Sunday, March 24, 2013

Victory Has Defeated The Simpsons

(Programming note -- my goal is to post at least once a week at the beginning of the week, and so far this year, my track record hasn't been horrible.  Recently, I've been devoting a lot of my non-work-hours to planning a move from New York to Seattle, and this blog has suffered as a result.  I can't promise anything, but tune in on Mondays and I'll do my best to stick to a weekly schedule.)

I had a near perfect New York weekend a few weeks back, starting with a Louis CK benefit show for PS3 Elementary on Friday (minus the fifteen minutes he had to spend lecturing rambunctious PS3 teachers to stop heckling him), the Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts at the best cinema house in all the five boroughs -- the Nitehawk -- on Saturday, and unstoppable party machine FM Belfast at The Studio at Webster Hall on Sunday.  It was an embarrassment of riches and left me with far more to contemplate than I had time to write about ... the fine art of heckler confrontation, the spinelessness of the Academy awarding the Oscar to the flavorless Pepsi-commercial that was Paperman instead of Adam And Dog, the challenge of convincing friends to take a chance on a new band they haven't heard before ...

Instead of all that, the winner this week is The Simpsons, and specifically the question that stuck with me now weeks later (now that my schedule has opened up enough to type this post out): Why can't they make a modern-day TV episode of The Simpsons as simple and clever as "The Longest Daycare"? Maybe they were angling for the Oscar and, thus, needed to release the short in theaters to qualify. Maybe they were brushing up their animation chops as a trial run for the next Simpsons Movie (which is apparently not going to happen any time soon)? Or maybe it was just too experimental -- a dialogue-free segment without B- and C-plots or celebrity stunt casting to keep things "zany." But ... why does it have to be zany? If I'm right, if it's the latter explanation, then I'd like to spend a minute lamenting this staple of my childhood before casting it off the iceberg of Great TV Shows That Were.

Worst. Subheading. Ever.

The Simpsons could not have debuted at a better time for me -- mid-way through fifth grade and thus roughly the age of Bart Simpsons at the time (and, it would turn out, for all eternity).  Arguably, I was a little on the young side, a conclusion that was driven home by the fact that half of the kids in my class were forbidden from watching the show over those first two seasons.  But all propriety aside, it was to my great advantage that my sense of humor was keyed to The Simpsons, since that show (or at least the first four or five seasons) also set the standard for all "edgy" comedy that followed through to the present.

Flashing forward now twenty-five years -- as fully-grown adults born post-"Simpsons Roasting On A Christmas Fire" are mid-way through post-doc work, buying homes and having kids of their own, it's seems almost a moot point to criticize the show for not being what it once was. The Simpsons could no more be the same show that once sparked a controversy over Bart Simpsons' declaration that he was an "underachiever and proud of it" than Saturday Night Live could still blow people's minds with a "musical guest" whose entire act consists of a toy record player and a pantomime.  Sure, all the classic lines and best episodes are engrained in the collective pop conscious of America like the Beatles catalogue, like the stand-out Shakespeare monologues, like the Gettysburg Address (the first line at least).  But any edginess that The Simpsons once had has been eclipsed, lapped, whatever analogy you want to use, by the second- and third-waves of animated adult television that renders Bart's "underachiever" declaration downright wholesome by comparison.

Those with the energy to post about The Simpsons are left to debate when, not if, the show declined into a pale shadow of its old self. Sure, there are the occasional stand-out episodes, and the movie certainly injected some much-needed new zest into the long-tired formulas that define the more recent seasons. But I think it's fair to say than any long-term viewer of the show knows pretty clearly the point the show hit the high-water mark for them, right before the realization started to sink in that the show would never hit that high again. For some, it was early going, the third season maybe. Others may cite "Mr. Plow" or "Marge vs. The Monorail." Others even look further down the line to the James Bond-inspired "You Only Move Twice."

For me, it has to be "Lisa's Wedding." Not because it was the funniest episode ("Rosebud" has a solid lock on that prize for me if only for Mr. Burns' order to"have the Rolling Stones killed ... DO AS I SAY!"), but because it showed clearly that these characters were worth caring about. I wanted to see these characters grow up. I remember around the time reading an article in the local paper speculating about what careers Bart, Lisa and Maggie might have some day (it was a slow news day), which is not an article you'd see in the papers these days on the slowest of news days. But back then, it made sense that we'd see Lisa in college some day, that Bart would undoubtedly knock up some girl in high school, and Maggie would inevitably have her "goth phase", etc. etc.

But flash forward twenty-five years later and ... yeah. Not so much. Which is fine, I guess. It wouldn't have been my choice to freeze Springfield in ember, but (a) it's not my show and (b) not every show is meant for long-arc storytelling. I'll admit I do not hold South Park to the same standard. I'd also argue that South Park was never a family drama but really social and political commentary channeled through four characters each representing a different perspective of the writers.  The Simpsons, on the other hand, was clearly launched as a family sitcom in the vein of Roseanne (by way of The Flintstones, albeit, but still rooted in the "real world" in which people do age as time passes).

While I've come to terms with never seeing Bart repeat a few years in high school or Lisa playing sax on the streets of Paris before going to college, I still wonder why the writers haven't taken more advantage of the perpetual renewals FOX has given them to go a little wackadoo. The reason may be that the studio suits keep the writers on a short lease, or maybe The Simpsons these days is exactly what the writers want it to be -- mostly formulaic with a few novelties in each episode. To get an idea of what the show could be doing, look at what FOX-neighbor American Dad has been up to ... or what they almost did to Up All Night ...

"Plagiarismo di Plagiarismo" ... For The Win

 In the fall of 2011, NBC premiered a relatively safe bet for a modest, uncontroversial sitcom about the almost-middle-aged facing parenthood for the first time.  The Christina Applegate/Will Arnett vehicle Up All Night has a Judd Appatow-esque vibe to it, populated by adults who are on the fence over this whole "adulthood" thing while at the same time self-aware enough to know that they probably should've gotten off the fence a long time ago.  Like so many movies and TV shoes in this Appatow vein, you can practically hear the characters thinking "my parents already had a kid in high school by the time they were my age" in every other scene.  Up All Night is told fairly straight, without any gimmicky narrations, documentary conceits, or wacky "break out" characters.  It's also been a commercial failure, as TV Guide has recently lamented:
NBC's Up All Night should have been a hit. The show came with a strong comedy pedigree: It starred Christina Applegate, Will Arnett and Maya Rudolph and was produced by Saturday Night Live don Lorne Michaels. At the center was what seemed to be a relatable premise for the young adults watching the network's upscale comedies: a hip, young couple adjusts to life with a baby. But two years after creator Emily Spivey shot the pilot (then called Alpha Mom), Up All Night is all but gone, suffering the death of a thousand tinkers.
TV Guide attributes the failure of show to executive meddling, starting with the surprise success of Bridesmaids, which prompted the network to insist that Maya Rudolph be given an enhanced role on the show.  From creative interference to a rotating cast of executive producers, Up All Night suffered from inconsistent direction and frequent cast shake-ups until NBC started getting twitchy over the show's middling ratings and sought new approaches.  This included both a shift from a prerecorded single-camera show to a multi-camera show shot before a lives studio audience to ideas far more insane (and, therefore, also more interesting):
[Showrunner Linda] Wallem and the writing staff began brainstorming ideas for the multi-camera version. One pitch placed a portal between the two worlds — the single-cam and multi-cam versions — that only baby Amy could see. Another idea put Wallem and her real-life partner, [Melissa] Etheridge (!), in front of the camera, perhaps with the action taking place in their living room.

Ultimately, a script was written in which Applegate, Arnett and Rudolph played actors portraying the characters Reagan, Chris and Ava on a fictional show called Up All Night. Off the show-within-a-show, Arnett's character would live at home with his mother, and Applegate's would be dating. Rudolph's real-life pregnancy was being written into the storyline — and included a "who's the daddy?" twist.
This potentially inspired insanity -- which had the potential to give the show an almost Get A Life-level disregard for reality or continuity -- also had the effect of driving Applegate away from the show and leading NBC to conclude that the show is most likely irreparably broken at this point.

Personally, I think it's a shame that we didn't get to see any of these wackadoo attempts to revive the show come to be.  What's sadder still, though, is that it took the desperation that comes with cancellation to get these kind of creative juices flowing.  Still, the ideas are there and so the potential is there as well.  So why not let this very talented cast make one or two of these completely off-the-wall concepts into one-off episodes, just to see what happens?  Sort of like what American Dad has been doing for a while now?

When American Dad first debuted in 2005, I would say my reaction to the show was captured nicely by the screenshots above taken from The Simpsons episode "The Italian Bob."  On the surface, the similarities seemed beyond lazy -- idiot father, put-upon housewife, son and daughter, a talking pet, an alcoholic smartass "best friend" ... the show wisely steered clear of "cutaways" and "flashbacks" for the most part, but the show seemed like a total rehash nonetheless.  In the years since, however, the show has done an impressive job of pairing genuine character developments with amazingly off-the-wall storytelling concepts such as:

These are not the Hail Mary passes of a show struggling to find an audience -- American Dad has been renewed through 2014 and, if the otherwise Seth Farland-skeptical A.V. Club is any indicator, it's only gained critical acclaim in recent years.  To the contrary, these are the chances taken by a show that is very comfortable in its own skin and unafraid to screw with the formula.  So what prompts one show to contemplate pure narrative insanity only as a last-ditch effort while another will regularly toy with its format on a weekly basis, despite having security for years to come?

Or by contrast, and to bring us back to the main subject of this article, what has made The Simpsons' writing staff so goddamn lazy?  Honestly, why the hell did we need to bring us McBain: The Movie, instead of expanding on those clips in a proper episode-length adventure???  Why not a dialogue-free episode told entirely from Maggie's perspective?  Why not a 30-minute Itchy & Scratch cartoon?  Or a live action episode?  (The famous mantra coined by South Park used to be "Simpsons did it!"  These days, it should really be "Adult Swim did it!")  Maybe the answer is sadder than a lack of nerve or vision on the part of The Simpsons' writing staff.  Maybe it's that tragic moment when a dad realizes that his son can beat him at most things ... and he just stops trying to keep up.  Or as writer Thomas Rogers put it on the event of The Simpsons' 20th anniversary: "The Simpsons seems to have aged from envelope-pushing misfit to grandfatherly institution." (Indeed, the title of the article says it all: "Why The Simpsons no longer matters.")

Any More New Business?

I won't pretend to be writing The Simpsons' epitaph.  The show I knew died long ago, like all shows do sooner or later. "The Simpsons" brand, however, will live on eternally, and there's no more point in lamenting the current state of The Simpsons than wishing Disney would return Mickey to his Steamboat Willie days.  The humor and style of The Simpsons is so deeply integrated into pop culture writ large that the field is crowded with Simpsons-inspired artists, comics and cartoonists doing the hard work that Team Simpsons left behind long ago.  There'd be nothing groundbreaking in simply turning back the clock.

"The Longest Daycare" showed me that there's still some blood worth squeezing out of that stone, even if -- for all intents and purposes -- The Simpsons is woefully stuck in geosynchronous orbit between the "last ditch efforts" that can inspire mad experimentation before flaring out in the upper atmosphere, and the vision to aim deeper into space ...

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