While it is not an American custom for television shows to end at their peak (perhaps Arrested Development and Freaks and Geeks are exceptions, although they were as a result of then-poor ratings), The Simpsons has really stretched the world’s patience. Somehow, despite exploring every plot, continent and character, it is now approaching its thirtieth season.
The general concession is that The Simpsons began to peter out around Season Nine. Before this, it produced eight seasons of flawless quality – not only did it provide a razor-sharp social commentary on ‘90s culture, but it had the ability to cover the full range of comedic techniques. Slapstick, observational, satirical, meta… it seemed like there was nothing the writers couldn’t do. Match that with authentic, emotionally-charged pathos and the animation has earned its place in the pantheon of comedy greats.
Like with Robert De Niro and R.E.M., though, the general public pretty much stopped giving a shit around 1998. To turn on Channel 4 – or, if you’re blessed with aristocratic wealth, Sky – these days is to play a dangerous game of Russian roulette, where viewing the intro screen can either leave you filled with nostalgic joy or disgruntled disappointment. However, we should, in a sense, be grateful to the animators for changing the beginning, for as soon as we see Ralph Wiggum being carried away on a stalk, we can swiftly load up Netflix.
As for me, I was one of those staunch “I’ve seen every episode” fanatics, and I truly believed I had. Every Sunday at 6.30pm I would watch in sheer wonderment at the colourful characters and mesmerising wordplay, and I’d laugh in the face of the teenagers raised on terrestrial who’d have to wait another four years. But once the movie had come out and it felt a little so-so (as most movie spin-offs admittedly do, perhaps bar South Park), I slowly began to tune out.
Over the years, I’ve seen a few decent episodes, but for the most part whenever I dared watch I felt floored and forlorn – seeing once-great characters like Mr Burns and Ned Flanders reduced to thinned-out caricatures was more than I could bear. The animation was pristine and unlovable, and usually within ten minutes I had given up hope and turned to GOLD. It would be like watching your favourite football player return from injury, but after 10 games without a goal you realise it’s time they threw in their boots.
Granted, I’ve seen some okay episodes since its heyday, but not many. The most notable exception was when there were two great scripts in as many weeks, ‘Marge Gamer’ and ‘Homerazzi’ both having the spirit, humour and consistency of, let’s say, Season Twelve episodes (and believe me that’s the best we can hope for now). But they were Season Twenty. We’ve had eight more seasons since then. Revisiting it now would be like going to check to see if those tissue samples had finally turned.
This brings me to a few nights ago. It was 7pm and as an ardent anti-soap Samaritan, I could not find anything passable on the box. I’d already looked on the TV listings to see if Sky One had, kindly, opted to show some classics, but there were ones from Season 25. I couldn’t. It was too cold for a post-screening shower. But I needed to unwind and I was too lazy to search for a DVD. And then I was smacked with a sudden twinge of curiosity. This could be an interesting experiment. I sighed deeply, sat back and prepared for the plunge.
First of all – research. What was different now from the old episodes, besides the obvious reduction in quality? One thing I noticed was the devotion to sight gags. In the past, you would get the odd few – the additional Homer walking past the living room comes to mind – but now each scene is loaded with them, as if the animators feared the script was too weak and thus filled every storyboard with an additional, wordless scene. Another was, oddly, songs. Two episodes I watched, ‘What To Expect When Bart’s Expecting’ and ‘Married to the Blob’, saw characters randomly burst into almost-orchestral numbers.
But, crucially, I didn’t actually mind them. Maybe it’s because I tried to watch with a clear and singular mind, but the Season 25-onwards episodes had some moments of quality. ‘What To Expect…’ had a strong plot, in which couples mistake Bart for some kind of fertility guru, and had some decent jokes. ‘Married to the Blob’ bought together Comic Book Guy and Homer in a more realistic way, rather than around Season Thirteen where suddenly the Simpsons knew everyone. Another episode, ‘The Winter of His Content’, saw Homer begin to act like an old man after hanging out with Grandpa, and produced a bedroom scene with Marge that actually had me laughing. With my mouth. I couldn’t believe it.
‘Days of Future Future’ predictably played like a middling episode of Futurama, but the Milhouse-Lisa plotline had some heart and humour. No doubt if I sat down with my Season Four boxset I would instantly forget any remnants of these ‘new’ episodes, but upon giving these episodes a chance, I realised that perhaps we are too quick to judge. They’re not great, but the characterisation is more steadfast than the show’s rickety mid-season era. Let’s just not talk about the Lady Gaga episode.
Words by Sam Lambeth