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Guest column - The Simpsons: What went wrong by Hadouken!

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Having recently released new album Every Weekend – with a UK tour to follow later this month – Hadouken! have turned their attentions to another Sunday institution, namely The Simpsons. Still tuning in for new episodes with Homer and co on Sunday nights? Frontman James Smith won’t be joining you…

There is a simple, if not slightly crude way to quickly discern whether or not The Simpsons episode you are watching is a good one or not. I have labelled it The Simpsons Parental Voice Vector, it is a law that states that:

A: If Homer’s voice is gruff and crude sounding then seminal cartoon series hasn’t quite settled down and truly found its stride yet.

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B: If Marge’s voice sounds especially ditsy and whimsical then the show has past its peak and entered it’s lingering post-modernist, self-aware stage.

Not only does Marge’s valium-housewife, stuporous invective deal a small blow to feminist television icons, it also signals the beginning of the end of the show’s golden era. I have racked my brains over the years trying to work out just what exactly made those early episodes of The Simpsons truly great and I have come to several conclusions.

There is plenty of debate amongst fanboys and the internet as to when exactly The Simpson’s finally jumped the shark. The show itself begins to get in gear towards season two and is in full swing by three. (Episodes before this are still mostly great if not a little sluggish it should be noted.) Dan Castellaneta who plays the voice of Homer has talked about as the show progressed he loosened his vocal chords. It is a process which coincides roughly with transformation of Homer as the gruff, angry father figure into the loveable loon who manages to drag idiocy into the realms of high art. For me personally the last great series would be season seven and the last great episode would be around the end of season ten. The rot begins to set in gradually between these two points.

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The changing way in which The Simpsons began to deal with the notion of celebrity is worth noting as it feels completely indicative of its demise. During the early stages of the golden era, Michael Jackson (credited under the pseudo-name ‘John Jay Smith’ for legal reasons) featured as a seven-foot white convict who believed he was in fact Michael Jackson. It was an ingenious way in which to write in a part for the most famous pop star in the world. Implausible, yes of course but somehow you could buy into it. The episode worked its charm, the plot ultimately revolved around Bart upsetting eight year-old Lisa by forgetting her birthday. His subsequent repentance truly tugs on the heart-strings and Jackson’s cameo gifted us the endearing song Happy Birthday Lisa. The whole thing has an emotional gravitas that was somehow lost further down the line (but more on that later).

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By the time we get to season eleven everything become far more blasé. In an episode starring Mel Gibson the writers are satisfied with the spiel of having the Hollywood star knock on The Simpsons door and inviting the family to come to Hollywood. Homer and Gibson subsequently blaze a trail across La-La Land in a Mad Max-style car chase. It is this lacklustre casualness in which Homer finds himself at the centre of any given plot which can be attributed to the demise of the show. Essentially if the plot line of the show initially revolves around Homer having a line something akin to “Wow. You’re Mel Gibson/ Alec Baldwin/ Famous Person?” you can rest assured that the following story is going to be shit.

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One of the keys to a great Simpsons episode was to structure the narrative over a grand theme, often itself a grand satire of culture, film or television. A fable is simple enough example but there is an awesome sendup of the career of The Beatles is masterfully executed in Homer’s Barbershop Quartet and one of the show’s ultimate high points was a parody of Dallas‘s Who Shot J.R?’ which became Who Shot Mr Burns? Admittedly one of the things that left the show redundant after several hundred episodes was that many of these archetypal story arcs had been explored tirelessly. By around episode 150 it feels like the writers have given up trying to mine these classic we find everything becomes a bit vapid of meaning or sentiment in the process. This is when the show enters what I like to call its “acid stage”. In this era it becomes impossible to plot the trajectory of any storyline whatsoever. It’s easy to imagine the writers working backwards in many instances. The only way to try and explain this would be to offer up an example:

In series 13 there is an episode where Lisa becomes a Buddhist after Richard Gere (again another shit celebrity cameo) teaches the core concepts of Buddhism to her. This happens because Mr Burns rebuilds the local church into a ghastly commercial monstrosity… after Homer accidentally burns down the original building… after an escalating rocket building competition with Ned Flanders gets out of control. If the plot feels thoughtless and like it was constructed backwards it’s probably because it was. Somewhere down the line there became a point where the writers no longer felt like a story with a beginning, middle and a satisfying close would be needed as a necessary vehicle for Homer or any of the other characters to goof around in.

If the story-arc is an aimless device to provide smaller situations or throwaway gags the viewer is left at the end of it unsatisfied. This is so, so important in The Simpsons because unlike many of its live-action counterparts it rarely bothers with the continuity that you get with other television shows. The individual plots of a show like Malcolm In The Middle matter less because there is a grand story-arc across the show’s entire life-span which deals with the actors coming of age. The Simpsons exists in a state of quasi-timelessness where the characters never age and events largely reset to zero at the beginning of every episode. It’s a device that can certainly have its advantages to the writers and viewer, yet without any emotional satisfaction it becomes a sort of two dimensional pastel-coloured purgatory. Place in something like a god-forsaken opening intro scored by pop cum-dumpster Ke$ha and that purgatory soon turns to hell.

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In the early seasons The Simpsons was very adept at building up an emotional attachment to its characters. Comedy combined with heart is a highly potent combination. Shows like The Office (UK) have shown us this time and time again. The Simpsons managed to involve you emotionally with the lives of its characters very, very quickly, which is an impressive feat for any show let alone one populated by yellow cartoon characters. Marge’s matriarchal qualities and Lisa’s morality issues always offered us a consistent grounding to Bart’s misbehaviour and Homer’s stupidity. After the golden era this magnetism seemed to get lost amongst all the self-awareness and cheap shot, throw-away gags.

Yet this piece is certainly not a call to arms to try to get the show to return to its former glory. It’s too far down the line for things to get back to where they were. There are parallels in the rock music sphere of old revered bands not being able to rekindle their former glory (*cough Oasis *cough The Rolling Stones *cough Metallica). Yet just as nothing can really tarnish those early masterpiece albums the same applies to The Simpsons. We will always have those early episodes to love and cherish, you just need to know where to look these days. On researching this article I made the time to go back and visit some of those earlier episodes. They feel utterly timeless and (more importantly) constantly hilarious, I urge you to go back and give them another go. It certainly reaffirmed my opinion that The Simpsons is one of the greatest television shows ever.

James Smith@JamesHadouken

For more, including full tour dates, head to Hadouken.com, meanwhile here’s the band’s latest album.


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