I love intelligent criticism. As a writer, I’d be nowhere without it. It’s important to identify flaws in the things we love — or in the things that, with some substantial revision, we might come to love — but anybody can do that. What’s comparatively more rare is insight. It takes very little effort to point at the things we dislike and say, "Yeah…that sucked." It takes a lot more effort — and perhaps some amount of jilted affection — to devote four posts to every new episode for the sole purpose of figuring out why those things sucked. That’s what drew me to Dead Homer Society, and that’s what keeps me here.
But what of my own dissatisfaction with the show? To be fair, I could disagree with everything Mr. Sweatpants & Friends write here, and still come away from their articles enlightened. In fact, I do often disagree with their final assessments of certain things…but that doesn’t mean I can’t find some value in their discussions. That’s the mark of intelligent writing; agreement isn’t the endgame at Dead Homer Society. Consideration is. And, unfortunately, consideration isn’t the kind of thing that does modern-day Simpsons any favors.
My own concerns with the show honestly have very little to do with the state of the comedy. Yes, I’ll unquestionably concede that I’m lucky to get one or two good laughs out of an episode today…but, as strange as it might sound to admit this, I’m okay with that. Since season 9 or so, I’ve been looking elsewhere for my weekly dose of great jokes…and I’ve found them without a problem. South Park, Futurama, King of the Hill, The Venture Bros., American Dad, Archer, Bob’s Burgers…and those are just the cartoons. There’s no shortage of great animated comedies right now, and there hasn’t been for years. It’s certainly sad that I can no longer number The Simpsons among them, but the torch has been passed so many times now that I think it’s almost foolish to look back. The Simpsons isn’t a fond memory of yesterday…it’s a memory of yesterday’s yesterday’s yesterday. It’s gone. And, what’s more, it’s been gone longer than it was actually here. It brought a lot of laughter in its time but, frankly speaking, we can find that elsewhere now.
However there is one loss — one truly tragic loss — that died with The Simpsons so many years ago, and for which we still haven’t found a suitable replacement. That loss is heart.
While I miss the sharp, subversive satire of the show’s first decade or so on the air, we can now find that elsewhere. What we can’t find — at least not as easily, or as frequently — are the cartoons that move us.
I grew up watching The Simpsons. I was eight years old when it premiered, and I had seen the Tracy Ullman shorts before that. My family made a big deal of The Simpsons Christmas Special, and I’m not sure any of us knew that it was going to be a regular show after that. That debut felt — and still feels — like an event. I remember even now the rough animation, which only served to cement the feeling that we were being thrust into a different world. It was a world that looked like nothing we’d ever seen before. It was new, it was exciting, and it was a place we wanted to revisit time and again.
It was funny — as overdone as Homer injuring himself is today, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard at it as I did when he struck his head emerging from Santa’s workshop — but it also had heart. Not the TGIF-flavored heart my younger TV-watching self was used to…but real, honest, genuine heart. The heart you find in a family full of imperfections. The heart you find among social desolation. That heart that comes when Christmas is here and everybody else seems to be having a far better time than you are. The heart you find in the distance between perception and reality. The heart you find in the desire to not only support your family, but to elevate them…and the difficulty or impossibility of actually doing so. It was a naturally American sort of heart.
I don’t remember if I cried during Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire. I probably didn’t, however sweetly sour it may have been, but as I grew up and the show grew up alongside me, there were episodes that downright decimated me emotionally…and they always did so with honesty. They didn’t yank at your heartstrings…they simply broke your heart from afar.
Moaning Lisa, for instance, is still — as far as I’m concerned — one of the most raw, brutally frank explorations of depression that we’ve ever seen on network television. It’s right up there with A Charlie Brown Christmas in terms of the unforgettable quality with which it delves into unexplained — and inexplicable — childhood melancholia. It’s something I dealt with when I was younger, and it’s something I’ve dealt with as an adult. It’s the familiar feeling that you don’t fit in, yes, but it’s deeper than that: it’s the feeling that you can’t, and will never, fit in…that there’s something wrong with you for not fitting in. Lisa’s depression isn’t just sad…it’s moving. She’s a young girl with more to offer than anybody around her realizes, and yet all she feels is broken and alone.
Eventually, like Charlie Brown before her, she learns to accept it. She finds something into which she can channel her feelings, and that helps her to regulate them, and to cope with them in a more healthy way. It’s the perfect predecessor to the equally classic Lisa’s Substitute, whose simple "You are Lisa Simpson" moral remains one of the most heartbreakingly perfect moments in anything I’ve seen on television.
For The Simpsons — which was endlessly screamed about in the media as being anti-American, anti-religious and pretty much anti-everything we should stand for as a people — to devote such time and attention to things as simple as a little girl feeling sad…well, that was the real subversion. This big, bad, society-destroying cartoon show was perfectly content to spend its time in the jazzy blue company of a little girl who doesn’t fit in. There’s no greater subversion of expectations than that.
So compare this to Lisa Goes Gaga, the finale from this past season, or The D’oh-cial Network. Lisa’s feelings of lonesome frustration used to be treated seriously. They used to mean something…though you’d never know it from watching more recent explorations of that same theme. Lisa still feels like an outcast, but now that’s a catalyst for outrageous plots and insultingly simple solutions. Compare the multi-car pileup nonsense of The D’oh-cial Network to Lisa feeling too depressed to participate in a game of dodgeball. There’s no comparison…and yet they’re both, ostensibly, triggered by the same feelings in that episode’s protagonist. Compare Mr. Bergstrom, who emphatically does not make everything better but simply serves as a fresh and intelligent perspective through which Lisa can view herself anew, to Lady Gaga, who chugs in on a magic rainbow train or something and telepathically saves the day. It sounds silly, but the latter does actually make some attempt at heart…it’s just so far removed from the show that it used to be that it can’t recognize what it’s looking for.
It’s easy to chart the decline of the show just by looking at episodes like this, episodes with themes that worked so well in the past that now are being trotted out not only to diminishing returns, but to retroactively damaging returns. Consider the flashback episode, which was first used in season two’s sweet The Way We Was. That episode refused to wallow in sentimentality, and yet it ends up explaining exactly why Marge is with Homer, and why he — contrary to anything else we might have seen by that point — deserved her. It was sweet, without being sentimental. It was a flawed beginning to a flawed relationship, and it was easy to both pity and relate. It was, in a word, perfect.
That was by no means the last of the great flashback episodes, but opinion is bound to differ on just when they became unnecessary. I will say, however, that the ones that do succeed, succeed because they found the right way to blend the comedy with a lot of heart. Comedy isn’t a reason to send us on a flashback — after all, there’s nothing you can’t show us in present day for a laugh — but it is a way to explore the heart beneath the characters…to see them in younger, more idealistic times, before they became the beaten and despondent individuals we know today. Contrast this with That 90s Show, which exists as a flashback episode simply to make dial-up modem jokes and try to convince us that Homer invented grunge. It’s difficult to believe in the face of pointless self-indulgence like this that the show used to be capable of such effortlessly gorgeous moments as "DO IT FOR HER."
For a single character to follow along the downward spiral, from emotional triumphs to insulting mediocrity, take a look at what they did with Homer’s mother, Mona Simpson. Her first major appearance, Mother Simpson, easily ranks among the all-time upper tier of Simpsons episodes. It was funny, absolutely, but I’d be willing to wager that when asked to identify one single moment from that episode, most people would point to Homer, silent, sitting atop his car and staring into the night sky. It’s a moment of profound restraint — nothing happens at all. Everything is internal, and it’s unforgettably moving. We don’t know what’s going through Homer’s mind in that moment, but we can certainly guess. That moment is his. We’re allowed to witness it, but we’re not allowed to invade it. We’re kept at a distance for a reason…and so is Homer. It’s beautiful.
And yet, we weren’t allowed to remember the character that way. Homer, and we, were robbed of that perfect conclusion by bringing Mona back periodically due to writers not having any other ideas. She came back once to reveal Homer’s middle name, and that was okay…though certainly unnecessary. After that, however, we were beyond unnecessary, as Mona reappeared just to die and give Homer an excuse to act like James Bond while scattering her ashes, and then again as a ghost to haunt Homer and make him wet the bed, or something. It’s getting harder and harder to remember Homer on that car, sadly reflecting upon the darkness around him, and all too easy to remember him as a mishmash of bland slapstick and unearned emotion.
That’s what disappoints me about the state of the show. It’s not that the comedy isn’t as sharp. It’s not that the satire is dull and toothless. It’s not even that the voice actors don’t seem to care anymore. It’s that the show, once so capable of reaching profound emotional plateaus, would now rather have Homer pissing himself and Lisa singing backup at a Lady Gaga concert.
It doesn’t mean anything anymore. For all the talk of the boundaries pushed by The Simpsons in its early years, I truly believe the most impressive boundary it toppled was emotional. Anyone who didn’t tear up at One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Bluefish, Bart’s Dog Gets an F, or I Love Lisa had something seriously wrong with them. Now anyone who does tear up does so solely in mourning for the show long gone — the show that announced to the world that cartoons could be as affecting and insightful as anything else on television, perhaps even moreso…and then spent fifteen or more years proving itself wrong.