May 18, 2015

TV Retrospective: "The Simpsons" - Season 26

There is a moment in The Simpsons episode "Sky Police" where it looks like the series is going to focus on bumbling police Chief Wiggum (Hank Azaria) and his new police equipment. With the episode removing its couch gag, it jumps right into the episode. Speaking as this was a month after the infamous "The Man Who Came to Be Dinner" episode, anything seemed plausible for the show. In fact, the fictitious Sky Police had its own theme song and a few minutes of fun gags. Then, without warning, Wiggum crashes his jet pack into the church and the episode shifts into a story about the congregation getting money for restoration through gambling. Is the Sky Police involved? Only as a last minute background gag. If one episode defines the show's problematic, disproportionate structure nowadays, it is this one where interesting, abstract ideas will butt heads weekly, but will eventually not be successful at making a satisfying clash.
Season 26 should have been more of a surprising runaway success story for the show. They may have not had the 500th episode or even "Brick Like Me," but they were coming off of an amazing 2014 summer. Between the FXX marathon, The Simpsons Take the Bowl concert, two proposed crossovers (with Futurama and Family Guy respectively), and a mysterious death in the premiere, the show was arguably at the height of their relevance in at least 5-10 years. Even with the weirdest couch gag in the show's history, animated by Don Hertzfeldt, the show started off with a whimper as the major death was Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky (Jackie Mason); a character that only had three noteworthy episodes prior. By the end, the focus wasn't on the momentous season, but on the fact that between an arguable series low with "The Man Who Came to Be Dinner" and Harry Shearer leaving, the show was back to being questioned as to how much longer it will last.
This isn't to say that the season was all that awful. With all things considered, it did have a lot of pretty good episodes, including "Treehouse of Horror XXV"; the best of the Halloween anthology series in many years. "I Won't Be Home for Christmas" was an enjoyably heartfelt take on the holiday season. Even "Waiting for Duffman" (a plot that actually went to Santa's Little Helper in season 14's "Old Yeller-Belly") had enough memorable gags about consumerism to make it worthwhile. However, even in the more charming episodes like "The Kids Are All Right" in which Bart (Nancy Cartwright) and Lisa (Yeardly Smith) are two fighting toddlers, there's needless conflict by bringing back Grandma Flanders (Smith) for the first time since season 3 and subsequently killing her off simply to progress the plot. It is such an inconsequential motive that the dark joke is more frustrating than insightful. 
That is what The Simpsons are at this point. While they have tapered off into being consistently good, there's been a lot more needless shock implanted into the show in order to keep audiences engaged. Whether it be the death of Rabbi Krustofsky (whose absence HASN'T impacted the show at all) or making episodes based around space adventures, the show is about pushing boundaries without giving a decent reason as to why. Yes, we get solid Mr. Burns (Shearer) episodes like "Opposites A-Frack," which return him to dastardly villain roles. We even get solid Grampa Simpson (Dan Castellanetta) like "Let's Go Fly a Coot" where we learn more about his military past. However, there's jokes within these episodes that are problematic and questionable even by character logic. The only real benefit is that they're not as terrible as older seasons have been. Also, the season as a whole has simply been more memorable because of its consistency to doing more "original" stories that rehashed takes on old movies.

Yet the problems of the series, like it did in "Sky Police," emerges once again in the finale "Mathlete's Feat," which pits Bart as the leader of a math team. The show's opening couch gag is essentially TWO MINUTES of a Rick and Morty routine. Considering that the show runs 21 minutes on average, this eats up considerable time. When Bart concludes it by asking for no more guest animators, it doesn't feel like a joke so much as a statement of fact. While the show has done wonders - even within this season - of making great couch gags by guest contributors, there are those that have become self-involves, such as Rick and Morty. Don't get me wrong, I love that show as well, but if you don't watch Adult Swim (which I predict is most of the viewers), it was a confusing two minutes without any real punchline. Speaking as Robot Chicken also made a couch gag a few seasons back, it isn't a bad idea, but the gist of a couch gag is to be momentary.
Likewise, the episode reinstates what's problematic about the show. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, the episode focuses on math and somehow pitting Bart as the inevitable hero. In terms of continuity, even in the show's lack of sense, this is distracting. Yet, for all it's worth, the last moments that we get in the episode have nothing to do with anything from the past 20 minutes. Much like the padded opening, it is an extended riff on the family as a jug band. Homer (Castellanetta) goes on to be seen drinking from the jug until he passes out. That's the joke. That's the conclusion. Homer is still an alcoholic in a random moment. While this is on par with the show's general take on its characters, the moment doesn't even have a fun sensibility to it. Much like the season 24 finale "Dangers on a Train" that has a stylized animation of Grampa Simpson singing about a train, it feels like the show doesn't know how to end a season anymore. It has to be a random gag that doesn't matter. It isn't the best way to remember a show of this legacy or length, but it is what the show is presenting us anyways.
The Simpsons season 26 isn't the worst that the series has done. In fact, compared to the art school sensibilities of the past few seasons, this is actually a pretty strong one. Most episodes feel like they have a purpose and are best of all memorable enough to pass by. Does it make it great? Not necessarily. However, there's more trying to see the potential in episodes like "Sky Police" than actually getting it. There's still the various frustrating moments in between the solid Futurama crossover episode "Simpsorama" or the Judd Apatow-penned "Bart's New Friend." However, what is likely to be the most disappointing thing is that what started off as a celebratory experience ended with a whimper and Homer passed out; as if the show has admitted its own exhaustion. Still, there's two more guaranteed seasons and no Harry Shearer for the foreseeable future. What lays ahead? Do we know? Do we care - or have we resorted to just watching FXX reruns? That's a lot of questions that I doubt the show will get around to answering.

OVERALL RATING: 3 out of 5 

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