The irrational rightness of The Simpsons
There’s a famous but widely debunked statistic claiming that men think about sex an average of once every seven seconds. In fact, according to one recent study, it’s more like nineteen times a day, which may seem like a lot or a little, depending on your point of view. What tickles me the most about this figure is that it’s in the same ballpark as the number of times I think on a daily basis about The Simpsons. The greatest sitcom in history—which celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary as a regular television series today—has achieved something that no other series can claim: for a considerable swath of the population, it’s a kind of ongoing cognitive substratum, with quotes and moments clarifying how we feel about almost everything. Whenever I remember the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok,” which invents a race that speaks solely in mythological metaphors, it seems a little farfetched at first, but if I reconceive of it as a language consisting entirely of Simpsons references, it suddenly feels a lot more plausible. (These days, for instance, I’m trying to teach my daughter how to use the words “you” and “me,” which means that I’m constantly thinking about this.)
What’s even more extraordinary is that I haven’t watched The Simpsons on a regular basis for more than ten years. Which is only to say that I haven’t kept up with the new episodes. The show’s best years—which I’d roughly define as season three through season eight, with a few possible extensions in either direction—have remained constantly in the background for most of the ensuing decade, often with a commentary track, many of which I’ve heard a dozen times or more. (For a long time, Simpsons commentaries played the same role in my life that podcasts serve for many listeners now. Even for the weaker seasons, I still think that they’re the best radio show in the world.) At some point, though, I began to lose interest in what the show was continuing to produce. As best as I can recall, the last episode I casually watched on its original run was “Sleeping With the Enemy,” which aired back on November 21, 2004. It wasn’t a bad episode, and in fact, it was the last script credited to Jon Vitti, who was behind many of the show’s greatest achievements. Yet it was thoroughly mediocre, and I realized that the series no longer gave me much pleasure. Since then, I’ve tuned in for special installments, like the crossword episode and, most recently, the Lego show. But I’ve long since stopped watching it just because it happened to be on.
This isn’t the place for an extensive discussion of the reasons behind the show’s decline, which sometimes seems like the single most thoroughly dissected topic on all of the Internet. What I’d like to highlight here is a quality that doesn’t get mentioned often enough: the show’s underlying strangeness. Looking back at the golden years of the series, it’s striking how many lines, scenes, and images are both inexplicable and totally right. They’re often tangential beats that go on longer than seem comedically possible—not just the rake gag from “Cape Feare,” but Mr. Burns laughing over the crippled Irishman in “Last Exit to Springfield,” or Homer twiddling his thumbs in “Bart’s Comet.” They’re the comedic version of what Donald Richie, in his discussion of Kurosawa, calls “the irrational rightness of an apparently gratuitous image in its proper place,” and as Richie points out, they’re often the things we remember. Which isn’t to say that The Simpsons doesn’t still contain plenty of seemingly irrelevant material; sometimes there’s so much of it that the ostensible plot is almost forgotten. Yet nearly every joke these days can be explained, if you’re so inclined, in ways the left brain can understand: it’s a reference, a sign gag, a parody, a dollop of cringe humor. Every line feels like one that the producers could defend on Twitter, when so much of the show’s best moments work in ways that even the writers would find hard to explain.
Trying to recapture that kind of quality, which is inherently indefinable, is a loser’s game. And there are sometimes still flashes of it. But The Simpsons hit that mark so consistently for so many years that it’s worth wondering what changed. Informed opinion has often linked the show’s permanent decline to the departure of George Meyer, the indispensable man in the writer’s room, who left the show in 2006. Meyer is undeniably responsible for much of what made those classic seasons so special—the subplot in “Lisa’s Rival” about Homer and the sugar truck, for instance, was one that he pitched almost line for line—and the respect in which he was held allowed moments to survive that might not have made it through a more rational rewrite. It’s simplistic, of course, to tether such a rich, complicated show to one man’s sensibility, and the series was always bursting with talent. Yet I can’t help think that Meyer instilled the rest of the staff with the courage to be random, strange, and cheerfully unexplainable. In his absence, The Simpsons became less a writer’s than a producer’s show, and while it continued to produce the occasional high point, like “Trilogy of Error,” even its triumphs, like its animation, felt a little more calculated. It can still be a clever show when it feels like it. But as Meyer liked to say, and as the series has allowed itself all too often to forget: “Clever is the eunuch version of funny.”