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January 9, 2010 9:22 AM   Subscribe

The Simpsons At Twenty. By Metafilter's Own gompa.
posted by Fuzzy Monster (33 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Steeples fingers, says "Excellent!"
posted by fixedgear at 9:31 AM on January 9, 2010


Favorite quote:

It also might well be the last pop institution to so fully define the culture of its day that it has become a near-universal touchstone of its time, especially now that the Internet and digital cable have fragmented the mainstream so fully that only the biggest, dumbest reality-TV spectacles can capture a truly mass audience anymore.

I think the author has something, there. The incredibly densely packed sociocultural allusions and tone of the show in its first 10 years probably did reflect, define and influence the decade of the 1990s for the US more than any other work of art.
posted by darkstar at 9:43 AM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


the Simpsons were born as "crudely drawn filler material" (to quote the show itself) on a mostly forgotten Fox variety program called The Tracey Ullman Show.

I haven't forgotten it. It was a great show. I wonder if I could download it from somewhere.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:46 AM on January 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


As I say to the hubby whenever we are playing "hey, want to feel old" -

Remember when The Simpsons were edgy?
posted by strixus at 10:02 AM on January 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


Great read! It's kind of sad to read something that sounds so much like The Simpsons' obit though... the show could still come back, right? Right?

I would like to nominate "Simpsonian" for the OED, if it isn't there already.
posted by juliplease at 10:30 AM on January 9, 2010


The incredibly densely packed sociocultural allusions and tone of the show in its first 10 years probably did reflect, define and influence the decade of the 1990s for the US more than any other work of art.
And even beyond defining the 90s, certain references to Simpsons episodes are now actually part of American vernacular. That is, someone may be making a Simpsons reference and have no idea they're doing it, thinking they're just using a common turn of phrase. I hear it particularly around the 20-somethings, but when it happens I smile and think about how Lisa would appreciate the meta-narrative of the moment.
posted by njbradburn at 10:30 AM on January 9, 2010 [5 favorites]


I still find the show entertaining. Not classic, but entertaining.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:46 AM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


The show's biggest problem at 20, in fact, is that although it remains pretty good, it can't live up to its own illustrious past.

That's the thing - on its own, I guess it's a passable show. But when compared to its illustrious past, it's a travesty, and I really haven't seen any persuasive argument to the contrary. The characters bear little resemblance to their past selves. The voice acting is different, more exaggerated, more self-aware. The animation is weird. The subtlety is gone. There's no joy in the show anymore.

There is a trend in animated shows I've noticed - mainly the Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park - where the main male character has gotten progressively meaner and less human. Homer, Peter Griffin, and Eric Cartman - though very different characters - are all pretty much horrible people now. Though Peter Griffin and Cartman started out that way in a sense, the trend for all three has been in an asshole-ward direction. Sly jokes about the dysfunction on each show are now rammed down your throat. Cruelty to other characters is a main plot point now. Redemption is harder to come by. Episodes frequently end without any satisfactory resolution.

But it's on The Simpsons that it really hurts. FG and SP never attained the same level of deep, brilliant humor, social satire, and real emotion as the Simpsons. I prefer to think of the seasons past 9 or so to simply be a spinoff show, called, say, "The Asshole Simpsons," some lesser entertainer's idea of beloved characters turned soulless, vacuous, and unloving.

That may be exaggerating it a bit. But imagine if Calvin & Hobbes, probably just as well-loved, traveled the same path. Imagine reading several strips and believing honestly that his parents ACTUALLY HATE him. That would be a tragedy.
posted by ORthey at 10:58 AM on January 9, 2010 [19 favorites]


Great article. It's refreshing to see someone analyze the importance of The Simpsons as a pop culture artifact without excessive hand-wringing over the show's decline.

It's worth noting (and the article suggests this) that when people say The Simpsons isn't as good now, the missing part of that sentence should always be "when compared to itself". If you compare the Simpsons to anything else on TV, and definitely anything else on Fox's Sunday night lineup, it holds up quite well - "American Dad" notwithstanding, that show has actually come into its own very well and is heads and shoulders above any of MacFarlane's other projects.

Sure, the show isn't as sharp and fresh as it used to be, and there are episodes that are just painfully embarassing in their attempts to be "hip" (the episode from a few years ago involving Bart going to a rap concert is cringe-inducing and one of the only ones that I actually try to avoid watching, as there is nothing more embarassing than watching the efforts of a room of Ivy League-educated white dudes trying to take the piss out of hip-hop culture). But on a good night, it's really good ("Gone Maggie Gone"), and even the mediocre episodes are entertaining. As ORthey pointed out, the show's dehumanizing of Homer in particular is troubling, but I have definitely noticed a trend towards softening him back up in recent years. Maybe it's just me.

I still like the show and I make no apologies for it. If Groening and co. want to make another twenty seasons, I say let it happen. And if it really bothers folks that the new seasons aren't as good, nobody is forcing you to watch anything but your old DVDs.
posted by HostBryan at 11:30 AM on January 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


I find the celebrity cameos (as opposed celebrity guest voices) to be really irritating. There were some shows that had a gag every line - bam, bam, bam...

The trend to more plot-driven stories was also pretty lame.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:54 AM on January 9, 2010


I attended a lecture by Mike Reiss a few years ago in College Park, Maryland. My favorite line of the night was "Homer used to be dumb like my dad... now he's dumb like my shoe."

And it's true. Even as the show has gotten more 'timely' (still not very, and often groaningly when it is) and plot driven, it's become less and less relatable. And, with that, has gotten less funny. I don't even think it's me changing, since I can watch a rerun and laugh at pretty much ever gag. I even watch a few where I pick up new things, and am amazed at the quality of the writing.
posted by codacorolla at 12:02 PM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Q13 here in Seattle has been running the early episodes at it's 5:30 and 6:00 pm time slots, and my god are they amazing. I had forgotten how good they were. Yes, it's not the same as it used to be, but it's still a good show, and I will fight anybody who says that Family Guy is a better show. I'm waiting for a renascence that may never come, but I still have hope.

But hey, as my SO said, the later seasons gave us Poison Lenny, and that's something wonderful.

I could deal without the celebrity cameos.
posted by gc at 12:34 PM on January 9, 2010


"Homer, Peter Griffin, and Eric Cartman - though very different characters - are all pretty much horrible people now."

Which is weird, given that interviews with Matt Groening, where he talks about how after about the seventh season, they really made an effort to humanize Homer, as he'd become just a stupid, mean caricature—hence doing things like eliminating the regular choking of Bart. I tend to read it that way too, where I don't think that Homer's meaner, but I certainly think that he's written lazier and dumber (and more self-aware, which annoys me too).
posted by klangklangston at 1:04 PM on January 9, 2010


The Simpsons are definitely one of my favorite shows of all time, but it feels weird to say that, because when I say that I'm really only thinking of everything up to season 7 or 8. It boggles my mind that there are more bad seasons than good now.
posted by mpbx at 2:01 PM on January 9, 2010


Great read! It's kind of sad to read something that sounds so much like The Simpsons' obit though... the show could still come back, right? Right?

"It's just a little moribund, it's still good, it's still good!"
"It's gone."
"I know."
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 2:44 PM on January 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


the Simpsons were born as "crudely drawn filler material" (to quote the show itself) on a mostly forgotten Fox variety program called The Tracey Ullman Show.

And this was back when Fox had so little material they actually showed that episode of Ullman 3 times in a row (and I watched all 3).
posted by DU at 3:01 PM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I dunno. I don't think - on its own - current Simpsons is good tv, period. The fact that most tv is shit is no comfort to me - I don't watch most tv.

t would be fine if I felt the show had simply lost its way somewhat, but the fact that the crappening seems to have been a conscious decision depresses me. They should have ended it; if they really loved the Simpsons they would have set it free, rather than using the show's ever-decreasing capital to demean everyone involved, including viewers.
posted by smoke at 3:09 PM on January 9, 2010


It's hard to believe that The Simpsons is so old that I remember sitting in my long-deceased grandparents' bedroom, clicking on the Zenith using the clunky Space Command remote, and adjusting the antennas to get reception of the Tracy Ullman show -- just to catch a few minutes of animation from that dude who did those Life in Hell books I liked so much when I was in middle school.
posted by eschatfische at 3:58 PM on January 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


Sometimes it can still be quite funny.

In the last episode Homer uses his "brain computer" to put 'Abe's Stories' into the trash can. But he also drags the 'History' folder in by mistake.

After emptying the trash, the message "Fatal Error" pops up, and Homer says: Uh oh.

Blink and you'd miss it.
posted by bwg at 4:03 PM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Please note that the only readable content at The Toronto Star comes from a Calgary author.

Carry on.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 7:21 PM on January 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


God I used to love that show. Love it like a hopeless addict. I knew all the episodes, all the lines. I could watch it for hours, even episodes I'd seen dozens of times before, back to back. The brilliance was mesmerizing.

I was never sure which of the two actually burnt out; the show, or my love for it. Most likely one spurned the other. And I think I could see the end for me from further away than I was willing to admit at the time. But I do remember watching the episode (16x13 "Mobile Homer") that was so bad, so uncharacteristically mundane and annoying, that the light bulb switched off for me.

When that episode had ended, something had changed within me. I no longer cared about next week's new episode. And I didn't tune in. I never tuned in again. After almost seventeen seasons, that was the end of the affair, and it damn near broke my heart.

There is something bittersweet for me in reading the above comments that also hold the opinion of the show's decline, learning the hard way that nothing last forever. But there isn't much in the world that has delivered such consistently funny, biting, truthful, and insightful entertainment as The Simpsons did, for as long as they did. For that, despite our parting of ways, it will always be my favourite TV show.

thank you for listening
posted by nudar at 8:09 PM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hey, I have the author's book, "Planet Simpson" - interesting read.

I'm glad to hear that I'm not the only one that absolutely hates the celebrity cameos with them saying a corny line, and then one of the Simpsons saying the name of the celebrity so that the entire audience knows who exactly it is - or even worse, when they have to describe their accomplishments before their name - "five-time grammy award winner, Joe Bloe!" ugh.

While I think the 20th season is better than the past few, I find that the Simpsons 1) is trying way too hard. In the past, they would focus on the general stupidities of society. Now they want to be so trendy, so 2010 - they've become artificial.

Lisa's become annoying, Bart's either too much of a jerk or too much of a PC prude; Homer's a jerk and Maggie's a superbaby with stuntman capabilities.

And I HATE what they did to Ned Flanders - from being the nice neighbourino that we all want to have to being a jack-off right-wing conservative.

I think though, after 20 years, they are playing to a different audience, and we just have to accept that our high-school/college sweetheart is a different person than the one we fell in love with.

Thank god for reruns.

OK my abbreviated list of best voice-overs:
- Ron Howard
- Dustin Hoffman (Mr Bergman)
- Meryl Streep (Jessica Lovejoy)
- Glenn Close (Mona Simpson) - the first and second episodes though. I don't know what happened to her in the third
- Jon Lovitz
- Joe Mantegna (Fat Tony)
- Danny de Vito (Herb Powell)
- Joe Frazier
- Albert Brooks
- MIchelle Pfeiffer (Mindy Simmons)
- James Woods
- Susan Sarandon (Bart's Ballet Teacher)
- Donald Sutherland (Hollis Hurlbut, Runs Springfield's Historical Society)
- Kelsey Grammer (Sideshow Bob)
- Mel Gibson
posted by bitteroldman at 8:35 PM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


The show has infected the culture at large with countless catchphrases, from "Eat my shorts!" to "Save me, Jeebus!" and it has introduced a pantheon of modern archetypes of nearly biblical scope.

I have yet to forgive them for this, but Lisa It's Your Birthday is definitely one of them. That song will never, ever die.

I never watched the show but I share a name and a personality with a certain Simpsons character. This I learned from years of people making Simpsons references to me and expecting me to laugh.
posted by librarylis at 9:17 PM on January 9, 2010


Maude Flander's death marks the dividing line. There have been the odd good episode since, but it's a ratio of one good episode to about fifteen completely unwatchable ones.

The celebrity appearances are one of the worst things, and war-criminal Tony Blair's cameo represented the absolute low point.

I like to think that Fox made them dumb it down, maybe because I don't want to believe they did it to themselves.
posted by moorooka at 10:26 PM on January 9, 2010


I think they should have exploited the amazing depth of the "cast" and allowed other sets of characters to take over most episodes, sort of spin-offs within the original, until an appearance of an actual Simpson was a rare, keenly awaited event. That would have given them more to go at and avoided the way the the family members seem to have been knocked out of shape through constant use. These days it sometimes seems their intelligence, attitudes, and even personalities vary randomly to accommodate whatever flimsy plot is on the go.
posted by Phanx at 2:01 AM on January 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Funny you should say that Phanx - yesterday I was watching a rerun of the "Simpson's Spinoff Spectacular" on TV - obviously though that's not what you were talking about.

At one point I would have disagreed with you, saying "they tried it a bit and it didn't work as planned", but now after having seen how the characters have degraded, I would wholeheartedly support it
posted by bitteroldman at 7:01 AM on January 10, 2010


I think they should have exploited the amazing depth of the "cast" and allowed other sets of characters to take over most episodes

There's actually at least one example (besides the "Spinoff Spectacular") of this happening: one of the last episodes I watched was primarily about the Comic Book Guy and Skinner's mother having a fling. It was terrible. Doesn't mean it couldn't work with the right characters though.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 7:24 AM on January 10, 2010


The celebrity appearances are one of the worst things

I have a simple rule of thumb:

Celebrity voicing a different character: good episode.
Celebrity voicing themselves: bad episode.

"Homer at the Bat" is the sole exception to this rule.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:40 PM on January 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Homer at the Bat" is the sole exception to this rule.

Ernest Borgnine was good as Ernest Borgnine.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 4:50 PM on January 10, 2010


Homer at the Bat" is the sole exception to this rule.

Ernest Borgnine was good as Ernest Borgnine.


I totally love all cameos with Ron Howard.
posted by bitteroldman at 7:52 PM on January 10, 2010


Additional awesome cameos:

-Pierce Brosnan as the killer house
-Every time a scientist has been on as his or herself (Stephen Jay Gould and Stephen Hawking spring to mind)
posted by palindromic at 12:24 PM on January 11, 2010


I just watched the 20th Anniversary special, TIVO'd from Fox last night. This thread puts me in mind of one of the quotes from a member of the Simpsons staff:

"The internet message boards were a lot funnier 10 years ago. Now I don't even bother to read the new messages."
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:57 PM on January 11, 2010


One of the more interesting points made during the 20th anniversary special was the timing of The Simpsons success. One of the main producers (I think it was Al Jean, but i could be misremembering) mentioned that Fox was desperate at the time they took a chance on The Simpson... like they were a few months away from closing up the TV division. I'd really like to pull the financials for Fox for the late 80's early 90's to see if there is a sharp inflection around late 1990.

My wife and I have been having a very interesting debate; Does the joy the Simpsons gave us outweigh the misery of Fox News? Would Murdoch have had the capital to take on CNN without The Simpsons?
posted by butterstick at 6:09 PM on January 11, 2010


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