May 22, 2017

TV Retrospective: "The Simpsons" - Season 28

How much can really be said about The Simpsons after 28 years? Even in the familiar opening credits scene, Bart has no choice but to poke fun at the series by thanking another pop culture entity that was birthed in 1989: Taylor Swift. There's nothing that The Simpsons can do in 2017 that is necessarily cutting edge in relevance. It's because of this that the season felt like more of the same. It isn't a terrible thing to do, but considering that this season brought with it: 1. The 600th episode; 2. The first hour long episode; and 3. A sequel to the iconic episode "Kamp Krusty," it does feel like the show is continuing to try and find gimmicks that will make it stand out. Even when it takes on the Pokemon Go fad, it feels like it's behind the curve. While it is partly because of the length it takes to animate, it's also that the show has done everything before and made fun of itself for doing everything again. Still, season 28 had plenty of heart and innovation within it, just not enough to make it anything special.
A lot of the conflicts with season 28 can be found in the season finale "Dogtown." The premise is that it's wrong for humans to love dogs more than humans. It's a fair starting point for an episode. It even raises some interesting questions that may play into their satirical genius. However, it is all quickly dropped in favor of a story where canines go feral and it's a battle against man for dominance. In a sense, the continuity is there and the show explains why the dogs are hostile. However, it also drops any chance at a deeper resonance about affectionate dog culture. It doesn't answer anything. Much like how the show got credit for having tangential first acts, it now feels like the themes of an episode are tangential to the third act. It isn't always the case, but there is genuinely a stronger episode even within episodes as decent as "Dogtown."
This only continues to apply to what were clearly sold as the big episodes of the season. "Kamp Krustier" failed to capture the corrupt summer camp aspect of the original. The 600th episode "Treehouse of Horror XXVII" had a decent but rushed parody of Mad Max: Fury Road along with the first of two cluttered montages to the show's legacy this season (including the return of "Homer's Enemy" character Frank Grimes). It's a crutch that the series has fallen back on, finding it acceptable to recall their rich and varied past with character cameos and moments that hardcore fans will remember. It's a trick that helps to disguise just how long the show has been on and how many ideas are on their third or fourth victory lap. Even the arguably new "20 for 30" (a parody of ESPN series 30 for 30) feels like it owes some credit to prior episodes. 
If there is going to be one compelling blunder from the season, it is likely to be "The Great Phatsby," which was a jumbled source of references. At its core, it was a parody of "The Great Gatsby" with Mr. Burns as Jay Gatsby and Homer as Nick Carraway. It's not a terrible idea, but add in the other elements and it begins to get confusing. Mr. Burns is fighting a hip-hop mogul who robs him blind. Meanwhile, Mr. Smithers gets extended gags reminiscent of The Revenant. The second episode even features rap cameos where Mr. Burns and Homer form a beef in ways that seem culturally clueless. Homer even steps into Snoop Dogg's recording booth long enough to get high. It's a confusing mess to an innovative idea. More episodes of The Simpsons could benefit from being longer, but they also need to be better stories than an old white man trying to be cool with young black men. 
With all of the errors of the season mentioned, it's tough to ignore the few episodes that exceed expectations. "A Father's Watch" perfectly shows the relationship of the Simpson men as it relates to a family heirloom. There's also "There Will Be Buds," which turns tragic supporting character Kirk Van Houten into a deeply troubled man longing for attention and respect. While that episode features an extended scene in a strip club, it packs one of the show's more emotional moments in recent years. Kirk merely wants someone to listen to him talk, and he's sad when that someone isn't Homer. It's episodes like these that prove that The Simpsons still has something to say when it puts aside novelty. The only issue is that novelty is what gets ratings and serves as easy filler.
There's plenty to wonder about where The Simpsons could possibly go from here. They are the juggernaut that peaked long ago. With that said, they still serve as the definition of modern satire, showing the blueprints for what shows it influenced once didn't do better. This was a rather nostalgic season of the show, and it rarely did more than commemorate how old they were. It's an honor to have a show like this continue to break records and push animation. The only issue is that it becomes difficult to remember why they were great, especially in episodes like "Kamp Krustier" that ask you to remember their work from over 25 years ago. They have managed to push forward, but not without a nostalgic eye backwards. This may have not been the best latter day season, but at least there's some traces of why this show matters just a little. It hasn't made a season that's totally void of at least a few good episodes just yet.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5

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