Tuesday, June 27, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 2: The Simpsons

Part 1: The Wonder Years

Bart Simpson and I are the same age.

Correction: Bart Simpson and I WERE the same age. When the show started, we were both in 4th grade. This is normally the part where I'd make some pithy remark about how he's aged better, but the fact is that I look pretty damn good and of the two of us, I got to go through puberty, so I'm calling this one for Team Bitter.

I'm trying to figure out how to explain the phenomenon of The Simpsons to a young audience that wasn't around at the time. Upon its debut, it was instantly one of the biggest shows on TV and certainly was one of the most talked about. Every kid was imitating Bart's catchphrases like "Don't have a cow, man!" I recall one of my classmates behind forced to turn TWO Bart Simpsons T-shirts inside out on separate occasions. One read "I'm Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?" The other: "Underachiever and proud of it." (That last one is due to be re-purposed any day now by the Republican party as their "anti-elite" slogan.)

When The Simpsons debuted, there was nothing else on TV like it. Prime time animated shows hadn't existed for decades since The Flintstones went off the air. This was a cartoon that hadn't been created with the assumption its audience was somewhere between the ages of 4 and 10. And it had an edge to its humor that most live action sitcoms didn't. Even in the beginning, there was actual social commentary, with plenty of shots at incompetent authority figures like politicians, police, religious leaders, business owners, television performers, lawyers, and the entire justice system. Nothing was sacred. If anything had any kind of authority, The Simpsons was there to take the piss out of it. I was just a bit young for SNL so the only other place I'd seen humor deployed that way was in MAD Magazine (an acknowledged comedy influence on many of The Simpsons's early writers.

The funny thing is that watching that first season now, it seems much more grounded, unsophisticated and tame compared to what would come in just a few seasons when stories shifted focus from Bart to Homer. This allowed for adventures like Homer going back to college or the family having to relocate in witness protection because Bart's arch enemy Sideshow Bob was determined to kill him. That episode is a great example of the density of pop culture references in The Simpsons. The story eventually turns into a riff on Cape Fear. I'd never seen either version up to that point, but enough of the film was out in the culture that I recognized the influences and some of the gags.

Pop culture jokes on The Simpsons landed with me one of two ways: either I got the reference and laughed at how perfectly placed it was, or I didn't get it and years later I'd be watching a classic film and realize "That's what they were stealing from!" The Simpsons parody of The Shining is so dense that it tells the whole story and hits every possible joke in about seven minutes. Years later when I saw the two-hour-plus film it was based on, I couldn't believe

The reference itself was never the entire joke, there was always a deeper point to it. They also proved that The Simpsons's writers were a well-educated bunch. How can you not love a joke about the "Ayn Rand School for Tots" (where they believe in "nurturing the bottle within.") And I'll confess that at the age of 12, the absurdity of a musical version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" blew right past me.

It was smart. It was literate. It was one of the first shows where I can recall regular "freeze frame" jokes that were on screen for a mere few seconds. The jokes were smart and they made you feel smart for getting them. This wasn't simple hack writing with basic cartoon plots. This show had a voice, and where it didn't match my developing comedy voice, it was certainly influencing it.

I'm also pretty sure it was my introduction to meta humor, or at least was the first time I'd seen it deployed on such a scale. There came a moment when I realized that every story about the making of Itchy & Scratchy was basically the writers' catharsis for what it was like to work on The Simpsons.

In its best seasons, beneath all the wit and satire were strong stories about the characters. It was weird at the time to realize that this silly cartoon had a lot of heart and emotion behind it. The flashback episodes dealing with Marge and Homer's courtship, marriage and journey into parenthood are some of the best examples of this. Also, you could never go wrong with a Lisa episode, particularly an episode that put Lisa together with Homer. Homer could be a complete idiot, but if you give him a story about how Lisa is totally disappointed in him and he tries to fix it, you really start to feel for the guy.

Heart. Joke density. Story density. Those are three of the things I took from The Simpsons. They had a habit of doing a first act that seemed to be going in one direction until a sudden zag in the story that sent things into a completely unexpected direction. That's more common now, but at the time it was revolutionary. I remember the experience of watching an episode I knew I'd seen, but not remembering what the yet-to-emerge A-story was. TV writing was in a process of getting faster and faster paced, and you can really see that building throughout the 90s.

The show also eventually built an entire world, populated with dozens of characters who the audience knew very well. Within a few seasons, Springfield felt like a real place you could visit with a history and culture all its own. It wasn't some generic animated town. Heck, even by the halfway point of the run, it felt like we had met most of its population.

I don't watch it regularly anymore. For me, the golden age of The Simpsons is probably Seasons 2-8, with the entire first 11 seasons being the era that I rewatched obsessively in syndication and pretty much know like the back of my hand. Had it ended there, with "Behind the Laughter" as the series finale, it would have been pretty much a perfect series. When I catch a new episode, it's generally still pretty funny, but you can't imagine the impact of the first few seasons of that show, when nothing on TV was remotely like it.

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