Jul 22, 2014

Is "The Simpsons" Still Relevant?

There are a lot of reasons to be a big fan of The Simpsons in 2014. For starters, the series crossed its 550th episode with one of its best episodes in years (the LEGO-centric "Brick Like Me") and broke a groundbreaking contract with FX that produced one of the most historic deals in TV syndication. In fact, it has been a rather big week for the series just in terms of news output. In fact, the show seems as popular as it ever has. The only question that should be asked is: Is The Simpsons still relevant? Yes, the series is experiencing an echelon of press that it hasn't had in a long time, but it seems to be more tied to legacy than its quality. To say the least, the show is celebrating, but only in the fact that it lived up to its long ago established mantra "You'll never stop The Simpsons. Have no fear, we've got stories for years."
Deep down, I LOVE The Simpsons unconditionally and they have formatted my life in irrefutable ways. I quote them everyday and spend a good chunk of time dissecting episodes. There is a sentimental attachment that makes it impossible to quit. However, I have been openly honest with my thoughts of each season via my TV Retrospective columns. To say that The Simpsons is amazing in 2014 is to get into a series of defensive subcategories of fans claiming that it stopped being great decades ago or that its influence is unsurpassed and we deserve whatever it dishes out. As someone who forgives a lot of nonsensical TV (Penny Dreadful was particularly lackluster), it is strange that I have watched over 200 episodes in the less respected era. Like most people, I have my favorites and those that I despise. However, I do defend the modern era for numerous reasons.
The most notable is that The Simpsons is 25 years old and can't hold its esteem like it used to. It has been satirizing that since "The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show" episode in the MID-90'S! At best, its exploration on gay marriage was the last moment of relevant biting satire. It continues to provoke, but considering that it has influenced edgier shows like Family Guy or Archer, it is the product of a bygone era that sometimes feels like it was left around because it was the puppy everyone loved too much to put down. Season 24 was especially rough and the season 25 episode "What to Expect When Bart's Expecting" brought in the series' lowest ratings in a very long time. While the episode itself is pretty bad with an obnoxious Les Miserables parody to boot, it encapsulates WHY the series is no longer relevant to modern audiences.
Yes, it continually riffs on modern pop culture leanings. It fits the quota and even introduced a really solid parody of The Hunger Games. However, there is an issue with anything that is even 15 years old at this point. The 00's were so progressively advancing that the way that one consumes nowadays makes it impossible for old formats to keep up. Culture is more addled and the consumption rate is now reduced to six second Vine videos. As a result, I feel like The Simpsons have focused most of their energy on creating memorable couch gags, which often overshadow the writing of everything after that. They've even begun doing post-credit gags that reflect an inability to write enough content for a story. This move is especially strange when considering that The Simpsons has ALWAYS been lousy at making the first acts relevant to the rest of the story.

Which brings me to all of the recent news. Let's run down all of the highlights:
  1. The Simpsons celebrates its 550th episode with "Brick Like Me"
  2. They release a run of collectible LEGO figures based around iconic characters.
  3. Writer Al Jean reveals that they plan to kill off a beloved character in the season 26 premiere episode "A Clown in the Dumps," whom many speculate is Krusty the Klown
  4.  FX reveals plans to release all of the 552 episodes online through a streaming service called The Simpsons World.
  5. FX plans to hold a 12 day marathon of all 552 episodes (plus The Simpsons Movie) starting on August 21.
  6. The Simpsons will have a crossover episode with fellow Matt Groening-created cartoon series Futurama.
  7. The Simpsons will have a crossover episode with Family Guy (featuring a cameo by Bob's Burgers characters).
Yes, there is a lot for me to be excited about, especially as I continue to enjoy the current episodes. However, along with the decline of Fox's Animation Domination, it feels like The Simpsons are basing season 26 on gimmicks. So far, there is a combined two crossovers (one of which is being labeled as a Family Guy episode) and one death that will likely be used as an excuse for press. Hey, Family Guy did it with "Life of Brian" and that backfired a little. However, this all feels like it is created to stroke some egos and remind people that The Simpsons still exist.
I also feel like more than anything else, The Simpsons exists now solely as an art project. It has done almost everything it wants to do with narration and needs to fill up time. Besides the couch gags, it feels like each episode now features some sort of surreal art experiment to make the stories more surreal and interesting. The writing varies week-to-week, but it is a testament to how effective the animation is that the series has turned more readily towards it. Along with an homage to Hayao Miyazaki earlier this year, the series feels hellbent on shoving in obscure movie and animation references and giving something to the geekier audiences, who likely are the only ones concerned with new episodes.
Even then, the main focus of the series recently has been on its legacy. Those crossovers feel more like animated brethren paying their respects. Everyone else is simply wanting The Simpsons World to come sooner. It will be a big moment for the series when the FX actions happen, yet it will likely not get audiences to remember recent creations from the past few years like Nedna, Mary Spuckler or Kumiko. It will be a nostalgia trip for those episodes that Fox stopped airing years ago and for those too cheap to invest in the worthwhile DVD box sets.  It will also be a boost for FX, whose choice to make a "comedy" channel called FXX has been a joke since it doesn't even premiere the network's new comedies anyways. 
I want to believe that this attention will lead to good. However, it is more a legacy brag than anything else. If one is to focus on The Simpsons in season 26 after these deaths and crossovers, there will likely be equal amount of conversation as there was two years ago. It will continue to be there, but nobody will care. At least not until the 600th episode, provided that the series gets that far. However, if this is all secretly a farewell season that is doing all of these awe-inspiring retrospective events, then I will gladly be for it. Either way, I will be watching and finding the good and bad in everything. The Simpsons is a warrior of a series and even if it isn't relevant as it once was, it still does things better than a lot of the series that came and went in its time, which is saying something.

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