Mostly due to the need for additional palate cleansing over a recent spate of truly execrable reality shows (So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Got Talent, and Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbajabiamila’s Cavalcade of Soul-Crushing Wretched Excess…brr), I recently looked over the DVR schedule and tried to find something light and watchable. For reasons I still don’t quite grasp, I decided on the two episodes of The Simpsons that Sunday (and Bob’s Burgers, which I found totally humdrum and had no interest in continuing). I was about to comment on them earlier but never got around to it, then saw that the season 30 premiere was this week, so I picked up the two episodes from yesterday as well.
Here’s a brief synopsis:
#1: Homer goes through another jock phase and makes a new incarnation of the Pin Pals. (Apu, who was on the last one, is briefly mentioned; that was the only reference to him in any of the four episodes.) They enter a local tournament, we get to see a handful of Brought Back For The Curtain Call supporting characters, and they win with a fair amount of chicanery. This puts them into a regional or whatever championship, pitting them directly against a bunch of predictable snooty elitist types. Moe, the coach, is briefly tempted to turn to the dark side, but he fights the temptation, he stupidly puts his bar on the line, he’s saved at the last second by an outrageous twist, the Pin Pals snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and they’re rewarded with a zero-gravity plane ride.
#2: Lisa, in the latest of what is now a startling number of alternate timelines, begins writing a college application essay for Harvard, and in the process brings up the memories of disappointing birthdays of years past. Bart is a useless putz, Homer loses his hair, Maggie never breathes a single word ever ever ever and nobody takes issue with this for some reason, you know the drill. She concludes the essay and has a series of flashbacks going backwards through her life. Uh, the end.
#3: After Homer realizes that he’s about to return a rental car with a quarter tank more gas than it had when he rented it, he does the predictable and goes on a wild cross-country tear with Bart. Bart finds a manhole cover with DO NOT JUMP ON on it, the usual happens, the even more usual happens, and Bart finds himself in an underground bunker from the 60’s with plenty of antiquated equipment and an old but still deadly ballistic missile. Big search party and we get to see Springfield PD operate with its usual level of competence. Eventually Sideshow Bob finds his old enemy’s scent, and poor Milhouse gets caught up in the mess. It ends with Bart and Milhouse tied to the missile, with no one to save them…but Bob, without any real explanations, decides that he doesn’t really want to kill Bart and quietly returns to prison to serve out his sentence. Bizarre many-years-later scene with Squeaky-Voiced Teenager.
#4: Bart refuses to wreck his sister’s sax performance on a dare, and as a result is forced into a terrible penance, by which I mean he has to accept an even worse dare. He ends up in the hospital and, in a clumsy attempt to placate Marge, makes up some bogus story about a near-death experience and meeting Jesus. The tale quickly spirals into a wildly successful movie, Bart’s Not Dead (yeah, guess my punching-down concerns were a tad premature :)). Lisa smugly reminds Bart that it’s not the lie that gets you, its the cover-up. For some reason Bart totally believes it, and he comes clean. There’s a little protest, Homer reluctantly agrees to give the profits to charity, and…everything more or less goes back to normal. Final scene has Bart going to Heaven and Homer escaping after finding it really boring, fleeing to the Hindu afterlife, and being reincarnated as a turtle.
So…remember the South Parkian “make fun of everything” garbage that resulted in, at best, a gross false equivalence between campus safe spaces and freaking murdering black men and protestors and freaking Lisa blowing off real-world social justice issues vis a vis Apu’s iffiness? Turns out they’re done with that. From what I can see, the modern Simpsons fluctuates between passably humorous, somewhat weird, a little aimless, and pretty much just going through the motions. There’s none of the joyous energy or sparkling humor I remember from the first 7 seasons, nor the fiery rejection of that in the several seasons that came after. It’s settled into a comfortable, workable, predictable routine. These characters are never going to develop, they’re not going to surprise you, they’re not going to go off the rails. What you see is what you’re always going to see.
Probably the biggest indicator of this direction is that Bart and Lisa hardly do anything to or for each other anymore. For as long as I could remember, they were fire and ice. Whether heated rivals, grudging friends, loyal allies, competitors, heads of opposing forces, or outright enemies, they got in each other’s way a lot, and they combined their considerable abilities to a common goal many other times. Now it’s at most a line or two of snark, and even that’s not delivered with any real passion; it seems more an obligation than anything. “Oh, I just remembered that I find this girl annoying! I know, I’ll rag on how tacky her poster is!”
In effect, it’s become like the final years of Cathy. Yes, it blew its wad years ago and is now running on a low gear because that’s all the current writing staff can manage anymore. But there are still a lot of people who grew up on it and love it (it’s 92 on Metacritic, to put it in perspective), and honestly, it’s reach the point where quality doesn’t matter. People just plain want this, hell, they need it. It’s transcended mere entertainment and become an institution. Much like Alex Rodriguez and baseball, it doesn’t matter how hard it gets, life without it is simply unthinkable.
And you know what? Fine by me. Times are tough for a lot of people, a lot of things have changed or are changing for the worse, and I totally understand the desire for something that’s an ironclad pillar of stability in one’s life. If a long-past-it’s-time cartoon is what lets you cope with the bitter reality of a cold, harsh, uncaring universe, I’m not going to begrudge it to you. I don’t care anymore if there’s never any grand finale or if future anthropologists can’t figure out what the true cultural impact of this show was. It serves a need, it fills a void, and I’m cool with that.