Mourning the Loss of Mourning

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By Philip J Reed

I love intelligent criticism.  As a writer, I’d be nowhere without it.  It’s important to identify flaws in the things we love — or in the things that, with some substantial revision, we might come to love — but anybody can do that.  What’s comparatively more rare is insight. It takes very little effort to point at the things we dislike and say, "Yeah…that sucked."  It takes a lot more effort — and perhaps some amount of jilted affection — to devote four posts to every new episode for the sole purpose of figuring out why those things sucked. That’s what drew me to Dead Homer Society, and that’s what keeps me here.

But what of my own dissatisfaction with the show?  To be fair, I could disagree with everything Mr. Sweatpants & Friends write here, and still come away from their articles enlightened.  In fact, I do often disagree with their final assessments of certain things…but that doesn’t mean I can’t find some value in their discussions.  That’s the mark of intelligent writing; agreement isn’t the endgame at Dead Homer Society.  Consideration is.  And, unfortunately, consideration isn’t the kind of thing that does modern-day Simpsons any favors.

My own concerns with the show honestly have very little to do with the state of the comedy.  Yes, I’ll unquestionably concede that I’m lucky to get one or two good laughs out of an episode today…but, as strange as it might sound to admit this, I’m okay with that.  Since season 9 or so, I’ve been looking elsewhere for my weekly dose of great jokes…and I’ve found them without a problem.  South Park, Futurama, King of the Hill, The Venture Bros., American Dad, Archer, Bob’s Burgers…and those are just the cartoons.  There’s no shortage of great animated comedies right now, and there hasn’t been for years.  It’s certainly sad that I can no longer number The Simpsons among them, but the torch has been passed so many times now that I think it’s almost foolish to look back.  The Simpsons isn’t a fond memory of yesterday…it’s a memory of yesterday’s yesterday’s yesterday.  It’s gone.  And, what’s more, it’s been gone longer than it was actually here.  It brought a lot of laughter in its time but, frankly speaking, we can find that elsewhere now.

However there is one loss — one truly tragic loss — that died with The Simpsons so many years ago, and for which we still haven’t found a suitable replacement.  That loss is heart.

While I miss the sharp, subversive satire of the show’s first decade or so on the air, we can now find that elsewhere.  What we can’t find — at least not as easily, or as frequently — are the cartoons that move us.

I grew up watching The Simpsons.  I was eight years old when it premiered, and I had seen the Tracy Ullman shorts before that.  My family made a big deal of The Simpsons Christmas Special, and I’m not sure any of us knew that it was going to be a regular show after that.  That debut felt — and still feels — like an event.  I remember even now the rough animation, which only served to cement the feeling that we were being thrust into a different world.  It was a world that looked like nothing we’d ever seen before.  It was new, it was exciting, and it was a place we wanted to revisit time and again.

It was funny — as overdone as Homer injuring himself is today, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard at it as I did when he struck his head emerging from Santa’s workshop — but it also had heart.  Not the TGIF-flavored heart my younger TV-watching self was used to…but real, honest, genuine heart.  The heart you find in a family full of imperfections.  The heart you find among social desolation.  That heart that comes when Christmas is here and everybody else seems to be having a far better time than you are.    The heart you find in the distance between perception and reality.  The heart you find in the desire to not only support your family, but to elevate them…and the difficulty or impossibility of actually doing so.  It was a naturally American sort of heart.

I don’t remember if I cried during Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire. I probably didn’t, however sweetly sour it may have been, but as I grew up and the show grew up alongside me, there were episodes that downright decimated me emotionally…and they always did so with honesty.  They didn’t yank at your heartstrings…they simply broke your heart from afar.

Moaning Lisa, for instance, is still — as far as I’m concerned — one of the most raw, brutally frank explorations of depression that we’ve ever seen on network television.  It’s right up there with A Charlie Brown Christmas in terms of the unforgettable quality with which it delves into unexplained — and inexplicable — childhood melancholia. It’s something I dealt with when I was younger, and it’s something I’ve dealt with as an adult.  It’s the familiar feeling that you don’t fit in, yes, but it’s deeper than that:  it’s the feeling that you can’t, and will never, fit in…that there’s something wrong with you for not fitting in.  Lisa’s depression isn’t just sad…it’s moving. She’s a young girl with more to offer than anybody around her realizes, and yet all she feels is broken and alone.

Eventually, like Charlie Brown before her, she learns to accept it. She finds something into which she can channel her feelings, and that helps her to regulate them, and to cope with them in a more healthy way.  It’s the perfect predecessor to the equally classic Lisa’s Substitute, whose simple "You are Lisa Simpson" moral remains one of the most heartbreakingly perfect moments in anything I’ve seen on television.

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For The Simpsons — which was endlessly screamed about in the media as being anti-American, anti-religious and pretty much anti-everything we should stand for as a people — to devote such time and attention to things as simple as a little girl feeling sad…well, that was the real subversion.  This big, bad, society-destroying cartoon show was perfectly content to spend its time in the jazzy blue company of a little girl who doesn’t fit in.  There’s no greater subversion of expectations than that.

So compare this to Lisa Goes Gaga, the finale from this past season, or The D’oh-cial Network.  Lisa’s feelings of lonesome frustration used to be treated seriously.  They used to mean something…though you’d never know it from watching more recent explorations of that same theme.  Lisa still feels like an outcast, but now that’s a catalyst for outrageous plots and insultingly simple solutions. Compare the multi-car pileup nonsense of The D’oh-cial Network to Lisa feeling too depressed to participate in a game of dodgeball.  There’s no comparison…and yet they’re both, ostensibly, triggered by the same feelings in that episode’s protagonist.  Compare Mr. Bergstrom, who emphatically does not make everything better but simply serves as a fresh and intelligent perspective through which Lisa can view herself anew, to Lady Gaga, who chugs in on a magic rainbow train or something and telepathically saves the day.  It sounds silly, but the latter does actually make some attempt at heart…it’s just so far removed from the show that it used to be that it can’t recognize what it’s looking for.

It’s easy to chart the decline of the show just by looking at episodes like this, episodes with themes that worked so well in the past that now are being trotted out not only to diminishing returns, but to retroactively damaging returns.  Consider the flashback episode, which was first used in season two’s sweet The Way We Was.  That episode refused to wallow in sentimentality, and yet it ends up explaining exactly why Marge is with Homer, and why he — contrary to anything else we might have seen by that point — deserved her.  It was sweet, without being sentimental.  It was a flawed beginning to a flawed relationship, and it was easy to both pity and relate.  It was, in a word, perfect.

That was by no means the last of the great flashback episodes, but opinion is bound to differ on just when they became unnecessary.  I will say, however, that the ones that do succeed, succeed because they found the right way to blend the comedy with a lot of heart.  Comedy isn’t a reason to send us on a flashback — after all, there’s nothing you can’t show us in present day for a laugh — but it is a way to explore the heart beneath the characters…to see them in younger, more idealistic times, before they became the beaten and despondent individuals we know today.  Contrast this with That 90s Show, which exists as a flashback episode simply to make dial-up modem jokes and try to convince us that Homer invented grunge.  It’s difficult to believe in the face of pointless self-indulgence like this that the show used to be capable of such effortlessly gorgeous moments as "DO IT FOR HER."

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For a single character to follow along the downward spiral, from emotional triumphs to insulting mediocrity, take a look at what they did with Homer’s mother, Mona Simpson.  Her first major appearance, Mother Simpson, easily ranks among the all-time upper tier of Simpsons episodes.  It was funny, absolutely, but I’d be willing to wager that when asked to identify one single moment from that episode, most people would point to Homer, silent, sitting atop his car and staring into the night sky.  It’s a moment of profound restraint — nothing happens at all.  Everything is internal, and it’s unforgettably moving.  We don’t know what’s going through Homer’s mind in that moment, but we can certainly guess.  That moment is his.  We’re allowed to witness it, but we’re not allowed to invade it.  We’re kept at a distance for a reason…and so is Homer.  It’s beautiful.

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And yet, we weren’t allowed to remember the character that way. Homer, and we, were robbed of that perfect conclusion by bringing Mona back periodically due to writers not having any other ideas.  She came back once to reveal Homer’s middle name, and that was okay…though certainly unnecessary.  After that, however, we were beyond unnecessary, as Mona reappeared just to die and give Homer an excuse to act like James Bond while scattering her ashes, and then again as a ghost to haunt Homer and make him wet the bed, or something.  It’s getting harder and harder to remember Homer on that car, sadly reflecting upon the darkness around him, and all too easy to remember him as a mishmash of bland slapstick and unearned emotion.

That’s what disappoints me about the state of the show.  It’s not that the comedy isn’t as sharp.  It’s not that the satire is dull and toothless.  It’s not even that the voice actors don’t seem to care anymore.  It’s that the show, once so capable of reaching profound emotional plateaus, would now rather have Homer pissing himself and Lisa singing backup at a Lady Gaga concert.

It doesn’t mean anything anymore.  For all the talk of the boundaries pushed by The Simpsons in its early years, I truly believe the most impressive boundary it toppled was emotional.  Anyone who didn’t tear up at One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Bluefish, Bart’s Dog Gets an F, or I Love Lisa had something seriously wrong with them.  Now anyone who does tear up does so solely in mourning for the show long gone — the show that announced to the world that cartoons could be as affecting and insightful as anything else on television, perhaps even moreso…and then spent fifteen or more years proving itself wrong.

19 Responses to “Mourning the Loss of Mourning”

  1. 1 Jake
    14 August 2012 at 8:10 pm

    Eh, good read, but you have to remember the show today tries to cater to children who have a poorly developed sense of taste that “think” episodes like Moaning Lisa, or any other early Lisa episode is slow and shitty and not filled with Homer being super-indestructable. The current mentality behind the show is to beat Gunsmoke’s record by any means necessary and show’s long run is unto itself a running joke.

    I know I’m old when I tell people between the ages of 15-25 that the Simpsons used to be this show that was hillarious one minute and it could be emotionally moving the next and they look at me like a dog that’s just been shown a card trick. I tell them to check out the first 8 seasons on DVD and they’re like: “Why, the animation sucked and it was boring!”. Yes, the Simpsons was better when it wasn’t in shiny HD widescreen, kids and that’s what the current batch of writers have done is alienate the adult audience. Bravo, you dirty hacks.

    But the worst part of the show today is it’s being produced by burned out writers who should’ve left long ago. These tired old men behind the Simpson lack the passion and care to produce something moving (or they’re just that apathetic) and/or they’re too ‘unhip’ to get what makes a modern animated sitcom FUNNY. Because of these two factors, the modern Simpsons has no identity…no defining trait beyond how long it’s been airing.

    • 15 August 2012 at 8:20 pm

      i’m 22 and i’m surprised that people older than me have that mentality of “the older the episode is, the shittier it is.” i grew up watching The Simpsons but really stopped caring about new episodes around season 15. idk what made me stopped caring but i think it had to do with the realisation that a lot of the new episodes at that time, felt robotic and lifeless compared to the older ones. they didn’t feel homely or memorable and that really hit me once i saw the 50 Cent episode. ugh.

  2. 3 Al Gore Doll
    14 August 2012 at 9:20 pm

    It’s funny, the show used to look much rougher, but I think that helped make it seem like a real place, with real people and real feelings. Being on-model all the time sucks all the emotion out of a cartoon.
    Your post was very insightful and profound. There hasn’t been a cartoon as emotionally gripping since the Simpsons, with the possible exception of Futurama.

    • 15 August 2012 at 9:23 am

      Thanks, Al Gore Doll! I’ll be posting a piece on my blog about emotional Futurama episodes soon, if you’re interested.

    • 5 D.N.
      16 August 2012 at 6:28 pm

      “There hasn’t been a cartoon as emotionally gripping since the Simpsons, with the possible exception of Futurama.”

      I think that, in terms of animated shows that balance laughs with poignancy, the third season of “Futurama” is unparalleled.

  3. 6 Josh
    15 August 2012 at 4:46 am

    What can I say, great criticism!

  4. 15 August 2012 at 6:14 am

    Fantastic piece. I completely agree. The unfunny jokes, frustrating though they are week-on-week, aren’t destroying the great memories of the classic era quite as much as the devastating lack of heart.

  5. 8 abra cadaver
    15 August 2012 at 10:26 am

    Wow, great article.

    “It’s that the show, once so capable of reaching profound emotional plateaus, would now rather have Homer pissing himself and Lisa singing backup at a Lady Gaga concert.”

    That perfectly sums it up. As I’ve noted before, season 2 is my favorite overall because it seems like the darkest… not just the animation/art, but some of the stories are kinda depressing (a few involving death back before the topic was really explored in any meaningful way on a television show, let alone an animated series). However, the humor quotient remains high. How did they get away with writing often-heartbreaking, sad episodes without being sappy and while still being intelligent and funny? I dunno. But I miss it.

  6. 9 XJ
    15 August 2012 at 10:42 am

    Bravo. Those were some great points you made there…at times I forget how touching this show could be. Now their best efforts at emotion are obvious cheap tricks, like beaching a blue whale or something. The show at its best when people could relate to what the characters were going through, which is why I too have a special place in my heart for Season 2, when (to me, at least) the show was very much grounded in reality.

    And they brought back Mona even after they killed her off? To make Homer piss himself? I don’t even know what to say to that.

    • 10 abra cadaver
      16 August 2012 at 3:34 am

      Well, every time Mona has appeared since the heartbreaking and awesome “Mother Simpson” has pissed all over the show and the fans, so it sorta makes sense…

      • 11 Patrick
        16 August 2012 at 11:04 am

        Very clever Abra but the ZS writers obviously did it in the (non-)sense of HEY LOOK AT THIS HOMER WET HIMSELF HOW FUNNY IS THAT!

  7. 12 Disco Stud
    15 August 2012 at 12:41 pm

    Great work. I’ve been trying to articulate this point for years and you did it perfectly.

  8. 13 Patrick
    15 August 2012 at 8:24 pm

    And this is why Bill Hicks loved the show too, it was EVERYTHING he was looking for.

    • 14 abra cadaver
      16 August 2012 at 3:35 am

      Too bad he didn’t live long enough to see “the mysterious voyage of our homer”; I can almost gurantee it’d be his favorite episode, heheh..

      • 15 Patrick
        16 August 2012 at 11:06 am

        Cheeky and it’s a big shame he died at 32 and Bush Senior still lives at 88 :( :( also 1997 was the year his Arizona Bay CD was released. :) and here’s a thought would “the last temptation of krust” have been made if Hicks was still alive as it parodied everything he did?

  9. 1 October 2012 at 2:48 pm

    The Simpsons is trying to copy SNL in terms of how long they want to be on the air. This is a great article btw. Also, well said guys.

  10. 17 Mourning Glory
    22 October 2012 at 6:51 am

    Fantastic article! You really struck a nerve with me. Anyone who says those of us bashing on Zombie Simpsons are doing it just because we’re on some bandwagon or can’t appreciate its new “slapstick” humor REALLY needs to read this.

    “Anyone who didn’t tear up at One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish”…

    It’s funny you mention this, because even though I’ve seen it a million times, know that everything turns out all right, and it’s liberally sprinkled with humor along with all the emotional moments, it STILL gets to me a bit whenever I watch it, especially that fakeout at the end where they make you think Homer is dead. I bet the poor saps being raised on Zombie Simpsons would be utterly baffled by that episode, not being used to the show being able to portray REAL humor AND emotion in one episode.

    “Mona reappeared just to die and give Homer an excuse to act like James Bond while scattering her ashes, and then again as a ghost to haunt Homer and make him wet the bed, or something”

    That makes me want to punch someone in the back of the head, really hard. I remember the first time they brought her back (I’m talking about the atrocious season 15 episode), and I was reluctantly curious to find out what would happen, even though I remember telling an online friend I was sure it would be bad. I just didn’t know how right I was. I hesitantly watched the episode anyway, only to remember why I stopped watching the show in the first place. They sucked the soul out of it. Not only was the humor crappy, but as you so masterfully put it, there’s no real emotion to it anymore. Just hollow, empty gimmicks.

    Well, there’s my dollar’s worth of commentary. Thank you for this insightful article.

  11. 18 Mourning Glory
    22 October 2012 at 6:56 am

    Oh, one more thing. For those of you talking about other animated programs with real emotion now and then, King of The Hill was pretty good at that too. I’ve been rewatching it on Netflix lately and just thought I’d throw that out there. I noticed Futurama was mentioned as well, and they’ve done good emotional episodes from time to time too, but the last “new” episode I watched made me sad… sad to see that Futurama seems to be succumbing to the same Zombification that The Simpsons has suffered.

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