While preparing to comment on the eleventh season of the Simpsons, a necessary parallel struck me between it and the eighth season. In my piece, entitled “You Only Guest Once,” I suggested that it represented the first moment in which the show’s writers attempted to explore the dynamics of the family (and town) against a consistent set of short term characters. In many ways, the eighth season was a success due to this tactic; most of the non-recurring players weren’t famous faces, but rather outsiders that revealed something more about the tensions that lie beneath your average town. Homer’s Phobia is the best example of this tendency: John Waters voices a character whose accent and demeanor is unmistakably him, yet John (no last name provided) is more important in that he reveals an unjust, judgmental prejudice that wouldn’t be addressed otherwise. Of the eighth season, I noted in summation:
What makes their inclusion feel seamless is that they fit into the larger trend of thematic analysis that has always lied beneath the whimsical humor of the series. Many of these appearances continue to probe and satirize the nuclear family’s place within contemporary society, whilst continuing the reflexive questions of where to situate the show in television history and how to maintain relevance that have always characterized The Simpsons.
In a similar way, the eleventh season of the series returns to a structural mode that is absolutely dependent on integrating unfamiliar characters in order to craft unique narrative beats. To further illustrate the point, a cursory glance at the episode list reveals that only three of twenty-two outings don’t contain a new voice. While, within the constraints of this project (and the time I have free to dedicate to watching and writing about the Simpsons) it’ll be impossible to detail every one of these, a few stand out. Most notable is Beyond Blunderdome, which resurrects the recent trend of having cameos voice themselves recently championed by episode When You Dish Upon a Star. In it, Mel Gibson visits Springfield for a test screening of his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington remake. Seeing only one audience member brave enough to offer criticism of his work, Gibson hires Homer to help him reshoot and finish the film. While the episode works in that it trots out the necessary allotment of jokes to function as a comedy, a nagging afterthought remains as to what it has to say, if anything, about the relationship between celebrities and those who worship celebrity culture?
A more interesting case comes in the next episode (Brother’s Little Helper)–Bart has a drug-addled revelation that the MLB is tracking people’s information and proceeds to shoot down a satellite. When Mark McGwire pops out to hit a couple of home runs for the jubilant crowd, not so sneakily hiding the information, the Simpsons suggests that fans are willing to look the other way when their rights are being encroached upon if the correct entertainment value is provided. In this case, while the cameo is still a bit jarring and the epiphany doesn’t truly relate to the narrative content of the episode at all, at least it feels as if the writers are making a decent point. And so continues the rest of the season–Gary Coleman appears as himself being a horrible security guard without much reason, Betty White hosts a PBS telethon, Kid Rock & co perform at Spring Break, and many more appear. Most of these guests run against the original thematic trends of the show–appearing as famous celebrities, they heighten the surrealist aspect of the show by having a once relatable family continually interact with the rich and famous in between wacky adventures. One of the most intriguing guest appearances comes courtesy of another big name not playing himself. Take My Wife Sleaze sees John Goodman and Henry Winkler playing the leaders of bike gang Hell’s Satans, nicely revealing the divide between the suburban fantasy of rebellion and the actual act before quickly devolving into cartoonish mayhem.
This move largely reflects the genre shift I’ve been reiterating over the past few seasons. As the years have progressed, the writers have segued away from using the titular family as a tool of overt social and cultural commentary and welcomed conventions of the animated genre that so neatly fit in to the episodic structure of the show. The narrative of the show, in season 11, is 99% about the wacky antics of Homer and company, with a smaller portion of its thematic focus being on the issue of fatherhood. Consider the fact that, in Faith Off, a character’s leg literally falls off and kicks the game winning field goal in mid air. Meanwhile, Homer gets caught as a missionary in a fatal situation before the show cuts to a PBS telethon and erases all that has progressed; this move recognizes the nature of the show, but the ending hardly feels satisfying as much as it does a means for the writers to come to a quick resolution. An interesting parallel in this genre embrace might be between when the family gets Stampy and when Homer and Bart acquire the racing horse Duncan. In Lisa’s Pony, the show underscored the desire and sacrifice inherent in providing your children with the luxuries they desire, with Lisa giving up her dream pet in order to save her father’s sanity.Meanwhile, Duncan has no fiscal impact on the Simpsons-he’s just another outlandish addition to the crew-and becomes totally personified. Making the animal human is another animated genre convention, and it made me think of the contrast with short-lived pet Stampy in which the elephant made Homer seem more animalistic at the end, rather than the reverse. The Simpsons can get into these situations, Moe can become a soap star briefly, Barney can become sober, Homer can become a food critic, craft tomacco and be physically abused constantly all because the format allows the show to reset. Only in two areas does the show make lasting changes. The first is the birth of Apu and Manjula’s octuplets and the second, of course, is the ludicrous death of Maude Flanders.
In the case of the latter, the show does its best to situate it amongst the history of the show. At the funeral, a pan reveals the gravestones of the many characters that have died through the series’ course, including Dr. Marvin Monroe and Frank Grimes, almost insisting to the viewer that these wacky deaths do have a precedence within the show’s canon. This plays nicely into the final big element of Season 11 worth approaching: the Simpsons begins to recognize its flaws. The writers use meta-humor in order to emphasize and satirize the growing shortcomings of the show; take Eight Misbehavin‘, in which the characters all sit in a car talking about how crazy the last nine months (the show skipped) were and going over discarded plots or the end of Pygmoelian, in which Homer muses over why Moe’s face was crushed to its original formation instead of the third, new face it should have (hint: it’s for next week). Examples like this pop up throughout the season, but the most interesting example is Comic Book Guy playing a Simpsons aficionado in Saddlesore Gallactica and pointing out the similar, forgotten plot points the episode retreads while wearing a “Worst Episode Ever” t-shirt. The final resolution of this thread? Bart asks if anyone truly cares what he thinks after Comic Book Guy insists he’s watching Marge for rehash, and nobody does. In this instance, it feels like a reassurance that nobody truly cares whether the show embraces its animated form, recycles minor plot points and continues on flawed.
We’ll end, fittingly, on the final episode of the season as it attempts to rectify the show’s flaws against the animated form. A parody of Behind the Music, Behind the Laughter humorously approaches criticism of the show. It posits that Homer became hooked on painkillers as an outcome of the physical torment he goes through in the show, and that it was the increased turmoil between family members that caused an increased reliance on gimmicky plots (here, it calls out Principal and the Pauper) and the never ending parade of guest stars. Rather than a lack of creative ingenuity, these issues become deeply imbedded within the characters of the show; Behind the Laughter both plays off of the mythologizing self-importance of the music special while taking a large opportunity to admit fault. It’s a rather funny piece of revisionist history that attempts to suggest that the flaws of the season are inherent in its genre more than the series’ writing.
Favorite Episode: Behind the Laughter
Favorite Quote: “Stupid sexy Flanders!”-Homer Simpson (Little Big Mom)
Favorite Couch Gag: The family enters colorless (with numbers) and a group of Korean animators paint the Simpsons (Brother’s Little Helper)
Favorite Chalkboard Gag: “I won’t not use no double negatives” (Hello Gutter, Hello Fadder)
Favorite Short Term/Non-Recurring Character: Meathook (Take My Wife, Sleaze)
Favorite Musical Number: Testify (Faith Off)
Favorite Itchy and Scratchy Cartoon: The Tears of a Clone (Little Big Mom)