Last we checked in to Springfield, I positioned Season Nine as the beginning of the end to the series’ golden age. Marked by a transition in comedic style, it showed the first cracks in the show’s formula. While the three act structure maintained course, the content changed in a manner that wasn’t for the best. It goes without saying that Season Ten is the first point at which the decline of the series’ quality actually begins. With that being said, it’s important not to get totally bogged down in objective assessments of quality from here on out. It’s a widely accepted notion that The Simpsons are on the descent from a high peak from this point in time through the current season. A more productive manner to approach this would be to continually ask: what’s changed?
If you recall from the first entries in this series, The Simpsons largely began as a satiric examination of the evolution of the American Dream. While the Flanders clan was more emblematic of a traditionalist view, the Simpsons represented a messier, more relatable version of what it meant to be of the middle class in the US during the 1990s. As the seasons progressed wackier hijinks ensued that pulled the family further from these underpinning. While the show would show awareness of this shift, often by bringing in outside perspectives to comment on the absurdity of the Simpson’s adventures (think Homer’s Enemy), by Season Ten it goes without question that Homer can leave his job to go on a trucking adventure for a week, work with hippies or collect lard, never getting actual payment, without any real consequences in his day-to-day life. That’s a far step away from the man who had to sacrifice his dream job to support a third child.
This perspective runs through all of the episodes; while the show never truly dabbled in sequential, long season arcs there was some weight to the actions within the self-contained shows. Consider the episode in the debut season where Homer pawns the television in an attempt to help his family; that’s a big move, and the show never promises it will work out in the end. In Season Ten, Rhino’s run rampant on Springfield and eventually destroy Homer’s brand new Canyonero-a car he can’t afford-and neither matters. The show hits the reset button, and the viewer is encouraged to assume that the Simpsons will be financially fine paying off the payments on a SUV they won’t be using anymore. While it’s a nice moment, Homer also literally floods the town in Mom + Pop Art and Monty Burns captures the Loch Ness monster. These moments all point towards the larger change in which The Simpsons move from being a show about a middle class family that happens to be drawn to embracing the wacky, surrealist nature of the animated genre. It’s different than something like the Coyote vision Homer has in an earlier season because these are moments that actually happen in the real lives of the characters. This is reflected, too, in the body humor of the season; consider the opening episode in which Groundskeeper Willie literally chokes Homer with a tube until his eyeball pops out. The Simpsons writers are well aware of the shift-Marge even notes how excited everyone was about the Burns Casino before forgetting it a week later-but the show nonetheless embraces this new approach wholeheartedly for the first time in its tenth season, losing an important thematic thread of the early seasons.
What remains, however, still uses the three act structure in which a seemingly unrelated occurrence catalyzes the true plot of the show. However, much of the comedy aspect begins to follow this lead, as it shifts from the organic integration of jokes in the plots towards tangential humor. By saying this, I mean quite simply that they are less reliant on the narrative. Take, for example, the cold open of When You Dish Upon A Star in which Homer is portrayed as a version of Yogi Bear attacking Ranger Ned. This dream sequence, while admittedly quite humorous, doesn’t spark the actual plot of the episode nor does it have any long lasting impact within the twenty minutes. Remove it, and the show is still complete. Likewise, the meta-humor about NBC makes little-to-no sense within the boundaries of what has passed in Screaming Yellow Honkers nor does Homer’s time travel and KBBL partying matter in the long term for Make Room For Lisa. This extends to the cameos-at many moments in the season, it is quite jarring to see moments that seem to be built for the sole purpose of touting a famous voice. Seeing Elton John land in Springfield and be immediately quarantined by the lousy lovers in I’m With Cupid is a funny moment, but it doesn’t feel quite as authentic to the plot as George Harrison meeting Homer in Homer’s Barbershop Quartet and then later driving by to slight their roof top gig. The aforementioned When You Dish Upon A Star, too, is built entirely around three celebrity appearances without having much to say about the dissonance between public and private life or the relationships between fan and star in cases of fame. While this approach to humor, for the most part, still works in Season Ten it does hint towards the shoddy foundation that will lie beneath many of the remaining seasons.
It’s also interesting to note the contrasts between certain episodes. For example, it’s hard to watch Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo and not be reminded of Bart vs. Australia. Of course, there is a big difference between these episodes. The latter played off of American ignorance through its incorrect portrayal of Australia; the joke was actually on the American characters. Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo is funny, but it doesn’t feel quite as easy to pinpoint who the joke is on in the clash of the cultures. It does, however, still feel like a stereotypical representation of Japanese culture, right down to the monsters at the end–again, animated surrealism that would feel out of place in earlier seasons. Simpson Bible Stories is the first of a variety of episodes to embrace the Treehouse approach to structure, and its surprising just how well it works. One of my favorite moments in the season is when Homer plays King Solomon and dictates “the pie shall be cut in half and both men shall receive….death.”
While these cracks are beginning to show, the tenth season of The Simpsons remains an great entry into the canon, in my opinion. In fact, it might be quite surprising given the general fan discourse on when the classics end that a beloved moment such as “everything’s coming up Milhouse” occurs so late in the run. Another stand out is Viva Ned Flanders, in which Homer’s straight laced neighbors tries to learn from the antics next door, only to end up married due to that pesky white wine spritzer. Likewise, my favorite entry this season is Wild Barts Can’t Be Broken, which sees the children using a horror plot to get back at the adults for their scapegoating. It also contains that wonderful “footage missing” moment. What passes before this in my post may seem critical, but I’d like to stress it isn’t necessarily meant to be negative about the season rather than pose the fundamental question of what changes in the gulf between the classic Simpsons and the new Simpsons.
*On a personal note, I finally got all of those applications in so I’m hoping the time in between these posts will become a bit shorter again*
Favorite Episode: Wild Barts Can’t Be Broken
Favorite Quote: “My feat are soaked but my cuffs are bone dry. Everything’s coming up Milhouse!” (Mom + Pop Art)
Favorite Couch Gag: The family never makes it to the couch as tragedies befall each character. Meanwhile, Freddy and Jason wait for them, wondering where they are. (Treehouse of Horror IX)
Favorite Chalkboard Gag: “‘The President did it’ is not an excuse” (Mayored to the Mob)
Favorite Short Term/Non-Recurring Character: Curtis-E-Bear, the courtesy bear, who will take all of your verbal and physical abuse for the next two hours (he’s not really a new character, but he kind of is?) (Marge Simpson In: Screaming Yellow Honkers)
Favorite Musical Number: Adults/Kids (Wild Bart’s Can’t Be Broken)
Favorite Itchy and Scratchy Cartoon: The Terror of Tiny Toon (Treehouse of Horror IX)