Interesting take on what happened to The Simpsons, from someone who binge-watched all 629 episodes.
For the record, I don’t agree with their “turning the show character-driven killed it”, if only because a lot of the “Golden Age” Simpsons episodes were extremely character driven.1 You can’t tell me episodes like “Bart Sells His Soul” (7×04) or “And Maggie Makes Three” (6×13) or even “The Crepes of Wrath” (1×11) aren’t “character-driven” and/or focused on emotional catharsis. And the thing is… I couldn’t even really tell you a single one-off joke from any of those episodes. But I can recall every one of the climaxes: Bart’s growing wonder watching his “soul” flutter down in front of him, and his subsequent heart-to-heart with Lisa; “DO█IT FOR███ █████HER████████”; Bart suddenly speaking French to the policeman.
What I do think is that the Golden Age was better at integrating serious—or even emotionally complex—plotlines in around the jokes, which I think is also why people tend to remember the jokes and the plots separately. I mean, which episode is Lisa’s “I AM THE LIZARD QUEEN!” even from? I had to look this one up; after some thinking I was pretty sure the immediate context was the Duff Gardens episode, but… what episode even was the Duff Gardens episode?
Well, as it turns out, it’s “Selma’s Choice” (4×13), which is the one about Selma wanting to have a baby.2 And here is I think the real crux of the difference the Golden Era and the post-Golden Era. In the post-Golden Era, the plot would’ve been about the Simpson family visiting Duff Gardens, because someone thought the concept of “Duff Gardens” was lulz in-and-of itself. But in the Golden Age, the presence of Duff Gardens as a vehicle for humor is framed in the context of the broader, and (crucially) completely mundane set-up; an older woman struggling with her relationship to the social pressure for her to have children.3 In other words, what makes the Golden Age golden was its ability to successfully hide its humanist dramatic elements underneath its one-shot set-piece jokes. It was a clever (and humanist) show that worked very hard to convince its audience it was stupid (and nihilistic) and, for the most part, it succeeded. The fact that it eventually succumbed to its own version of Flanderization on a meta-level—making its jokes “jokier” and its humanist elements more glurgy—is both a bummer but, also, not surprisingly for a show that, if it were a person, would be old enough to vote.
All that being said, I do totally agree that the show massively, massively fucks over Lisa…
- Also, I’m sorry, but if you think the “Australian” episode was in any way anything other than awful your takes don’t count. I don’t make the rules. ^
- You remember it too, now, don’t you? She adopts Jub-Jub the iguana at the end. ^
- This is also why, for example, I think “The Crepes of Wrath” works in a way “Bart vs. Australia” doesn’t, even though they’re both technically Golden Age and have the same kind of “lawlz foreigners so weird amirite fellow Americans?” set-up. Under the jokes, “Crepes” is fundamentally about Bart’s own insecurity over his intelligence—a common theme in older Simpsons episodes, where Bart is shown to be smart, just not academic–as well as Homer’s relationship to his troubled-and-troublesome son. Meanwhile, “vs. Australia” is… I don’t even fucking know, man. It is its one-shot joke premise, all the way down. ^