Twilight of the Simpsons
People have remarked that for me conversation is largely an excuse to quote "The Simpsons". Those who make it past this paragraph might conclude that this column has no other raison d'tre. And yet I assure the reader that for me, quoting from the show has always been a means, not an end.
I quote from old episodes of "The Simpsons" because they offer so much wisdom wrapped in so much wackiness. And today I'd like to quote from them to illustrate how great the show once was, and to ask why it has become so trifling by comparison.
There was a Golden Age, after the show ceased to be too serious and before it became a string of gags, when "The Simpsons" produced some of the best comedic material ever. It had all the perfect elements. Brutal pessimism: Milhouse asks his teacher how one can tell if one's in love, and she tells him not to worry, since most of us will never fall in love and will end up marrying out of fear of dying alone. Blistering social indictment: what looks like a press conference for a Tyson-like boxer, complete with adoring fans, members of the press and a Don King-like moderator, is really a parole hearing. Perfect ironic timing: Milhouse tells Bart he can't play with him any more because his mother thinks Bart's a bad influence, and Bart replies "Bad influence my ass! How many times have I told you not to listen to your mother?"
And some of the subtlest humor anywhere: news anchor Kent Brockman announces that 38 million American are obese and adds "Put together, this excess blubber would be enough to fill up the Grand Canyon two fifths of the way up. This might not sound very impressive, but keep in mind this is a very large canyon."
The episodes that are currently being put out are still funny, but they are not very coherent or incisive. The characters have been fiddled with too much, some of them (like Principal Skinner and Ned Flanders) have been ruined for the sake of a single episode. Some of the best ones (like Lisa and Mr. Burns) no longer get much attention.
No matter how funny some of the gags in the new episodes might be, they can't compare to the kind of show in which Marge once reassured Homer after Mr. Burns threatened to destroy all of his dreams by saying: "Homer, when a man's biggest dreams include seconds on dessert, occasional snuggling and sleeping in till noon on weekends, no one man can destroy them."
I remember I was talking to my literature teacher shortly after our ninth-grade finals were over when the teacher who taught some of the other classes for the same course barged into the room in a visible state of distress. She interrupted our conversation with loud cries to the effect that her students had learned nothing and that she might as well have been away windsurfing all year instead of lecturing.
To illustrate her point she pulled out an exam paper from the pile she was carrying and read from it: "How are characters in TV shows different from those in novels? Well, in TV you can never see a character's back." She put the paper back into the pile, threw her arms up in the air and exclaimed: "I guess in a novel you can, I don't know!"
The answer sought was that characters in TV shows are static, unchanging, while characters in novels are dynamic, evolving. People in TV shows (and especially in sitcoms) are threatened by change but rarely succumb to it unless the show is on its way out. While characters in novels are supposed to be real people, a good TV character is an effective caricature. That's why TV shows can't last forever: the premise will wear out. That's the first reason why "The Simpsons" is suffering: it's been on the air too long. And I think the writers know it.
Back when the show was in its second season and at the very height of its quality, Homer explained to Bart that the Cosby Show was canceled because Mr. Cosby didn't want the quality of the show to suffer. Bart answered, perhaps prophetically: "Quality, schmality! If I had a TV show, I'd run that sucker into the ground!"
The second reason why the show is not all it used to be is that over the twelve years since "The Simpsons" debuted on the "Tracy Ullman Show", the culture of immediate gratification has gotten more immediate. Before computers TV audiences were largely passive, but they could also be patient. Now they want thrills by the second.
The old "Simpsons" was a show that rewarded careful viewing and reviewing. The scripts had so many layers of irony one couldn't catch them all the first time. But that has gone out the window. Not that I completely dislike the new episodes. I still watch occasionally. To quote Troy McClure at the end of "The Simpsons" 138th episode Spectacular: "Who knows what adventures they'll have between now and the time the show becomes unprofitable?"
Alejandro Jenkins '01 is a physics and math concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.