Confessions of a Simpsons Junkie

by Ben Rayner

© Star Week Magazine, Toronto Star, June 30 - July 6, 2001, pp. 6-7.

Our scribe pays homage to Homer and the family and dives into the deep layers lurking behind the surface.

The darkest months of the year are upon us. For some, the liking of winter's grim veil heralds a con current rise in spirits, a renewed enthusiasm for the myriad wonders the world has to offer.

They are the lucky ones, for to a substantial number of obsessively minded TV viewers, the summer means only one thing: No new episodes of The Simpsons for at least four months. Truly a season in hell.

The promise of the distant fall season sustains us through the drought - although with each passing year the yawning, inevitable void that will engulf us after the animated family takes its final curtain call draws a little nearer - and there is, of course, no lack of comforting interim Simpsons fare to be found on the dial. At the worst of times, you can usually find three or four vintage episodes in syndication on a given evening; at the best of times (weekends are good) it's often easy to catch six, seven or more.

There are many of us who observe this routine, day in and day out, glumly marking endless minutes between reruns we've already seen two dozen times, yet which we return to again and again and again with little noticeable diminishment in enjoyment.

This is, after all, a tremendously dense and deceptively complicated show that, as Harry Shearer - the voice of Montgomery Burns, Ned Flanders and another 20-odd supporting Springfield residents - recently noted, "lends itself to Talmudic study."

In fact, Homer's fave phrase of frustration, "D'oh!" has made it into the scholarly Oxford English Dictionary this year, among 1,500 new entries on the cutting edge of evolving language.

Anticipation of prized moments to come replaces the elation of discovery, jokes missed during past fits of laughter finally get their due, new layers of post modern complexity are revealed and, once again, you marvel at how flesh-and-blood real Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie have become to you.

Nothing beats the pulse-quickening run-up to 8 p.m. on a Sunday night, though, and the frisson that greets the opening night credits to a brand-new never-seen-before episode. But then, nothing beats The Simpsons. Nothing has, nothing will.

As comedy, as astutely self-critical meta-television," as subversive social commentary, as cultural phenomenon bordering on religion, and even as incisive human drama, it is unsurpassed in quality, in depth and in sheer entertainment value.

"The Simpsons is a chef-d'oeuvre to which the work of no currently practising English-language novelist is comparable in importance or greatness," wrote British novelist and critic Gilbert Adair last year in The Independent, and I am inclined to agree.

Many Simpsons acolytes have made similar remarks before, generally citing the same reasons for their admiration: The overwhelming volume and frequency of gags, from silly slapstick bits (Sideshow Bob getting repeatedly whupped with rakes), puerile gross outs (Homer's eye being sucked out of its socket by a vacuum hose) and wanton Violence (Homer is beaten, maimed, shot, dropped off a cliff and attacked by small animals on a regular basis) to brilliantly acerbic jabs at popular culture ("Tonight on Wings ... ah, who cares?") and politics (the stinging Halloween episode where Bill Clinton and Bob Dole are replaced by alien replicas).

Then there's the richness of character the Simpson brood and its supporting players have acquired over the years. The incessant, often highly obscure in-joke references to film, literature, television and The Simpsons itself.

The sweet, family-centric, human core camouflaged by all the cynicism and foolishness chattering away on the surface. Valid praise, all of it. But when all those elements, tangible and intangible, come together, the true measure of The Simpsons' achievement is revealed in how effortlessly it stands up to repeat viewings. Do Monty Python's Flying Circus, The Kids In The Hall and Seinfeld still deliver laughs at the same wildly pitched degree the fifth, 10th or 20th time around? Can The Sopranos or The X-Files or Twin Peaks or Star Trek elicit the same excitement from their devotees after more than a couple of spins through the rerun cycle? Even when you can recite an entire episode's dialogue ahead of the characters, The Simpsons some how carries you along. Just "remembering TV," as Homer might put it, is enough to sustain passionate, evening-length conversations among fans.

I frequently amuse myself just by playing scenes over in my head and am, in fact, chuckling this very moment over a mental re-broadcast of my beloved "Mmmm, 64 slices of American cheese" sequence from the "Rosebud" episode (Marge: "Have you been up all night eating cheese?" Homer: "I think I'm blind"). Sad, I know, but that's the power of the show. Nothing beats The Simpsons.

Some would beg to differ these days. Almost completely untouchable amongst fans and critics during the '90s, the show - which just wrapped up its 12th season and is contractually guaranteed to stick around for at least two more - was subjected over the past' year to some of the harshest scrutiny it's ever faced.

"The Simpsons has lost its cool," lamented MSNBC ' contributor Jon Bonne in a lengthy essay published late last year calling on Fox to "euthanize' a show he saw becoming too consciously clever and mean-spirited for its own good. Web chat groups were alive with uncharacteristically polarized debate over the program's worth. Even Jouni Paakkinen, one of 40 "maintainers" curating the vast online Simpsons Archive ( confided in a recent E-mail that "my interest in the new episodes has lately decreased."

Now that the divisive past season has entered reruns, though, is worth a second look. No, scratch that: It demands a second look. The Simpsons has never been the most linear of shows - David Silverman, an ex-producer and one of the original animators, told me a few years ago that the first act of most early episodes was always a "red herring" intended to mislead viewers, and creator Matt Groening has confessed to hiding "jokes you can only get if you videotape the show and play it back in freeze-frame" to "reward people for paying attention."

During the past couple-of seasons, however, the show has almost completely abandoned coherent plot structures. High-concept premises (boy bands as subliminal navy-recruitment tools, or Homer farming the addictive hybrid vegetable, "tomacco") and surreal left turns (the Prisoner-quoting conclusion to the hysterical "The Computer Wore Menace Shoes") are the norm.

This year's brain-bending Run, Lola, Run parody, "Trilogy Of Error," was a masterpiece of confusion, entwining three separate stories that didn't make a lick of sense until the denouement. As a result, nowadays, a first Simpsons viewing is often spent trying to wrap your head around where the hell everything is going or wondering "did that really just happen?"

Taping and re-screening lets you concentrate on the laughs between the twists and turns, and will reveal a show that's as satirically sharp and subversive as its ever been - albeit a bit too barbed and misanthropic at times for some tastes.

One American critic. recently lamented that The Simpsons has "sacrificed heart in its endeavour to become a cerebral, surreal social satire." Others have decried the vicious humour of such latter-day episodes as the bleak tale of Frank Grimes (the "self-made man" whose "agonizing struggle through life" is indirectly cut short by Homer's incompetence) and last year's gory Halloween special, which featured Goldilocks' memorably bloody death at the hands of the Three Bears. Fox reportedly nixed the 2000 Christmas special, because it was "excessively dark." [That's Futurama dammit! -Haynes Lee]

Truly bad scripts like last year's toothless Lisa-as-president episode-remain, thankfully, a rarity. The only chronic fault is a tendency to write around celebrity cameos instead of letting big-name guests disappear quietly into anonymous roles as they did in earlier seasons.

This year's appearances by the Who and `N Sync, for instance, served no point other than to introduce the Who and `N Sync into Springfield, that's not the way The Simpsons is supposed to work. If The Simpsons is less instantly appealing than it once was, its because of its increasing complexity.

Those complaints should fade once the latest season wind their way into syndication and the laughs emerge. How one feels about the emphasis on black, absurdist humour, on the other hand, boils down to taste, but there's, an undeniable fearlessness to the writing these days.

This is still one of Fox's more powerful shows, and thought the resulting freedom seems to have inspired its creators to test their audience, rather than to coast on easy formulas. They how their critics are out there. How many times did the Comic Book Guy deliver his infamous "worst episode ever" assessment Iast season?

The Simpsons didn't succeed by being the same as everything else on TV in the first place. Why, then, expect it to stay the same as itself?

Best show ever.

Transcribed by Haynes Lee

Star Week magazine the the supplement TV guide to the Toronto Star. This is a cover story with a picture of Homer blazened on the cover. -hl

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Last updated on July 3, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (