THE WITZELSUCHT MEMORANDUM
THE SIMPSONS MUST DIE!!
Ever had to disconnect an ailing loved one's life support system? Confront a spouse about a deadly drug addiction? Have you ever told an aging, hero athlete that he should Hang It Up NOW, before he's seriously injured? Then you have some idea of what I'm going through, with no choice but to call for end of something that has meant so much and brought me so much pleasure over the years, The Simpsons. The Simpsons have lost it. Their glory days are gone. The Simpsons must die.
Before you get your dander up, understand that I'm the biggest Simpsons fan there is, no one has loved and revered the Simpsons more. I've been among their most ardent devotees since Day One, that fateful Sunday night almost ten years ago when HOMER moonlighted as Santa so he could afford a bit of Christmas cheer for his beloved family, MARGE, BART, LISA and MAGGIE. Over the years I've whiled away many a pleasant hour recounting favorite episodes and movie references with friends, and my judicious use of Homer's "WHOO-HOOO" and "D'OH!!" in daily life has evoked laughter from strangers and defused potentially tense moments. I've been THE SIMPSONS' staunchest defender against the naysayers, those who just didn't get it and never gave 'em a chance, folks like Virtues Shah BILL BENNETT who publicly castigated Bart for being "an underachiever, and proud of it." I have dear friends, who, as new parents, turned their noses up at the Simpsons for, as they saw it, belittling the parent experience; years later, these same friends sat by mute and goggle eyed as I swapped lines from classic episodes with their wisecracking kids. At its best, nothing could touch the Simpsons. Their intoxicating, lightning-fast blend of warm human comedy, blistering social satire and trademark film allusions was unmatched. There'd never been anything like it. When MR. BURNS made the Clifford tent and intoned "Let the fools have their tar-tar sauce;" when Marge got ITCHY AND SCRATCHY booted off the KRUSTY THE CLOWN show in an episode that referenced "Psycho" and "Tom Sawyer," and when Homer advised Bart that the three most important phrases in life were "'cover for me' . . . 'it was like that when I got here' . . . and, 'gee, that's a good idea...boss'" I was transported, and I resolved to remember exactly where I was when I consumed those choice morsels because it was clear I was witness to Genius unlike anything previously seen in the global village.
But over the last several years I've watched, helpless, veering between anger and despair, as The Simpsons have inexorably tumbled into mediocrity, shedding one by one the qualities that had earned The Simpsons its rightful place on the Top Shelf of all humor, alongside hallowed TV legends like SCTV and a few vintage SNL skits, above almost-there story-line sitcoms like Seinfeld, Mash, or Cheers. The Simpsons' sad decline is an open secret among diehard fans, the ones who once looked forward to Sunday, then Thursday, then Sunday nights at 8, but who now steel themselves for weekly letdowns and have come to much prefer the older episodes in nightly syndication.
Could the decline's onset have coincided with Conan O'Brien's departure? I'm not sure. I first noticed the show's descent some four years ago, during,"Homie the Clown," where Homer attends Krusty's clown college to fulfill a hitherto unrevealed lifelong dream of becoming a clown (a factual betrayal: we've already been told by Marge that Homer's life long goal was "to eat the world's biggest hoagie"). Early in the episode Homer slams on the brakes in his car to gape at the "new billboards" (a poor nod to Steve Martin's "The new phone books are here!" that is more rip-off than allusion), causing a violent pile-up behind him that ends with the wrecked cars exploding in flames, as Homer drives blithely on. That cheap laugh at a massive loss of human life was the start, the signal that The Simpsons were taking a new and cruel turn. Typical of this trend was the particularly nasty "Homer's Enemy," which culminated in the on-screen electrocution of Homer-hating FRANK GRIMES, a new worker at the Springfield nuclear power plant who'd been brought in just for this occasion. Comedic value has been replaced with shock value.
What's happened? The Simpsons have lost their human touch, their insight. They've gone from funny and true to stupid and mean. The tenderness, wit, and spirit has devolved into frenetic hyperviolence and "ironic distance," above-it-all disdain for the daily dilemmas of middle-class family life in these-here United States that fueled so many of the great early episodes. It's as though the writers, perhaps aware that nothing great can last forever, have come to loathe the show and its audience for the high expectations with which they've been saddled. They've forgotten what brought them to the dance. Whatever the cause, The Simpsons have of late become poster children for the old adage that satire is the highest form of comedy, and sarcasm the lowest.
No one has suffered more than that once-loveable, big ol' lug, Homer Simpson. Homer was the archetypal everyman. He may have been selfish, lazy, and none too bright but we loved him out of recognition. There was a little bit of Homer in all of us, that part of us that longs to slack, to eat too much, to laze in front of the TV and guzzle beer, to sleep late on a cold winter Sunday rather than put on an itchy suit and attend church, to duck out of work early for a tour of the Duff Brewery. We forgave Homer's flaws because deep down he was a good soul who cared about his family and strove in his own way to be a good husband and father ... witness Homer's longing to be "a good husband" and please his wife in "Some Enchanted Evening," where Homer makes up with Marge by whisking her off to a fancy dinner ("another bottle of your second least-expensive champagne," he instructs the waiter) while the children are terrorized at home by the Babysitter Bandit, and, "The War of the Simpsons," where Homer and Marge attend REVEREND LOVEJOY's marriage retreat weekend at Catfish Lake. When we laughed at Homer we were laughing at ourselves. In recent years, though, Homer's universal qualities have dimmed, and he's become downright evil. He sits by unconcerned as his infant daughter plays with dangerous power tools. He becomes so obsessed with handguns that he takes to turning off the lights in his house by shooting them. He kills his Navy submarine captain by firing him from a torpedo tube. Oh, sure, it might be a good gag that some misfortune should befall that captain who moments earlier had unwisely avowed his complete faith in Homer, but to have Homer snuff out his life without any regret or concern as the punch line is a profound step down from the dry wit that marked the early Simpsons and does nothing to reverse Homer's slide into brutishness. What ever happened to the simple soul who wanted nothing more out of life than "seconds on dessert, sleeping late on Saturdays, and occasional snuggling?"
It's part and parcel of the way the writers have sacrificed the consistency of The Simpsons' carefully cultivated personas for the sake of a few stupid throw-away gags. A recent episode commenced with Homer having a cookout . . . by stoking a roaring blaze in the fireplace, ascending a ladder to the roof, and holding the meat over the top of the chimney where it's licked by the leaping flames. We've long known Homer as the prototypical, burger-flippin' backyard chef who once earned a "toast to the host who can boast the most roast," and we know he's lazy to boot. That he'd even bother to haul all that stuff up onto the roof instead of just filling the Weber with briquettes and squirting on a jug-and-a-half of lighter fluid, as he did in "Treehouse of Horrors I," moments before space aliens KANG, KODOS, and SERAK THE PREPARER made their first Simpsons appearance, strains credulity and removes him yet further from the common homo suburbanis with whom we all identify. When school bullies JIMBO, DOLPH and KEARNY beat up Bart and steal his Sharper Image-style utility belt, Homer tells Bart that "it's time to squeal! Squeal to every teacher in the school!" How different from the Homer of six years earlier, who said he'd "rather Bart die" than violate the "code of the schoolyard" by squealing on elementary school bully NELSON MUNTZ! And do we really believe that Homer, gourmand that he is, commonsewer nonpareil of pork chops and glazed donuts, would blithely set about to drink a beaker of sulphuric acid, as in "Homer's Enemy?" Bart, too, has been known to morph till he bears little resemblance to the hip, mischievous lad you couldn't help loving in spite of yourself. In one episode from the last season, when the stick-on facial disguises and gags that Bart has just purchased from a costume/novelty shop fail to stick to his face, best bud MILLHOUSE recommends "dog doo" as an adhesive. Bart rejects that suggestion, but only because the dog doo has been lying "on a filthy sidewalk." Can we accept that the way-cool Bart Simpson would even consider appearing in public with dog doo on his face? Or that any ten-year-old boy would, even the nerdy Millhouse, who despite being socially challenged is still the best friend of ultracool Bart?
Not even sweet, reliable Marge is safe; her long-established character as the sensible, compassionate uber-Mom through whose veins coursed the blood of June Cleaver has taken an utter trashing as of late. In one of the more recent episodes, Marge opines that Nelson the Bully is a lonely, troubled, sad, little boy . . . who "needs to be isolated from everyone." Huh? After Homer's chimney barbecue, she cheerfully ascends the ladder to clean the incredible mess he's created with nary a trademark disapproving "Hmmmmmm," chirruping that "now's my chance to shine!" Marge had long been accorded respect for keeping her family on an even keel and running her household; now, the writers have apparently decided that even those modest goals are worthy of contempt. Witness Marge's recent statement that Bart -previously her "little guy"- is valued as a family member only "to help fold your father's underpants." Her transition to dimwitted ditz is complete.
Ever wonder why we've seen so little of ITCHY AND SCRATCHY lately, the brilliant Tom-and-Jerry cartoon- within-a-cartoon homage that Springfield kids used to watch religiously on the Krusty the Clown show? Itchy and Scratchy's traditionally violent cartoon world, where dismemberment is undone and forgotten by the next installment, was a reference point that established Springfield as the real world mostly beholden to the laws of physics and mortality. Itchy and Scratchy are superfluous, now that their brand of surreal, Tex Avery violence has become par for the course in the daily life of Springfieldians. Thus, in the episode where Homer purchases at auction a muscle car seized from career criminal SNAKE, we witness KIRK VAN HOUTEN's hand and forearm severed by a wire trap meant for Homer. Millhouse's dad raises his hand while driving his convertible, and zip, no more hand. So, that's it? Hand gone? Did he then bleed to death, or does he thereafter sport a prothesis, or perhaps a pirate's hook? Mayhem that's welcome in the hands of Itchy and Scratchy is edgy, cheap, and annoying when inflicted on the real folk of Springfield.
I could go on . . . like the increased focus on minor characters and bit players that no one gives a rat's ass about -- that episode exploring PRINCIPAL SKINNER's shady past is a prime example, what a real who-cares snore-fest THAT was -- not to mention the corruption and outright AWOL status of old favorites Krusty, Mr. Burns, and Smithers. But why bother? The point is, they've lost it. And despite all that, I still love them. No matter how far they've fallen, I can't hate them. That's what makes this so hard. I've got tears in my eyes right now. I feel exactly like I did on that terrible day when I had to turn off those awful machines that the doctors had my mother hooked up to (nothing happened, 'cause, as it turned out, they were just the same machines they hook every patient up to after knee surgery, but, at least my heart was in the right place).
It's not like The Simpsons doesn't still have its moments. They can be counted on for a few yuks per episode, and the movie references are still mostly there, albeit less subtly. In particular, the last epsiode of March, featuring a funny if unoriginal concept steakhouse, was amusing. But that's not good enough, not for The Simpsons. They've set too high a standard to settle for what they've become. It's like watching Muhammad Ali at the end of his career. And already the poor episodes of recent years have infiltrated nightly syndication, where they'll soon outnumber yesteryear's classics, and it'll be harder and harder to catch comedic masterpieces like "The Crepes of Wrath," where a student-exchange program finds Bart conscripted into slave labor in a seedy French vineyard while Homer befriends a pint-sized Albanian Spy; "Some Enchanted Evening," the Babysitter Bandit episode, where, when Marge promises to "slip into something more comfortable" at the Off-Ramp Inn, Homer asks "is it the blue thing, with the things?"; the unparalleled "Itchy & Scratchy & Marge," or "Simpson and Delilah" where Homer grows hair courtesy of a fraudulently obtained prescription for 'Dimoxinil' and is promoted to executive ("take two minutes to say goodbye to your former friends and report to a better life"). It's a point of universal accord that SNL has long ceased to be any good. The Simpsons deserve a more dignified fate.
And maybe that's what's in the works: recently, FOX unveiled its new animated series "Futurama," by Simpsons creator Matt Groening, featuring a cynical robot who's been given Homer Simpson's domed head and goggle eyes but none of the hope and good intentions that once made Homer great. Perhaps the new series is a sign that The Simpsons are enjoying their last days . . . that the human hands behind the show are moving on to newer, fresher projects. On the other hand, without a central, make-or-break presence to bite the bullet and pull the plug like Seinfeld wisely did with his show, there's likely no reason why they won't continue trashing their fine tradition of warm and sophisticated humor, and just keep churning 'em out so long as complicit sponsors can be found and there remains a dollar to be made. As the Late, Great, TROY MCCLURE foretold some three years ago in "The Simpsons' 138th Anniversary Show," "who knows what adventures they'll have between now and when the show becomes unprofitable?" If recent developments are any guide, those adventures won't be pretty . . . or especially funny. 'Nuff said!
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