“Well I think its good for a show to go off air before it becomes stale and repetitive.”
“Maggie shot Mr Burns again!”
Usually when I approach a season of the Simpsons after completion, it’s with a topic or set of themes in mind; around the midpoint of each outing it becomes clear how the focus or mechanics of the show are shifting. The twelfth season is an odd one on a personal level: I can attest that it felt a minor triumph in the wake of rapidly declining quality, yet looking back on my screening notes there was nothing jotted down to unify the experience of watching it. Looking at a blank screen, the first thought that follows is to what degree this interchange from Day of the Jackanapes is truthful; have the Simpsons become irredeemably stale and repetitive by the twelfth season? The short answer is, of course, no. It’s actually remarkable the degree to which the Simpsons writers have been able to subtly and slowly shift focus in a manner that allows for fresh conceits and new narratives after twelve years. Where the show becomes problematic is less rooted in being stale and repetitive, and more so in the hit-or-miss nature of stylistic and comedic tendencies as it evolves. This can be ascribed to a trend I’ve been restating ad naseum wherein, as the years have gone by, the show has all but completely dropped prefacing thematic musings that result in humor in favor of crafting wider cultural satire. The story of the Simpsons is no longer about the family that inhabits the center of the show’s universe, but more about everything going on both in the town and world surrounding them. This is not to say there aren’t moments that reinforce and flesh out familial relations, just that the titular family’s role in society is no longer of much interest to the writers.
By watching the series chronologically, this assertion comes as no surprise: as early as the fourth season, I noted that the town of Springfield and its eccentric residents were beginning to encroach upon the show’s gaze more and more. By the time John Waters showed up in town to help Homer with his prejudices, the show was using single episode personas in order to contemplate and dissect the family’s middle class beliefs and dreams. The eleventh season, however, served as the antithesis to this trope; single episode characters were appearing in Springfield, but usually as a quick gag and very rarely in a manner that probed what being a middle class American was about. While the made the rash of cameos heightened the elements of animated surrealism the show had been mining for jokes for the greater part of its run, it further signaled the decline of the show’s commentary on the nuclear family unit.
The transition this evolving technique embodied, however, is more explicitly understandable in the twelfth season: humor in the show is more parody and larger cultural satire rather than using absurdity for human consequence. This contrast can be viewed between characters such as Lt. L.T. Smash and Hank Scorpio: both are power hungry employers whose narratives devolve into violent absurdity. Whereas Hank Scorpio’s appearance takes Homer and co. out of Springfield to suggest that they, indeed, belong in their original setting and that while its easy to ignore the truth the grass isn’t always greener (reflected by the Bond villain ending) Lt. L.T. Smash reveals little about the relationship between boy bands and consumers. Don’t get me wrong: New Kids on the Blecch personally works for me, is one of my favorite episodes of the season and I love the N Sync appearance, but its suggestion of nefarious, subliminal messaging in pop music is never quite pushed far enough in order to create meaningful cultural satire. Attempts at wider cultural satire are not just apparent in the context of episodes, but also the smaller jokes the show is making, whether it be the Christian animated show the Flanders watch wherein a boy is making “a pipe bomb, for to blow up planned parenthood” or an extended parody of Cirque du Soleil (why is it that they always choose the random, foreign accent equipped audience member thats on wires, anyhow?)
One comedic approach the Simpsons have always excelled at is a collision of words and frame in order to create humor; what the characters say is often followed by a juxtaposing event that discredits the original notion. This is a pervasive writing technique that unifies the twelfth season in terms of structure. An example would be Milhouse making a devious suggestion to the newly rich Bart that there is one thing he’s always wanted to do, followed by a quick cut to the two boys in underwear at a laundromat as he victoriously exclaims “my mom doesn’t believe in fabric softener, but she’s not here now!” There’s also a doubling of this technique in Hungry Hungry Homer; Homer sees the cops beating Snake on the ground and vows to scare away the bullies. While the gag here appears to be that he is setting a convict free, it is again subverted by the juxtaposition of the next frame in which the show cuts to a reveal of Snake on fire, a fire the cops were trying to beat out in order to save him. This approach is even structurally applied to the uneven episode, The Computer Wore Menace Shoes, wherein Homer mistakenly reveals the truth about polio vaccines as mind control while spouting randomly conspiracy theories online in order to maintain relevance. At this moment in its run, the show’s humor is derived, largely, from destabilizing audience expectations by presenting the illogical (culturally or specific to a well known character) as truth.
On a single episode level, the twelfth season has its highs and lows like any middle era entry into the canon. Much like The Principal and the Pauper in season 9, its impossible to talk about season 12 without approaching fellow worst episode ever candidate that is The Great Money Caper. While the first two acts set up an average, grift film parody, the wheels fall of in its final moments. The last lines?
“I know [the narrative] seems far fetched, even insulting to your intelligence, but there’s a simple explanation. You see–“-Lisa
What makes this episode the target of such vitriol from fans and critics? It seems as if the meta-humor of the ending crosses a line beyond recognizing the contemporary flaws of the show’s writing into sheer insult. Yet, where there are cavernous lows there are also redeemable highs–most notably, I singled out HOMR and Trilogy of Error. HOMR is both a classic role change episode as Homer becomes intelligent for a brief moment and is completely out of place in society, as well as a really touching return to the concept of fatherhood. Through the series viewers have seen that, despite all of his flaws and self-centered propositions, there’s a tragic sacrifice inherent in the Homer Simpson story as he attempts to provide a better life for his children while growing further from his dreams. Even so, his relationship with Lisa has always been strained; the last instance of the show focusing on it was when Make Room for Lisa suggested she might not always be forgiving and open enough towards what Homer does for her. In HOMR, it is the father’s chance to finally understand and bond with his child, a brief suggestion at the meaningful relationship the two could have. Yet Homer is unable to sacrifice his friends and life for a closer bond with his child, and must take the (admitted) coward’s way out. There’s something that blurs this somber message with the touching note smart Homer leaves his daughter, which is why its my favorite episode of the season: it’s the first emotional episode of the show which has worked in quite a bit.
Coming in close second is another episode which I’d suggest belongs in a list of late, great Simpsons: Trilogy of Error. This outing subverts and comments on the show’s traditional structure by isolating three storylines: one that follows Homer, one for Lisa and one for Bart. Each addition provides further context, and reason, for the chaotic happenstance that is occurring in town. The Simpsons has critiqued itself, and been critiques, for, at points, adding weaker side stories to pad running time. In this case, by abandoning the dual structure Trilogy of Error suggests necessity to its b-stories by suggesting that three of them add up to a fuller narrative, if not thematic, understanding of Springfield. For a show that’s often very straight forward in its meta humor, this episode works by more quietly focusing on shifting structure in order to create its message. While much of the finer details of humor focus, again, on destabilizing the viewers expectations and reinforcing the manner of humor that has been proliferating on the show (think of hearing the shots fired over Wiggum’s radio as a joke that his incompetence has caused actual death vs. what actually happened, but repeated over and over again) it works as an important entry in the canon because its reflexivity about the generic Simpsons structure, its flaws, and its strengths is so brilliant.
Favorite Episode: HOMR
Favorite Quote: “Don’t touch me! Nothing gives you that right!”-Orphan Child (Homer vs Dignity)
Favorite Couch Gag: Santa’s Little Helper dancing in front of the couch a la Snoopy in a Charlie Brown Christmas (The Computer Wore Menace Shoes)
Favorite Chalkboard Gag: “I will not plant subliminal messagores” (A Tale of Two Springfields)
Favorite Short Term/Non-Recurring Character: Lt. L.T. Smash (New Kids on the Blecch)
Favorite Musical Number: Drop Da Bomb (New Kids on the Blecch)
Favorite Itchy and Scratchy Cartoon: From Here to Infirmity (HOMR)