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The Simpsons is Weird Now

January 23, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

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I don’t really watch The Simpsons any more. I have it favorited on Hulu, so the episodes pop into my queue, and generally they pop out again when they expire without me having watched them. I think I watched a couple episodes last season. I haven’t watched it regularly since I was in college, probably, in the early aughts.

Yet, I had a spare 20 minutes recently, and so I watched an episode called “The Day the Earth Stood Cool.” It was the episode that had the cameo from The Onion and Onion AV Club in it, and featured hipster characters voiced by Portlandia’s Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. I watched the episode and I was so creeped out by it that it sent shivers down my spine.

It wasn’t the story itself that disturbed me—it was just the standard “the Simpsons make new friends within a subculture, are unsuited for it, maybe learn a lesson” plotline. The problem came up when the hip Portland family from next door (parents voiced by Fred Armisen & Carrie Brownstein of Portlandia, son voiced wryly by Patton Oswalt) was aligned narratively with the Simpsons family. And suddenly there was this guy in his early to mid-30s talking to Homer about how to overcome the burdens of being a dad, and a woman sharing baby-tending tips with Marge, and a kid who should be comparing toys with Bart and Lisa but is instead talking about the British TV shows he streams on the internet.

I grew up on The Simpsons. LITERALLY. The first episode I saw, if I’m not mistaken, was “Life on the Fast Lane,” the one where Marge contemplates an affair with a Frenchman who has taught her how to bowl. Do you know when that episode aired? According to IMDb, it was March 18, 1990. I was eight years old then. I’m going to be 32 this year—32. And Bart Simpson is still 10?

It’s literally reached the point where real-life kids who started out the same age as the Simpson kids are now old enough to have kids of their own who are the same age as the Simpson kids. And that’s where my brain breaks. An entire generation has gone by and the Simpson family is frozen in amber.

This didn’t bother me until this episode, really. I saw The Simpsons Movie in the theater just five years ago and enjoyed it heartily. I don’t know what the tipping point was, really. Possibly this episode simply leaned on modern times too heavily.

Or maybe it’s that this episode recalled for me another episode in which Homer fears he is not cool and is embraced by a hip crowd, “Homerpalooza” from 1996. A classic. It featured cameos from a bunch of bands who don’t exist anymore like Smashing Pumpkins (“Billy Corgan, Smashing Pumpkins” “Homer Simpson, Smiling Politely”) and Sonic Youth. The problem is that the guy who is the dad in “The Day the Earth Stood Cool” is of an age that he would have been listening to those bands as a teen, same as I was. Well, not Sonic Youth because they were too cool (read: weird) for me.

It reminded me that the Simpson kids that I know grew up watching VHS tapes and playing video games that were heavily pixilated. They listened to the music of Michael Jackson on a record player. Their parents—like my parents—met and fell in love in the 70s. The 1970s. (And don’t tell me that the show rewrote its own history by doing a 90s episode in which a yet-unmarried Marge & Homer listened to grunge music and Marge had the Rachel. Because I think we can all agree that that episode never happened and we will all be much happier as a result.)

You can’t be part of every generation, The Simpsons! You just can’t. Time to move on.

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  1. RaikoLives
    January 25, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    As soon as any show/series/story makes reference to popular culture it becomes dated, but I don’t think The Simpsons could have been anything like what it is/was without those references. I was recently made aware of a time Spider-Man met the cast of Saturday Night Live. It was the “classic” cast, from way way back, including people who (being 28 myself and from Australia) I have only ever known as actual movie actors, not members of a comedy troupe. Spider-Man has a different job now, than he had then (he’s a big shot scientist not a photographer) and he’s been married, and is now not married. He’s even a member of the Avengers (and not just an honourary one), but he’s aged at most a couple of years in those 30-40 years of “real time”. I expect Chevy Chase and the gang would wish they could say the same. But without a reference to the real world, would we really get/care about Spider-Man’s fortunes? His whole “thing” is he’s a regular Joe with regular problems living a regular life and having to balance it with being a superhero. The Simpsons are a real family, blue collar to the core, living in a fictional city and dodging invading aliens, but they inhabit our world. And without that “reality” (including former presidents who move into town) they’d be a hollow shell of what we all love.

    • January 25, 2013 at 3:19 pm

      I don’t read comic books, so I can’t share your comfort with the elastic reality of those worlds. Anyway, it’s not really the same, is it? Every time the story reboots, doesn’t the character meet his origins anew in the current time period? I mean, Superman doesn’t walk around in movies today as a 20-something guy reminiscing about how he used to fight Nazis. Every new Superman has an era-appropriate backstory.

      Also, I never minded when The Simpsons made pop culture references–including the “Homerpalooza” episode I mentioned. Becoming “dated” is both a bad and a good thing, because, while we look back on those old shows and say, “Wow, a Princess Di joke, this thing is ancient,” those jokes cement the time and place of that show when it was being made. But The Simpsons, by keeping its characters in their same static positions and ages for twenty years, cannot be dated. Or rather, it IS dated but constantly overwriting itself. Early 90s: Bart and Lisa love Michael Jackson! Late 90s: Bart and Lisa love boy bands! Early aughts: Bart and Lisa love Coldplay! Late aughts: Bart and Lisa love Lady Gaga! My problem isn’t identifying these artists by name, but rather that the cultural touchstones keep changing and erasing the previous ones. I’m closer to Marge’s age now than Bart’s. But Marge went to high school in the 70s! She doesn’t belong as a woman in her 30s in the 2010s, but that’s what she is because this show won’t move on. It’s disturbing and depressing.

  2. RaikoLives
    January 26, 2013 at 12:53 am

    Well, Superman and Spider-Man are separate issues there (if you forgive the pun). Superman has been rebooted a couple of times but Spider-Man never has – Marvel don’t do that sort of thing while DC make a general habit of doing it every so often. So, yeah, Superman today doesn’t talk about fighting Nazis, but the Spider-Man of today DID meet the SNL crew and it WAS Chevy Chase and the good Belushi brother etc.

    (Also, I’d say that the movies and the comics are entirely different continuities, but I do get your point)

    I came by your site via the folks over at Dead Homer Society (deadhomersociety.com) and they have made an excellent argument towards why The Simpsons has not (and never will) “move forward” in a Rugrats->All Grown Up jump, or even a slow progression such as Saved by the Bell or the various Degrassi series. Their angle is, of course, that Fox is running this show into the ground to make more money for them, not to try to stay true to some creative ideal. And that’s sad to a degree, but I think The Simpsons is more like a fractured, stained glass window through which a warped, coloured view of our own society can (or at least should) be seen. Ideally, of course. Not so much nowadays. The family, the set up, etc, are all still relatively mundane and identifiable enough to be more frames of reference than an ongoing story about a specific group of people, such as Six Feet Under or Gilmore Girls or whatever other “normal” show you’d like to substitute as an example. Each an every episode, as it opens up, is a “reboot”, where stories can be revisited and the past can be maintained but only for the duration of that episode and only because the new episode requires it. Certain elements remain – Ned Flanders is a left handed, God loving, generally good man while Smithers is a straight laced gay man who is incredible at his job to the point of sacrificing his outside life and Moe is an “ugly, hate filled man” – but the liquid nature of the show has always been able to recast these characters if need be. As the show has moved along the “recasting” has become more obscene, of course, turning Burns from a horrible, evil old miser into a lonely old man hungry for the love of the town, and that has been its downfall, but, as you put it, Marge IS a 30-something year old woman, but this means she went to high school 12-15 years ago from today, not in a specific set of years. The episodes where Homer and Marge relate the birth of their children already conflict, date wise, from the moment they aired. Its one of the joys of animation.

    If I remember correctly, in South Park, the Denver Broncos were suggested as being one of the possible candidates for Cartman’s dad (waay back in season 1 and 2) and (again, if I remember right) as part 1 of the episode ran as the cliffhanger to a season and part 2 was the second episode of the next, (and Cartman’s age remained static) the Year the team represented changed between the two episodes. While the first episode called them the 1989 Denver Broncos, the following episode called them the 1991 Denver Broncos. Now, this could have been the creators having a laugh, but it’s an odd example, if I have remembered it correctly, of the times moving around the characters.

    Wow. Another rant from me. I guess in the end I’m not really DISagreeing with you, but it does feel, to me, that that fluid nature of time around the Simpsons (and other animated shows) is part of the reason it is what it is. It isn’t really a story of a family at all. It’s a device through which we look at “modern” America and are shown its less than shiny underbelly.

  1. January 25, 2013 at 12:47 pm

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