Over on his blog, Brian Niemeier comments on a video talking about the rise and fall of The Simpsons. This to me is the crux:
…The Simpsons was a reaction against a long-gone age that would have eventually exhausted its fuel supply, anyway.
Matt Groening & co. set out to deconstruct the conservative establishment’s vision of post-Reagan America. Along the way they became the establishment, which is always fatal to subversive projects.
The lesson for writers: undermining traditional culture can be good for a quick buck and fleeting fame.
This stands (somewhat) in contrast to the video which Brian describes, in which (at the end) Super Eyepatch Wolf says:
And that’s what The Simpsons is: one of the purest and most raw expressions of social and political unrest… and despite what it’s become and how it’s all ended, I can’t help be so glad that we got those early seasons. It was a show that shaped a generation and transformed entertainment as we know it.
I think that of the two, Brian is far more correct. And I think that Super Eyepatch Wolf is actually rather dangerously wrong. Satire is a nice vacation from the main work of fiction, but it should never be the main work of fiction. I shudder to think what a generation shaped by satire would be like, though in a sense we’re living it out. It’s the spiritual equivalent of people who grew up eating nothing but frosted donuts: lazy, flabby, and useless, they’re terribly warped versions of what a human being should be.
Actually, rather ironically, The Simpsons later years is described as “Zombie Simpsons,” but this seems largely to be what became of people who grew up on The Simpsons. Unable think or feel anything sincerely, they know nothing but a desire to destroy those who can think. Perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise that zombie shows are extremely popular these days; it’s a metaphor for what a generation who grew up on tearing down ideals became. I was recently in a discussion about the live action Beauty and the Beast where someone mentioned that the live action movie would probably have had to be darker for it to be something that a modern writer could write and have it work. I asked, something like this (paraphrased from memory, embellished a bit):
Gaston introduces Belle to heroin and she gets hooked. She falls in love with The Beast who tries to help her kick her addiction but she can’t and eventually goes back to Gaston, who pimps her out to pay for her heroin. She’s eventually killed by a customer and the Beast, learning about this, kills Gaston in a murderous rage, then commits suicide before the police arrive. The last part is witnessed by a pretty young girl who just arrived in the city looking to become an actress, and she asks a man nearby who turns out to be the brother of Gaston what happened, and he charmingly comforts her from the scene and invites her out to coffee. As the movie closes, we get the sense that the story will be played out again, no one having learned anything.
Here was Russell’s response:
In a sense he’s right; that’s part of why I like cheerful, adventurous fiction: I’m very familiar with dark. But the thing is, dark is really easy. It’s practically no work at all. Just start telling a story and keep making it go wrong. You could almost train a monkey to do it. Everyplace there is order, break it. Everywhere there is hope, crush it. The only thing approximating creativity in going dark is figuring out how to prolong things before you kill everyone except for the people who most deserve it. Given that most dark works seem to contain plot holes anyway, this is the epitome of easy; it only pretends to be hard because there’s a constant sense of violation of decency that requires a certain amount of willpower (or sheer degeneracy) to continually violate.
This is the problem with growing up on satire; it’s too easy. It trains people to not do the hard work of having a good time.
6 thoughts on “The Fall of the Simpsons”
The weirdest thing about newer Simpsons is the flashbacks to cultural phenomenons, events and movements that post-date the show. The most jarring, perhaps, was Homer and Marge meeting and dating during the height of grunge and around the time of Kurt Cobain’s death.
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The best part of that retcon was the first time their meeting took place in the 70s it was actually touching and sincere and was apparently written by people who liked that decade.
That 90s one was so poorly written without any emotion, research, or attachment, that it was as if the writer had never even been alive during the decade.
To me, that is the difference between the two eras.
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Also, I’d say that the Simpsons is generally less satire and more burlesque.
The Simpsons was fun when it was good, but that’s all it was. There are far better shows before and since, including other adult sitcoms.
Those still worshiping it at this point are a bigger tragedy than what the series has become.
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Oh, I wanted to point out a few more things I learned back when I was a hardcore fan. It really puts some of this in perspective.
1. In the DVD commentaries, Matt Groening comes off as a big liberal type, but he absolutely hates (and never forgets to point out) any time the writers had made a joke involving Christians’ being stupid or hypocrites. He objects any time someone tries to insult Christianity or Christians or characters that are believing Christians. It’s no coincidence he left the show around the same time the old writers did in season 10.
2. The most prolific writer of the show is John Swartzwelder, a hardcore right wing conservative. He wrote 59 scripts for the show before he was let go. He never appears on any commentaries because he wants his work to speak for himself. His output drops off hard after season 9.
3. Mike Scully, who was a better writer than showrunner, does also shares Groening’s comments on Christians, and also dislikes certain jokes the imply religious people are stupid. He also chastises hack writer Matt Selman (who joined in season 10) when he tries to go on a rant about how atheists are oppressed. No one in the commentary with him agrees.
4. Said Matt Selman is also responsible for writing the travesty of a 90s episode mentioned above. He is also responsible for more bad episodes than any other writer in the history of the show.
5. The Simpsons’ downswing in quality can be directly attributed to the original writers leaving for greener pastures and hacks like Selman taking charge (and certain writers wanting him to be the showrunner!) and creating soulless subversive entertainment.
Just some thoughts to ponder on.
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Some half-formed thoughts:
The first three seasons of the Simpsons, what we actually see is an ironic but also sincerely heartfelt commentary on the American family as they are, rather than how they appear on TV. While the institutions of society are largely fraudulent or incompetent (the church pastor, the police, the mayor, the teachers, &c.), the series pushes home hard the importance of family values and of loving your family: it’s not really all that cynical when it comes to the most prominent institution of society, and if anything, you need more family even more when society is full of crooks and boobs.
Notable episodes with traditional themes are: Bart vs. Thanksgiving, Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment, The Telltale head (especially), Homer’s Night Out, and Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington
The early seasons do show a dysfunctional and frankly vulgar family (read: base, disgusting, common), but a closely knit one. later seasons would go on to be a little more nihilistic, with increasingly jerk-ass homer becoming less and less responsible for his actions which become more and more absurd, but by this point it will be the mid-90s and the Simpsons is merely part of and commentary on such things as grunge music and MTV’s envisioning of Spring Break.
tl;dr the early Simpsons, when it was a cultural phenomenon and before it became part of the establishment, may have been ironic, but it was not entirely subversive. I think this analysis of Shrek by Zizek is highly relevant here, they are basically the same phenomenon in my eyes: