The decline of one of the greatest television series ever produced
I spent some of this afternoon watching some fantastic old episodes of The Simpsons on DVD. And I haven't laughed so much for a long time.
For years I considered it to be my favourite television show, and I was constantly surprised by its erudition, sharp wit and intelligence. The Simpsons always had a firm grip on the currents of contemporary culture, and was equally at home with subtle satire and silly slapstick. It often managed to remain topical, but kept a certain timelessness about it; and an old episode packs just as much punch now as ever. A perfect half hour of television.
The characters in The Simpsons always appealed to me. They were grounded in a sense of reality, however absurd, that I could relate to in a down-to-earth way. Many of the characters are all-out stereotypes, but ironic stereotypes that make us aware of how cliched and hackneyed they really are. And this has always been funny to me. The Simpsons might have been a cartoon, but it's something I've appreciated differently as a child, a teenager and an adult. It's always been evening entertainment with an edge.
But somewhere along the road the laughter stopped. I don't know what it is, but whatever charm attracted me to the show has faded away. With the broadcast of each new season, The Simpsons just doesn't seem funny anymore.
I'm not quite sure what's wrong. There are still moments in the latest series where I'll raise a smile. There'll be some small gem lurking in the rough. But on the whole it's a downward spiral. The jokes have become predictable and hackneyed, and the show appears to have embodied all of the qualities that it once lampooned.
During its long run, The Simpsons has almost always remained grounded in a certain sense of reality, and then taken its audience on absurd and surreal leaps out of the domestic. Now, the domestic has been jettisoned altogether as each episode attempts to bend over backwards for a cheap laugh. And believe me, the laughs are getting pretty cheap. As the show continues, on and on, it seems to be lunging out into hollow plots and nonsensical twists.
Even the characters, who are undoubtedly the stable staple of the show, have begun to act uncharacteristically: no doubt to suit the requirements of each ever-outlandish narrative. Why, just the other day I saw Mr. Burns not only evade a wild animal with speed and dexterity, but block its path by carrying three heavy boxes over his head. Anyone aware of who Mr. Burns is would see how these actions seem to rub against the grain.
There was a time when Mr. Burns would struggle to use a tin-opener, or even to lift his thumb in approval! And it is precisely this kind of weakness that makes Mr. Burns who he is: his wealth, power and influence perfectly balanced with a spineless, feeble persona. His new antics might have served a joke in this particular episode, but they didn't serve the character.
More than anything, I feel a little sad and a little nostalgic. I know that it's a trap to become accustomed to a particular set of rules and traditions, or attached to a format where change is such a constant necessity. But my attachment to The Simpsons was based on its very ability to change and to adapt; what attracted me was the show's willingness to mock, satirize or even get sentimental from time to time - but be witty about it. The Simpsons seems to have lost its plot, its characters, and all its laughs in the process.