The Simpsons needs to say hello to its little friend
The Simpsons longevity is impressive, but the show is beginning to resemble the final moments of the life of Tony Montana.
There is a striking moment at the end of Scarface when a dreary and sweat-soaked Tony Montana, already suffering the effects of a bullet to the thigh, slumps alongside the dead body of Gina just in front of his cocaine-covered hardwood desk. As Sosa’s men swarm through his mansion to the soundtrack of haunting didgeridoo and incessant gunshots, you and Tony simultaneously realise a similar faith awaits him.
Pacino glances to his CCTV screens, kisses his wife, whispers “wait for me” and moves to his gun cabinet. It is then he delivers one of the greatest lines in film history:
“Say hello to my little friend.”
2.29 minutes, two grenade-launchers and an arsenal of shots to the torso later Montana crashes through his balcony and plunges into the fountain below; a spectacular and deserving finale for our mercurial anti-hero.
Should Montana have withstood the gun-fire and persevered we as an audience would have felt cheated. It would have betrayed the two and a half hours of swelling, sex, drugs and violence-infused build up. The entity needed to be put to bed.
Films and TV shows often extend beyond their life cycle through willful ignorance or a desperate desire for avaricious revenue-generation. True wisdom is knowing when to walk away.
It’s widely recognised that the constant of many childhoods, The Simpsons, dipped after season nine. It persists even now, stretching beyond 600 episodes. At a fundamental level, there is nothing wrong with the show persevering, continuing to churn out seasons and make children laugh.
Precisely what caused this decline is difficult to quantify. The show seemed to dip from narrative episodes and become more slapstick, one-liner driven entities. What was fresh and creative became gimmicky and exaggerated.
The initial nine seasons had a sentimental value that remains unmatched. The fantastic countdown by The Ringer of the top 100 Simpsons episodes, dedicated the entire top 10 to episodes from this era. Its longevity means a significant portion of its audience were exposed at a formative time of their lives. In many ways, this amplifies its genius. The Simpsons, for so many of us, was our first exposure to true comedy.
The Simpsons didn’t just reflect eras, it captured them. In ‘Bart Get’s Famous’, Bart’s atmospheric rise as the ‘I Didn’t do it Kid’ captured the 15-minutes of fame culture in America. Another episode sees Apu get deported after Mayor Quimby blames immigrants for the towns high taxes, despite his totally ridiculous commissioning of a ‘bear patrol.’
Above all it was different. This dewy, new-fangled comedic cartoon exploded into the mainstream and caused chaos. Whether it being insulting an entire nation and being discussed in the Australian parliament, or Matt Groening received death threats for mocking conservative candidate Rush Limbaugh (‘Bart vs Australia and ‘Sideshow Bob Roberts’ respectively) the show consistently pushed boundaries.
Even if you entirely missed these references, the episodes had a gag-per-minute ratio that it didn’t matter. An overwhelming avalanche of humour. It incorporated, mocked and affected everyone.
The brilliant podcast Everything’s Coming Up Simpsons featured an episode two years ago with Dana Gould, a writer during this golden era. Gould, who worked alongside George A. Meyer had applied a process to each episode of three stages. An initial unrelated, free standing sketch, the second stage which marks the beginning of the story and then a third act where they turn as hard as possible without breaking it.
A classic example is Season 4, Episode 9 and the ingenious Mr. Plow. As so often it began with Homer doing stupid things, driving drunk and wrecking both cars. Marge delivers a typical lecture which sees Homer reply “if you’re gonna get mad at me every time I do something stupid, then I guess I’ll just have to stop doing stupid things!”
The episode progresses to a hilarious Adam West cameo and a classic Homer daydream, where George Bush Sr recruits Homer’s help to transport priceless art from the White House through a group of protesters (because of course the only conservative an undoubtedly Republican-leaning Homer would think of is Bush senior), to a Springfield snow-plough rivalry. We learn Homer is the instigator of Barney’s drinking vows, witness cartoon sexuality when Marge asks Homer to wear the Mr. Plow jacket in bed and see Barney and Homer punished for their vanity by God when they foolishly announce from the snow-covered mountain “when two best friends work together not even God himself can stop them”.
God proceeds to appear and melt all the snow.
The progression of this muddled, well-rounded episode is seamless. It operates as a contemporary fable. Homer embodying the acorn to oak tree effect as atypical error cascades into a business endeavour. It contains a classic Simpsons song (“Mr. Plow, that’s the name. that name again is Mr. Plow”) Comedy evolved from the characters. Only Homer can generate lyrics so stupidly simple, yet catchy. Only he can go to a car show and return with a snow plough. Only Homer Simpson can convince his drunkard, downtrodden friend, who he influenced to become an alcoholic, to make use of himself and end up creating his number one competitor.
And that is part of the problem. The show is not topic-driven, like South Park. It is character driven. There is only so much you can be when setting, characters and tone are constants. Eventually you start to re-hash old ideas. Homer does something stupid but redeems himself. Marge is a genuinely good person exposed to a bombardment of straining influences. Bart’s duality of good and evil collide. Eventually you run out of originality.
Competition develops. Family Guy took the family element and vulgarised everything; language, characters (also using Adam West), the family dynamic — Meg becoming the focal point of bullying.
American Dad, Rick and Morty all emerged and the franchise suddenly looked less edgy, less unique.
Not only are Simpsons at a point where they are competing with rival shows, but the episode-quantity culminates in a situation where they are now competing with itself.
Suddenly celebrity cameos attempted to carry episodes, not propel them. Pop culture jokes were only funny to those who got them, it lost its transcendent appeal.
You can’t really begrudge producers for cumbersomely continuing to churn out episodes, in the same way you cannot begrudge Scrubs, the Big Bang Theory or Family Guy. That is to say, you recognise it still has ratings and thus there is a demand for it but you still begrudge it anyway.
There is a parallel between Scarface and Simpsons, and not just because Montana looks like one of Fat Tony’s henchmen.
It was uncomfortable to watch Montana go down, resisting the inevitable. And for many, right now the Simpsons feels like a prolonged ‘final scene Scarface’ shoot-out. We sit and watch a once-majestic larger-than-life icon stumble around, grow steadily weaker, slowly meandering to its death. Far from greeting its contemporary version, old-school Simpsons fans took the opportunity to say goodbye to their little friend long ago.