Okay, who hasn’t thought America’s favorite family has jumped the shark by now? Even with the success of last year’s movie (which I found quite funny) still fresh in the audience’s mind, the actual show has become something not so much unfunny as it is unfriendly.
Allow me to back up here. This assertion has been going on for a decade now, ever since a particularly harsh mean streak started to creep up on good old dullard Homer Simpson. His callous nature and general ignorance to all but his own personal needs cataloged deaths, a desire to get a friend back off the wagon ’cause he needed a drinking buddy, framing his wife for a DUI to save his own ass, and many a faux pas resulting in the viewing public crowning the character “Jerk-Ass Homer.” If there was an upside, it was that the rest of the characters seemed to be coping, uh, in character. The other saving grace was that, often, the show was still funny and still, dare I say it, human. As if to acknowledge that the audience’s statement was heard loud and clear, the term “Jerk-Ass Homer” started working itself into the scripts.
But now, in its millionth season on the air, all the characters are becoming jerk-ass. Homer dreams of suffocating his father, abandoning his kids, and shacking up with a rack of meat in a motel room. Marge also dreams of escape while attempting to live vicariously through her kids. Those kids, Bart and Lisa, are exhibiting less of a sibling rivalry and more of an ingrained hate for each other, and where the show once balanced the absurdities of real, mundane life with the occasional flashes of cartoonishness, now it is, inside and out, a cartoon.
I mean, of course it’s only a cartoon. When you add it all up, it is recorded voices set to many individual pictures that flash by to simulate life, yet when you’ve had something in your life for this long — damn near an institution by now — you can’t help but feel bad when it loses its luster. I believe a lot of the changes have occurred because of the show’s immediate rival, Fox’s Family Guy. In its first couple of seasons, Seth MacFarlane’s very cartoony, irreverent, and random humor actually was competition. It shocked a lot of people yet was often clever enough, at the same time, to redeem the occasional bodily-function joke, and it maintained a semblance of the nuclear-family structure of so many sitcoms. But lately we’ve had to wade past images of Peter Griffin, in his quest to become a redneck, suggesting to his daughter that incest might be a good idea, and Lois Griffin being shot multiple times, in slow motion, by baby Stewie. The grossness of the acts were supposed to be undercut by a punchline, yet the inherent ugliness just sucked the humor right out.
I’m not sure what I’m looking for here. Knowing that the voice cast for The Simpsons have just been re-signed for four more years means that there’s time to either change the formula or really get nasty. The solution is simple, or at least it’s simple in plain screenwriting terms. Yes, lads and lasses, like every other American I once took a stab at screenwriting. Never sold anything, obviously, but I read loads of books on the subject, including Syd Field’s virtual bible on the subject, The Foundations of Screenwriting, and a couple of William Goldman’s (The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the screen adaptations of Misery and All the President’s Men) behind-the-scenes accounts. From what I’ve read, the consensus is this: no matter how awful your main character may be, you have to like him or her. Even 30 minutes spent with someone you despise is wasted time, even if that someone is only a character in a script. Joseph Stefano famously had to retool Robert Bloch’s characterization of Norman Bates so that the audience sympathized with him; otherwise Psycho would’ve ended a half hour in, since the lead character has just been killed in the shower and now we’re left with … him. Wanna go grab dinner instead?
I’ve never found cringe comedy funny. I can’t force myself to find the latest spate of pedophilia, violence, and bestiality jokes amusing. I could be in the minority, but I kinda hope I’m not. I actually think I’m in the majority of those who’d like to see the bitter and the sweet in The Simpsons equally balanced again, and I’m fairly sure that balance could spark good comedy. For instance, one of my favorite episodes is the eighth season’s “You Only Move Twice,” in which Homer is recruited to work for a new power company, uprooting the whole family to a new town. It’s all surface glamour, the new boss is funny and charming, and Homer is, for the first time in his career, considered an asset. Never mind that the great new boss is actually a Goldfinger-esque madman bent on world domination, confirming something most of us viewers secretly always knew about bosses. Yes, Hank Scorpio (voiced by Albert Brooks) is a bad guy doing bad things and getting dimwit Homer to do bad things too, but Homer doesn’t know that. The family of characters remained true to an established idea that had been created for them, they remained figures you could sympathize and empathize with, and the show still had room to be edgy.
The creative staff of the show listened once. If I’m not alone in my sentiments, they might listen again, and then who knows? If not, we’ll always have the reruns. Hours and hours and hours of reruns.