As regular readers are well aware, the utter collapse in the quality of the Simpsons is a favorite topic of mine, probably because after 9-11, it is the greatest tragedy of my lifetime. The classic Simpsons were good, so good that they still entertain and amuse over 10 years and over 10 viewings later.
I've had this post kicking around for some time now and rather than spending hours gushing about the good old days of Simpson superiority, I figured I'd point out several key episodes in the Simpsons demise. I don't mean for this list to be exhaustive, nor do I mean for it to indicate a precise date after which the show sucked and will suck for all eternity. The show's death was an ongoing process, probably taking at least five years or more before we were left with the lifeless corpse that is Season 20 of what used to be the best show on television. So in no particular order ...
Season 10, Episode 5: When You Dish Upon A Star
Sign of Impending Demise: Lifeless plots built around guest stars
Way back in season 3, the Simpsons used a guest appearance by Michael Jackson to great comedic effect. Homer meets a fake Michael Jackson sound-a-like in a mental institution and brings the man home, much to the disappointment of everyone expecting the real Michael Jackson. It's a neat tale about celebrity that's not really at all about celebrity. Contrast that with this outing, where a windsurfing Homer crashes into the secluded lake cottage of Alec Baldwin and Kim Bassinger and proceeds to become the literal assistant to the stars.
It's not a terrible episode (there are some great moments in Homer's numerous pitches to Ron Howard for his screenplay about "killer robot driving instructor that travels back in time for some reason"), but the overall plot about Homer's revelation of celebrity secrets and the desire of celebrities to be left alone is jut plain uninteresting. Using the fake Michael Jackson was a great way to advance our characters, but this particular episode basically becomes about celebrities. It's a fine line to draw, but the results are fairly obvious. Good celebrity appearances on the Simpsons are either cameos or help to drive the plot- the bad celebrity appearances focus too much on celebrities at the expense of our characters. Season 9, Episode 1: The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson
Sign of Impending Demise: The Simpsons go to ....
This was actually the 3rd time the Simpsons took a real trip, the second as a family. Bart visited stereotypical France way back in season one and the family traveled to stereotypical Australia in season six. It's a fairly clever idea, but the show had done it before and from this point on would continue to recycle the idea- Japan, Africa, ect. It's not that you can't bring the Simpsons anywhere else, it's just that from this point forward these stories lack creative spark.
Some of the jokes in Nw York are funny (Bart's visit to Mad Magazine) but the overall plot is bland. A third of the episode involves Homer drinking too much crab juice and having to run from World Trade Center tower to World Trade Center tower in an attempt to use the bathroom. It's a long 8 minutes for a joke about how difficult it is to find a bathroom in the city. Finally, the episode ends with a Simpson family chase scene, one of those overtly cartoonish events that became all too common as the series progressed.
Season 9, Episode 5: The Cartridge Family
Sign of Impending Demise: Unsubtle politics
This is the episode where the Simpson family gets a gun. I actually enjoyed the start of this episode, where a dull soccer match causes rioting that spreads all over Springfield. It's a not-so-subtle jab at soccer and could have been an interesting segway- instead it's a lame take on guns that highlights Homer's irresponsibility and fails to score any brave political points.
In a world where kids shoot themselves with their parents guns, Homer's irresponsibility here is nothing short of criminal- it's not funny and it completely de-legitimizes him as a character. Forgetting Bart at a soccer game is a far cry from being irresponsible with a dangerous weapon. And when it comes to the politics, there's just nothing interesting here. Traditionally, the Simpsons takes on controversial issues were notoriously subtle. Here, we have an entire lame episode. Season 9, Episode 12: Bart Carny
Sign of Impending Demise: Cartoonish Plot
This was probably the first Simpsons episode I ever saw that was stupid, start to finish. The Simpsons always did a wonderful job of skirting the line between reality and fantasy. Despite some of the more outlandish plots, the Simpsons still seemed more realistic than many of the other tv families of the early 90's. Part of this realism lay with the characters and the rest lay with plots that while possibly improbable, were never impossible.
What was impossible here? What's impossible is the idea that after having two carnies trick the Simpsons out of their house, the only way to get the house back would be to trick them right back. It's a cartoonish plot far divorced from the reality we know as Springfield. The show does portray institutions as incompetent, but for the police to ignore a crime of this magnitude committed by outsiders seems more than a bit ridiculous. Springfield prior to this was always portrayed as a close-knit small town where most people know each other- the thought that the Simpsons would be on their own here is just too far removed from reality.
Season 11, Episode 5: E-I-E-I (Annoyed Grunt)
Sign of Impending Demise: Stupid politics and the use of long openings unrelated to the ultimate plot
I've written about this episode before, so I'll be brief. The plot is a beyond lame indictment of tobacco companies, as Homer's tobacco-tomato hybrid is disgusting, yet addictive. There's absolutely zero subtlety and the message plays directly into the pc notions of the moment.
Besides all that, the episodes opens with Homer's attempts at emulating the dueling challenges he sees in a Zorro movie, an idea that works fine until he challenges the wrong Texan. That's what send him out of town and leads him to a life of farming. It's otherwise unconnected with the rest of the plot and not very funny.
A brief note on The Principle and the Pauper, Season 9, Episode 2
Some critics mark this episode, where Principle Skinner is revealed to be an impostor, as the point at which the Simpsons jumped the shark. I disagree strongly, primarily because the episode serves to reinforce the character we know, whatever the truth may be. In the end, it doesn't matter the truth of someone's past, what matters is what we actually see. I enjoyed this one, right down to the ending- the townspeople of Springfield banishing the real Skinner is classic Simpsons- small town people liking things just the way they are.
As I mentioned before, this list is not exhaustive and there are probably some episodes I'm leaving out. And not all of the mentioned episodes are terrible- rather, they're markers indicative of the shows downward spiral. Any and all comments would be greatly appreciated.