Speak No Zombie Simpsons, Hear No Zombie Simpsons

Mr Lisa Goes to Washington9

“I had a feeling it was too good to be true.  Every time you get a million dollars something queers the deal.” – Homer Simpson

Since the marathon started last week, there’s been far more Simpsons commentary on the internet than I could possibly hope to keep up with: podcasts, blog posts, articles, the never ending firehose of Twitter, you name it.  For the most part this has been very enjoyable.  Usually, the only time people start talking about the show is when they do another publicity stunt.  Some are linked to their most recent guest appearance or meaningless 50th/100th episode milestone, others some new line of merchandise, or, more recently, the killing of a character and doing crossovers with Family Guy and Futurama.  For the most part these get dutifully written up by the usual sycophantic entertainment news sites and that’s about it.  The marathon, however, has been different.

Starting last week and continuing through the weekend (Seasons 7 and 8 were on most of Sunday), there was an avalanche of people actually talking about The Simpsons instead of Zombie Simpsons or the latest officially licensed crap.  Even better, it was an overwhelming tidal wave of love: people talking about how the old episodes are great, dark, cynical, smart, heartfelt, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.  Perhaps most encouraging, at least on Twitter, was the huge number of people watching with their kids.  Nine-year-olds whose parents grew up on the show got sucked into things like “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy” and “Bart of Darkness”.

However, there was one persistent undercurrent to all the comity and enjoyment that kinda bugged me, and it’s gotten worse as the marathon has switched into Zombie Simpsons.  Namely: there’s an almost unspoken taboo against mentioning how much the show has gone to seed.

Before I get into a couple of examples, let me say that I completely understand this.  People just want to discuss or praise the show; they don’t want to have an argument with some pissed off fanboi who may or may not turn out to be a flaming troll asshole.  This is why you’ll often see articles about the show (and this has been everywhere with the FXX marathon) start with some kind of disclaimer about how people complain too much, “blah blah blahing” away criticism of later years, and similar.  It’s simply easier to preempt people from calling you a bitter, uncool Comic Book Guy type than it is to deal with it after the fact.  (This exact phenomenon came up in comments on Wednesday.)

What makes this so annoying from the point of view of a Zombie Simpsons critic is that, no sooner have people made this disclaimer, than they proceed to talk about favorite episodes, gags and stories that come exclusively from Season 9 and earlier.  This is why I called the idea that the show is as good as ever a “Soviet fiction“.  Everyone knows the show isn’t anything like what it once was, they just don’t want to say so explicitly because to do so is to invite trouble, trolling, and pointless arguments that have been hashed and rehashed countless times already.

You can see this phenomenon in spades in two recent discussions of the show: one on a WHYY Philadelphia program called “Radio Times” and the other on the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast.  Production wise, these are a step way above your standard blog rant about the show, and yet that same reluctance applies.

The “Radio Times” episode aired last week, and the producers were kind enough to email me about it.  Here’s the description:

Today, the FXX network begins its 276 hour-long marathon of every episode of The Simpsons ever.  This is to commemorate the launch of the expansive SimpsonsWorld application, which will provide access to every episode, as well as a searchable database of the show’s transcripts.  Today, we discuss the 25 year-old series, its impact on American culture, and why it merits such an expansive service.  We’re joined by DAVID BIANCULLI, television critic for WHYY’s Fresh Air and founder of TVWorthWatching.com, KARMA WALTONEN,  lecturer at UC Davis’s University Writing Program and co-author of The Simpsons in the Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experience with the Wisdom of Springfield, and Simpsons writer and co-executive producer, MICHAEL PRICE.

The whole show is about fifty minutes long, and there’s a Soundcloud link at their site along with a direct .mp3 download.  It’s an interesting discussion (Bianculli’s then 5-year-old son got to see a lot of Season 1 early on critic preview tapes, lucky kid), and it was nice to hear our old friend Karma Waltonen talk about how she uses the show to discuss a wide range of topics.  These are some of the assignments:
“Simpsons and religion, Simpsons and politics,Simpsons and the road, Simpsons and infotainment, Simpsons and family, Simpsons and sexuality, Simpsons and education,Simpsons and self-referentiality”
Throughout, they cut to Michael Price and ask him about how the show gets made and all the other standard questions that usually come up.  But there’s a glaring incongruity that would be completely invisible to the overwhelming majority of the people who listened to that episode of “Radio Times”.
Price, who seems like a nice enough fella, came aboard in Season 14.  But everyone – literally everyone: the guests, the callers, and the listener e-mail they read  on the air – cites episodes and jokes from before he was on staff.  People talk about “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer”, “Itchy and Scratchy and Marge”, and “Much Apu About Nothing”, among others.  The only mention of a Zombie Simpsons episode is one caller who recalls a slightly racist sign gag from Season 13.  (The family drives through Chinatown and sees a sign for “Toys L Us”.  Amusingly, the host realizes that it’s a little off color and moves smoothly and professionally past it.)  Everyone is obviously too NPR-polite to mention the quality slide while Price is on the line, but the fact that all but one example came from the early years is a huge elephant in the room.

That uncomfortable fact probably sails over the head of just about everybody (of the people actually participating, my guess is that only Waltonen and Price even realized it).  And while the deterioration of The Simpsons isn’t something that’s strictly necessary to bring up, it’s still a glaring omission to not even mention what is easily one of the most widely debated aspects of the show.  Not discussing it at all is like pretending Michael Jordan retired after 1998, Bobby Fischer never went publicly crazy, or Emily Dickinson lived a long and happy life.  This is a Philadelphia based program, they probably love Rocky 1, but they wouldn’t do a show on it and not even mention the franchise’s crash landings in various sequels.  Yet the collapse of The Simpsons is so potentially toxic that no one brought it up even to disagree with it.

The same can be said of the Slate Culture Gabfest episode about the marathon.  They don’t have a Zombie Simpsons writer whose work they nonchalantly ignore, but they do have a discussion of the show and what makes it “timeless” that repeatedly cites single digit seasons as being among the finest and most influential things ever done . . . all while saying not a word about the later and far inferior season which at this point constitute the bulk of the episodes.

Like the WHYY program, the silence on the decline of the show is deafening.  They dance around it, even saying that they don’t follow the show any more and citing what seasons (single digits) they think constitute the part of the series that makes it still relevant even twenty years after it was broadcast.  Nobody talks about the later years, because, again, doing so just invites trouble.

This misleads the audience by omission.  A healthy chunk of the Culture Gabfest discussion is devoted to whether or not kids decades from now, who probably won’t get references to Cheers or Phantom of the Opera, will still laugh at something like “Flaming Moe’s”.  Their consensus is that, yes, kids in the future will get it, because you don’t actually need to know Cheers to enjoy it any more than you need to have seen Citizen Kane to get “Rosebud”.  (For the record, I and plenty of other people had probably seen “Rosebud” fifteen or twenty times before ever watching Kane.)  But “Flaming Moe’s” and “Rosebud” are light years of quality and timelessness away from, say, the Lady Gaga episode, or the popped eyeball episode, or even the “picture a day” YouTube episode.

Again, I understand the reluctance.  Criticizing the show and saying that it isn’t as good as it once was is to invite the most boring and annoying kind of discussion.  I wouldn’t call the e-mails I routinely receive “hate mail” (no one has, for example, threatened to drink blood out of my genitals (<- asshole)), but they tend not to be kind.  And one of the very first comments we ever got on this site way back in 2009 was to call me a pedophile.  It’s aggravating and time consuming even before you get into refuting the same tired arguments over and over again.

But if you want to talk about why the show is “timeless”, you are doing your audience a disservice if you don’t talk about the difference between The Simpsons and Zombie Simpsons.  The show is a global cultural phenomenon to which basically nothing else can even be compared, and those early seasons are a literary goldmine whose breadth and depth touch on an all but unlimited array of immutable human subjects: love, failure, humiliation, redemption . . . the list goes on.  There’s a reason Karma Waltonen can teach a kaleidoscope of college level topics through the lens of The Simpsons.

That’s why I’m not kidding when I compare The Simpsons to William Shakespeare and Mark Twain.  Twain had a #1 bestseller one hundred years after he died, and people still make new and innovative Shakespeare adaptations for stage and screen because in both cases the writing is just that good.  Are high school students in the class of 2114, 2214 or even later going to be forced to watch “Cape Feare” the same way they’re forced to read Hamlet or Huckleberry Finn?  I don’t know, and I’m never going to find out because I’ll be dead by then.  But from the vantage point of 2014, you’d be hard pressed to nominate any other recent cultural creation that stands a better chance (or even comes close).  After all, there’s already a play that’s been critically acclaimed in New York City and London about how people will be reinterpreting The Simpsons far into the future.

So while it’s enjoyable to see The Simpsons lauded and praised on big name podcasts, public radio, and other mainstream outlets, there’s no getting around the fact that eliding and/or ignoring the show’s precipitous fall makes their encomiums incomplete (at best).  The Simpsons itself deserves the praise, but to overlook or conflate it with the shallow detritus its reputation and legacy still manage to keep on the air degrades and distorts both what it means now and how it will fare in the future.  It’s a pain in the ass to do, but if you want to talk meaningfully about The Simpsons, you’ve got to talk about Zombie Simpsons.

20 Responses to “Speak No Zombie Simpsons, Hear No Zombie Simpsons”

  1. 1 Al Gore Doll
    29 August 2014 at 10:10 am

    Zombie Simpsons is the terror that no media outlet dare discuss, lest they invoke the wrath of Rupert.

  2. 5 Joe H
    29 August 2014 at 11:52 am

    Did anyone talk about the movie? Like some baloney on how that culminates everything that makes the series great or something. If not, kinda telling that not even the feature film, something clearly a lot of work went into, could touch the “sanctity” or quality of The Simpsons in the eyes of the general public.

    • 6 Charlie Sweatpants
      29 August 2014 at 2:55 pm

      That’s a good point. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone mention the movie all week. It’s quite possible that nobody really noticed it was part of the marathon. It’s on in a few hours, though, so that should change.

    • 7 Sarah J
      29 August 2014 at 11:24 pm

      People really don’t seem to talk about the movie much any more. There was a lot of hype when it came out, but today the only part of it that really survives is Spider Pig.

  3. 8 Stan
    29 August 2014 at 5:05 pm

    2114… Nah, that’s too much for the world.
    Also, “drinking blood from genitalia”? Why? Why can’t sick people just sit in front of their computers, get fat and keep visiting the same routine sites and write boring things in their comments? Until it becomes a crime in Pindostan, it’s actually soooo gooooooood…

  4. 9 Stan
    29 August 2014 at 5:12 pm

    I also wanted to mention the obvious: there was a Russian video on Smotri.com back in March about the Sochi Olympics, in which they ran some of the original Simpsons footage in Russian talking about how the show was representative of “American culture” in Russia during the 90s. All of the clips shown were from Seasons prior to 10. At the end, the host said something like: “The Simpsons are still loved as a show in America, but the culture of our country cannot keep up with it anymore”.

  5. 10 Sarah J
    29 August 2014 at 11:50 pm

    Yeah, it’s kind of weird how people get so mad at criticism of ZS. It’s pretty obvious that even ZS defenders aren’t huge fans, even if they say they are. I doubt most of them could name any of the one-shot characters from ZS, or other memorable moments, like people can for The Simpsons. Many ZS viewers say “I catch it when I can”, which isn’t something you usually hear from fans of a beloved show. When watching a show becomes an obligation rather than something to look forward to, it means you’re not enjoying it very much, whether you want to admit it or not.

    I watched (and defended, to an extent) ZS for much longer than I care to admit. It was denial. I didn’t want to think the show had gone downhill as badly as it did. But I eventually broke out of that, especially as the show began to make less and less sense and I realized that each episode rarely got more than a few weak laughs out of me. (and despite what defenders say, no, a half hour comedy that only gets out a few laughs is not a good comedy)

    Here’s how I see it: if Zombie Simpsons was a show under a different name, and different animation, it would probably get cancelled in the first season. It wouldn’t be popular and it likely wouldn’t be getting favorable reviews. It would just be seen as another generic mediocre to bad comedy series.

    I’m wondering if maybe people will be willing to talk about Zombie Simpsons after it gets cancelled. (if that ever happens. At this rate, the show will go on even after the world ends…)

    • 11 Joe H
      30 August 2014 at 3:21 am

      I became a fan around season 5 and only took faint notice of the decline or writing quality (and characters in general around season 10 but shrugged it off since I was a major fanboy at the time. The double whammy of “Saddlesore Galactica” and “Hit the Alligator and Run” during season 11 seriously pulled me out of denial. Stacking it against Futurama made it even more obvious.

      Still, I kept some faint hope that this was just a slump and that they could get their act together, but by season 14 I pretty much knew it was never going to happen.

      Not surprised there’s very little discussion or strong nostalgia for ZS. While I can at least remember most of the individual Scully era episodes, much of the Al Jean era just melds in my mind as one big mediocre blob.

      • 12 Sarah J
        31 August 2014 at 2:57 am

        Perhaps. It’s common for great long-running shows to decline in quality at some point. Even the most loyal Buffy fans will complain about the weaker seasons. But Zombie Simpsons wasn’t just a decline in quality, the show went outright bad. The “bad” seasons of Buffy are only bad by Buffy standards. By normal TV standards, they’re still pretty good. But Zombie Simpsons is bad by normal TV standards. It’s pretty rare for a once-great show to hit that point, so maybe people don’t know how to react.

        Of course, The Simpsons is a total cultural juggernaut. Everyone knows The Simpsons. Even people who watch very little TV can name many of the characters, recognize the theme, even quote lines. A show like this may never exist again. It has a much larger and more diverse fanbase than any other show, and as a result, it has more people willing to defend it.

        I think people will allow themselves to become more critical once the show gets cancelled. There would be no new episodes to “look forward” to, and the forgettable Zombie Simpsons episodes will just fade away from memory. Once that happens, I think a lot of people will realize that, yeah, Zombie Simpsons wasn’t very good.

        • 13 Joe H
          31 August 2014 at 12:34 pm

          Agreed there. The show is pretty terrible now, not even a reasonable facsimile and I guess some viewers are unwilling to accept that. I know I wasn’t for a while, partly because it put my own personal taste in quality into question.

          Cancellation will likely do it, though I think that might urge more people to attempt to defend it. Kinda like preserving its legendary status by convincing oneself it didn’t completely embarrass itself and waste it’s unique potential.

          That is if anyone would be willing to do a true retrospection by watching every ZS episode in a short timespan without rage-quitting midway. I’m thinking the sheer quantity of the ZS era will prevent people of looking very favorably upon it.

          Compared to other similar series/franchises ZS really did a number on The Simpsons legacy whether anyone wants to admit it or not. It’s so alien, it’s like an unofficial spinoff or inferior reboot of the series.

          • 14 Sarah J
            2 September 2014 at 6:42 pm

            In my personal experience, many syndication runs favor Zombie Simpsons episodes over classic Simpsons, so I think a lot of younger people don’t realize that the show used to be great. After the show gets cancelled, I’m wondering if that will change and the young viewers will get a chance to see the older episodes.

    • 15 AM
      30 August 2014 at 3:55 pm

      This is a fantastic comment.

      If I were about to dig into a plate of food, and someone came along and described it as harshly as I describe ZS, I think my mind would desperately try to find SOMETHING that isn’t wretched about the meal. Maybe I’m just a contrarian, or maybe the overwhelming distaste probably makes some people want to find some sort of silver lining?

      Either way, even if it were still great, this isn’t the same show. Just because the outer casing looks similar doesn’t change the fact that the inner-workings are gone. We still have the same voice cast, but that’s about it. The guy wearing my husband’s clothes might be nice, but there’s no point in pretending he’s the same.

      If someone you know is really jonesing for a brand new Simpsons fix, I suggest directing them to the Frank Burly novels.

  6. 16 ecco6t9
    30 August 2014 at 3:31 pm

    I think the only line out of the movie that makes me laugh is “I’ll let you hold the bomb.”

    • 17 AM
      30 August 2014 at 4:09 pm

      The scene itself wasn’t any good, but I did genuinely like the penis sight gag. All the super intricate censoring followed by a shot of pretty much nothing but the floppy organ in question.

      I am completely aware of how stupid this sounds.

  7. 18 Turcano
    3 September 2014 at 8:19 am

    But from the vantage point of 2014, you’d be hard pressed to nominate any other recent cultural creation that stands a better chance (or even comes close).

    I would nominate The Wire. But yeah, there isn’t a lot of competition.

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