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‘The Simpsons’ has lost its cool

“The Simpsons” seems to be gathering momentum on a downhill roll toward mediocrity, part two. By Jon Bonné.
/ Source: msnbc.com

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.

MetaHomer and the new paradigm
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.

New school ascends
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.”

Seeking a graceful departure
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 end: nigh or nay?
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.

Whew.

“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.