When I was in high school I got addicted to The Simpsons. I watched episodes every day after school, and as every season passed I promised that would be the last one I would want. The problem was with the plan was that each season kept improving; this made the series infinitely harder to quit then I ever expected. Of course, no series remains perfect for long; there’s a reason that “jumping the shark” has become such common vernacular, and it’s because the shows that don’t live in infamy for being cancelled or endeing too early always reach that moment where the quality, for lack of a better word, tanks. Seasons 4-8 of The Simpsons mark an unprecedented run of classics with almost no episodes that miss the mark. They’re the apex of the show’s combination of wit, cultural satire, referentiality and parody; none of those elements are ever too overpowering, and they’re always backed by some sort of relatable message. While the golden age of The Simpsons doesn’t quite end this year, Season 9 represents the moment where the show begins its slow climb down from a high peak. It’s the moment where it feels like the show has completely evolved from cultural satire to being a series of surrealistic animated gags. That doesn’t mean the season is bad–hardly so, in fact.
The moment to point to would be the season’s second outing, The Principal and the Pauper. It’s an episode that, in many ways, has been unfairly antagonized by the masses. In fact, the idea that even substituting one part of the functioning communal structure would throw everything into disarray is merely reiterating a point the the show has made over and over again as the seasons have progressed. However, the ending in which the entire town verbally commits to ignoring all of the events that have unfolded in the narrative strongly suggest this season: it will be more episodic, efforts will feel disjointed from each other, not pushing towards one, large thematic trend, and the show will begin to embrace its animated nature and slip into pure surrealism. It’s the kind of season where Homer Simpson can join the Naval Reserve and be dishonorably discharged with no consequence on future episodes, or Moe and Homer can pull a fraudulent plan and get off free, or the entire town can give away their money to a cult and return straight to normalcy despite Cletus theoretically ending up with all their money. It’s the kind of season where Kirk Van Houten can literally have his arm cut off at one moment and then get it back the next–to me, that might have been the most jarring gag of these episodes.
The show is well aware that this is its new status quo, too, as it is repeatedly pointing out even after Armand Tanzarian becomes Principal Skinner once more. In The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons the show attempts to suggest this isn’t a large departure as Bart pines for a pet elephant, only to be curtly reminded by Lisa he once had one and loved it. But there’s something still intangibly different about it–consider an episode like Das Bus. It’s a funny, absurdist play on Lord of the Flies but the narrative also sees Otto Mann taken away to be a slave before ending on the note: “so the children learned to function as a society and eventually they were rescued by, oh, let’s say Moe.” While it nods to the frivolity of the deus ex machina in rescue stories, it still feels a little too abrupt to have any sort of thematic effect. The abrupt ending also pops up in The Trouble With Trillions; Mr. Burns makes an impassioned speech in which he declares he will bribe a jury to get off of his crime of giving a trillion dollars to Cuba. The cameos are also different this season: there’s something about Bill Gates coming to Springfield to ‘buy out’ Homer that feels much more inorganic then, say, a Beatle passing by to say it’s been done in Homer’s Barbershop Quarter.
While these trends will continue with the series to uneven results, it’s also important to note that they aren’t damaging quite yet. Every episode is still funny, and the series still churns out a couple easy classics. The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson, for example, benefits from the new direction as the contrast between the absurd relationship between Homer and his hellhole and the lovely day the family has is extremely entertaining (the moment at which he must decide between Crab Juice and Mountain Dew is one of my favorites in the series). The show still also proves itself able to satirize genres with ease: Miracle on Evergreen Terrace benefits from the absurdism as it cynically parodies feel good Christmas films (before ending on a sweet note of its own). The Cartridge Family begins as a play on gun consumer culture before morphing into a critique of the difference between responsible ownership and the way many Americans view the weapon. All Singing, All Dancing is without a doubt the best clip show in the series: it performs a deconstruction of masculinity by introducing Bart and Homer’s confusion at the songs of Paint Your Wagon before pointing out that there’s nothing odd about prancing around and singing–it really isn’t just a Milhouse sort of thing. This Little Wiggy used to be one of my favorite episodes as a child, too; it still holds up as the first example of the show trying to show Ralph as a more sympathetic than stupid. It doesn’t work quite as well as his broken heart in I Love Lisa, but it’s still an incredibly funny episode.
Pushed to the background, too, are the more straightforward attempts at playing with the family structure. But when these are introduced, they largely work. Bart Star shows Homer attempting to choose a different path by nurturing his son more than his father did, but quickly shows the danger of over parenting. Lisa’s Sax feels like a minor spin on …..And Maggie Makes Three; it’s always fun to see what Springfield was like before, but sacrificing air conditioning for his daughter’s intellectual pursuits doesn’t feel nearly as heavy as being damned to the power plant. Natural Born Kissers is, perhaps, the most explicit episode in the entire series; it deals with Homer and Marge’s sexual problems in a very open way, before descending into absurdity once more as they crash land into a football stadium naked.
If you’re wondering about transitional seasons between the golden years and the oft derided decline of The Simpsons, Season Nine is the place to start. It signals a shift in episodic and absurdist humor, gags that are slightly more superficial, and a total disregard for reality. The good news is that, for these twenty five episodes, the show benefits from a change in direction.
Favorite Episode: All Singing, All Dancing
Favorite Quote: This interaction:
“Now you’re overstimulated. Let’s get some beer in you and then it’s straight to bed.”-Marge Simpson
“Woo Hoo! Beer Beer Beer! Bed Bed Bed!”
(This Little Wiggy)
Favorite Couch Gag: “The family runs in, only to end up in Mrs. Krabappel’s classroom where Bart is writing ‘I Will Not Mess With The Opening Credits’ on the blackboard” (Trash of the Titans)
Favorite Chalkboard Gag: “There was no Roman God named ‘Fartacus'” (Realty Bites)
Favorite Short Term/Non-Recurring Character: Mojo the Helper Monkey (Girly Edition)
Favorite Musical Number: “The Garbage Man Can” (Trash of the Titans)
Favorite Itchy and Scratchy Cartoon: