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Image: The Simpsons
"The Simpsons," once an honest, irreverent portrait of the American family, has become tired.
By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com
PART 1 OF 2

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.

Back to the beginning
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.

Image: Simpsons Creator Matt Groening Wins Creative Emmy Award
Matt Groening, executive producer and creator of 'The Simpsons' with the Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program (One Hour or Less).
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.”

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If anyone could help sort out my conflict, Meyer was the man.

Early days
“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.”)

Things evolve
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.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

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