The Simpsons reached its 500th episode milestone last night, a fact given more attention by Fox's marketing department than the episode itself, which was content to offer a charming recap of the series' trademark couch gags before proceeding with business as usual. The curious thing about Simpsons, of course, is that 'business as usual' is rarely something to be cherished these days, despite its seeming invulnerability. Many articles and fan discussions have already covered the bases of the show's heyday vs current state, but as someone who rarely bothers watching these days - I've seen a few episodes from the past few years and rarely come away feeling like anything worthwhile has been missed - that contrast was as disheartening as it has ever been on this landmark occasion.
'At Long Last Leave' wasn't even bad, per se, but it dawned on me halfway through that I was relieved the episode was 'merely' not funny, as opposed to plumbing the offensively terrible depths that led to the series finally being dumped from my regular watchlist. For a series that once produced half-hours as comedically flawless as 'Last Exit To Springfield', 'Marge vs The Monorail' and 'A Star Is Burns', for 'mercifully not horrific' to be considered a virtue is representative of how The Simpsons now shares more in common with an ongoing PR campaign than a work of creative endeavour.
Had any other series reached a landmark, neatly acknowledged it, then ignored it for thereafter, it's possible I would have championed it. Acknowledging achievements within the work is a crass direction to take, even if supposedly done with humour - there's an irritating and unfunny advert running constantly on British TV's Channel 4 now for a gameshow which won an award and won't stop going on about it - and yet, within the context of what The Simpsons has become, such an approach seemed to accidentally acknowledge how little the episodes themselves matter anymore. The important thing was that Fox was able to advertise a 500th episode, even if no-one involved in the production itself apparently cared enough to make as big a deal out of it as the publicity machine.
Were they to read this - ho ho - the producers would no doubt use the above paragraph as an example of how they just can't win anymore, that everything they do is destined to be criticised simply for not being from the 'Golden Era' of seasons three through nine (for the record, this episode aired as the mid-point in the twenty-third season). That's true, but ignores how the people responsible for keeping this show on air fourteen years past its sell-by date have no-one to blame but themselves. The production team have acknowledged that the series isn't a patch on what it was, most tellingly this episode in a slide encouraging viewers to 'go out and get some fresh air before logging on the internet and saying how much this sucked'. (I opened a window, does that count?). The show is in the unlikely position of holding tangible animosity towards its long term fans, hating them for criticising the show's plummeting standards, all the while acknowledging the fact themselves but continuing to wring every last marketing cent from once cherished characters. That soullessness reflected in the stiff animation and voicework, a million miles from hysterical flexibility that produced some of the series' greatest sequences:
On the basis of this episode, it's impossible to believe this is a series where anyone is making the slightest effort anymore. As mentioned, the couch gag montage was sweet, but in terms of new material, 'At Long Last Leave' was as flat as any episode of comedy (from any series) that comes to mind. Bad comedies are one thing: if you're going to fail, you might as well fail completely. There's a certain honesty in that. Here, the jokes mostly consisted of a character saying something slightly unusual, putting on a voice, or engaging in context-free sight gags. A few 'controversial' jokes, such as one involving Jerk-Off Spray, were used in much the same way as 2 Broke Girls attempts to appear edgy through regular deployment of rape and vagina jokes. The opening dialogue concerned Homer having a belief about a dragon swallowing the moon, then Lisa being repetitively sceptical about said belief and Homer rebutting her by asking why, if dragons didn't exist, was he paying so much money for dragon insurance. There was no set-up for why Homer might believe in a dragon (other than, tee hee, because he's an idiot!) and the punchline was bereft of any discernable logic or wit. Stupid Homer is fun if we can understand or recognise some aspect of his stupidity. Random idiocy is nothing more than that: idiocy.
Remember that episode where Homer discovered that his 'face' was being used by a Japanese company for their commercials? It turned out then that 'Mr. Sparkle' was nothing just a fusion of two company logos, whose similarity to Homer was entirely coincidental. Watching modern Simpsons gives the impression that the real Homer has been replaced by Sparkle Homer, a cobbled together talking head whose only relation to the character many of my generation grew up with is his starring on a show called, but bearing little relation to, The Simpsons. Like the Mr. Sparkle advert, latter day episodes are all meaningless flash, resembling something we loved but lacking any of the substance or heart that made it a pleasure. The Simpsons used to mock show that opened with witless dialogue exchanges lacking any comedic nuance. Now it's unironically trying to sell them back to us. When Bart's antics were described by Mayor Quimby as 'dwindling in humour as they [rose] in destructive power', a parallel could be drawn a little too easily between the condition of series and its role as a centrepiece of the Fox television network.
The rest of the episode proceeded in the same uninspired fashion. The Simpsons were exiled from Springfield, set up a new home in a community of outcasts, where they encountered Julian Assange in an arbitrary and horribly voiced cameo, existing exclusively for a joke about his front door access code being 1-2-3-4 on a four digit pad. What did the Simpsons do in their new home? Nothing, bar falling back on the same tired gags about impressive technology being built from junkyard parts and missing the luxuries of civilisation - Marge has to cook with snake eggs! Hilarious!
Rather than welcoming the family back once Marge gave her speech about the importance of having somewhere loving to call home, the residents inexplicably upped sticks to them instead, leading to a Moe's Cavern joke - geddit? It's a 'C' instead of a 'T'! - and the episode not so much ending as stopping: at least in classic Simpsons, a joke was made when they couldn't be bothered coming up with a real conclusion ("And eventually they were rescued by, oh, let's say... Moe."). A sight gag involving Skinner could have been funny as a single shot cutaway, but was overdone by the old 'sad song' routine and further contaminated by Bart's arrival on a hovercopter. No doubt everything will be back to normal by episode 501, with everyone returned to their old stomping grounds and no mention of anything that transpired in this episode. How sad that for modern Simpsons, having achieved a television landmark on the back of exploiting PR dollars and one-time viewer goodwill, denial even appears the most sensible approach to the people creating it. Even the title doesn't seem to want this family around anymore.
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