Three-quarters of the way through the Simpson‘s latest clip show, Gump Roast, an odd thing happens: Kodos and Kang break through the ceiling and invade the actual diegetic world of the show. While Springfield had, through the finale of its twelfth season, played host to an above average number of high profile visitors and quirky schemes that required an above average suspension of disbelief-or at least, a recognition that the genre of animation allows limitless, surrealistic possibilities, seeing the two extraterrestrials appear outside of the Treehouse series and threaten the townspeople feels like the last wind being taken out of any shred of cultural realism. That it is during a clip show that literally rearranges and reorders the linear history of the show and is promptly followed by a song about the show jumping the shark only makes the moment more emblematic of where the series is. Then again, it serves, in an odd manner, as a moment that defines the season; the writers haven’t returned to the themes and formulas of the golden age, but more than the past few years the spotlight turns to the established personalities that exist within the diegetic world rather than the Mel Gibsons and Ron Howards.
Looking through the episodes in order to formulate the list at the end of this post, I noticed an odd evolution in the series. For the first time in many seasons, the Simpsons writers weren’t wholly dependent on introducing new, short term characters in order to catalyze narratives and come up with fresh stories. While a decent portion of the episodes introduced new personalities, very few of these instances favored the non-recurring characters over Springfield residents in the manner an episode like When You Dish Upon a Star did. Though past seasons leaned heavily on cameos to maintain an appearance of cultural relevancy, the thirteenth season at best represents a 50-50 split of this technique.Instead, the writers attempt to source material from both the family and the colorful, ancillary characters that had inhabited Springfield all along. Even in an episode like Brawl in the Family, where a non-recurring social worker appears for the first third of the episode in order to solve the Simpson’s family tensions, the A-story focuses on the effect of the return of Homer and Ned’s Las Vegas wives. An episode like The Sweetest Apu manages to both introduce the convenience store worker’s mistress and include James Lipton with these additions more so filling out the details and tribulations of an existing relationship instead of crafting a new one. When the big names show up–celebrities like R.E.M., James Pinsky, Stan Lee or Phish–they are used for short gags instead of full episodes.
There are, of course, exceptions like The Lastest Gun in the West, The Old Man and the Key, and Blame it On Lisa. The structure of these episodes, however, feels more akin to the eighth season in which the guest appearances were new, fictional characters that represented some facet of society rather than specific cultural references. However, these moments still prove to be some of the weakest during the season. Blame it on Lisa, for instance, resurrects the trope that has regularly seen the titular family visiting foreign countries. The first time the show did this was Bart vs. Australia, a brilliant episode that explored American ignorance and crassness through the Simpsons’ travels. However, the more these episodes appear the more they become emblematic of an uneasy, persistent trend towards indulging in the stereotypes the original was debunking. The visit to Brazil is not quite as problematic as their trip to Japan, but it still feels as if the joke is more so on how. More deafening is some of the cheap humor, like Homer’s speedos receding into his plump body.
When South Park initially took aim at the Simpsons, it was a sour moment in which they suggested that the show had done everything. But more and more as I watch the show, I’m reminded of Parker and Stone’s satire of Family Guy, in which they suggested every joke was a cheap cut away that had little relevance to character development or narrative. As the seasons pass, it’s a technique that actually begins to appear throughout Groening and co’s work. Montage aimed at creating absurdity still represents the greatest weapon in the Simpsons writers’ arsenal when structuring humor. A show starts with Homer stealing the Olympic torch before taking a sharp left turn into the actual narrative; a meandering bar story about Bart digging a hole is included to be included. Woody Allen is sitting in a room writing fortune cookies for no apparent reason other than to tell a joke. The writers cut from Lisa becoming a Buddhist to audio of Homer berating someone about not living and believing as he does, only to reveal the speech is about Bart not buttering is bacon. On a personal level, these questions have had me wondering to what degree we separate cheap, low-brow humor or whatever you may call it from high-brow humor? Of course, that’s a cultural question transcendent of this blog–and one requiring infinitely more research than these posts contain–but its a valid question even as spectators argue about the divide between classic Simpsons and the new Simpsons. If I were to submit a soft guess as to what makes the Simpsons style of montage humor more appropriate or acceptable than Family Guy‘s it wouldn’t be that it was first, it would be that getting to that style of humor has been a long, drawn out process during which the audience has been encouraged to sympathize with the family and grow fond of the characters around them. Ralph quietly saying “why do people run from me” before peeing his pants isn’t the height of intellectual comedy or satire, but it’s rooted in watch his character morph for years and knowing of the dual obliviousness and pain of that stereotypical character (think, This Little Wiggy).Another moment of this humor occurs when Homer gets Barney to drink a beer (his sobriety being well established canon for many seasons now), and the show fully swells the music to cue towards old mistakes being resurrected, before Barney proudly proclaims it truly didn’t awaken anything in him. The fake out works as humor that doesn’t derive from the plot in any meaningful way, but it is at once worrisome and hilarious because it is about a character whose trials and tribulations with alcohol have taken center stage many times.
It also helps when the jokes are culturally incisive, which they can be–one example of a random set up and punchline like this is the foreboding moment in which Republican Party HQ decides to strip all environmental protection regulations. This is quickly followed by Groundskeeper Willie doing a Singin’ in the Rain dance before the acid rain puts a stop to it; while it does relatively little for the narrative, something like this transcends a cheap jab because its rooted in something all too societally real (even now). Tales from the Public Domain contains one of my favorite pieces of random cultural humor, when Homer (as Odysseus) is told he must traverse the river Styx only to find that skeletons dancing to music by the band Styx. He proclaims “truly this is hell.” It’s not a moment that reinforces anything in the series, but it really works as it happens.
This seems to be a roundabout way to get to the point that season 13 represents yet another average entry into the Simpsons canon. Like all of the recent seasons, it’s hit or miss on an episode basis, and it’s hit or miss on a jokes basis. Again, the show’s highs push forward more coherent emotional stakes, like Lisa having the resolve to change religions but coming to a place of mutual respect with her family. I Am Furious Yellow may take a different path of fame and absurdity through Bart’s Angry Dad comic, but it neatly reaffirms the relationship between father and son. And, if nothing else, this is the season that gave us Mt. Carlmore.
Favorite Episode: She of Little Faith
Favorite Quote: “Want to give Honest Abe another turn in the oval office?”-Grandpa Simpson (Brawl in the Family)
Favorite Couch Gag: Homer Simpson as Charlie Chaplin’s tramp character walks in, twitches his nose and sits down next to the rest of the family (all dressed as if in a silent film) (Jaws Wired Shut)
Favorite Chalkboard Gag: “I am not Charlie Brown on acid” (The Blunder Years)
Favorite Short Term/Non-Recurring Character: Gabriel the Social Worker (Brawl in the Family)
Favorite Itchy and Scratchy Cartoon: Butter off Dead (Little Girl in the Big Ten)