August 23rd,1998. We’d waited all summer long for The Simpsons Season 10 premiere. Season 9 ended in May with an episode called "Natural Born Kissers," during which Homer and Marge develop a taste for sex in public places. An instant classic. The Simpsons looks to be on a run without precedent: entering its second decade of 23 episodes a season with no demonstrable decline in quality. Greatest. Show. Ever.
I’m going into my junior year at Beth Tfiloh Community High School. I sit down with Jordan, Ethan and my father to watch the opener I’ve been pining for all summer. It opens with the usual 10-minute subplot. Homer and Bart see an ad on television for the benefits of having a nuclear power plant next to the water. At the end of the commercial, Mr. Burns announces the Grand Opening of Springfield Heavy Water Park: complete with waterslides, spraygrounds, lazy rivers, and the world’s largest Tidal Wave every five minutes (with footage of an old Japanese tsunami accompanying). Bart is entranced, Homer says this is awful, until Mr. Burns announces: “and for the grownups we even have a river of beer.” Then comes Smithers’s voiceover saying very quickly “The water in the river of beer is not beer, however, ingesting large quantities of it will get you drunk.” Homer is sold immediately. Mr. Burns closes by saying - “After all, would Springfield ever have a water park if there were any chance of the town’s children getting radioactive poisoning from the water?”
They both rush to tell Marge and Lisa, who disapprovingly stand over a newspaper article about the Heavy Water Park. Lisa lectures them about how this is putting the town at pointless risk. Marge agrees with Lisa until Maggie accidentally turns on the radio and they all hear Mr. Burns say “And by the way, we have a special nuclear power knitting competition. Whoever knits best, knits with power.” Marge says ‘We’re going.”
The line for the park’s Grand Opening wraps around the plant, and then goes into the plant and into the radiation chamber and beyond. The Simpsons are, of course, not there yet. In the car, Lisa once again says that we are pointlessly endangering our own lives by going to a water park next to a nuclear plant. Bart replies that he, for one, is looking forward to swimming in nuclear waste and will find the shiniest pool he can on the offchance it makes him into a superhero. Marge replies “Now Bart, I’m sure that the nuclear waste will give you cancer before it makes you into a superhero.” Marge gets her knit diorama of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. They step out of the car, go up to the line. But when they get there, Jimbo points out that Homer is missing his bathing suit and completely nude. The entire line laughs at him and they have to go home for Homer to change.
At the front of the water park, Mayor Quimby announces the grand opening, and gives a giant pair of scissors to Mr. Burns so that he may cut the ribbon. Mr. Burns, of course, falls down when handed the scissors, so Smithers cuts it instead. And the whole line immediately tramples all three of them. We see individual scenes of people having fun at the park. We see Nelson pushing Martin down a waterslide head-first. We see Groundskeeper Willie lifeguarding the pool, and when Chief Wiggum tries to get Ralph about to dive off the shallow end, he says “Oh my God Nah! (brief pause) You gotta put yar arms sepparrately, not togetharr.” We see Rod Flanders ask their Dad if Satan’s work is in the water, whereupon Ned answers that God made rich people to tell us what’s right and wrong.
By the time the Simpsons come back, there’s no line. Everybody is crowded around something and Mrs. Lovejoy is screaming. What’s all the commotion? Millhouse fights his way out of the crowd and comes up to Bart. “Hey Bart, I have a chest hair and my voice changed!”
But it’s not Pamela Hayden’s voice anymore. It’s Barry White’s.
(Cut to Commercial...)
Evan: What the fuck...
Mom: (from the next room) EVAN!
Evan: Sorry Mom, you gotta see this.
Dad: Wait. So was it the radiation that causes Milhouse to have a different voice?
Ethan: Is Mr. Burns going to jail?
Jordan: I like the thing with Groundskeeper Willie.
(The Simpsons resumes)
The family sits on the couch, watching Kent Brockman report on the discovery of a ten year old whose voice “reminds you of the sweet silken sounds of your Prom afterparty.” The camera cuts to Milhouse strapped to a bed in a laboratory with test tubes in every direction. Milhouse says to the camera: “My mom told me puberty doesn’t happen until after you stop bed-wetting.”
Over the course of the next ten minutes, Lisa uncovers a shocking conspiracy. It’s revealed that it was not nuclear power at all which caused Milhouse’s voice to deepen. It was good, ol-fashioned puberty. Ten years ago, Professor Frink came up with an invisible force-field that could freeze the ageing process of Springfield’s residents.All the town’s residents would remain exactly as they were ten years ago, and so long as they stayed in good health could live forever (cue Homer eating jokes). But the force-field has broken down. The magnetism of the force-field came from a “metal so rare that the chance of finding more is truly, truly laughable. More laughable than the chances of surviving a black hole implosion in your back yard. I ask you Lisa, is that not laughable?”
Ethan: Are The Simpsons going to get older now?
Mom: I think so.
Dad: Well how could they keep The Simpsons going much longer if they didn't. The Simpsons couldn't possibly run another ten years with the exact same characters as they have right now.
Evan: No. No they couldn't.
(The Simpsons resumes)
Moe wakes up to find his face still more wrinkled and cries. Patti and Selma brush their hair in the bathroom (with synchronized strokes) and suddenly notice that their grey hair has turned more grey, they both scream. At breakfast, Ralph Wiggum is loses a tooth and his horrified mother comments “...and you didn’t even bite your spoon this time!”
As reports of looting and chaos lurk all around Springfield, Lisa assembles everyone in town hall and tells them what Professor Frink told her. Silence for a moment. Then everybody laughs. Why is everybody laughing? Marge goes to the stage and explains that every adult knew about Professor Frink’s “life ray.” It could keep them alive with their children forever and spare everyone the terrors of death. Lisa is shocked...
Lisa: You mean....people get older?
Marge: Yes they do. And we’re going to have to get used to getting older too.
Professor Frink: If only I knew why it stopped working.
Apu: I think this may explain something.
Apu puts in a video cassette and a video plays behind Lisa on a screen. The video displays footage of Homer behind the Quik-y-Mart, seeing a candy bar and trying to pass through the forcefield so he can grab it. He getting electrocuted five times until he gets a rageful running start and plows through it.
….Closing shot of the whole town sitting with jaws dropped. Homer whistling non-challantly as he sneaks out of the theater.
After the first decade, The Simpsons got old by staying young. Homer and Marge never reached middle age, Bart and Lisa never reached adolescence, and Maggie never got a personality of her own. Just think of what was missed. We’ll never get to see Bart get his comeuppance from Homer conspiring with the grandson Bart had with Cletus’s daughter out of wedlock. We never got to see Lisa get into a fictional Ivy League school where she becomes engaged to the socially concious egghead of her dreams, only to divorce him for something petty at the end of their wedding episode and marry Milhouse on the rebound. We’ll never get to see Homer’s exhaustion from Marge’s post-Menopausal libido - or Martin returning to be a Professor at Springfield University with a boyfriend in tow, or Nelson become a rich ambulance chaser, or Ralph Wiggum defeat Mayor Quimby in a mayoral election.
People usually date The Simpson’s decline to Season 10. Truth be told, it wasn’t a bad year. This was the year of Homer emulating Thomas Edison, and the Jerry Springer Halloween episode, and Pinchie the Lobster, and Max Power, and the Battling Seizure Robots. But compared to years past, the number of classic scenes was paltry. Ever since, the great moments seem to grow fewer by the year. The Simpsons has plowed through 11 more years in what can only be considered a concerted attempt to self-sabotage the legacy what was once the greatest TV show of all time.
Decline is rare among television shows. Much rarer than among movie directors or poets. TV is littered with shows that were cancelled too soon, but far fewer were cancelled too late. It’s hard enough to get a TV show on the air, let alone keep it on. If a TV show declines, it’s almost always replaced to give some other masochistic schmuck a chance. But one look at salary figures tells you precisely why it’s still on the air. When it began, the principle voiceover actors got $30,000 an episode. Today, they get $400,000. Matt Groening now pulls in roughly $18 million a year, and has a total net worth of $500 million. Money corrupts as much as power.
This isn’t a post to talk about what makes The Simpsons great. Just to marvel at how they’ve let that greatness spoil. The truth is, even when the Simpsons is a hollow shell of its former self (i.e. 95% of the time), it’s still more original than 3 out of 4 shows on television. But 3 out of 4 is a pathetic average for a show that once had Ozzie Smith get sucked into an alternate dimension or had Homer talk to an imaginary coyote voiced by Johnny Cash. If the people who made The Simpsons wanted it to be as good as it once was, they’d have tried harder. Maybe they wouldn’t succeed, but at least we’d see the effort.
The truth is that The Simpsons was always a show that gained its power from bending the line of plausibility. The show was composed of characters that looked, sounded and sometimes acted as though they were from another solar system. Yet they also seemed exactly like us. It was the first TV show with the flexibility to do anything from the surreal-est laugh gags to reducing us to tears. No TV show ever lived in a universe as large as The Simpsons, and few have ever dared to try.
What happened? The Simpsons’ universe got too large - so large that it couldn’t bend any further. It simply broke apart. Instead of concentrating on the perils and rewards of life in The Simpsons universe, the focus broadened in ways that it never should. Every time Fox cut a deal for another country to air the show, The Simpsons seemed to take a family trip. Parodies that used to last thirty seconds would last an entire episode. We got dozens of episodes featuring minor characters that should never have been made. They would be worked into the fabric of The Simpsons’ lives in a completely implausable way, clearly as a smokescreen to keep the Simpsons family as the primary focus. It never worked, but they’ve plowed the same soil for a decade, hoping for a different result every season.
They’ve been plowing bad soil for longer than they ever plowed good land. Whether on TV or in a dusty volume of poetry, artistic genius can be fickle. Whitman and Wordsworth both had ten years of great poetry before they turned out decades worth of crap. Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas have not directed great movies since the 70’s. The Rolling Stones still coast on a reputation earned 40 years ago. There is nothing more pathetic than seeing something once great reduced to mediocrity. In 200 years, people will watch the early Simpsons episodes and still marvel at how great a comedy it was. But they’ll get to the second decade and quickly realize that the comedy turns tragic.