I hope you’ve been productive over the past year, the Coronavirus year, the year when you were encouraged to simulate life inside a bomb shelter. With the kids home, doing that whole distance learning thing, and with the local parks wrapped in yellow caution tape, we did a few things to break up the monotony. We took more walks, we went on more bike rides. Charlotte learned how to play half a dozen card games. Olivia is able to keep up with most of them, especially Old Maid and War.
We also started a Friday movie night, and it was almost comical how quickly we drained Redbox of its usefulness—I think we we’d grabbed the last good family movie by May. Then we went to streaming, where we watched some great movies, introduced the kids to some classics (like Muppet Treasure Island, Willow, and more), and suffered through some real stinkers.
Me? In my spare time, I watched nearly 700 episodes of The Simpsons. About 245 hours, or 10 solid days’ worth. I’ve always been a big Simpsons fan. My siblings and I used to watch it every Thursday with our dad (and later, every Sunday after Fox switched its air day). My mom hated it, citing how often Homer choked Bart, and wasn’t particularly pleased that we watched it, but never forbade it. One year, my dad recorded Treehouse of Horror III, preceded by a re-run of Treehouse of Horror I. We watched that tape. So. Many. Times. Later in the 90s, we’d come home after school and watch the back-to-back re-runs that would air on UPN every weekday. The couch gag was always our favorite part.
I stopped watching the show originally around season 12 (though I always looked back on the previous seasons fondly), when I was 15 years old. In fact, I remember the exact episode I lost interest. Family Guy had started running the year before, and teenage me enjoyed the puerile, unpredictable nature of that show more than the traditional Simpsons setup. While Family Guy was spending full minutes on random fights with a giant chicken, or breaking into theater numbers, or cutting away to crazy non sequiturs for over half the airtime, The Simpsons was still running the sitcom setup.
Anyway, season 12, episode 6: “The Computer Wore Menace Shoes.” I was 15. Homer started a blog and began writing what he referred to as “complete bull-plop” because it got him viewers. A lot of that episode was really funny. But then his Drudge-report-parody stories attracted the attention of the government, because he was accidentally right about his conspiracy theory that flu shots contained a mind control drug that caused people to shop like crazy, which is what causes Black Friday, which is why the shots are always administered before the holidays. In order to shut him up, he’s kidnapped and taken to “The Island,” and then the episode turns into a hard parody of a movie called The Prisoner—a movie I hadn’t seen then and still haven’t seen. I lost the thread of the episode, and then I lost interest, and the next week, I skipped the show and waited for Family Guy to start. I would occasionally watch an episode after that, but it was rare. (I don’t want to sound prudish, but I gave up on Family Guy a few years after that—it got a little too disturbing for me. It was when they cut Brian’s tail off that I threw in the towel there.)
Honestly, almost 20 years later, I figured my Simpsons re-watch would fizzle out, that I’d get somewhere in the teen seasons and give it up. It started out as a background thing—I relived the first few seasons while re-playing the Final fantasy VII remake, trying to get those last few trophies (It was really monotonous, and The Simpsons helped to liven things up a bit). Then it was on while I worked through my 20 minutes on the elliptical every night. Then it was on in the mornings while I made my breakfast and lunch for the day, and then at night when I did the dishes before bed. Before long, I propped it up and watched it in the shower each night. The shower.
What’s funny is that after season, oh, 13 or so, things really did get lame. The episodes blended together. Homer was mean instead of just dumb. Bart was mean instead of just mischievous. The episodes that focused on a single citizen of Springfield had gradually stopped, because the show had already run through its most interesting characters. Then the episodes were mostly just forgettable. I can’t tell you anything that happened from seasons 16 to 23. Just a mad blur.
But I gotta say, even when the material grew stale, it was crazy to have such a consistent stream of it. It was great while it lasted, always a full hopper of stuff I’d never seen before.
In just a couple weeks, on March 21, 2021, the 700th episode will air. And I can’t wait.
Now, here are some random, disconnected thoughts about the series (with spoilers, if you care about Simpsons spoilers):
• In season 14, the show switched from traditional cel animation to digital. This is how most cartoons are animated these days, and it looks great, but the cel animation was really charming. You could often see uneven brush strokes or broken outlines. In 2020, that was really quaint. I kinda miss it.
• I always thought UPN shortened the intro for the reruns to make it fit in their timeslot (perhaps to allow time for one more commercial), but it turns out The Simpsons shortened the intro ALL THE TIME. You know what I’m talking about if you ever watched a rerun—you’d get the zoom-in on the logo, and then you were immediately in front of the Simpsons home for the couch gag. It was surprisingly rare for the full sequence to play, with the chalkboard gag, Lisa leaving music class, the power plant, Bart on a skateboard, Marge and Maggie driving home—all those were variously skipped form time to time. And in recent seasons, the show sometimes skipped the intro completely, no couch gag or anything. It would zoom in on the logo, and then the episode had begun.
• And WOW, those couch gags. I actually thought each episode had a unique couch gag. When my siblings and I would watch the reruns on UPN, we would sometimes turn off the TV if we saw a couch gag we’d seen a million times before, reasoning we’d seen the whole episode a million times before. But there are actually only about 500 couch gags (“only about 500,” lol). The rest were repeats. I can’t believe I never noticed before my year-long binge.
• For those of you who used to watch it but stopped somewhere after season 10, you would not believe how many times Aunt Selma got married. Sideshow Bob, Lionel Hutz, Troy McClure, Disco Stu, and holy crap, even HOMER’S DAD, Abe Simpson. Haha, none of them worked out. Poor Selma.
• Similarly, you would not believe how many times Sideshow Bob tried to kill Bart. At one point, very late in the series, he jumped out from behind a shelf and actually screamed, “Twelfth time’s the charm!” Once, in a Treehouse of Horror episode, he figured out how to revive Bart with a mysterious machine, finally caught him, and killed him hundreds and hundreds of times. Unfortunately for Bob, and like all the Halloween shows, it wasn’t canon. Keep at it, Bob!
• Similarly, again, you would not believe how many times Homer’s fugitive mom resurfaced for a reunion episode before she finally kicked the bucket.
• There’s one guy, apparently named Raphael, who exists as a generic employee at almost every place of business The Simpsons visit. He’s had over 80 jobs, from travel agent, to repo man, to clerk, to camerman, to repairman, to limo driver, and everything in between. It’s crazy how often he shows up.
• Comic Book Guy, also known as Jeff Albertson, get’s married, and he’s currently still married.
• Ned Flanders remarries—to Edna Krababble! It doesn’t last, for sad reasons I’ll explain below:
• I really missed characters like Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure after they disappeared somewhere in season 9. I didn’t know it at the time, but the characters were abruptly retired after Phil Hartman, the actor who provided their voices, died. This might be part of the reason the show became less interesting later on, as they were really funny characters. Later still, after marrying Ned Flanders, Edna Krabappel disappeared following the death of her voice actor Marcia Wallace in 2013. Ned Flanders has been the fourth grade teacher ever since, which is weird. These characters really enriched the series, and hoo-boy, are they missed, but I think it’s really classy that the show retires the characters after the death of their actors.
• Many people point to a season 12 episode called “Homer vs. Dignity” as the show’s low point. I disagree. Yes, it is wacky that Homer, dressed as a panda bear, was apparently sexually assaulted by a male panda. Yes, that’s puerile and really stupid. But that’s nothing compared to “Co-Dependents’ Day,” season 15, episode 15, when Homer and Marge bond over drinking. Marge realizes she’s becoming something of an alcoholic, so tries to pull back, but Homer pressures her into to more drinking. When they get in an car accident on the way home from a festival, Homer switches places with the unconscious Marge, placing her in the driver’s seat and earning her a DUI. Marge obviously takes this really hard, because she doesn’t remember even getting behind the wheel. She suffers from extreme guilt and embarrassment, and honestly, when Homer came clean and admitted what he’d done, it was unbelievable that the series didn’t end right then and there; that she didn’t pack her bags and leave him. If you decide to go through the series, I highly recommend you just skip this foul episode. By episode 16, everything is back to normal. I am content to pretend this was a Halloween episode and, therefore, noncanonical.
• Speaking of Halloween, they were never really meant to be scary, but there were two times it came pretty close. In Treehouse of Horror 24 (s25, e2), there’s a Dr. Seuss parody that is so whimsical and silly that the constant mutilation and murder is really unsettling. And then, just a couple years ago in 2019, there was “Thanksgiving of Horror” for some reason, which featured a really unsettling parody of Apocalypto, where the Simpson family were turkeys. It was creepy AF to see all their heads get chopped off. Later in that same episode, a can of cranberry sauce becomes sentient aboard a spaceship and sucks the skeletons from much of the cast, and it’s… some pretty unpleasant animation. On the other hand, if any of you remember that cheesy season 7 Halloween episode where Homer gets sucked into the third dimension, it was, like, really bad. Haha, just a lame gimmick, and nothing of note happened at all.
• Also, I never realized the aliens Kang and Kodos were mostly limited to Halloween episodes—this must mean I watched a lot of the Halloween episodes, many, many times. They only had a few brief cameos outside the Treehouse of Horror episodes.
• The show eventually rewrote its own characters’ history, retconning Homer’s and Marge’s childhoods so that they grew up in the 90s instead of the 70s. Those episodes were trippy. Isn’t that NUTS?!
• Although the show really does take a dive, in my opinion, in the teen seasons, it gets good again in the early 20s. Funny and smart and creative. Even the show’s growing pains after being dethroned by Family Guy are pretty good sometimes. They were thrown off their game, obviously, and tried some Family Guy techniques with varying success. A few cutaways, a few random, minutes-long non sequiturs like Peruvian fighting frogs shouting “ribité,” or Ned chasing Homer all over town for nearly two full minutes, both of them cartwheeling, flipping, parkouring, in a conspicuous parody of the Peter/Chicken fights. These were really funny, but I’m glad they found their footing again later on. The Simpsons are at their best when they’re The Simpsons.
• Finally, holy crap, I didn’t let my kids watch any of this. I kept my earbud in for pretty much the whole dang run. My mom was right to disapprove, and I don’t know how my dad got away with us watching it. I used to insist Homer barely ever choked Bart, but yikes, he does it all the time. On top of that, there’s a lot of PG-rated suggestive content, a whole lot of okay-for-TV swearing, a bunch of smoking, a whole bunch of drinking, and loads of drunkenness. And it was kind of a shame, I thought, because without that, so much of it would have been okay for the kids. Many of the storylines in the first 10 seasons were really well written, many of them quite touching. Bart being faced with repeating the fourth grade, Lisa developing a crush on the school bully, Bleeding-gums Murphy, the monorail, just to name a few.
Granted, no one should be surprised by anyone saying the Simpsons isn’t a great family cartoon, but because I used to watch it with members of my family, this re-watch has proven to be quite surprising.
It felt pretty wild to record The Simpsons on DVR on Sunday nights, and it feels weird to be caught up with the series.