Last week when I wrote about The Simpsons, I mentioned that I would never consider some of my favorite episodes to be classic episodes. Tonight’s episode is a good example of this distinction, and it also raises some interesting questions about how we define so-called classic episodes of The Simpsons.
I thoroughly enjoyed this particular episode, but I’m not convinced it has a firm spot in The Simpsons canon. I probably liked it because I’m really a film person, and TV blogging is just my day job (just kidding! still unemployed!) In this episode, Bart’s comic-turned-webisodes “Angry Dad” finally gets some screen time (Confidential to The Office, if you want to make a television episode about characters making a movie, do it like this. Or do it like the episode when Lisa went to Sundance with her own dysfunctional family film and met indie auteur Jim Jarmusch).
The Angry Dad feature is a total flop, but Lisa convinces Bart to cut up the movie and make a short film (as seen above). Award season rolls around and Bart’s Angry Dad short quickly snaps up top prizes. The best part of this episode was undoubtedly the award show clips of Bart’s competition: the Pixar knock-off Condiments, the Wallace and Gromit claymation parody, and the tragic Eastern European animated short about a child in wartime.
Satire is what I’ve always loved about The Simpsons, and this mild jab at awards shows, nominated films, and the ensuing hype was pretty amusing. I know, however, that this isn’t the sort of episode I’ll recall as indicative of The Simpsons of my childhood. I grew up mostly watching rerun episodes from The Simpsons’ heyday, and I probably didn’t start watching the new episodes every Sunday night until 1998. I actually used to do homework during the brief half-hour news interval that aired on FOX between the two pre-dinner episodes, and this clearly hasn’t affected my later television viewing habits whatsoever.
So how do I know that this episode won’t last, at least not in my memory or in the collective hive mind of Simpsons superfans? The subject matter is too topical, almost too relevant to this exact moment in time, give or take a few years. When The Simpsons first aired, Pixar was still in its infancy. Remember Luxo Jr., that two-minute animation about the bouncing lamp? It was completed in 1986, three years before The Simpsons, but by 1995, when the original Toy Story was released to great acclaim, kids around the world were already wearing Bart Simpson t-shirts and The Simpsons had attained a great deal of cultural cachet.
My point here is that The Simpsons is least successful when it is trying to satirize or memorialize popular culture. Culture changes so quickly, especially given the example of Pixar, that a television show cannot expect to stay relevant by mocking popular media alone. Classic episodes of The Simpsons are the ones where we are reminded of just how weird, funny, or completely inappropriate a single family can be. In an episode like “Bart Gets an F” or even “Treehouse of Horror VI,” with its Homer³ vignette, we see specific experiences of universal themes. Who hasn’t studied for a test and felt Bart’s painfully, and unexpectedly, earnest desire to succeed?
I like episodes that mock current events, but I know that they won’t stick with me the same way earlier episodes do. I think much of the backlash against more recent episodes of The Simpsons is likely due to their tendency to fictionalize any cursory cultural trend. This habit creates a generational disconnect between the first viewers of The Simpsons and current viewers. I never have to explain a cultural reference or an extended joke to my mom if we’re watching a classic episode of The Simpsons (although she usually says, “Do we have to watch those stupid cartoons right now?”), but I’ve had to explain passing trends that are often mocked on the newer episodes.
I don’t think The Simpsons will ever revert back to its initial formula, but it would be nice to see fewer cultural references that won’t seem highly dated in ten years. I have some theories on why current episodes rarely deal with widely experienced themes anymore, but I’ll save those for another post. Stay tuned!