This is sport, this is fun. I love The Simpsons, you love The Simpsons. We love The Simpsons. So I know that coming up with a "Top 10" list is akin to undertaking a pantheistic ranking of the most likely True God(s). But here goes. There are no absolutes and I anticipate fervent argument.
"Rosebud" (1993). Nothing has ever made me laugh as much as Homer Simpson's systematic midnight consumption of "64 slices of American cheese."
"Mother Simpson" (1995). Homer silently pondering the rediscovery and second departure of his hippie-fugitive mother beneath a starlit desert sky is perhaps the one Simpsons moment that fans will admit made them cry.
"Deep Space Homer" (1994). A stroke of genius: Suspending Buzz Aldrin weightless amidst the floating contents of a busted ant colony and a bag of chips to the tune of James Taylor's "Fire and Rain."
"Marge vs. the Monorail" (1993). The Springfield mob mentality, disaster films and Leonard Nimoy perfectly satirized by writer Conan O'Brien. And a possum named Bitey.
"Two Dozen and One Greyhound" (1995). "See my vest, see my vest / Made from real gorilla chest." Best Burns ever.
"Cape Feare" (1993) / "Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming" (1995) / "The Brother From Another Series" (1997). Forget Frasier. These are Kelsey Grammar's best roles.
"Blood Feud" (1991). Homer's efforts to thwart the mail service still kill me 15 years later.
"Homerpalooza" (1996). Sonic Youth, the Smashing Pumpkins, Cypress Hill and, uh, Peter Frampton skewer the prevailing 1990s youth zeitgeist.
"Homer's Enemy" (1997). Nasty. Dislikable "self-made man" Frank Grimes violently ends his "agonizing struggle through life" in frustration at the easy ride had by average, incompetent worker Homer.
"You Only Move Twice" (1996). Homer becomes a model employee working for a supervillain. Bart is placed in remedial classes with pyromaniacs and Canadians.
And now the flipside. Three signs The Simpsons isn't infallible:
"Bart to the Future" (2000). If you're gonna make Lisa Simpson president, shouldn't sharp satire allow Bart a less toothlessly subversive path than becoming Jimmy Buffett?
"Stark Raving Dad" (1991). "Lisa, it's your birthday / Happy birthday, Lisa." Screw you, Michael Jackson, for your uncredited role in such a crap tune in my head. Forever.
"Goo Goo Gai Pan" (2005). Not that we thought adopting from
China was a barrel of laughs, but, well ... surely there was some comedy to be invented here.
Anniversaries are occasions for stock-taking, so in anticipation of the 399th and, more importantly, the 400th episodes of The Simpsons tonight, the Star this week convened a "virtual panel" of die-hard devotees to share their thoughts on the show's legacy, the current state of things in Springfield, U.S.A., and what we might expect from July's feverishly anticipated The Simpsons Movie.
Joining me, the "moderator," were the following informed participants:
Mark Kingwell, professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto's Trinity College.
Seth Feldman, professor of film and television studies at York University.
Liisa Ladouceur, poet and freelance entertainment writer;
Steve Watt, proprietor of Animation Connection and organizer of the annual Simpsons Mania! art show.
Lucas Silveira, frontman of Toronto rock `n' roll outfit the Cliks.
Shawn Benjamin, CBC-TV writer and a chap with whom I've watched more Simpsons over the past 15 years than could be deemed in any way healthy.
Q We're all fans here, so let's start off with perhaps the hardest thing to articulate: Why is it that this show resonates so deeply with us?
MK: The writers found a critical voice about five seasons in and then held our feet to the fire for a good six years. Not a specific political position so much as a consistency about itself and its aim. For me, those shows were examples of cultural criticism crossed with humour – of which there is no more blessed combination in everyday media life!
SF: The Simpsons is intelligent satire at a time and from a country that seems to have lost the ability to satirize itself. It's the cartoon H.L. Mencken would have made, Jon Stewart before Jon Stewart.
LL: Well, I'm a smart, smart-assed self-righteous, multi-lingual vegetarian lefty who plays saxophone, and is named Lisa. What do you think?
SW: For me, I think it's because it's not just a family or a workplace or a bunch of friends or whatever the setting of most shows is – it's a whole world unto itself.
LS: I started watching The Simpsons with my dad when I was younger and it was always enjoyable because he got such a kick out of it. I think it was mainly because we were a working class family and so are the Simpsons, they weren't Portuguese, though, but close enough. After we watched, my dad had a habit of repeating lines ... in a Portuguese accent.
SB: The show at its best is fearless. It's not afraid to be smart and it's not afraid to be stupid.
Q On a broader scale, why does The Simpsons have such universal, die-hard appeal?
MK: It was the first really self-conscious product of television, not just flirting with the conditions of its own existence but actually poking around in them, risking self-annihilation. Like all excellent cultural product, it found its audience by creating it.
SF: Everyone loves Homer. What made the show even funnier is the people who still don't get this, who think the show is about Bart as some kind of updated Dennis the Menace. Hell no, it's about Homer and the Menace is us (but it's okay).
SW: Universal appeal, amongst guys anyways, stems from the fact that we are all Homer on some level, whether we (or our wives/girlfriends) want to admit it or not.
Q I still get excited for new episodes every Sunday night, but I know others whose faithful viewership has lapsed over the course of 398 episodes. Do you keep up with the show?
MK: Yes, absolutely. Watch every new episode and probably three or four reruns a week.
SF: I get excited because it's become a crapshoot. Some of the new episodes are repetitive, dull, even cloying. That makes it even more fun to watch when some bit on a show clicks. Once or twice a season there's even an entire show that works.
SB: Hell ya! I still get excited for new episodes but with the Internet these days, I watch it when I want. Sunday, Monday, whatever. F--k Fox.
Q What do you think of the oft-made observation that the series is in decline? And if so, can you point to a particular moment when The Simpsons "jumped the shark"?
MK: No particular moment, nor would I call it a decline, but there is clearly a difference. The recent absurdist, almost surreal tenor was new, and a real shift away from the ordinary-family-in-extremis premise of the solid middle years. You can think of it as a natural evolution of a creative process, especially one that's hugely successful and generates a fan base. Now the characters themselves, not situations or conflicts. generate their own logic.
SF: I think the show is a victim of 9/11. The Simpsons was fairly political and generally fearless all through Bush I and Clinton. And it was just about to get started on Bush II when 9/11 made that problematic. Soon thereafter Fox went off the deep end as Republican TV. The show started looking over its shoulder and has never really recovered.
LL: Nope. It's just a little dusty. It's still good, it's still good.
SB: The worst episode of the Simpsons is still 100 times better than the best episode of Suddenly Susan or Everybody Loves Raymond or whatever.
Q My thinking on the above has always been that the newer stuff isn't so much less funny as different in tone – there's a harder edge and a more absurdist tilt, and the plotting is often so haywire that it takes a couple of viewings for you to stop connecting the dots in your head and simply laugh at the gags. Thoughts? Arguments?
SF: The experiments in form and tone (when they are intentional) say more about the influence of Family Guy and other animation of its ilk. What used to be straight in TV in general is now edgier.
LL: It's true and I blame the success of the more absurdist Family Guy.
SW: I think the satire and the smarts of the early years is lacking now. Too often, recent episodes are all sprinkles and not much donut. Some episodes feel like a pretty thin line to hang some gags on. I miss the big concept pieces.
SB: They get it right most of the time but every now and again you can tell they just gave up trying to make the episode make sense.
Q Thoughts on The Simpsons Movie, arriving on July 27? I'm worried that if it sucks, it'll take the show down with it.
MK: Let's just hope it's half as funny as South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut or Team America.
SF: You're right to worry. Remember, Picasso in his old age complaining that he had been reduced to making phony Picassos? Or the old Karl Marx admitting that he was no longer a Marxist? That's what worries me about the movie. If it's just a pretty good TV episode stretched out to 90 minutes, yes indeed audiences will see it as the show's obituary. It will prove that there is nothing more to say, even on a feature film budget. And it will be time to let it go.
LL: It could be great (see: South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut). If not, my message for Matt (Groening, series creator): you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.
SW: I have faith that it's going to be really good. With David Silverman directing, and John Swartzwelder (amongst others) writing, I have a good feeling about this. I think some of the recent craptitude stems from a lot of the best talents focusing on the movie rather than the show.
SB: I'm sure it will be fine – certainly better than Alien Vs. Predator.
Q Simpsons or Family Guy?
MK: Depends who you're watching with. I find it disturbing to hear my 15-year-old stepdaughter laughing at some Family Guy jokes. I like to think she doesn't really get them, and just wants to fit in.
SF: They're two different genres – satire and farce. Family Guy is okay for what it does. But it will never touch Duckman.
SW: I've got a summer place in Quahog and I've been spending more time there. The old homestead in Springfield doesn't get as much use as it once did. But I'll be back . . . July 27th!