Lessons from Great TV #6: The Simpsons
The Simpsons is a lot of things, including the greatest television series of all time, and one could start a discussion about its lessons almost anywhere, but for me, above all else, it’s a show about a city. Springfield has its own history, its own mutable geography, and, best of all, its own massive population. I’ve spoken before about the power of ensembles, and what sets the golden years of The Simpsons apart from every other show ever made was the realization that with a handful of voice actors and the power of animation, you could have a series with literally hundreds of memorable faces, all of whom could cross paths in surprising ways. Crucially, few of these characters were conceived as regular members of the cast: characters like Gil or Fat Tony or Comic Book Guy were invented for a single story, or even a single joke, but unlike guest actors in a conventional sitcom who could be brought back only with difficulty, they all stuck around, ready to drop in whenever they were needed, until they became part of a narrative fabric of incredible richness. More than anything else, this is what allowed the show to remain so good for so long—the sense that we were living in a real town with real people, added organically over the course of ten seasons, whose interactions could fuel an infinite number of jokes and stories.
If The Simpsons has lost its way in recent years, it’s because it’s forgotten that the show’s great strength lies inward, in the city of Springfield and its citizens, and not in stunt casting or increasingly farfetched stories. (The fact that The Simpsons Movie, which I liked a lot, took the action away from Springfield for long stretches of time only reflects this fundamental confusion.) It’s hard to pick just one episode from the show’s glory days, but I’m going to focus on one of my favorites, “Bart’s Comet,” written by John Swartzwelder, if only because it draws on the show’s huge ensemble so effortlessly. It opens as a two-hander between Bart and Principal Skinner, but after Bart discovers a comet that threatens to collide with Springfield, the scope of the story rapidly expands, with big scenes and laugh lines for Homer, Moe, Mayor Quimby, Professor Frink, Reverend Lovejoy, Database, and many more—all leading to that quiet, surprisingly touching moment when Ned Flanders, exiled from his own bomb shelter, stands alone on a hilltop, waiting for the comet, singing “Que Sera Sera.” But he isn’t alone for long: as the chorus begins, he’s joined by everyone in Springfield, singing “Whatever will be, will be.” And looking at that cast, it’s easy to see why, halfway through the sixth season, the show’s future was still bright indeed.
Tomorrow: The Monster of the Week.