The Simpsons Has Lost Its Cool

"The Simpsons," once an honest, irreverent portrait of the American family, has become tired.

By Jon Bonné

© MSNBC, October 2, 2000.

Longtime fan of series pleads: Euthanize once-great TV show before quality slips any further

After more than a decade of revolutionary television, “The Simpsons” — a show that redefined television for a generation of viewers and is arguably as influential as “I Love Lucy” or “Star Trek — seems to be gathering momentum on a downhill roll toward mediocrity. When the mighty fall, they fall mightily.

       That is why it was doubly dispiriting to watch an episode last season where Comic Book Guy — the ubiquitous, portly curmudgeon and trader in memorabilia — was reduced to the role of a social commentator who pops up at inconvenient moments merely to underscore obvious inside references.
       In that episode, in which the Simpson family adopts a horse, CBG’s appearances were the funniest moments of the plot, which tangentially involved restoring the newly adopted equine’s self-esteem by turning him into a racehorse.
       Had this been an aberrant episode for the long-running show, now in its 11th season, its dabblings in mediocrity and formulaic hooks could be attributed to an off episode or a temporary moment of insanity on the part of the show’s overseers. But it was typical and, to tell the truth, symptomatic.


       My own fanship of the show goes back to the very beginning: the quirky shorts that book-ended segments of Fox’s “The Tracey Ullman Show” in 1987 and 1988. Even when I missed several seasons, the magic of syndication allowed me to fill most of the gaps. But the syndicated run is also a stark reminder of how far removed the current shows are from the program’s original premise.
       No matter how charitable critics may be (and they are charitable toward the show, even now), old-school fans wonder more than ever whether the show has run out of steam.
       Our gripes are balanced, however, by a new generation of devotees, often younger and recently inaugurated into the Simpsonian fold. These new fans (arrivistes, we haughtily insist) are equally vocal in their defense of the show, and they can get downright hostile to the notion that perhaps it’s time for the show to die a dignified death.
       With the battle lines thus drawn, it’s easy to see the dilemma facing the show’s producers, who remain stuck between a die-hard core of disgruntled fans and an equally fervent group of newly entranced devotees. How do they keep new fans happy — and tuned in — while appeasing those of us convinced that the bloom is off the rose?
       One man would have the answer: George Meyer, co-executive producer of the show and among the few remaining holdouts from the show’s original staff. Meyer serves as a sort of institutional memory for “The Simpsons.” A recent New Yorker profile described him as “the funniest man behind the funniest show on TV.”
       While most of the show’s original brain trust have moved on to new projects — Matt Groening, who created the characters; original executive producer and whip-cracker Sam Simon; and James Brooks, another executive producer — Meyer has kept guard over “The Simpsons” through most of its more than 250 episodes.
       Meyer is a writer’s writer, someone whose devotion to the characters and the material is sacrosanct (with, he points out, one notable exception: “We will not violate the integrity of the characters — unless it’s a really great joke.”).
       He also serves as the proverbial lord of “the room”: the hallowed inner sanctum at the show’s production offices where writers meet to hash out future episodes, a process Meyer describes as “room writing.”
       If anyone could help sort out my conflict, Meyer was the man.


       “When I first got to ‘The Simpsons,’” Meyer told me, “we were still kind of figuring it out. The characters were pretty much limited to the family and a few neighbors, and so it was a lot easier for us to do stories that had been done on other TV shows, more or less. We would do a story where one of the characters has a birthday or a story where the family goes camping, and that would pretty much be the entire episode.”
       Speaking by telephone from “The Simpsons” production office in Los Angeles, he was describing the shape of the show’s humor during the early seasons, including the rough but fascinating first season.
       A camping episode Meyer cited, “Call of the Simpsons,” is a perfect example of the first season’s bizarre and fruitful balance between edgy humor and softly-drawn neuroses. It was this combination that made Groening’s shorts for the Ullman show so compelling, and ultimately what made it possible for “The Simpsons” to break the molds of network television.
       In “Call,” Homer takes the family for a vacation in the woods. The classic Simpsons gags are retained: Homer rigs a trap from a sapling to catch a rabbit; the rabbit steps into the bent-back sapling … and is promptly flung off into the distance.
       But much of the episode depicts Homer and Bart bonding as father and son, baby Maggie being tended to by a nurturing pack of grizzly bears, and Marge and Lisa tidying up their campsite. The episode feels like — well — a family going camping.
       The animation was cruder than it has become, and the voices were still modulating to their final forms, but like “Call of the Simpsons,” most of the shows during that first season in 1989 struck the right tone.
       The camping episode took what otherwise would have been a trite sitcom scenario (akin to, say, the Brady Bunch’s detour en route to the Grand Canyon and subsequent imprisonment by a post-”Gilligan’s Island” Jim Backus) and Simpsonified it.
       The jokes, had they been attempted by real actors in the real world, would have come across as either cruel or silly; the episode’s tender moments would have been sappy. The rough-hewn animated characters were a lens through which to examine relatively standard sitcom plots, enabling us to look at comedy TV in a new light.
       Still, “The Simpsons” had a long way to go.
       “I think the show started to change and kind of hit its stride in the second season,” Meyer said, “and then by the third or fourth I think it had a real confidence. We started to feel like we could pretty much do whatever we wanted to and create characters whenever we needed them.”
       It was during the three following seasons, from 1990 to 1992, that the show matured into its classic form and introduced some of its most unforgettable characters: Doctor Julius Hibbard, for example, whose penchant for laughing at inappropriate moments may be as well known to Americans as Ricky Ricardo’s drum playing; or inept lawyer Lionel Hutz, who once described a mistrial to a judge as “a bad court thingie.”
       Not surprisingly, what made these episodes unforgettable was the writing. It was the work of an astoundingly talented group — Meyer, as well as John Swartzwelder, Jon Vitti and Sam Simon, among others.
       Simon was one of the original executive producers, along with Brooks and Groening. Vitti and Swartzwelder, along with Meyer, have shown themselves to be paradigmatic Simpsons writers, along with Conan O’Brien, whose talents earned him an entirely different sort of fame — and darned if many of his own late-night show’s gags don’t retain the very Simpsonian view of an absurdist world. (Full disclosure: O’Brien is responsible for my favorite “Simpsons” episode of all time, “Marge vs. the Monorail,” in which Springfield uses $3 million from a court settlement with Mr. Burns to build an unnecessary and ultimately dangerous transportation system.)
       These were salad days of “The Simpsons,” when the writers who have come to embody the show’s ethos produced such episodes as “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish,” in which Homer prepares to die after he thinks he ate a poisonous bit of blowfish; “Flaming Moe’s,” which shows how Homer’s friendship with bartender Moe Szyslak is almost destroyed after he shares a recipe for a tasty drink; or “Colonel Homer,” in which Homer manages the career (and spurns the advances) of country singer Lurleen Lumpkin.
       During these seasons, the show deepened its plots but retained a core of emotional realism that has all but vanished in recent years.
       Lisa endured heartbreak in the form of a crush on her substitute teacher (voiced by an uncredited Dustin Hoffman) and faced down Springfield’s senator on Capitol Hill after she witnessed him taking a bribe. (High point of the episode, “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington”: Lisa visits the Jefferson Memorial seeking advice and the Jefferson statue tells her: “I know your problem. The Lincoln Memorial was too crowded.”)


       It’s difficult to say exactly where the downward slide commenced, but it’s clear that it centered around one character: Homer. Somewhere along the way — and try as I might, I’ve been unable to nail down exactly when it happened — Homer morphed from a relatively sweet, caring and ultimately good-hearted (if infinitely goofy and blundering) father into a boorish, self-aggrandizing oaf, a bizarre creature I prefer to call the MetaHomer. (Less charitably, some old-school fans call his current iteration “jerkass Homer.”)
       Though Homer retained some of his core sweetness as recently as Season 10 (1998-1999), glimpses of his transformation were visible as early as the show’s seventh season (1995-1996). His genuine side was sometimes on display — when he met his long-lost mother, for example; when he was faced with the dilemma of having Mr. Burns on his bowling team; or when he and Lisa bonded at the nuclear power plant while Bart and his pals drove to Knoxville, Tenn., and needed to be rescued.
       But Season 7 was also witness to such indignities as the “Homerpalooza” episode (Homer rants about the virtues of the band Grand Funk Railroad — actually the high point of the episode — before going on the road in a Lollapalooza-type event as a human freakshow). It was a new low and a notable start to what has become the norm: pandering and writing around a set of guest stars — in the case of “Homerpalooza,” the Smashing Pumpkins.
       The following season witnessed more of the same Homeric duality. Homer shone in episodes such as “You Only Move Twice,” in which he moves the entire family and takes a new job with the Globex Corporation, run by Hank Scorpio, who happens to be a super-villain trying to take over the world; or in “Hurricane Neddy,” when Ned Flanders loses his home and his marbles and Homer is called in to bring out Ned’s hostility. (Best line: Homer, reading from a card during an experiment to annoy Flanders, deadpans: “I engaged in intercourse with your spouse or significant other,” before adding, as an aside, “Now, that’s psychiatry!”).
       But that season also harbored such episodes as the infamous Frank Grimes episode: A new worker, Frank Grimes, comes to the power plant and is so infuriated by Homer’s ability to carelessly and guiltlessly walk away from catastrophe and humiliation that Grimes ultimately frustrates himself to death. Even now, when subsequent episodes have debased Homer in new and innovative ways, the Grimes episode stands out as painful to watch.
       By Season 8, it was clear that Homer was the show’s new solo star; it seemed that Homer’s new fame had gone to the writers’ heads and that the downward spiral had taken a strong, possibly irreversible, hold.


       But maybe I was overreacting, or perhaps I was simply looking at the broad strokes of how the characters had evolved. Unfortunately, Meyer was not reassuring.
       “The fans from the early days tend to be protective of the characters and the show,” he explained. (Damn straight.) “And they get really irate when we change anything. When we killed off Maude Flanders, for instance, people were annoyed. But we feel it’s important to surprise the audience and keep a step ahead of them instead of just churning out product.”
       Ah yes, Maude Flanders. Watching the saintly Ned’s infallible wife get killed in Season 11 was the trigger that set me on this quest to root out what had happened to the show. It wasn’t so much the fact that her sudden death was straight out of the script of a second-rate soap opera. It was that everyone on the show — Homer most of all, of course — was so unconcerned about Flanders’ loss.
       My distress at such minutiae made it apparent, if there had been any doubt, which side of the fan divide I was on. But more upsetting than the killing of a bit character to help Maggie Roswell (the voice of Maude) leave the show, and the fact that the death was built up as some sort of grotesque programming stunt (how TV of them!), was the fact that the episode underscored the way in which any hint of tenderness or realism had been wrung out of the show, replaced by a certain edginess and volatility that made me feel downright stodgy. This was not my Simpsons; MetaHomer had spawned an entirely new universe around him, that of the MetaSimpsons.
       “Homer is a good example of the evolution you’re talking about,” Meyer explained. “He has a lot of the same characteristics he had the first season, but he has become much more volatile and mercurial. He will go from sentimentality to furious rage and then fall asleep all in the space of 10 seconds. So he’s just sort of this embodiment of the id.”
       I was dumbfounded. Here was Meyer, torchbearer for all things Simpsons, the collective memory for one of the most influential TV shows ever, freely acknowledging my deepest fears.
       And he wasn’t finished.
       “There’s no question that he’s become more deranged,” Meyer said of Homer, “He’s become more impulsive, and he often will make bizarre remarks that perhaps he wouldn’t have made the first season.”
       This transformation points towards what Meyer calls “hints of a darker side of Homer” — the mildly psychotic elements of MetaHomer’s personality that seem to have so unsettled some old “Simpsons” fans. (For my own part, the dark side of Homer always amused me. It was the oafish, semi-literate side that was frustrating.) The complaints are manifest among the old-school fans. For example, Ondre Lombard, who helps maintain the encyclopedic Simpsons Archive, insists that the producers “have done nothing to explore the inner beings of the characters or take the characters to new, interesting levels. The main goal is to splash them into crazier and crazier and more and more unexpected, goofy, far-fetched, overimaginative situations as possible. Homer is involved in nearly every story, and his is an obnoxious, destructive presence.”
       But if this metamorphosis is obvious to the astute and faithful viewer, the enigma remains: Why would a show with a clear formula for success choose to mess with a good thing?
       The old school has theories ranging from political intrigue among the show’s creators — including an ever-diminishing role for the three original executives, especially Groening, whose influence has arguably vanished — to the straightforward notion that after more than a decade, there just aren’t any new ideas for the show to chew on.
       Plot fatigue would explain some of the shift, but I think it extends beyond that. There is, for example, the dilemma that would face any writer: What do you do with a character who never grows up after 11 years on the screen?
       “We increasingly have to scour the bushes for a new area that we haven’t tapped into yet,” Meyer admitted.


       There is another answer as well: new-school writers, attuned to the wants of new-school fans. Whereas the original “Simpsons” writing posse was a mostly homogeneous group of Ivy League former class clowns, the current writing staff is a crazy quilt of comedians, sitcom writers and other assorted folks.
       Ian Maxtone-Graham is the perfect poster child for the new breed of Simpsonator. One of the show’s current senior writers and producers, Maxtone-Graham made his stand during a 1998 interview with The Independent, in which he admitted he had almost never watched “The Simpsons” — or any TV, in fact — before he wrote for the show. It was a clear indication that the show had acquired a new sensibility, one that wasn’t beholden to — wasn’t respectful of, old-school fans would say — the show’s original sensibilities.
       Maxtone-Graham’s previous gig was writing for “Saturday Night Live,” an apt metaphor for the psychic shift from Simpsons to MetaSimpsons — a difference as clear as that between “The Tracy Ullman Show,” whose erudite, noodgy ethos was absorbed by “The Simpsons” when it launched, and “SNL,” which by its very format has always relied on the quick laugh and the outrageous bit.
       Ultimately, that shift is really more a matter of personal taste than anything else; for the same reason that, say, “Family Ties” and “Misfits of Science” had different appeal, the original Simpsons and the MetaSimpsons speak to two different constituencies.
       But Meyer still wasn’t finished. He described to me the differences in all the behind-the-scenes mechanics between producing the early shows and the current crop.
       “We have more writers now,” he said. “In the early days, I think, more of the show, more of the episode was already in the first draft of the script. Now there’s more room-writing that goes on, and so I think that there’s been a kind of homogenization of the scripts. That can be good and bad. I think what I miss is some of the distinctive quality of some of the writers. You could tell, for instance, a Jon Vitti script from a John Swartzwalder script. Now we’re a little more likely to toss everybody’s contributions into the mix. And as I say, there are advantages and disadvantages to that. Certainly, the shows are more jokey than they used to be. But I think they also lack the individual flavor that they had in the early years.”
       How then, does he reconcile the bizarre duality of the characters — the attempt to retain their original spirit while skirting the prospect that a contingent of well-aged (if ageless) characters could become trite and stale?
       Meyer sums up the quandary pithily: “Lisa can sometimes be an 8-year-old girl and sometimes she can talk like a graduate student. And you kind of buy it.”


       But do we? It is hard at times to accept the MetaHomer, or the MetaLisa, or MetaApu for that matter. Strangely, perhaps as a sign of their diminishing roles in the show and perhaps because of the perpetual need for the show to have a straight man, Bart and Marge seem to have avoided major transformation. If anything, Bart seems to have mellowed in what I can only call his “mature years.”
       Perhaps what is most astounding about the show’s sea change is the willingness of critics who lauded the show 11 years ago to maintain their charitable assessment. Maybe it’s their desire not to slam something they once considered a masterpiece. More likely, it’s because the current incarnation of “The Simpsons,” even with its deficiencies, is still superior to almost anything else on television. (What this says about the state of network TV is frightening to contemplate.) Though hyperactive and overblown, the show still beats the pants off the competition — including most of Fox’s animated series, from the briefly-shining “King of the Hill” to the nearly indigestible “Family Guy.” The only other animated series that comes close is Groening’s own “Futurama,” which is still working out its own rough edges.


       The future of “The Simpsons” frightens me a bit. There are at least two clear paths that Meyer and the other producers could take.
       Option A: Kill it while it’s still respectable, which would hearten old-school fans and disgruntle the new generation, many of whom are too young to remember a time before “The Simpsons” was on the air (a dark time it was, let me tell you).
       Option B: Let it go and go and go until they’ve squeezed the last drop of Simpsonian essence out of it.
       I’d like to believe that Option A will prevail. But I don’t expect much support for that from Fox. Unless a precipitous drop in ratings is in the cards, Fox is about as likely to cancel “The Simpsons” as ABC would be to replace “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” with documentaries in Sanskrit.
       If that’s the decision they ultimately make, it may come back to bite them — and here’s hoping the show’s producers are smarter than that. A show’s ultimate worth lies, in part, in its ability to make a graceful exit — something that “The Simpsons” producers are in danger of ruining. Some like “The X-Files” or “M*A*S*H” refused to leave the stage gracefully, and others — “ER,” for instance — are on their way to an irreversible decline.
       In the case of “The Simpsons,” there is an added reason to draw the curtain. Meyer and the others have a valuable franchise on their hands. Why jeopardize prospects of a “Simpsons” movie, a major option that Meyer and his team have yet to pursue?
       Nothing captivates “Simpsons” fans like the notion they might someday be able to witness their beloved Springfieldians on the big screen. The show’s producers always hedge on the specifics, but Meyer was willing to admit one very important — and relieving — point.
       “We should not do a movie until after the series, maybe a few years after the series,” he acknowledges.
       “The main question,” he continues, “when you’re talking about that, is: What could you do in a movie that you couldn’t do on a TV show? And I’m not really sure.
       “Maybe you could use a little more profanity, or maybe the animation budget could be a little higher so you could enhance your animation. But the series has never been about animation pyrotechnics, it’s been about telling a story and breathing life into these characters. I think the animators we have do a good job of that, and I don’t know what we could do except for Dolby sound, you know?”
       Indeed, that long-awaited moment may be hastened by the fact that even among the show’s creators, there is growing sentiment that the end is nigh. No dates are set, and there appears to be no clear plan for closure, but there is a specter of finality hanging over the show.
       “We’re starting to see some glimmers of the end,” Meyer acknowledges. “It’s certainly getting harder to come up with stories, no question. ... So at some point the show will wind down. Whether that will be graceful or not, I don’t know.”
       Even Maxtone-Graham admitted in his 1998 interview: “I think we should pack it in soon, and I think we will — we’re running out of ideas.”
       Yet two years later, the show’s writing staff chugs on, defying the laws of television as they craft one new episode after another. Aside from the simple and obvious motivation of money, I’m truly stymied as to why they continue.
       Nor am I sure of how to answer this question: Has the time come to euthanize the show, to put it out of its misery before it does irreparable damage to its legacy?
       As I write this, I’m sitting at work with one eye on the television, where one of the syndicated second-season episodes, “Two Cars in Every Garage, Three Eyes on Every Fish,” is showing. (Mr. Burns runs for governor but is tripped up by his own three-eyed fish, mutated by radioactive waste from his power plant.)
       The episode ends. A commercial comes on. It is an ad for “Simpsons” talking action figures.
       Clearly, this is an omen. The end must be near. I can feel it.

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Last updated on February 21, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (