Not long ago, the Simpsons made an outward shift wherein the show focused more on the ancillary inhabitants of Springfield than the members of the family. Perhaps it was a signal that the writers found a lack of purposeful commentary to approach within the family, or maybe it was merely a sign of longevity and a lack of unique narrative drive. While season 17 continues the form wherein the parts (jokes, gags, etc) are oft more important than the whole, it feels maximalist in an odd way. Not necessarily in its content, but in how strongly it pushes the structures of older Simpsons seasons in lieu of crafting its own identity. Of course, relatively little of the season harkens back to the cultural commentary of the show’s humble beginnings, but it does pick up on old tendencies that we’ve gone through in seasons past, feeling more like a retreat than anything novel.
Lost in my posts on the previous few seasons was that the show returned to a stronger focus on the main characters of the show. While odd cameos still appeared in Springfield, they felt more synthetic than in the past and the story was no longer quite as dependent on bringing in an artificial, outside catalyst. Perhaps it just worked more in conjunction with the attractions-type structure I proposed in my post on season 16: after all, once stars stop playing anonymous characters they mostly function as a spectacle that momentarily distracts from the plot. The seventeenth season attempts to use its guests more in the way the eighth did: big names like Michael York, Alec Baldwin and Ricky Gervais show up playing made up roles. However, this dips into the realm of the uncanny in an instance where Gervais’ character is drawn and scripted to imitate the actor’s appearance and comedic tendencies in every way but his name. Perhaps the closest parallel would be John Water’s appearance as the camp-loving John in series highlight Homer’s Phobia. In all of these cases, however, the show attempts to use the eighth season structure wherein an outside character services character development. Michael York is Homer’s dream dad, and possible long lost father, but he mostly functions in a way that makes Homer finally accept Abe as both a flawed and loving figure from his past. This Is Your Wife and The Bonfire of the Manatees don’t work nearly as well in terms of quality, but they also return to the format in which outside characters strengthen Marge and Homer’s commitment.
The show also leans heavily upon the fish out of water construct: Groundskeeper Willie becomes a dandy in season highlight (and musical episode) My Fair Laddy, only to decide he is much happier as a groundskeeper in a rotten shack. Skinner is deposed as Principal for a sexist remark, so Lisa ends up acting like a boy to avoid the all girls portion of Springfield Elementary and learn math only to find that the happy medium is in the status quo. ( A brief aside–the Simpsons have some regrettable moments [the lack of awareness in Pranskta Rap comes to mind], but the affirmation of Skinner’s sexism as Lisa must become a boy in order to learn math because the women don’t teach problems as much as feelings is another unacceptable moment in the series in which the show partakes in structural sexism instead of rebutting it). Marge parents the Flanders children. Perhaps the show returns to this well so often because it is a sensible act in which the Simpsons can subvert routine before safely reverting back to the status quo after twenty or so minutes of uncharted territory. Regarding Margie gives Marge amnesia in order to return her to Springfield as an outside horrified by the town’s colorful vagrants (“why is that drug addict riding a bus”) and her family. Of course, the show prominently does this again when it features the narrative wherein “the Simpsons go to,” but instead of one unfortunate adventure they go to both India and Italy. While the former contains a wonderful propaganda video in which Burns attempts to convince his employees that outsourcing is good as they’ll have more time to play the lottery and not work, the Apocalypse Now type plot where Homer believes he is a God in India falls a bit flat. However, Kiss Kiss Bangalore does show more awareness in the fact that the jokes finally shift back to being on Homer’s cultural ignorance rather than the weird tendencies of foreigners they attempted to poke fun at in recent seasons.
This season also, oddly, has three multi-narrative stories. In addition to the standard Treehouse, the Simpsons also put their spin on several tales of the seas while waiting for food at the Frying Dutchman, and tell several Christmas stories. While it pushes a tried formula to the fore more than usual, this move also makes sense in that these variety-half hours are a natural fit for the gag-oriented structure of the show; it makes sense that as the show pushes further away from arcs and towards jokes as attractions, multiple seven minute stories with no stakes would proliferate. It also must be mentioned that the show returns to the past in the Seemingly Never Ending Story, but this time attempts to tell an origin story wherein Snake was an idealistic archeologist, Moe and Edna were in love, and Edna threw away that affair as an idealistic teacher that wants to help Bart. While the narrative is, of course, silly it is an interesting commentary that once each characters makes it to Springfield and experiences the town the characters become cynical.
While this retreat to past structures doesn’t lend itself to a stand out season (as you might be able to tell from this post), it does actually result in several stand out Simpsons episodes through the course of the season. Milhouse of Sand and Fog has the van Houtens reunite, much to Milhouse’s chagrin, but is deftly funny as it determines which status quo to uphold (its O.C. parody is also one of the brighter, throw away cultural references of the season). Homer’s Paternity Coot is as heartfelt as the show has been in years, while My Fair Laddy is, in terms of quality, one of the best times the show has focused on an ancillary character in recent years. The Monkey Suit is, subtly, one of the more complex political outings of the past few years as it approaches the debate on teaching creationism and evolution. Rather than mocking the non-scientific beliefs of Flanders, however, the show concedes the importance of those tenets, just that they should be shared outside of academic institutions. In an odd way, returning to the status quo and using a maximalist approach towards old structures works as well for the shows as it does for the characters on an episodic basis: it allows for safe ventures into uncharted territory that creates some high points for the mid-Simpsons run, but ultimately the seventeenth season makes the show feel devoid of a certain character and individuality more than ever before.
Favorite Episode: My Fair Laddy
Favorite Quote: “That would be like going to Amsterdam and not taking a walking tour of famous doors!” -Milhouse (on why it would be silly to leave the valve room without turning one) (We’re on a Road to D’ohwhere)
Favorite Couch Gag: Simpsons Family Portraits (Homer’s Paternity Coot)
Favorite Chalkboard Gag: “Does any kid still do this anymore?” (Bonfire of the Manatees)
Favorite Short Term/Non-Recurring Character: Mason Fairbanks (Homer’s Paternity Coot)
Favorite Musical Moment: Adequate (My Fair Laddy)