Thursday, February 23, 2012

Is it a Walking Clock?

A constant debate among many of my friends is how did the Simpsons go to from the funniest show in the history of television to as unwatchably bad as it's been the last 10 years or so.

I thought this was an interesting take:
The Simpsons first aired when I was in the seventh grade, and like much of the country, I fell in love with the characters and embraced it with the same enthusiasm that I had shown for other, more wholesome programs like The Cosby Show. Certainly, The Simpsons felt rougher around the edges, darker, and definitely more controversial than previous sitcoms. Homer frequently leapt on Bart and choked him in rage. Marge was stupid, and Lisa misunderstood. Still, the show adhered to the sitcom form well enough to endear it to the public, but it alarmed conservatives. William Bennett scolded a rehabilitation center in Pittsburg for having a Simpsons poster on the wall. President Bush said, “We need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons,” causing Bart to crack wise on a later episode, “We’re just like the Waltons. We’re praying for an end to the Depression, too.”

A couple of years after The Simpsons first aired, I discovered that series creator Matt Groening, had been known for a weekly cartoon called Life in Hell. The strip featured the adventures of a forlorn rabbit living the life of an 80s-era loser from the Boomer generation. Someone—probably my stepfather—had a pile of Life in Hell compilations lying around and, being a teenage bookworm, I inhaled them in short order.

Life in Hell, as its title might suggest, took a dim view of existence. The cartoon portrayed the school system as a prison designed to drill any spark of individuality out of students, romance and marriage as a trap that put you on the long road to death, and death itself as a welcome relief from the tedium of living. It was clear that the Groening who wrote this comic simmered with rage at, well, everything. Reading Life in Hell pointed out the cynicism lurking right under the surface of The Simpsons, exposing it as a sharp and unflinching satire of middle American life. Marge and Homer had a loathsome marriage based on mutual inertia and stupidity. Homer is a child abuser, always set on Bart, who is destined to be a loser. The town was full of worthless people who couldn’t be bothered to lift a finger to help a neighbor. The America that Groening depicted in Life in Hell was the same America in The Simpsons, but the veneer of sitcom tranquility in the show made it more subversive. No wonder conservatives railed against it.

Then, slowly but surely, the show lost its direction. Gradually, the writing staff stopped seeing the characters as satirical darts thrown at America’s pretensions, and started to embrace The Simpsons as if they were characters on Friends, flawed but with the expectation that the audience wants them to win in the end. This particularly came out with regards to the Marge and Homer relationship. Earlier episodes, such as “Life in the Fast Lane” or “The Way We Was,” satirized the romantic view of marriage that portrays even the most dysfunctional matches as the meeting of soulmates. Over time, however, the show started to embrace the model of marriage it used to mock, giving in to audience desires to believe that Marge and Homer were made for each other.
I actually think this last paragraph put words to something I had felt for a long time. You knew the show had lost it's edge, but I had never really put my finger on why.

Also, this should be a PSA to anyone who wrongly associates anything the Simpsons have done in the last 10 years with the incredible show that preceded it. Don't be fooled. Go back and watch any episode from season's 3-9, they're just as funny as they've always been.

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