Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Encyclopedia Simpsonica

The Simpsons are awesome. I mean, really. What a great show. I've enjoyed that show ever since I was a wee little cynic. Here's why.

When it first debuted in 1989, The Simpsons was revolutionary. At that time, the TV comedies were all of the father-knows-best type, like The Cosby Show. But the Simpsons felt like a real family. They watched TV, had money problems, and went to church. (Yes, God does exist in the Simpsons universe.) Not that any of that would matter, of course, if it wasn't satirical and funny, which it was.
In my opinion, what allows the show to be such a force of commentary is its large cast of secondary characters. When you think about it, many of them are nothing more than cultural archetypes. Corrupt politician = Mayor Quimby, lonely old person = Abe Simpson (or Agnes Skinner), computer nerd = Comic Book Guy, street thug = Snake, Christian = Ned Flanders, foreigner = Apu, lawyer = Lionel Hutz, snobbish actor = Troy McClure, has-been Jewish celebrity = Krusty the Klown, etc.

(Okay, maybe that last one was a bit of a stretch)

Much of its sucess has to do with the simple fact that it is animated. This allows for concepts and adventures that would be impossible (or impossibly expensive) in live-action sitcoms. Notice how, in normal sitcoms, it's rare for the setting to leave the normal set. This is because it costs money to shoot elsewhere, a nonissue in animation. However, animation can be tricky because the show can quickly turn to lots of goofy, far-out plotlines if you're not careful. Matt Groening famously tried to prevent this when he made a vow that nothing would happen in the show that couldn't happen in the real world. And he mostly suceeded, at least outside of Halloween episodes and dream sequences.

Much has been made over the last decade or so of the show's declining quality. I, for one, cannot deny this, but we have to realize that any comparisons made from current episodes to past ones aren't really fair. The Simpsons isn't competing against the other shows on TV; it's competing against its past glories. Which, to us humans' nostalgia-clouded brains, will always be superior to the modern episodes.

That being said, there is no denying that the show's golden age was about the third-eighth seasons, comprising 1991-1997. It took two years to find its footing, and was spectacular for about five or six years, when it finally jumped the shark. I can pinpoint the exact episode when the show's golden age ended, with the 1997 episode "Homer's Enemy."

"Homer's Enemy" was a simple episode, really - it concerned what would happen if a normal person entered the universe and met Homer Simpson. Homer was exposed for what he really is - a bufoonish, fat moron who wouldn't last five minutes in the real world. And it ruined the show for me. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating, but you understand I thought this was the worst episode of the series. (Still do). The whole setup of the show was undermined by the introduction of the Frank Grimes character. Nothing in the Simpsons universe made sense when someone from our world enters it.

And so The Simpsons quickly declined in quality, at least when compared to past episodes. (It's still the best show on TV this side of Conan O'Brien). I think a lot of it is due to the preponderance of guest stars. I mean, really, why does the family have to meet Denis Leary or Ray Romano every episode? It's just distracting. The guest stars rarely even play characters anymore, just themselves. Come on.

But enough ranting and raving from a child of the 90s who only had television as his teacher, pastor, friend, and secret lover. The Simpsons is great. I'll leave it at that.

1 comment:

Jerry said...

Maybe not so secret lover after broadcasting that over the Internet... Still, a lot of this one made me chuckle, like that "best TV show this side of Conan O'Brien". Next thing you'll start using Stephen Colbert as a unit of measurement or something...