The Erosion of Springfield: How Death Cheated Bart Simpson

I don’t really watch The Simpsons anymore.

That said, I didn’t exactly “Hah!” when I heard that Marcia Wallace, the voice actor for Edna Krabappel, had died. It didn’t provoke any particular feeling. I hadn’t thought about her in a long time, and the whole show has sort of been off my radar for a while. So I didn’t really think about it very much.

Then, I read about the opening to a recent Simpsons episode. Bart, still doodling on his chalkboard as long as both my brothers have been alive. Except his message is a simple and heartfelt farewell to Mrs. K.

And that’s awesome.

In real life, anyway.

But seeing that image got to me for some reason. Bart, forlorn before the chalkboard, writing something there of his own accord instead of Edna telling him to. Maybe for the first time. What that would mean to him, after so many years of their relationship-

Wait. That’s not quite right. Bart would have only known Edna for what, a year? He’s in the fourth grade, right? So with the floating timeline that Springfield is set in, he’s managed to cram in almost thirty Christmases with her. Really, he’s got way more history with her than any fourth grader would ever have with the same teacher.

Thinking about these things makes my head hurt.

I understand that The Simpsons would be a very different show right now if Bart were in his mid-thirties, knocking up Sherri or Terri (or both) and drinking at Moe’s with his elderly father. I get that. But while I haven’t been waiting for the amazing and talented cast of The Simpsons to die, I have been thinking that it’s been time to pull the plug on the aging animated show for some time now.

Do you think if Nancy Cartwright had expired this year instead of Marcia Wallace they would have done the same? Would there have been a sorrowful Mrs. Krabappel wiping away Bart’s last chalkboard scribbling with a tear in her eye? What if Dan Castellaneta had shuffled off this mortal coil? Would you see Lenny and Carl standing in Homer’s empty workstation, eating a doughnut in his honour?

One of my favourite shows ever, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, might be coming to a close next year, although recently it seems that this might not be the case. It’ll have run ten seasons. I might mention that season ten was just around when I started to drop off of The Simpsons.

I think the show – Sunny, that is – has followed a year-by-year timeline, but I’m not quite sure. It doesn’t go in much for annual Christmas or Halloween episodes, but there’s a definite sense of time marching on.

Rickety Cricket goes from a slightly prissy, naive priest to scarred, cynical homeless man. Frank, initially an amoral businessman looking to expand his horizons and live on the fringe, sinks into drug-fuelled dementia after living Charlie’s debased lifestyle for almost ten years. Every season, I’m more and more convinced that by the end of the series Dennis will have actually killed a woman Buffalo-Bill style.

On the other hand, Homer has performed the following jobs alone while Bart’s been in fourth grade:

  • Nuclear safety inspector
  • Snow plow driver
  • Astronaut
  • Krusty the Klown impersonator
  • Manager for a country singer
  • Garbage commissioner
  • Boxer
  • Bootlegger
  • Car designer

 

There’s about four hundred more. One wonders where he finds the time amidst the hundreds of other wacky schemes and ventures he’s jumped into over the years. Months. Whatever.

Again, I understand the way The Simpsons is set up. But the problem with doing a television show for so long is that only one of two things is going to happen. The show will stagnate, or the show will keep up.

Sunny keeps up. The characters degenerate every year. They become more and more depraved as their destructive patterns take them further and further towards rock bottom. You know, like real people do.

The Simpsons is stagnating.

The Simpsons have to retcon historical context every year. Bart and Lisa being born in the eighties will seem weird if the show gasps its way into the future long enough that teenage Homer is sexting Marge. Forget that Bart has been able to make cracks about three presidents, including both Bushes, before puberty.

This is not the only show to take such an approach. South Park has Cartman and the gang as children in perpetuity as well, but there’s a couple of differences.

First, South Park has been pretty consistent throughout its run. Unlike The Simpsons, the show hasn’t noticeably declined in quality and keeps its edge. If anything, it’s getting better with age. Second, South Park’s characters seem more archetypal than The Simpsons’ are. Randy Marsh has ever been the panicky and gullible sheep, but that’s because more often than not he’s being used to represent the American people as a whole. So many characters are used as mouthpieces for different viewpoints, and interchange them depending on the situation. They play to their strengths, but the personalities of the characters are usually secondary to the satire of the issue they’re discussing. They explore current events, instead of just referencing them.

By comparison, as of this writing the next episode of The Simpsons is titled “YOLO.”

Awesome. Another catchphrase for Bart to learn and forget before the fourth grade graduation that never comes.

Setting and continuity can be understandably complex, but it’s not impossible. Other shows have the best of both worlds.

Archer keeps the setting vague. Laptops and cell phones are used in the same scenes as VHS tapes and a Mad Men-esque fashion sense. Even though his butler fought in World War 1, Archer describes karate as the “Dane Cook of martial arts.”It’s even lampshaded in one episode: when sarcastically asked what year he thinks it is, Archer replies “I, uh, yeah. Exactly. Good question.” However, over the course of the series you can watch the continuity evolve. Archer gains tattoos across his shoulder blades during a couple of his drunken stupors, Barry goes from buttmonkey ODIN agent to psychopathic cyborg (Other Barry does, too). The only show that did better running gags was Arrested Development and even then, it’s a toss up between the two.

By comparison, the animated show ReBoot (ironically now getting a reboot after years in limbo) spent its first two seasons doing adventure-of-the-week style episodes within the status quo, but moved to much more involved story arcs from season three forward. I can say that watching that as a child was perhaps the perfect mix. I had time to get to know the characters, become invested in them, and that made me worry about them as everything was thrown into upheaval.

I wish I still watched The Simpsons. Rather, I wish there was still a reason to watch. Something that would make me come back week after week to see what the gang in Springfield is up to. But even just watching the opening sequence on YouTube has me sick of the show, ever since they somehow bloated it with references without actually making it any longer when they went to HD. I hear clips on Hulu (or would, if Hulu were available to Canadian IP addresses) and hardly recognize the voices anymore.

So I don’t watch it. I just complain about it from time to time. Shake my head ruefully and utter the words that I and so many of my contemporaries have internalized over the last fifteen years or so.

“Yeah, I remember when The Simpsons was funny.”

Don’t have a cow, man. YOLO.

D’oh.

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