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May 26, 2016

So How Good is The Simpsons, Really?

A while back, I found out that there’s a site called Frinkiac that lets you find pictures from The Simpsons based on quotes tied to the image you want.  You won’t find every image, but you’ll still find enough of them.  Type in “dr zaius”, for example, and you’ll find 36 separate images featuring the Planet of the Apes musical and the doctor himself.  Given that I’ve used Simpsons pictures in my post -- and wasted time trying to find specific clips that Fox and company have banned from YouTube existence -- it’s a very valuable resource.

It’s also just one more reason why I love humanity, and proof of why human potential outstrips the heavens themselves.  But I digress.

It should go without saying, but I’m extremely fond of The Simpsons.  I like it, I use it as inspiration, and I’m more than willing to pay my respects.  I pretty much have to, since it’s older than I am.  Where would I be in terms of comedy if not for that pack of Springfieldians guiding the way?  Where would any of us be?  It’s such a massive part of the public consciousness that I’m legitimately dreading the moment when the production crew says “That’s it, we’re packing it up.  This is the final season.”

Still, just because you love something doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to point out the faults.  So I will.  But first…

That’s his secret, Bart.  He’s always angry.

So the main complaint spiraling around The Simpsons -- or the main claim, to be more precise -- is that it isn’t funny anymore.  That’s basically the death knell of any comedy, though it’s to be expected from a show that’s basically about to turn 30.  What do you do when you’ve got hundreds of episodes under your belt, and have conceivably done every plot in existence?  How do you maintain steam when creators and crews come and go with the changing seasons?  How do you be consistent?  How do you be funny?

There’s no right answer, because people have different tastes.  But because I can only speak for myself, I’ll go ahead and say it plainly: I think that The Simpsons is still funny.  Is it the funniest thing ever in its present state?  No.  Is every episode a gut-buster?  No.  But then again, not every episode from the earlier seasons was a gut-buster, either.  They didn’t have to be.  So call me a dirty traitor if you must, but I’m about to make another assertion: I prefer some of the later seasons to the earlier ones.  I know that there are some people who argue that Season 4 was the best of the best (like my brother), but as for me?  I have to say “Nah, son.  ToMacco.” 

I won’t pretend that there aren’t some real winners in the past -- I absolutely lose it whenever Shelbyville Homer takes a bite out of that lemon -- but I’d hope that others are able to say that there are some fantastic moments that weren’t solely lodged in the nineties.  Different eras, styles, crews, and interpretations lend themselves to different output.  In the same sense that comic book artists and writers have taken Superman to some unique places over the years, so too has Homer Simpson transformed thanks to the whims of his unseen overlords.  Honestly, I think that’s for the best.  Without change, there can be no evolution -- no way to expand upon characters so ripe for new gags.

I love the idea of Mr. Burns going from a cold and terrifying boss to feeble old man perpetually behind the times -- and someone who loves theatrics as much as he loves random acts of evil.  I love how Principal Skinner has somehow managed to become even nerdier over the years, and more verbose to boot (“My slacks!  They’ve descended!”).  I love how they could’ve left Lenny and Carl as a couple of random schmucks in the background, but instead upgraded them to some of Homer’s closest pals -- and went on to give the latter a poignant backstory.  Talk about getting some bang for your buck.

Also?  Am I the only one who found Lisa annoying in the earlier seasons for being so perfect and gifted?  Maybe so, but I’ll assert that the best thing the crew did with the character was play off of her being an eight-year-old girl who -- despite being a genius -- still loves ponies and gets scared by monsters.

I’d imagine that most people think of The Simpsons as a comedy first and foremost, but whether it’s in the past or present, the show can get pretty bleak.  The earlier episodes are a prime example; it seems like the core idea behind a lot of them is “Your life sucks and you’ll never win, but at least you’ve got your family to make things better.”  It was less about crazy antics and more about enduring whatever life threw at the titular family, even if some of those misfortunes were brought about by their individual foibles. 

So I guess I have to ask: was The Simpsons ever really funny in the first place?  That question is going to vary from person to person, so much so that it might be pointless to even ask.  On the other hand, I can’t help but think back to some of those old episodes.  Homer and Marge get marriage counseling at a couples’ retreat.  Bart’s in danger of repeating the fourth grade.  Lisa’s sad (HRRRRRRGH).  Maybe the appeal back then -- and even today, in moments scattered throughout its lifetime -- The Simpsons was never about being funny.  It was about people who, despite being yellow and full of flaws, still felt real.  Still felt relatable.

Episode after episode and season after season have had the characters get involved in some absurd situations.  Homer becomes a missionary.  The kids of Springfield Elementary put their spin on Lord of the Flies.  Marge becomes the lynchpin of an Olympic curling team.  The list goes on, but the realism varies.  As does the bleakness -- the ability to connect with others, and offer up some affecting, heartfelt moments.

Let’s not pretend that those aren’t there anymore; the Flanders’ perfect family was famously broken up thanks to a hurricane, the near-failure of The Leftorium, and Maude’s untimely death.  And beyond that, you’ve still got Lisa grappling with the inevitability of death via Bluella the whale, while Bart realizes that all of his relationships are doomed to failure because…well, you can imagine. 

Laughs abound, but they’re offset -- if not supported -- by the moments that aren’t so easy to chuckle about.  At the core, The Simpsons is still about how much the world sucks and how important it is to bond with your family; there’s a veneer of jokes a mile thick to mask that, but it’s still there.  Different episodes and different seasons try to do different things, and making use of the tools at hand is vital every time.  What can you do with the plot?  What can you do with the characters?  What can you do with the themes?  What can you do with respect to current events and culture?  The answer is always going to be “plenty”.

But is that enough?  And that’s sidestepping the big question: is The Simpsons funny?  Is it even good?

Yeah.  But…there’s a “but”.

My preference with Simpsons episodes skews toward its most absurd moments.  They’re cartoon people in a cartoon world, so I’d hope that they end up getting into some cartoon antics.  And they do.  So to be more precise, my favorite Simpsons episodes are the ones that feature -- for lack of a better term -- kinesis.  There needs to be energy.  There needs to be movement.  Take these characters into some of the wildest situations possible, unbound by the laws of physics.  Or if not that, then have some form of movement and action onscreen.

It seems like the more advanced the animation technology gets behind the show, the less kinetic it becomes.  In some episodes, there’s just not as much movement, and even less energy; it’s like the show is tired from the first minute on.  I know that the series thrives on its dialogue and visual gags (and those are still present, at least in my eyes), but is it enough?  Sometimes it is.  Other times, it isn’t.  Some episodes are just lacking in that spark and zest, and those are the episodes I’m inclined to forget first.  They’re the episodes that make me think “Yeah, maybe it’s time for this show to go off the air.”

It does beg the question of whether I’m watching it out of obligation, or if I’m doing it because I genuinely want to see new episodes.  Am I watching the show to find proof that the naysayers are wrong?  Is it because I want to believe?  Or am I just so dependent on the show that I can’t bear to see it gone from my life?  I don’t know.  There’s reason to believe that I’m a slave to Springfield, even if I’m afraid to admit it.  Then again, there are apparently enough people out there watching it to justify constant season renewals.  So if I’m truly in a hell of my own creation, then at least I’m not there alone.

Or maybe I’m overthinking things.  I don’t know if you noticed, but I do that sometimes.

Groan if you must, but I have to be honest: even in these modern times, The Simpsons still makes me laugh.  Maybe not every time, and maybe not uproariously, but enough.  As someone who can’t watch five minutes of Family Guy without getting a massive headache and/or lamenting my birth, that’s something I’m thankful for.  Does that make me part of the problem, knowing that I’m one of the people making sure the zombie keeps shambling across the airwaves?  Sure.  But if it is?  It’s not my problem.  It’s yours. 

And that’s about all I’ve got.  So feel free to give your thoughts.  How good is The Simpsons, really?  Worthy of its long life, or in need of a mercy killing?  Best season?  Worst season?  Favorite episode?  Know an episode so bad, it’s practically a betrayal of the human race?  Speak your mind without fear of repercussion.  You’re among friends.

Yeah, even if your last name is Flanders.

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