Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Simpsons: They've Still Got It

My first television fandom was The Simpsons. In 1996, I went away to university and got a computer that had internet FOR THE FIRST TIME, and the first thing I did was sign up to various Simpsons fan groups and listservs (I have my priorities). I engaged in the chatter, got involved in the arguments and discussions, and when I went to meet a publisher to talk about how to get into the industry, I think the fact that he and I talked about specific Simpsons episodes for half an hour might have had something to do with him ultimately deciding to hire me. One of my best pals, Jeremy, was also a massive Simpsons fan (he went in for all the merch and at one point had a wall of Simpsons figures that I seriously envied) and I would spend several evenings a month at his apartment just eating pizza and watching episodes. We could have entire discussions using just lines from the show. One time we were riding the subway and he was holding a magazine with Simpsons trivia and he said, "OK... when Bart and Homer are playing Scrabble, what fake word does Bart put down on the board?" "Kwyjibo," I responded without thinking, and Jer's eyes widened and he nodded with pride and said, "NICE." Considering he kicked my ass in the trivia games every time, that praise has clearly stuck with me.

When I wasn't online arguing the finer points of why Smithers' skin colour appears different in a few episodes (the people who inked the show got the wrong instructions), I was actually attending classes, believe it or not. And one day the professor was late, so I sat outside the class on a bench and another guy sat down next to me. He was in the class but we sat on opposite sides of the room, so we hadn't said much to each other. He saw the book I was reading and made a comment that was a quote from The Simpsons. I looked up and gave the proper response from the show, and we were instant friends. That guy is Christopher Lockett, the one who does the Game of Thrones episodes with me.

This was in the mid-90s, when The Simpsons was a seasoned show already, but new enough that people still thought it was the most hilarious thing on TV (it was). By the time it was entering its 11th and 12th seasons, it was considered old, and people were starting to move on to newer shows. The King of the Hill came and went, and the episode where Bobby was kicking everyone in the nads is still one of my favourite things on television EVER. Then South Park happened, and suddenly everything that seemed edgy about The Simpsons seemed stodgy and outdated. The Family Guy and subsequent Seth McFarlane shows used the formula from The Simpsons, and people were turning to them. As I became hooked on HBO series and Buffy and Lost, I completely lost touch with that animated show about the yellow family that I'd once loved with all my heart.

After a while, it became cool to bash The Simpsons. I heard people talking about how painfully unfunny it was, that they'd given up watching it. They boasted that they hadn't watched it in almost 10 years, because the show hadn't had a single funny episode in that whole time. I never stopped to realize that those two statements put together don't make any sense.

Then the Simpsons Movie came out, and my husband and I went to see it, and it was hysterically funny. We were doubled over in the theatre with laughter. Still didn't go back to watching the show. We constantly used lines from The Simpsons in our everyday lives. Still didn't go back. I bought the first few seasons on DVD and then realized I'd have to mortgage the house to own the whole series. When we moved in 2012, I dumped the DVDs.

And then... my daughter discovered it. She'd wanted to watch it earlier, but I thought it was a little too old for her. At age 9, I figured we were OK. At the breakfast table, she would perform entire scenes from an episode she'd seen the day before. She could do Cletus's accent perfectly, and would re-enact scenes of him calling out all of his children's names. When she got to "Rubella Scabies" and "International Harvester," I was in stitches. I started watching the show with her. And without exception, I laughed at all of them. There were the new Sunday episodes, but then Fox showed other episodes throughout the week, rarely going back before 2010, and I realized that the last four years of The Simpsons was just as funny as any of the earlier episodes I'd seen. In some cases, funnier.

South Park continues to be hilarious, but has become adult viewing. The Family Guy stopped being funny a really long time ago, and goes for stupid toilet humour above anything intelligent. Same goes for most of its spinoffs. I've watched all of them, and didn't manage to last more than a couple of episodes with most of them. Yes, I know The Family Guy has taken what The Simpsons started and pushed it further, but The Simpsons shows that they were ahead of the curve in the beginning, and recent episodes show they continue to be. We're in a (baffling) Redneck Renaissance right now, where every single reality show seems to be looking at redneck culture as if it's something to hold up with pride, whether it be Duck Dynasty or Honey Boo-Boo or that show where they submerge themselves in filthy water up to their chins and try to catch fish by hand. And Cletus was there LONG before any of them.

Just a couple of weeks ago, we discovered that the Comedy Network is playing old episodes each night, so now my daughter's watching the classics that I loved. The other night they played the Gummy Venus de Milo episode and I nearly lost it with glee, and was saying the words along with the episode... and I couldn't believe HOW MANY of the show's classic jokes were all crammed into one episode. From the satirical Rock Bottom news program to the kids telling Homer that the TV did a better job of raising them than he did, it was utterly brilliant.

And that brings us to this past weekend's premiere. As season 26 began, many people who hadn't watched the show in years tuned in because A) in one episode we were going to lose a character, and B) they were doing a crossover episode of The Family Guy. And afterwards, I saw many people on my Facebook feed complaining that they hadn't watched The Simpsons in years and it hasn't been funny in all that time (question: how do you know it hasn't been funny if you HAVEN'T BEEN WATCHING IT?!) and complaining about the godawful humour of The Family Guy. But if there was anything you could take away from that episode, it was just how vastly superior The Simpsons is with subtle humour. The Family Guy wouldn't know subtle if it drove over Brian in the street.

But I'd rather focus on the other episode. The entire family sat around the TV to watch The Simpsons as the kids speculated on whether it would be Apu (NO!) or Homer (Uh, no) or Reverend Lovejoy or his wife (I said it wouldn't be his wife because they offed Maude Flanders and they wouldn't take out a second wife) and in the end... it was Krusty's dad. The kids were annoyed it wasn't someone major, and I was simply relieved. But that had very little to do with what made that episode brilliant. While The Simpsons has always shown religion in a way other shows no longer dare to do (the family goes to church every Sunday; Reverend Lovejoy is a tit; Ned Flanders is annoying but means well), this week they focused on the Jewish religion, and did a superb job with it. When Krusty's dad tells him that what he really thinks about him as a comedian is "Eh..." and then dies, Krusty is faced with the vast black hole of not knowing if his father approved of him, and it's a sad episode, always made funny with Krusty's drunken spiral. There are a ton of jokes in there for the kids, who laughed and laughed throughout, and really good ones for the adults, like when Marge tells Krusty she made him some chicken soup, and he says he never eats soup. "So why do you have that little spoon around your neck all the time?" she asks. My husband and I were howling with laughter, while the kids kept begging us to explain that joke.

The Simpsons is still funny. REALLY funny. Every time I've watched it with my daughter, it's as funny as I remember it being years ago. Sure, they miss a note once in a while, but for god's sakes, they've done over 500 episodes. There are few comedies these days that can make it to a fifth season while still having anything funny to say, and even Buffy had what I call the throwaway episodes each season, but The Simpsons just keeps on going, and does it brilliantly. While all those other animated shows have come, gone, and will fade into obscurity, The Simpsons will keep going until one of the voice actors from the Simpsons family dies, I suspect.

And think of it this way: I loved The Simpsons as a teenager. Now my daughter is watching NEW EPISODES of the same show, and she loves it as much as I did. This isn't like Buffy, which I keep promising her we can start watching when she's 12, where she's going to be watching a show that's near and dear to my heart, but is so outdated already that no one owns a cellphone, and in one episode Willow scans a book by running the hand scanner over every page individually. This isn't even like Doctor Who, which I love with all my heart, but has different characters, different sensibilities, and different styles than the episodes that aired when I was a kid. The Simpsons now is like The Simpsons then, with the jokes updated to the present day. When I recently went back to watch The Animaniacs with the kids, all the jokes were very Clinton-related, and went right over their heads and felt old to me. The Simpsons, on the other hand, makes topical jokes, yet makes them seem timeless. Who knows how much longer this show will be on the air, but regardless of how many years it has left in it, we should be celebrating a show that has remained fresh and funny for 25 years, rather than knocking it down because it's been around for 25 years.


Austin Gorton said...

First of all Nikki, thanks for writing this post. Simpsons is hands down, easily, without-a-doubt my all time favorite TV show, and I've stuck with it, watching every new episode, week in, week out. So I'm very pro articles that counter the perceived notion that the show is worthless and hasn't been good since the Clinton administration.

I do think the show has lost a tick since those heady Golden Age seasons of the mid-90s, but only because not every episode of each season is an all time great anymore (and really, that's a pretty unfair expectation for any show). The show is still capable of turning out a handful of really great episodes each year, and its series-average is still pretty high. Even when a more current episode may not be as funny, it finds other ways to succeed: the animation is better than its ever been, and is often packed with subtle jokes itself, while the actors haven't lost a beat, and consistently turn out fantastic performances (this week's episode, for example, featured some all-time great work from Yeardley Smith).

I will say that I didn't enjoy this particular episode as much as you did - it was, to borrow, a phrase, thoroughly "eh" and messily plotted (the writers still haven't quite figured out how to make the four act structure work for them). But there was still plenty to enjoy (the sight gag of Groucho Marx dancing with Karl Marx in Jewish heaven was worth the price of admission, Kent Brockman's Perd Hapley-esque monologue about TV news, Maurice LaMarche's Wellesian TV critic), and that's what's great about even latter day Simpsons: even the worst episodes (and this wasn't the worst, by any means) still have something to recommend them.

Austin Gorton said...

and the episode where Bobby was kicking everyone in the nads is still one of my favourite things on television EVER.


I know we've talked about it before, but still worth repeating. :)

From the satirical Rock Bottom news program to the kids telling Homer that the TV did a better job of raising them than he did, it was utterly brilliant.

"Somebody had to take the babysitter home. Then I noticed she was sitting on [splice] her sweet [splice] can. [splice] -- so I grab her -- [splice] sweet can. [splice] Oh, just thinking about [splice] her [splice] can [splice] I just wish I had her -- [splice] sweet [splice] sweet [splice] s-s-sweet [splice] can."

Classic stuff.

Also, FWIW, American Dad is easily the best show out of the MacFarlane factory - it does some amazing things with plot expectations and narrative structure, and even characterization (character development is much more akin to Simpsons than Family GuyG). It still has the crassness and toilet humor of Family Guy, but marries all that to a much more ambitious show.

Definitely not for kids, and not something you need to start from the beginning and watch every episode, but worth checking out sometime. It's much closer to the Simpsons (in terms of cultural satire)and South Park (in terms of darkness/twisted sensibilities) wheelhouses than Family Guy.

yourblindspot said...

The Gummi Venus de Milo episode bears perhaps my favorite open from the entire series. The riot at the candy convention, ending with that brilliant sequence when Homer opens the Pop Rocks, kicks the soda machine, grabs the soda, shoves the two together and lobs it behind him like a hand grenade, then dives through the doors as the whole place explodes behind him? Doesn't get any better than that.

Nikki Stafford said...

yourblindspot: That was an excellent open, to be sure. But my all-time favourite open is still the one where Milhouse and Bart replace the organist's music and they all have to sing "In the Garden of Eden" by I. Ron Butterfly. Just thinking about it makes me laugh. ;)

Austin Gorton said...

"That sounds like rock and/or roll!"

Jazzygirl said...

It took me a while to get into the Simpsons. I actually enjoyed it more as I was older.
That being said, in the past two summers (not this one we just had), I went to Universal Studios in FL primarily to go to the Harry Potter stuff, which is at Islands of Adventure. We decided to do both parks because they had made a Simpsons ride and my (now) husband LOVES the Simpsons. We thoroughly enjoyed the ride and the small touches of the area. Then we found out they were expanding the whole area to a Simpsons land. We returned the following summer for wedding planning (we got married at Disney 7 months ago), and just had to go back to see the new Simpsons stuff. It was amazing. New rides, restaurants, shops, etc. Total immersion. I loved it. We had a Krusty burger and a Duff beer. We sat in Moe's and took it all in. We also commented how amazing it was that after ALL THESE YEARS they JUST built this place and it was a HIT. I think it stands true to everything you posted, Nikki. It's timeless and has current fans and new ones in the future generation.

Dusk said...

I got in trouble as a kid because I liked to watch The Simpsons. I even loved Homer's Enemy. I am far from a regular viewer but of the recent ones I have seen Pulpit Fiction with Edward Norton as the new younger person running the church only for things to go horribly wrong involving frogs. And the couch gag led directly to the main plot of the episode. It was decent. The marathon of all 25 seasons in the States did really well in the rating so they are still doing something right.

Also if you want another show that is great for kids and adults pick up Avatar: The Last Airbender DVDs. It and it's sequel Legend of Korra can be thought about deeply by both adults and kids. It's animation and action are beautiful, it's message thought-provoking and it's characters feel real. Doug Walker posted vlog reviews of the episodes, Mark Watches did the entire original show and loved it, and a woman on The Mary Sue is posting newbie recaps now and already thoroughly enjoys it and she's just over halfway done the show.

And Korra is a worthy successor despite all the things it had to go through with the network, it rivals what happened with Firefly in terms of confusion and upsetting the fandom.

Nikki Stafford said...

Dusk: You're not the first person to recommend The Last Airbender to me. I've never been a huge anime fan, but my daughter loves reading manga now so this might be perfect for both of them.

Dusk said...

Yes! Technically speaking Avatar is not anime as it's not made in Japan (it's an American show animated by South Koreans). And a lot of the cultures on the show are Eastern influenced but you can also see Western storytelling in it as well. Stay far, far away from the 2010 live action movie. It's even worse then the original Buffy one. Avatar/Korra have earned the right to be called Game of Thrones for Kids.

Check out "Avatar-New Beginnings" and "Avatar-Cells" on Youtube by ravenhpltc24 to get a vibe for it.

I'll set up the basic plot for you:In this world there are 4 groups of people. Air Nomads, two Water Tribes, The Earth Kingdom & The Fire Nation. Each has some people that are able to telekinetically their birth element, making them benders.Only one person in each generation, the Avatar can bend all 4 elements. The Avatar must keep peace and balance between the nations and be the bridge between the human and spirit worlds, when the Avatar dies the new one is born into the next element according to the Avatar Cycle. The Fire Nation plans to conquer the world and the Avatar should have stopped them, but failed. The Fire Nation knew the next Avatar would be born to the Air Nomads so they commit genocide of the Air Nomads but do not find the Avatar and make 100 years of war against the rest of the world. At the start of the show two Southern Water Tribe siblings Katara and Sokka find the Avatar, Aang the 12-year-old airbender frozen in an iceberg.
Start with Avatar Book 1: Water. It's all one continuous arc so you need to watch all the episodes. It is also made for little kids so as an adult I know the early episodes are alright but not great for grown-ups. If you want to see how it can be good can be for adults watch episodes 12 & 13 The Storm & The Blue Spirit, and then go to the beginning with The Boy In The Iceberg and The Avatar Returns. The show is 3 seasons, 61 episodes, the episodes are only about 20 minutes long so easy to binge.

Korra's final season Book 4: Balance starts tomorrow (online-only release thanks to Nickelodeon pulling it from TV. Book 3 just wrapped up in August so it feels like they want to burn off their best show). It is a worthy successor to the original show but also it's own thing. Their will be 7 seasons waiting for your family!

Austin Gorton said...

@Dusk: online-only release thanks to Nickelodeon pulling it from TV. Book 3 just wrapped up in August so it feels like they want to burn off their best show

FWIW I've read some interviews with the creators where they spoke very positively about the online-only move. Apparently Korra has always done really well online (getting bigger numbers there than the TV broadcasts, though I'm not sure how comparable those two really can be), and they don't feel at all slighted that Nick moved it to online-only.

Granted, they could just be toeing an official company line, but they seemed genuine in the interviews. It could just be Nick playing to the show's strengths, rather than an indictment of their opinion of it.

Dusk said...

Check out The Nerdist podcast they did. It's almost an hour and a half long but covers a wide variety of subjects including their own favorite shows right now, what they wanted to do with Avatar as animators, how they came up with the idea and pitched it, the movie, the leak of the Spanish Korra episodes and the online move. They seem guarded when discuss it, saying it's online numbers were fantastic for Book 2 but the way it was moved online was not the best. Something happened they were clearly unhappy about.

And it also still baffles me why they started Book 3 on TV *specifically* saying they would not post them online then shift to *only* online just before Comic-Con.

Unknown said...

I really liked your post on The Simpsons. It was the most popular series. Actually I need to know about family guy list of episodes and there links to download. Actually my kids are asking to watch full episodes.