May 23, 2016

TV Retrospective: "The Simpsons" - Season 27

Whether or not people realize it, The Simpsons has been on for 27 seasons. While it's easy to butt heads and complain that the show lacks relevancy, there's a bigger existential question that should come up: What do you do after 27 years on a series that helped to define modern comedy, animated or other? The answer hasn't been too clear in seasons past, with many ranging from inspired alterations of the animated medium to self-indulgent art projects. However, there's something that feels more riveting about being a show at this point in its existence. It doesn't have to impress anyone. As a result, it has given one of its strongest seasons in at least a decade by honing what worked in the past while exploring some surprisingly unexplored territory from the previous 550+ episodes. It may be a far cry from its 90's heyday, but The Simpsons of season 27 at least seems to care again. And that goes a long way.
To a large extent, The Simpsons has remained relevant to news cycles for participating in the "gimmicks" game. Over the past few years, the show has reveled in episodes based around LEGO animation, dead characters, crossovers with Futurama and Family Guy, and attention-worthy couch gags. The one downside is that the average episode is by comparison forgettable and reflect the stagnation that most people have complained about. It looked like season 27 would follow suit - especially in the premiere "Every Man's Dream" where loving couple Marge and Homer would separate (it was marketed as a shocking shift in the show; a fact quickly refuted by the handful of divorce episodes fans brought up). This was only the start of the gimmicks game, as the show produced episodes in which there was: 1. A non-"Treehouse of Horror" Halloween episode, 2. Sideshow Bob kills Bart, 3. A parody of Boyhood, 4. Apu gets a millennial relative, 5. Mr. Smithers comes out of the closet, and 6. A live episode.
It didn't exactly start out on the right foot, either. "Every Man's Dream" did live up to its promised separation, but quickly backtracked by making a confusing Inception-like logic that eventually meant that the episode took place in a tattoo on guest star Lena Dunham's back. It was a frustrating deceit, and one familiar to those underwhelmed by last season's "Clown in the Dumps." However, things would turn around quickly with "Halloween of Horror" creating a complicated look into Lisa's personal fears based around the holiday. Unlike other seasons where this plot would be mixed with antagonism, there was an understanding of the characters and their need to sacrifice for family. It is an episode so well written that it replenishes some of the initial appeal of the series. There was heart in between the gimmick, and that's generally what added weight to some of the episodes to come. Admittedly, there are some duds as usual - but at least they felt more organic and natural than in previous seasons.
For instance, "The Burns Cage" is an episode that has seemed greatly obvious for 20 years now. Mr. Smithers, who has been in love with his boss Mr. Burns, comes out as being a homosexual. It is the show's worst kept secret, and it almost felt inessential by design. However, the episode managed to show the complicated and platonic relationship that formed between Smithers and Burns by first showing how they don't meet each other's needs. Smithers attempts to live an openly gay life with another man, but finds his true love is still Burns - who will never love him *like that*, but will always fill his life with happiness. The episode manages to end in a certain assurance that is possibly even more heartwarming than "Halloween of Horror" without making a big deal about it. Considering that voice actor Harry Shearer was reportedly considering leaving the show, it's a relief that he still has remained to provide voice work for these characters.
Not all of the gimmicks necessarily worked. "Barthood" was a decent episode that bridged the gap between the modern and future timelines that the show has developed. However, its status as a parody of the Richard Linklater hit is a little more suspect and not nearly as true to character. The live episode "Simprovised" may have suffered from excessive marketing for a fraction of an actual episode. Even then, the show was business as usual for the most part when it wasn't focused on the gimmicks game. For instance, "Fland Canyon" continued to explore Homer's relationship with Ned by showing a trip to the Grand Canyon that is rather lively. It may not be the first (or best) flashback for the duo, but it does pack plenty of memorable moments in a pretty solid episode.
The only thing that the show cannot seem to escape is its own nostalgia. While not nearly as grating as when they returned Grandma Flanders last season (missing for over 20 years) just to kill her off minutes later, the choice to return "The Crepes of Wrath" Frenchmen from season one was a bit jarring. While the animation has vastly improved in the 26 years, the idea of having them play more eccentric villains in "To Courier with Love" felt a little forced. It was an episode with a mediocre plot to begin with (Homer carries a suitcase with a snake in it to France), but add in a cameo by Jay Leno and you get the sense that the show is trying to award longtime fans. However, it comes off more as filler than essential story beats. The finale "Orange is the New Yellow" even has a Mr. Sparkle reference. While that is more of a "blink and you'll miss it" type of moment, it's still evidence of how insecure the show can be with its own legacy. Considering that it's rarely been fond of continuity, its reference points are at times baffling.
Yet what the show definitely has next to the gimmicks game is a sense of purpose. Admittedly, it will never be as relevant as it once was. It's kind of the charm in experiencing their weirder episodes. However, this may be one of the few years where the gimmicks game lead to an overall successful turnout. Even if there's few masterpieces, there's a certain humanity that has slowly been returning to the series in its autumn years. If nothing else, this season has two big hits in "Halloween of Horror" and "The Burns Cage" that will likely be considered some of the show's later run bests. Otherwise, it's a solid run that may not reinvent the series nor do anything as flashy as in season's past. However, it's nice to know that not all of the attention was thrown into the couch gags. It has been a problem in the past, but manages to be balanced out here. 
What's even more endearing, and likely unintentional, is that the season feels almost bookended by The Simpsons' family dynamic. Whereas the premiere dealt with separation, the final episode - a loose parody of Orange is the New Black - dealt with Marge contemplating why Homer was valuable. Even if the show failed to give fans that separation they were promised, it feels like the series was meant to thematically focus on why these characters like each other. As the family huddles in the closet at the end of "Orange is the New Yellow," there's a sense that everything will be all right. The series feels like it spent the season focusing on compatibility between various dynamics, and it may be the best gimmick of all. This season may not attract a new base of fans, but it should reassure the dedicated that it isn't entirely hopeless. It may be reaching its end, but it still wants to go out with a little class.

OVERALL RATING: 3.5 out of 5

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