it wound up being vastly inferior to classics like Let It Bleed and Exile On Main St.

The same problem plagues early Jean era episodes. You can tell they’re trying to tap into what made the early years great, but they don’t quite get there. Take “Sleeping With The Enemy” from Season 16. It’s a well-liked episode on the internet, and really, it’s not too bad. It does, however suffer from a lot of attempts to imitate better episodes that don’t quite work.

Both the main plot and the subplot in this episode are surprisingly emotional for such a late-period episode. The main story involves Nelson coming to live with The Simpsons after Marge discovers how lonely and neglected he feels, while the subplot involves Lisa struggling with body image issues, and bordering on anorexia. Both plots have potential for emotional resonance, and naturally, they both go for the gusto.

This happens in one scene when Bart, frustrated over having Nelson sleeping in his bed, comes into the living room and finds Nelson, crying over his estranged father. Except he’s not just crying, he’s also singing Barbra Streisand’s “Papa, Can You Hear Me”. This is where a potentially poignant moment gets ruined by overkill. For one thing, how the fuck is a 10-year-old boy so familiar with Streisand’s work? Especially one who was previously one of the toughest kids in school? Secondly, even if Nelson does have a secret penchant for 70s lite Adult Contemporary music, the scene would’ve been so much better if Nelson had just been crying, and maybe saying “I miss you, Papa”. Having him sing such a sappy song took an emotional scene and made it simply melodramatic.

Once this is over, a similar problem occurs in the scene involving Lisa that comes immediately after. Lisa decides to have one piece of cake to let herself know she still has self-control. Except it doesn’t work. She starts eating more and more until she dives into the cake and makes snow angels (cake angels?) in it. This just flat out makes no sense. It might be the single most out of character thing Lisa has ever done, and naturally, Jean is doing it to tug at the viewer’s heart strings. As with the Nelson scene, a lighter touch would’ve worked a lot better (maybe Lisa just eats a large portion of cake and then begins crying?), but he wants to let you just how serious the scene is, and as a result, it seems a lot less serious.

I use this episode because it’s the definitive example of how Jean’s attempts to revive the feel of the Golden era didn’t quite work. There’s plenty of good lines here (one favorite: Nelson saying his tadpoles “seem crude by comparison” to the hot dog Marge gives him), but he goes for schmaltz rather than true emotion, and it the episode suffers as a result.

I still think the first 4 years of Jean’s run did spark a minor improvement, because while episodes like “Sleeping With The Enemy” didn’t reach the heights of the best years, they also didn’t feature the ridiculous plot twists and zany-for-the-sake-of-zany silliness that dragged the Scully era into the ground (note: a few episodes did this, with “Helter Shelter” and “Strong Arms Of The Ma” being the worst examples, but it was no longer the rule).

If Jean’s run had ended after Season 16, I think we’d look at it as a lot more of success than we do now. “Maybe he didn’t completely save the show, but he did improve on a lot of the major problems,” we’d say. But no, that couldn’t be the case. He had to keep going, and that’s when the show to started to really go off the deep end.

For me, Season 17 marked the greatest decline from one season to another in the show’s history. Why? Because rather than become overly wacky like it did in the Scully years, it became overly generic. Episodes became indistinguishable from each other, and in general, it felt like the episodes were coming off an assembly line. This problem continues to this day, and is one of the biggest problems with Zombie Simpsons: the show lacks the traits that used to distinguish it form other shows.

Put it this way, even in the dregs of the Scully era, I can usually recognize an episode form its opening scene. The family at Costco? Oh, it’s “Simpson Safari”. Homer sets off the smoke alarm? Must be “Pygmoelian”. In the post-2005 episodes, things are so generic and indistinguishable that it often takes me until 5 minutes into episode for me to know which episode it is. And these are episodes I’ve seen multiple times. Far too often, the shows just blend into each other.

That, I’m afraid, is what Al Jean’s legacy would be. Rather than being the guy who didn’t quite save the show, but made it a bit better and put it on the right track, he’ll be known as the guy who seized the power and took away all the things that made The Simpsons what they were. Yes, Scully was responsible for that to, but at least his failures had personality, and he left when it was time to leave. Jean continues to act as the shows decidedly unbenevolent (nonbenevolent?) dictator with no end in sight. Being the Simpsons nerd I am, I’ll keep watching, hoping things get a little better (hey Season 22 was probably a little better than Season 21, maybe), and enjoying the one or two legitimately good episodes each year, but the show seems set in its bland, inferior ways now, and as much as I admire his superior work, it seems like Al Jean deserves the majority of the blame for that.


18 Responses to “Where Al Jean Went Wrong: A Closer Look At The Last 10 Years Of The Simpsons”


  1. 2 TomR
    4 August 2011 at 5:08 pm

    I liked ‘Sleeping with the Enemy’ because of the cool direction, like those low-angle shots of Homer and Bart’s hair ruffling as hit hat disappeara due to the transition from a flashback. Very cool.

  2. 3 fudge
    4 August 2011 at 6:13 pm

    Great post.

    You know.. There are some ZOMBIE SIMPSONS episodes I don’t mind, since there’s usually something clever or interesting happening at some point in the eps (the stop-motion “a picture for every day of homer’s life” in the Eternal Moonshine episode always gets to me), but my biggest problem is the show just isn’t FUNNY anymore. That, and it’s just a shell of its former self.. I can go, “oh, hey, clever!” or “oh, a dance number, they put some effort into this part…” but then I look at an old episode and am just blown away at how much was crammed into each episode.. so many great lines and moments and… well, you know. Sadly, the show has de-evolved, and while it can occasionally muster something interesting, all the best moments combined from thge past 10 years wouldn’t even equal the greatness of a single season from the earlier days… I think you hit the nail on the head on one of the big problems with the show.. it’s just generic nowadays. Characters AREN’T characterized, they’re just CHARICATURES, simple where they used to be complex… Also, you’re right, episodes are pretty indistinct from each other. The season 17 cave episode, and maybe 1 or 2 beside that since then, I know right away.. but yeah, mostly they just kinda go through the motions. Bart pulls a prank, Homer quits his job, Mr. Burns is a senile old fart, Marge does something boring, Lisa finds somthing to be political about. I mean, it’s all been DONE.

    On a side note… I have always been interested in what, if any, ZOMBIE episodes that Simpsons fans like, or don’t mind as much. I kinda want to own all the Simpsons DVD sets but man I just can’t imagine spending $30-ish dollars on something like season 18, which I remember watching episodes from, maybe even multiple times in syndication, but can’t remember a single episode from. Like you said, while it isn’t as funny or, uh, good.. at least I can remember 90% of season 11, and still find some of the episodes watchable, even if it is only a shell of its former self.

  3. 4 Anonymous
    4 August 2011 at 6:24 pm

    Very insightful post. We’re about the same age and apparently I’m one of the weird ones in that I already noticed the decline as a preteen. (Lest I come off as holier-than-thou, I did think 8 was the best season ever and loved quite a few zombie Treehouses of Horror.) And yeah, I can remember when everyone thought Jean would save the show. I tried so very hard to convince myself that Season 14 was halfway decent. It had to be! The Simpsons was the greatest show ever!

    Besides what you mentioned, here’s another thing Al Jean tried to improve: guest voices. Consider that Jane Kaczmarek, Julie Louis-Dreyfus, Dennis Weaver, Olympia Dukakis, Marisa Tomei, Jonathon Taylor Thomas, etc. all had notable (ish) roles without playing themselves…something that’s much rarer today. There were also a decent number of episodes where the only guest stars were regulars (Joe Mantenga, Jan Hooks) or there were no guests at all! (Bart vs. Lisa vs. the Third Grade, for example.)

    Such a shame Fox has a horrible sense of what to cancel and when.

    • 5 August 2011 at 9:17 am

      Never think Fox cares about quality. All the episodes could be Homer farting in front of a brick wall for 22 minutes and as long as it made money, it’d continue.

  4. 6 Derp
    4 August 2011 at 8:47 pm

    Compare Lisa and the cake to Lisa and the hotline when she needed to make it to midnight. I didn’t care about Lisa eating the cake at all; not a damn was given.
    However you’re rooting for her when you want her to beat her hotline addiction. Zombie Simpsons doesn’t come close.

    Also, I agree regarding the Nelson song. It just didn’t work for me.

  5. 4 August 2011 at 9:06 pm

    I absolutely agree with your generic-ization comments. A lot of the latter day shows I’ve watched just run into each other, and I can’t distinguish one from the other, and then I conclude that I don’t care. The Scully episodes may be bombastic and dumb, but at least they’re identifiable.

  6. 8 Chris
    5 August 2011 at 1:05 am

    It’s not Al Jean’s fault. He has the unenviable task of trying to keep a show fresh that’s been on the air for 22 years. That wasn’t even possible in season 12, let alone season 22. The problem is that Fox, or Matt Groening, or whoever, refuses to cancel it. This show should have been cancelled after season 9. Everything that could have been done, had been done. There was nowhere left to go. And yet here we are, 13 years after THAT, and it’s still going.

    Then again, part of it is Al Jean’s fault because he’s a paid comedy writer and the show is painfully unfunny. At least Mike Scully had a sense of humor, even if it was juvenile and bombastic. I can’t blame Jean for continuing to pick up a paycheck, but I hope he realizes what a poor job he’s done. I’ve tried watching the show in recent years, and it is beyond awful. In fact, Fox’s entire Sunday night lineup is among the worst television I’ve ever seen.

  7. 9 Thrillho
    5 August 2011 at 1:06 am

    Maybe it’s because I started watching the show at the beginning of its decline, but 10 years later, I can look back at episodes from Seasons 11 and 12 and think, “Yeah, I remember that episode.” They weren’t great, but they had enough bits, both good and bad, that made an impact. However, when I read synopses of episodes from a season or two ago, I always think “Did I even watch that episode?” They’ve gone past the point of leaving a negative mark to just leaving no mark at all (which can still be considered negative.) I knew Zombie Simpsons had WAY overstayed its welcome after it became clear it had nothing to say anymore.

  8. 5 August 2011 at 5:22 am

    I must echo what others have said; a great article.

    I’m 20 myself and can relate. I discovered the show around 1999, and was very into it around ’99-’02. I got the Internet in ’01, and the revelation that not everyone dug the latest episodes really surprised me. (Back then, my least favourites were probably largely from the first season.) Like you, at the time I didn’t realise the decline in quality. As I got involved with SNPP and the NHC, I began exploring people’s reasoning, and gradually began to understand and recognise the changes the show went through around season 9, and as I’ve grown up, I see those aspects as having a really negative impact on the show. (I never did like Saddlesore Galactica, though..)

    But my experiences, and thoughts, took place during the Scully era. I wonder if the difference between the classic era and the Zombie era are more obvious to those ten-year-olds just getting into the show now – we’re a decade-plus into ZS, and even counting S9 through S12 as a transitional era, there’s now ten years of Al Jean, of distinctly going-through-the-motions episodes. Surely it’s now much easier to notice the difference, given that ZS has equalled, and outpaced, the classic era, in terms of number of episodes?

  9. 11 lionel pizza huts
    5 August 2011 at 5:58 am

    Well Nelson likes Andy Williams so its not that much of a stretch to presume that he is familiar with Barbara Streisand. Case closed.

    • 12 John Hugar
      5 August 2011 at 3:56 pm

      That actually occurred to me like 15 minutes after I finished it. I was curious to see if anyone would bring it up. I still think that scene is really awkward and melodramatic, but I’ll concede that Nelson being a Streisand fan is plausible.

      Although Andy Williams is way cooler.

      • 13 lionel pizza huts
        7 August 2011 at 12:05 pm

        I totally agree with you about that scene, you could use that as a microcosm for zombie simpsons, where as the Andy Williams reference is funny the Streisand one as you say is akward.

        Great article BTW thanks for the read.

  10. 14 kokairu
    5 August 2011 at 11:55 am

    Really good post – it’s interesting to dissect gradual decline of Zombie Simpsons, and as you’ve demonstrated, even that found new lows to sink to once the show was past the point of no return. I wouldn’t carry on hoping about things getting better though…

    Can’t believe that ‘Sleeping with the Enemy’ is regarded as highly as it is. The Lisa plot is basically a bad after school special, especially at the end when she makes the forced comment about overcoming eating disorders being a long and hard process. I only saw it for the first time recently and it almost blurred together with its partner in the hour slot on Channel 4: Hollyoaks, a badly acted UK soap that ticks off issues facing young people for each of their storylines. And the Nelson plot is cruddy… he made a good A plot back in series 1, but that’s where it should be left.

    I do quite like the line about the young model being down to her birth weight, though.

  11. 15 Ezra
    23 August 2011 at 5:48 pm

    I didn’t even know the Anorexic Lisa episode was part of the Nelson’s Dad episode – that’s how forgettable it was for me. I’m really surprised that anyone can find it to be a decent episode.

  12. 16 Snaked
    30 August 2011 at 7:57 pm

    Reading through this blog post, I could not help but agree with preety much everything you wrote, especially when you also consider Al to be a Dictator much like how I compared him to one on the No Homers forums (even calling him shit like “Adolf Jeanler” and “Emperor Palpajean”, the former name used previously by a member of “The Daily Rider” with the latter obviously being my own creation).

    Then again, I do find season 17 to be an improvement over 13-16, no matter how dull and boring it is all around in the sense that Insultingly obvious lampoons of real-world franchises such as Cosmic Wars, Sprawl-Mart, Roofi and other such shit were almost unheard of in the episodes of those seasons, aside from hate-infested episodes such as “On a Clear Day I can’t See My Sister” or the infamous “Bart-Mangled Banner” being practically unheard of, as well IIRC. Hell, even season 18 & 19 had some preety solid episodes scattered about such as 19’s finale “All About Lisa” (coincidentaly, in the same season as the dreaded “That 90’s Show” in where the member of “The Daily Rider” used the term “Adolf Jeanler” in his review of such an episode).


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