Consequences are a fickle thing in the episodic show; in any given Simpsons episode, the emotional affect has always been rooted in developing and exploring longstanding character relations rather than growth an change over a season long arc. For example, the tragedy of the ending of an episode like ….And Maggie Makes Three derives from expanding upon what the viewer knows about Homer’s lifestyle and giving meaning to it, even if the specific plot beats will never be explored again. One of the ways the show has evolved, however, is to graft certain arcs onto its increasingly random, episodic structure. In the late eleventh season episode, “Days of Wine and D’oh’ses” Barney went sober, and that lasted for a couple of seasons, effectively ending his “schtick” as the town drunk until the show reverted back to its status quo. Midway through the fourteenth season, Principal Skinner decided to propose to Edna when faced with losing her. The show’s commitment to the short-term over long-term was apparent, however, as it quickly dropped the idea of this wedding.
And then, as is wont to happen in Springfield, everything reverted back to the status quo in fifteenth season episode My Big Fat Geek Wedding. Principal Skinner gets cold feet and Edna decides against marrying someone who is not completely interested in the proposition of a life with her. Re-affirmation of the status quo is nothing new to the Simpsons, however some moments do prove shocking in their own way. In Diatribe of a Mad Housewife, for example, Dr. Marvin Monroe (long thought, and confirmed, to be dead) reappears and attributes his (noted) absence to an “illness” before suggesting it as a “long-running gag.” This isn’t even close to the show’s only foray into meta-humor, as it even resuscitates “You Are Lisa Simpson,” a moment always towards the top of the list of emotional moments, as a gag. However, most things revert back to normacy: even Milhouse’s brief stint of being cool in Capital City is quickly quashed when a battle in court brings him back home. Even this year’s flashback episode, cleverly titled The Way We Weren’t as a play on the first flashback episode The Way We Was, destabilizes the myth that it was love at first sight to quickly reaffirm it as the two, unknowingly, shared a first kiss. This episode, however, suffers from a faulty third act in which Marge still harbors resentment towards Homer despite the fact that he clearly wasn’t at fault for ditching her.
One of the trends that has emerged over the past few season is the tenured show contemplating its place amongst a shifting paradigm of popular culture. While the trend of overtly satirizing popular media continues in the fifteenth season, it is less pointed at this aim. Rather, references to popular culture function primarily as more specific parodies of the type of media contemporary consumers are indulging. Rather than an episode in which the family is grafted onto a reality show in order to blend the two genres, the characters are more likely to be watching a specific reality show satire, such as the Bachelor opening to Simple Simpson. This expands out of reality shows however, as Veggie Tales pops up on the screen in a Sprawl Mart window (The Fat and the Furriest), Gaitor Baiter parodies the late sensation Steve Irwin (Marge vs. Singles….), a Wild Dingleberries movie that is a “paid version of what you can watch on TV for free,” the family watches “The Year Santa Got Lost” with Jimmy Stewart surrounded by misfit toys and the family get upset by a new Cosmic Wars more interested in boring political procedure than daring action (Co-Dependents Day). An entire episode is devoted to satirizing the film Catch Me If You Can, with the children chasing after their parents across the country. These references are not as embedded into the narrative as, say, Chief Wiggum’s Twin Peaks dream in Who Shot Mr. Burns, Pt. 2; rather, they are moments of humorous spectacle unattached to the whims of the weekly plot. In many ways, this seems to point towards the fashion in which humor in the Simpsons is beginning to function; more often than not, narrative is haphazardly created in order to sufficiently link a series of references and jokes. Obviously, sometimes this technique pans out better than others.
The show can play with these references in an interesting fashion, as in select cases the plot is catalyzed by what the family sees on television in the opening moments of an episode. In these moments, the Simpsons is toying with a commentary on the effect of popular culture on the modern consumer, and the degree to which it holds power over the contemporary family. However, more often than not these references serve little insight into the objects which they parody, functioning mostly as quick gags with no lasting impact. An outlier that must be mentioned is Milhouse Doesn’t Live Here, which uses the conceit of a “Museum of Television” to place Flanders in the nosy neighbors hall of fame and then briefly self-satirize its schmaltzy ending. However, this is far from the norm in the fifteenth season.
One element that sees a sharp rise in the fifteenth season, more so than any preceding year, is the licensed music montage. Dr. Hibbert tries to inoculate Bart to the tune of Blondie’s One Way or Another (Bart Mangled Banner), Marge and Homer kiss during a fantasy sequence to So Happy Together (The Way We Weren’t), and Lisa tries on a plethora of new personalities in Smart and Smarter. It’s hard to place specific thematic resonance to these musical choices, yet it does fit in with the aforementioned structure in which the brief relief and spectacle of the gag is foregrounded over the show’s outlandish narratives. This is reflected, too, in the high amount of quotable moments in this season as opposed to the prior three. Perhaps this signals the structure within the episodes, as well as the season; as the well for original stories continues to dry up a stunning fifteen seasons into the run, the show chooses to preface the attractions of gag humor over emotional resonance and cultural inquiry.
Favorite Episode: Simple Simpson
Favorite Quote: “Duffmensch orders you to party! This reich will last a thousand beers–oh ya!”
I do this, and I’m Jewish” -Duffman
Favorite Couch Gag: The parody of the Powers of Ten, in which the camera zooms out through space until it ends up right back at the couch (The Ziff Who Came To Dinner)
Favorite Chalkboard Gag: I will not speculate on how hot my teacher used to be (The Ziff Who Came To Dinner)
Favorite Short Term/Non-Recurring Character: Randall Curtis, creator of Cosmic Wars (Co-Dependents Day)
Favorite Musical Moment: Skinner’s Evil Plan (The President Wore Pearls)
Favorite Itchy and Scratchy Cartoon: The Battle of Slaughter-Loo (Prison Edit) (The Wandering Juvie)