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"NOW LET US NEVER SPEAK OF IT AGAIN"
Ian Jones and Steve Williams on the second decade of The Simpsons
March 2005

 

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When Matt Groening got up to receive a special award at the 2004 British Comedy Awards, the entire audience rose in a standing ovation. It was perhaps the only sincere moment of the whole evening.

When some clips were shown to illustrate his creation, however, the mood changed. It wasn't just to do with the fact that these particular Simpsons moments were only a few years old, and had yet to be shown on terrestrial TV in this country. It was more as if a feeling of embarrassment swept across the crowd. Why did the footage look a bit weird, a bit wrong? Why was there so much shouting? And where were the jokes?

Things got even worse when Groening resumed his speech. Here was an undoubted comic talent and animation mastermind going through the motions of eulogising something that was, quite patently, not as good as it once was. And he seemed to know it. His audience knew it too. They'd all seen as much, in the clips mere seconds before.

It all made for a stark reminder of the distance between people's residual affection for The Simpsons and the show's real, present-day condition. The programme has come a hell of a long way since its debut in 1989; that much is obvious from even a fleeting glimpse of the first series. But at least those episodes contained laughs. As indeed did every episode up until roughly its ninth birthday, when something seemed to happen to The Simpsons to turn it from a reassuringly entertaining, often overwhelmingly hilarious, dependable institution, to a largely joyless, irritating, noisy run-around.

"It's my job to be repetitive. My job. My job. Repetitiveness is my job."

The history of The Simpsons' second decade on screen is a deeply frustrating one. Much of what went wrong didn't happen by accident but by design. The results were by turns desperately disheartening, cautiously optimistic, or just plain awful.

As previously noted, the programme wasn't in too healthy a state towards the end of its eighth season on air. Outgoing executive producers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein were bequeathing their successors a loaded inheritance. The Fox network was still demanding 25 episodes a year, a number of long-term writers and producers had quit for other projects, the show's big hitter and co-founder James L Brooks was busy working on various feature films, and, above all, Matt Groening himself had decided to remove himself from day-to-day management of The Simpsons to develop a new series, Futurama.

With precious few candidates of any calibre to choose from by way of a new executive producer, and nobody apparently available or willing to step into the breach from outside, Brooks and Groening put staff writer Mike Scully in charge. It was a certainly a bold decision. Scully had only started contributing to The Simpsons in 1994, had barely 12 months experience in a producing role, and had written a sum total of six scripts. In contrast, Oakley and Weinstein had penned a dozen episodes before assuming the mantle of show runners, besides serving a number of years as story editors and producers.

It was also, however, a terribly misguided choice. Scully's episodes had been characterised by hefty doses of petulance ("Lisa's Rival", "Lisa On Ice"), zaniness (Mr Burns's musical tribute to skinning mammals in "Two Dozen And One Greyhounds") and lazy recycling of plots and situations (the bowling shenanigans of "Team Homer", and yet another variation on the pre-teen crush storyline in "Lisa's Date With Destiny"). Now he'd been handed control of the whole show - and with a virtually free hand.

All his predecessors had, naturally, sought to stamp their own style on The Simpsons and make the programme their own. But while each of them had palpably coherent visions for the show - The Simpsons as emotionally resonant, or satirical, or pastiche and so on - Scully implemented a very different rationale. From the outset, he seemed obsessed with projecting the series as more a composite of what roughly, randomly, made up an average episode, and took great delight in pushing the show into ever more convoluted and contrived contexts.

His first series in charge, season nine (1997-98), signalled this change in direction right from the start. The opening episode, "The City of New York vs Homer Simpson", ditched all pretence of a plot and went flat out for individual, unconnected sight gags and vignettes. Homer discovered his car had been illegally parked between the two World Trade Centre buildings, and then spent the rest of the episode trying to get it back. That was it. Subsequent historical events have kept this winsome edition off most of the planet's TV screens, which is probably just as well. This was the lamest season debut to date.

It was immediately followed, however, by "The Principal and the Pauper", which was even more dreadful. Then came a messy, unfocused lampooning of gun culture in "The Cartridge Family"; followed by a messy, unfocused lampooning of - of all things - Hindu arranged marriage in "The Two Mrs Nahasapeemapetilons". And so it went on. As the season progressed, it became clear the entire show had been subject to a complete reworking. This was now the era of the "wacky adventure": the Simpson family would set off on some random mission or task, meet a load of crazy characters on the way, achieve nothing in particular, trot out all the clichéd responses and mannerisms, allow the writers to use up a store of set-piece gags, then go home.

Vague traces of plots were now constructed around pre-prepared jokes and one-liners, rather than vice versa. This had happened before, of course, but not to this extent. Nor had it ever felt like it was being done out of a lack of other ideas rather than for fun. There was also some smugness in evidence towards the business of playing with the show's history. When, in "The Two Mrs Nahasapeemapetilons", Bart encountered Apu riding an elephant, he moaned how he wished he had one too. "But you did," mocked Apu. "His name was Stampy, you loved him". This kind of clunking reference to an earlier episode (in this case, "Bart Gets an Elephant") would only increase.

"This family has hit a new low"

Admittedly some of the factors that were now plaguing The Simpsons were beyond Scully and his writers' control. When actor Phil Hartman was killed by his wife in May 1998, the show lost the voices of Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz: two of its most reliably entertaining characters. Then the rest of the cast went on strike, demanding $150,000 per episode or else they would quit. For a while Fox entertained the fanciful notion of carrying on with new people voicing the Simpsons family, before the cast settled for $50,000.

This sort of disruption did nothing for morale or the smooth production of the programme, and the run of weak episodes continued. "Das Bus", a parody of "Lord of the Flies", simply didn't have an ending, while "Simpson Tide" pitched Homer into yet another new vocation (the Navy) but didn't sparkle or convince like earlier efforts. Season nine was also the first series that didn't feature Mr Burns at the centre of any episode; a real oversight, considering the character had been crux for many of the show's greatest efforts. The closest he came was a supporting role in the James Bond-spoof "The Trouble With Trillions", an episode penned by Ian Maxtone-Graham.

It would be Maxtone-Graham who'd go on to set the record for the most number of useless Simpsons episodes. He'd already stoked controversy by proclaiming how he'd never watched the show before joining its staff - nor, it seems, TV itself. "I pretty much never turn it on," he'd boasted to The Independent, "the shows are so crappy." Fair enough perhaps, but to revel in such ignorance just appeared supercilious. His first effort had been "Burns Baby Burns" in season eight, which committed a cardinal sin by making the titular power plant owner appear boring. Now his apparent predilection for Simpsons-by-numbers scripts, with their plotlines and humour based on pushing concepts and catchphrases to ludicrous extremes, or merely ditching plots altogether, came into its own, most pointedly in the special 200th episode, "Trash of the Titans". A rather undignified celebration, this seemed to throw in all the obvious elements of the series in a tokenistic gesture to long-term fans while blithely resetting the entire history of the series (Springfield "moved" several miles down the road) in the process.

Ratings had slipped throughout this turbulent season. Mindful of this, and taking into account the hold-ups caused by the actors' strike, Fox now pruned the show's episode count back to 22 per year. It seemed a sensible move, as did bringing in George Meyer and Al Jean, veterans of The Simpsons' early years, as co-executive producers. If this was done to keep an eye on Mike Scully's proclivity for outrageous ideas, however, it was somewhat undermined by simultaneously promoting Ian Maxtone-Graham to a co-executive producer position. The network seemed obsessed with retaining whatever staff they could find, good or bad.

Seasons 10 (1998-99) and 11 (1999-2000) were the shortest since the early 1990s. The number of writers was now so great, however, that other than John Swartzwelder (still penning at least three episodes a year) most contributed no more than one episode per season. Compare this with, say, the fifth season, where just three writers were responsible for originating half the entire series.

Little if anything of note emerged from these years. Homer took up a new job almost every week. Gratuitous cameos from guest stars turned up with similar frequency. The show also became preoccupied with crudity and physical violence. Homer regularly sustained over-the-top injuries through equally over-the-top means, such as getting half his arm cut off, being disembowelled by a badger, eating toxic waste, getting his skull stuck between the two sides of a lowering roadbridge, and having an entire lorryload of cars fall on top of his head. The language became coarser ("Guess how many boobs I saw today, Marge!", "It's the world's smelliest tumour!", "Uh-oh - the professor said not to let him get a boner!") to no comical effect whatsoever, and characters methodically lost all traces of dignity, self-respect and, finally, credibility. It often felt like one massive in-joke was being perpetrated at the audience's expense.

New lows were reached with "Viva Ned Flanders", which saw Homer and Ned getting re-married in Las Vegas; "Sunday Cruddy Sunday", a lot of pointless running about at the Superbowl; "Little Big Mom", where Lisa inexplicably decided to trick Homer and Bart into thinking they had leprosy; and "Saddlesore Galactica", where not only did the Simpsons end up sharing their home with a horse again (see "Lisa's Pony"), but, in the clumsiest self-reference yet, were reminded of the fact by Comic Book Guy ("Excuse me, I believe this family already had a horse, and the expense forced Homer to work at the Kwik-E-Mart with hilarious consequences").

Maggie Roswell, long-time contributor of voices such as Maude Flanders, Helen Lovejoy and Miss Hoover, resigned following Fox's refusal to increase her travel expenses. She was replaced with the ostensible soundalike Marcia Mitzman Gaven, but the difference to viewers was instant and obvious. Next the very look of The Simpsons changed. Rather than the characters being coloured by hand, the process was switched to computer. It removed some of the sense of depth and reality from the show, replacing it instead with a rather flat, clinical, perfunctory sheen.

Then there was that business of continuity. It's foolish not to expect a long-running TV programme to evolve over time. But the second decade of The Simpsons saw inspired twists in continuity replaced with lazy unfunny, underhand gestures. Groundskeeper Willie was revealed to not be from Scotland. Apu was given eight children. Barney was turned into a teetotaller. Most famously of all, Maude Flanders was killed off. It was done chiefly for pragmatic reasons - Maggie Roswell's departure - but the way it was handled on screen was dreadful: no emotional impact, no sense of character response, just insipid nothingness. Unsurprisingly, it happened during another Ian Maxtone-Graham story.

"Worst episode ever"

Mike Scully was finally replaced as executive producer after season 12 (2000-01). He signed off with a spate of truly atrocious episodes, one of which, "Homer vs Dignity", boasted a sequence involving Homer being raped by a panda. The writer credited with this episode, Rob LaZebnick, was one of a dozen or so contributors who had joined The Simpsons during Scully's tenure, none of whom had particularly impressive pedigrees. LaZebnick had previously worked on teen comedy Blossom; others, such as John Frink and Don Payne (the US version of Men Behaving Badly) and Larry Doyle (Beavis and Butthead, Rugrats) boasted CVs thoroughly in keeping with The Simpsons' current juvenile obsessions. Most never worked for the series again. Some followed other erstwhile Simpsons staff like David Cohen and Ken Keeler to Futurama. One, Julie Thacker, even ended up Mrs Mike Scully.

Among those who were kept on, however, was Matt Selman. He'd been responsible for one of the two only decent episodes of the season, "Trilogy of Error": a surprisingly convincing and ambitious effort telling the same story from three different angles, albeit involving the usual obligatory gore (Homer cutting off his own thumb) and wackiness (a nationwide firework mafia cover-up). The person who chose to retain Selman on the staff was the author of the other stand-out episode: Al Jean, who had just been appointed Scully's replacement as executive producer.

This was another watershed moment in the life of The Simpsons. Fox had allowed Mike Scully to stay in his post for an unprecedented four years, perhaps ill disposed to go through the task of finding somebody willing to replace him. Now a solution had presented itself. Jean had worked on the show from its start. He'd also overseen, with his long-time collaborator Mike Reiss, seasons three and four, possibly the best in The Simpsons' history. Both Jean and Reiss had maintained an infrequent relationship with the programme after officially quitting in 1993, contributing scripts both as a duo and individually. Indeed, it was Jean's episode "HOMR", about Homer discovering how a small crayon lodged far up his nose had been inhibiting his intelligence, which had proved the other big hit of season 12.

Fox now approached him to see if he'd be willing to return to his erstwhile role as executive producer and boss. Happily, he agreed. He also managed to entice Mike Reiss, George Meyer and Jon Vitti, all veterans of those early series, back on board. It looked like the old team were getting back together, with the express instruction to make The Simpsons good again. Maybe things were really about to improve. They could hardly get any worse.

"I'm laughing - but it's a laugh of impatience"

Initially the evidence wasn't that promising. Like a giant oil tanker, the show seemed impossible to turn around straightaway. Jean's first year back in charge, season 13 (2001-2), saw a decent Mr Burns-led episode for the first time in ages ("Hunka Hunka Burns in Love"), the welcome return of Artie Ziff, Marge's teen sweetheart from season two, in "Half-Decent Proposal", and the genuinely funny "I am Furious Yellow" with Bart using Homer as inspiration for his self-drawn comic strip, Angry Dad. But there was also "The Blunder Years", an ungainly flashback episode penned by Ian Maxtone-Graham; a pointless - and publicly controversial - trip to Brazil in "Blame it on Lisa"; and the witless clip show "Gump Roast" written by, of all people, Dan Castellaneta (the voice of Homer) and his wife.

As time went on, however, the revival which by rights should have happened - even David Mirkin, the brains behind the exemplary seasons five and six, came back on board - never materialised. If there were traces of brilliance, that's all they were: just traces or flashes that seemed difficult to sustain for the course of an entire episode. In season 14 (2002-3) an episode like "Bart vs Lisa vs the Third Grade" evoked memories of the school-bound stories of the early years, and "Brake My Wife, Please" prompted comparisons with some of the best examinations of Homer and Marge's relationship. But there were still the endless cameos, the wacky set-pieces, the botched satires and the downright dreadful indulgences, epitomised by the horrendous "Large Marge", a story where Marge accidentally received breast implants (penned, once again, by Ian Maxtone-Graham).

In part this was to do with it being impossible to completely undo the damage of the preceding years, although Al Jean had a good go, making Barney a lapsed alcoholic, inviting Maggie Roswell back to voice Maude Flanders from beyond the grave, toying with the idea of making Apu single again, coaxing former guest stars back for more (Adam West, Jackie Mason, Glenn Close), and even writing back-in the supposedly long-dead Dr Marvin Monroe. In addition Jean re-started the annual writers' retreat to try and sensibly map out each series, a practice discontinued by Mike Scully; and was lucky to have the undivided attention of Matt Groening now that Futurama had been axed.

But the non-apparent revival was also to do with Mike Reiss's earlier comment that you could "never go back". For Jean to have attempted an episode solely around the kind of humdrum everyday escapades of the first couple of seasons - a trip to the woods, a game of crazy golf, getting illegal cable TV - would have appeared anachronistic and forced. It would also, of course, have been shamelessly repetitive and boring. Jean had been appointed to take the show back to its peak; but in reality he could only go forward, extrapolating scenes and plots from where the show was now, not from where it was a decade earlier.

"Is this a happy ending or a sad ending?"

Much the same predicament still faces The Simpsons today. Constituent parts, individual set-piece gags and one-liners can be hysterical; the overall premise, the very point of each episode, is most often not. In fact there are still just as many pointless episodes now as there ever were.

Al Jean is in his fourth year back in charge, still surrounded by various faces from the old staff plus new recruits from shows ranging from Futurama and 3rd Rock From the Sun to Harry and the Hendersons and Married With Children. Ratings rise and fall, Fox keeps on recommissioning the show, the actors keep threatening to go on strike, and every now and then someone from the inside owns up to it being not as good as it once was - though never at award ceremonies, and never, as noted above, Matt Groening. Meanwhile the publicity machine grinds out a stream of initiatives, most recently the visit to England and cameo from Tony Blair ("The Regina Monologues"), the death of another regular (which turned out, somewhat pathetically, to be the cat Snowball II), and the first character to come out as gay (Patty Bouvier).

The release of the first five seasons on DVD has just made the contrast between then and now all the more pointed. Listening to the audio commentaries on each episode, however, finds the original team of writers and producers often in a wistful, even regretful mood, regularly lapsing into half-serious reveries about how they should go back to doing this kind of show or reviving certain characters, tricks and devices.

It is tempting to see evidence of this in episodes from the last 12 months or so. There's a more sensitive use of continuity, from thoughtful references to locations like The Gilded Truffle and The Jazz Hole which often turned up in the early years, to the way the famous note Mr Bergstrom handed Lisa in the 32nd episode - "You are Lisa Simpson" - turned up again in the 326th. There's also an emotional sincerity to the fore in efforts like "Milhouse Doesn't Live Here Anymore" exploring the consequences of Bart's long-time best friend moving away, and "The Way We Weren't", a flashback to Homer and Marge aged 10. Bart and Homer's attempt to launch a homemade T-shirt business in "Fat Man and Little Boy" prompted many memorable stabs at surrealism, and "Catch 'em if You Can" boasted the sort of lovingly-crafted extended pastiche (of the opening credits from the titular film) that wouldn't have been out of place in the show 10 years earlier.

So perhaps all's not entirely lost, and that's something you couldn't really have said of The Simpsons four years ago. As for what happens next, well, aside from an episode to be scripted by Ricky Gervais, anything's possible. The show used to be funny, new and exciting all at the same time; nowadays you'll be lucky to get two of those three in any one episode, and you inevitably feel like you're having to put more into the business of watching the show to get more out. But at least it means that when - not if - the show comes good the rewards are always all the sweeter.

The Simpsons is still worth sticking with. Now let us never speak of Mike Scully or "boners" again.