Of course I saw it. How could I not? In its heyday, The Simpsons was the greatest show on television; pick any episode from seasons three to seven and you’re guaranteed a terrific collection of sight gags, one-liners, pop cultural references, memorable characters and the occasional moment of real insight. Not only was it incredibly funny, but many its best episodes were often incredibly random – can you remember the episode that begins with a parody of Raiders of the Lost Ark*, or what Homer says that sends him on a road trip so that he meets Lurleen Lumpkin**? (Answers at bottom.) Yet it all belonged.
Consider “The Front,” with its swipe at Hanna-Barbera (“one of the ways in which we save money is to use the same backgrounds over and over.”) in an episode about animation, or “Last Exit To Springfield,” with its Lecter-esque dentist who provides enough of an incentive for Homer to connect “Lisa needs braces” with “dental plan” and its reference to How The Grinch Stole Christmas just when Mr. Burns needs to look his worst.
The show is a cultural touchstone for my generation – nearly all of my friends and most of my acquaintances can quote multiple scenes at length – and ever since I became a proud owner of the first eight DVD box sets, many an outing has led to one of us spouting a random Simpsons quote, connecting the quote to an episode, and then watching it.
Which is why it was so tragic when the series went downhill.
I remember buying a book, The Simpsons: A Complete Guide To Our Favourite Family, and even then I recognized that while some eighth-season episodes were among the best in the series (“You Only Move Twice,” with Albert Brooks as Hank Scorpio, and “Brother From Another Series,” with David Hyde Pierce joining Kelsey Grammer, come to mind), others (“Burns, Baby, Burns,” with Monty’s son, “The Twisted World of Marge Simpson,” with its mafia-vs.-mafia fight at the end, or “The Homer They Fall,” where Homer wins boxing matches by taking punches) pointed it in a new and not entirely welcome direction. Season nine had only two great episodes (for some viewers, three): “The Cartridge Family” (“This gun has cost me everything – my family, my friends… everything except my precious, precious gun.”), “Lisa’s Sax,” and (for Matt Groening, at least) “Natural Born Kissers.” Seasons ten and eleven fared a bit better – the show was consistently funny again, but in a new way. The jokes were random, increasingly ludicrous (Springfield getting flooded? Maude falling off some bleachers? Homer creating a new breed of plant?), and Homer was becoming not only dumber, but increasingly less likable by the season. Season eleven ended with the VH1 spoof “Behind The Laughter,” and I figured great, the series was ending on a high note.
Then something happened. September 2000 rolled around. The show was still on the air. Not only was it now on season 12, I knew, thanks to the internet, there was no chance of it abating. And so I stopped watching. I check in occasionally and see a manatee vomiting into Homer’s mouth, Homer getting kissed by a gay man and wondering if it was the best of his life, and Homer being raped by a panda. A check on the IMDB reveals the show is now on season 19, which means I haven’t watched it regularly in seven years.
For some viewers, the show is still funny; for others, its refusal to fade gives it a sheen that’s almost quaint. For me, it dilutes the show’s legacy. There are more bad episodes than good. While it should have ended ages ago, it continues to be profitable, and mocks its detractors (“They’ve given you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? I mean, if anything, you owe them.”), so there’s no point in talking about it.
But The Simpsons Movie isn’t free, as Homer reminds us in the beginning. This is a good time to talk about it. While it is a bit jarring to see Springfield rendered with 3D backgrounds and full animation, this is as passably entertaining as any modern episode of the series. The focus is on the family, as it has been for ages (of the supporting cast, fewer than a dozen are really done justice), and Homer, less likable than ever, learns lessons he probably knew already. There are exactly four jokes that wouldn’t make it on TV (yes, as has been widely reported, we see Bart’s doodle). Other than that, this is exactly what current fans hoped for – a full-length, reasonably funny episode with some gentle stabs at religion, Fox, and America’s apathy toward the environment, and guest turns by Albert Brooks as the villain and Tom Hanks and Green Day as themselves. It’s directed by David Silverman, a series veteran who took a hiatus by heading over to DreamWorks, where he was one of five directors on The Road To El Dorado, then transferred to Pixar, where he co-directed Monsters Inc. , before returning to The Simpsons again (that’s how long the show’s been on the air). It’s written by eleven of the series’ best writers, including John Swartzwelder and show creators James L. Brooks and Matt Groening, and produced by Brooks, Groening, and current show-runners Al Jean and Mike Scully. Obsessive fans who still think The Simpsons is the greatest thing since sliced bread will love it. And jaded fans like me who abandoned the series will sigh in resignation, appreciate what they’ve been given, and go back to wishing the show would cease being profitable so Fox would cancel it already.
*”Bart’s Friend Falls In Love.”
**Homer: “Ah, this movie’s too complicated… hey, the floor’s sticky… Who’s that guy? What did that guy say when I said, ‘who’s that guy?’… Oh, that’s so fake… look, you can see the strings… ooh, an octopus!… I think that guy’s a spy… Oh, wait, I heard how this ends. It turns out the secret code was some nursery rhyme he told his daughter. You know what I think?” Marge: “Oh, shut up, Homer! No one wants to hear what you think!”