When Gump Roast flashed an image of Homer jumping over a shark in its final montage, it foreshadowed the direction of the series in a way that might not have been initially apparent. In a very obvious way, the writers were poking fun at the perception that the show had come to lack new ideas and relevance in recent years. However, this instance also of relating the Simpsons to an iconic moment in popular culture. Later in the season, Marge and Homer ended up on a reality show (The Frying Game) in an episode that decried the dissonance between acknowledged cheap thrill and willing participation in an ever expanding genre on the landscape of television.
Easy to dismiss as parody, these occasions displayed a newfound attempt to reason the established show’s place in a shifting cultural zeitgeist. While the show had always attempted to situate itself in a very specific animated lineage, often paying homage to shows like the Flintstones and The Jetsons, the fourteenth season expands the scope of this reflection. In many episodes, the writers attempt to figure its place outside of both the animated genre and the lore of past classic episodes, especially as popular entertainment continued to morph at the turn of the century. In many ways, this is to be expected with a run as long as the Simpsons; even to this point, the show has occupied a world in which both Twin Peaks and Survivor were important referents. Random allusions abound through the course of the season, as Krusty appears on a show called”Padz,” the family watches “That 30s Show,” and Homer is bored by a late episode of The Three Stooges. At one point, Homer even literally eats the promo for another show (Joe Millionaire) off the crawl before exclaiming, “ew, Fox.”
At the (current) midpoint of the series, however, two references see the writers working explicitly to ascertain the show’s relevance at the turn of the century. The first occurs in Helter Shelter, the show again responds to the growing fad of reality television in a more overt manner, as the family is dumped into an 1800s house with a confessional camera for the pleasure of the nation. Naturally, as they begin to succeed the show is deemed boring, hence the vapidly represented producers attempt to graft an awkward, aging guest appearance and manufacture chaos in order to recapture the attention of the public. After the ordeal ends, the titular family decides they must find a new method of entertainment rather than to give in to the thrills of the new medium. In this moment, the writers situate the show’s comedic ancestry to the sight gags of silent cinema, as Homer and Bart replicate the central gag in the Lumieres’ 1895 short The Sprinkler Sprinkled. There’s an inherent tension in this moment due to the outdatedness of the allusion, coupled with the fact that many modern viewers may miss it entirely, which is oddly reflected of the shows’ rapid signs of aging and lessening relevancy. Still, though, it plays as a moment which points towards a more storied, legitimate tradition of humor with the longstanding roots that had not yet been established for reality television.
In the fourteenth season’s penultimate episode comes the second reference, as the show approaches its relation to its contemporary, animated sensation. At the beginning of The Bart of War, Milhouse and Bart sit down to watch an episode of South Park that Groening’ and co. fabricate. While the two agree that it is acceptable for adults to be voicing the children (as done in the Simpsons) Bart ponders how Parker and Stone manage to keep the show fresh after a whopping 43 episodes. As for the show? Bart and Milhouse are overjoyed at the cartoon violence (and humor) of a farting robot summoning O.J. Simpson to mindlessly kills other random cultural references. Of course, the aim here is to portray the competitor as indulging in silly excess and of-the-moment references, a low-brow show suited to the taste of children rather than the adults, as Marge deems it to not be life affirming before clicking it off. It forms an interesting call-and-response with Parker and Stone’s effort, “The Simpsons Already Did It.” While the Simpsons lampoons South Park for having too little tenure and too much indulgence, the South Park writers would lament the fact that The Simpsons had been around so long that there were very little, new animated narratives to even conjure. Later in the season, this hierarchical view of comedy reappears as the writers poke fun at the perceived “high humor” of British television in A Star is Born Again by having a prominent British writer in a silly gag.
The fourteenth season, however, proves that there are, indeed, many new storylines to approach even if not all of them land. It begins, oddly enough, with a reference to its most poignant moment–And Maggie Makes Three. In How I Spent My Strummer Vacation, Homer drunkenly confesses on a taxi cab reality show (again) about how he got stuck in his job, helpless to watch his dreams disappear as he grew bald and fat. The family then rewards him for his sacrifice–something that seems at odd with the tragedy that that sixth season episode so beautifully portrayed. Just an episode later, however, something even stranger happens. Bart vs. Lisa vs. the 3rd Grade sees the traditional role reversal episode as the two end up in the same class. At the end of the episode the two children are returned to their respective classes, as a group of major characters stand together and outright confirm that there’s nothing that works like the status quo. It’s at once self aware of the cyclical nature of the show, yet hopelessly regressive as it suggests that long term arcs and change are totally out of the question. The Simpsons writers are affirming the formula. This holds up during the season, as even I’m Spelling As Fast As I Can sees Barney giving in to the relapse he had evaded for seasons on end; again, this instance effaces the long term maturation of a character in order to exploit the facile gags his drunkeness provides. Even the one major character change that does occur in the season–Principal Skinner and Edna’s engagement in Special Edna–is never capitalized on during the course of the season.
For a season that questions its place so often, its odd to see such a reluctance to experiment in favor of staying the course. However frustrating this method proves to be at points, there are still plenty of humorous moments as the Simpsons settles into consistently being average, which, at fourteen years old, is perhaps the most one can ask for.
Favorite Episode: Moe Baby Blues
Favorite Quote: “Duff–the official beer of NASA (the national association of sellers of alcohol)” (Old Yeller Belly)
Favorite Couch Gag: The Get Smart spoof gag (Bart vs. Lisa vs. the 3rd Grade)
Favorite Chalkboard Gag: “SpongeBob is not a contraceptive” (Pray Anything)
Favorite Short Term/Non-Recurring Character: Declan Desmond (‘Scuse Me While I Miss the Sky)
Favorite Musical Moment: Sideshow Bob sparing Bart’s life as hes “grown accustomed to his face” (The Great Louse Detective)
Favorite Itchy and Scratchy Cartoon: Bleeder of the Pack (C.E. D’oh)