Continuity is an odd thing in an episodic sitcom; while the world of Springfield and the characters’ tendencies remain similar, very rarely do the small details of any given outing have ramification on the next. Some seismic shifts do occur, likely necessitated by extraneous factors such as cast salary (ex: the death of Maude Flanders), but for the most part the show avoids large changes. Narratives are predominantly structured to be self contained units, and new characters rarely stick around unless they seamlessly fit into the community or mythos of the show. However, when the show made changes in its first fourteen seasons it mostly stuck to them; when it didn’t, such as Principal Skinner and Edna Krabappel not getting married, it made sense.
The sixteenth season of the Simpsons largely ignores thematic and narrative continuity in a way the series never had before. This fits in with the shift in structure I noted last season. In the early seasons the show would often focus either on emotional resonance, crafting a plot that functions as a commentary on the contemporary nuclear family, or a blend of both. The jokes would often derive from strict character developments within each unit. However, recent episodes have had the specific gags function as attractions, with a nonsensical or unimportant plot often loosely stringing these moments together. More than any year prior, the sixteenth season embraces this, often to its detriment. When dissected in this manner, an explanation is readily available for why Nelson’s father can reunite with his family, regaling them with the unfortunate, idealist (gag) story of how he became a circus freak and was honestly just trying to get cigarettes only a few episodes before future Nelson says he finally understands why his father abandoned him whilst using the same line. Character development, plot, et. all don’t matter so much at this point in the run. To put it clearer: at this point the characters and settings are there to serve specific gag routines rather than overarching themes. Hence, in The Seven Beer Snitch Springfield’s mirror, another “Any Town, USA” once shown to mirror the Simpson’s city in almost every way (Lemon of Troy) despite their intense rivalry, can all of a sudden be a hoity-toity city which looks down upon their hickish brethren in Springfield. Its original portrayal in Lemon of Troy made sense when the writers were attempting a larger, cultural commentary, but this new version was necessary in order to create a musical gag that cultivated insecurity.
This framework also explains audience reception, and why a viewer might prefer a newer Simpsons episode, but more often than not pines for the classic episodes. As the television series is overwhelmingly dependent upon a series of gags instead of additional emotional investment or overarching plots, those jokes need to work in order to create any amount of joy. If a musical montage feels lame or a joke comes across as rote, the narrative will seldom provide any relief. When it strings together a series of gags–such as Milhouse and Bart simultaneously becoming cool off of PlayDude articles yet displaying their childhood naivety to innuendo (“It says Miles Davis will make a flight attendant give you a layover, whatever that means” “I hope its in Omaha, because my grammy lives there”)–there are more quotable moments than in the seasons directly after the Simpsons exited their golden years. It’s a gamble that, to infuse personal opinion, leads to the show’s rockiest seasons yet; it’s why the show can churn out above-average episodes like The Heartbroke Kid and Home Away from Homer (personal note: the montage of Ned rebelling with his mustache is my favorite Simpsons fish out of water/role reversal moment in a long time) while reaching new lows in instances like Pranksta Rap and Goo Goo Gai Pan.
Furthermore, these last two episodes also reveal how a reliance on a gag based narrative instead of cultural commentary can lead to outrageously tone deaf humor. Goo Goo Gai Pan is this season’s moment where the Simpsons travel abroad, so its best comparison remains series highlight Bart vs. Australia. While that episode had its jokes, the overarching theme was that of the cultural ignorance of the contemporary, middle class American family. The jokes were on the titular family, not Australia. Goo Goo Gai Pan‘s reliance on stringing together jokes at the expense of China to enter new comedic territory bases most of its instances of humor on unfortunate cultural stereotypes. Likewise, Pranksta Rap displays only an ounce of awareness as Lisa calls out Bart for being just another suburban kid commoditizing the rap scene before devolving into jokes that uphold her initial critique, a comedy of cringeworthy gags about rap fans and rap artists.
Applied to each episode, this framework also allows for a clearer distinction between just what qualifies as a “classic” Simpsons episode versus a “newer” Simpsons episode beyond mere chronological reasons. We can apply it to this season to explain why Homer can so easily shift from having a show boating academy populated by sports legends to being a minister. It can also explain why Homer makes a new friend, why he can be obscured by a black hole explained by Stephen Hawking at random, and why that friend would never return.
It also cements the most suitable manner for approaching newer Simpsons episodes, as searching for thematic resonance and cultural satire should no longer be the primary manner they are discussed, while lending an explanation to how quality judgments are often derived at this point, and why these opinions are so unanimously mediocre to negative.
Favorite Episode: The Heartbroke Kid
Favorite Quote: “Let the blossoming of Milhouse begin!”-Milhouse van Houten (Alls Fair in Oven War)
Favorite Couch Gag: Sideshow Bob gag (Mobile Homer)
Favorite Chalkboard Gag: Poking a dead raccoon is not research (She Used To Be My Girl)
Favorite Short Term/Non-Recurring Character: Father Sean (The Father, the Son, and the Holy Guest Star)
Favorite Musical Moment: Papa Can You See Me, as sung by Nelson Muntz (Sleeping with the Enemy)
Favorite Itchy and Scratchy Cartoon: Kitty Kill Condition (The Heartbroke Kid)