I'm part of a generation that literally grew up with The Simpsons. The longest-running, most successful and most influential sitcom of all time has lasted 21 seasons, and I'm 22, so while I have some memories that don't involve The Simpsons directly, I have no memory of a time when you couldn't turn on the TV nearly every night of the week and see America's favorite four-fingered yellow family. And as I've become larger and hairier with time, The Simpsons has changed as well: it's started to suck.
I know, I know: “The Simpsons used to be cool, now it's lame,” is a pretty well-worn cliche. There's even a backlash against the older-episodes-are-better viewpoint, as evidenced by this sarcastic comment on the messageboard for this review:
"...and all the episodes older than that are, by definition, better than any newer episode, even when they're actually worse. That's just the way it works. If you try to evaulate them by their actual content instead of their age, you're misenjoying the show."Okay, so let's evaluate some episodes by their content and figure out how things have changed in Springfield. We'll look at the latest episode, “The Great Wife Hope” and the episode it most resembles from Simpsons history, season two's “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge.” (You can watch it at this site, if you don't have all the episodes memorized.)
Two Disclaimers are needed here: first, humor is subjective, everyone has their own tastes, blah blah blah. Second, comparing season two Simpsons to season 21 Simpsons is totally unfair, like comparing 1989 Michael Jordan to 2002 Jordan. One was young and hungry and angry, and the other was just taking some well-deserved victory laps. But that doesn't mean we should let the old gimp off the hook.
“Itchy & Scratchy & Marge,” a classic episode, starts when the kids are watching Itchy & Scratchy. Maggie emulates the gory cartoon by hitting Homer in the head with a mallet, so Marge decides something must be done: she protests Itchy & Scratchy. Thanks to some grassroots wacko-mom support, she forces the studio to make non-violent cartoons, which are so (hilariously) boring that the kids of Springfield turn off their TVs and go outside. Everything is wonderful until Michelangelo's “David,” exposed penis and all, comes to town on a tour and Marge's former wacko-mom allies protest the statue. Marge thinks David is a work of art and should be seen by everyone, and when she's asked how she can be for one form of expression and not another, she realizes the contradictions in her position and everything goes back to normal (cartoons are violent again).
“The Great Wife Hope” begins with a contemporary twist: all the men of Springfield are watching Mixed Martial Arts (topical!). Bart emulates MMA by fighting in the schoolyard, so Marge decides something must be done: she protests at the MMA arena. Then she decides to go into the arena to scold the MMA enthusiasts and gets challenged to a fight by the MMA league owner—if she beats him, he'll close his league. She trains hard but is going to lose anyway, thanks to owner-guy's underhanded tricks, when Bart jumps into the ring and the owner-guy prepares to punch him. Marge's maternal instinct kicks in and she kicks in the face of the owner-guy, who presumably has to close the arena now (that wasn't brought up again), so everything goes back to normal.
One episode isn't inherently “funnier” than the other, but the season two episode is definitely more complex. The meat of the episode—and most of the good jokes—come after Marge wins her crusade to make Itchy & Scratchy kid-safe and boring. There's pointed criticism of the cartoon-censorship people in the episode too: what would a “non-violent” cartoon look like? Would the world really improve without cartoon violence? And how can you be against the First Amendment in some cases but not in others? And there's Marge at the end of the episode, who has learned her lesson (“One person can make a difference, but probably shouldn't”), but is still unhappy about cartoon violence.
What lessons were learned in “The Great Wife Hope?” What was satirized? If you want to ascribe a message to the episode, you might come up with, “Women are opposed to violence in general and can't fight, but will become incredibly fierce when their children are threatened.” I'd rather say there wasn't an intended message, just a plot that allowed for some riffs on MMA fighting and Marge's tendency to disapprove of everything.
The Simpsons used to have messages, though. It was funny, but it was also as heartwarming and values-based as any sitcom this side of The Cosby Show. The characters are all good at heart, and when they screw up (they always screw up somehow), they fix their mistakes and learn from them. Living your life by the virtues The Simpsons taught in the first few seasons would mean being compassionate, loyal to your family and friends, respecting intellectual and artistic ventures, disrespecting authority and institutions, and laughing even when your life is in the sewer. You could pick a worse family to be raised by.
The Simpsons no longer teaches. Maybe all the plots that allowed the Simpsons to grow and discover things about themselves and the world have been done, and there are no more fresh ways to explore the characters' relationships, so the writers are forced to focus more on pop-culture jokes and gimicky storylines. Maybe now that the show is an institution, Matt Groening and the writing staff no longer have to prove themselves by making episodes that say something. Whatever the case, the show isn't the one I grew up with, which is too bad—not bad for me, but bad for the generation now growing up in the glow of the television. Who's going to teach them how to be good people in this cartoon world of ours? Family Guy? South Park?