Sunset for the Animated Giants

The Simpsons are as old as I am.

Or, I suppose, I’m as old as The Simpsons. I was born when Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie were only rough sketches on the Tracey Ullman show. I started school when Homer went to space. I was Bart’s age when the world said farewell to Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz. In my teens I caught up on their old adventures. In my twenties, I learned to bemoan their new ones.

23 years, 23 seasons of television. The show’s best era came and went when Bill Clinton was in the White House, and the fall of the Berlin wall was fresh in the memory. The Simpsons once felt – in those days when I was just old enough to know the catchphrases and that rebellious pre-teen at its centre – dangerous. Today it is an institution, unlikely to elicit the passion or panic that were once its mainstay. Occasionally the show lurches into the cultural conversation with a subversive Banksy-designed couch gag or a dig at Fox News. Fans wax lyrical about the golden days long gone; early seasons to be savoured on DVD or with the odd repeat on television, distinguishable by its hand-drawn animation and still-hilarous jabs. The Simpsons, now staffed by writers who were raised by it, is still capable of excellence. Yet over 500 episodes in, there are few stories left untold, and recycling is not mere laziness, but a necessity. We must settle for ‘good’, rather than great. Is that an ignominious fate, or is longevity its own achievement?

This week I caught up on a few episodes from the current season, and was surprised to find stories responding to the weight of that history, and, perhaps, contemplating the show’s surely-impending end. ‘A Totally Fun Thing That Bart Will Never Do Again’ saw Bart, bored with the routine of his everyday life, yearn for an escape, and closed with a flash-forward to the hellraiser an old man, contemplating the wonderful moments in his life gone by. ‘Holidays of Future Passed’ took place on a Christmas thirty years in the future as the family converged. Amid some wonderful jabs at modern anxieties about sharia law, enslavement by Google and, of course, inevitable British monarch ‘Bloody Harry’, came a surprising scene; an honest conversation between an adult Bart and Lisa over two bottles of red in the old treehouse.

As The Simpsons has marched on, the family has never grown up. They remain fixed in time. Homer and Marge are still the children the 60s, stuck in their mid-thirties since 1989. Bart and Lisa are doomed to repeat the fourth and second grades for all eternity. Maggie has never moved past that first word (although she has said it a few times). It is an integral part of the show’s success, and yet it has always limited the stories they could tell.

So there was something tremendous in seeing the siblings have a conversation we have never seen before. A conversation built on history and experience, and coming from the place of irreverent love that made the show simultaneously hilarious and heartfelt in its best days. For a few minutes, they commiserate over the tensions with their own children and articulate how they feel about Homer, Marge and one another in a way their 10 and 8 year-old selves never could.

“Well, maybe it’s the court-mandated sincerity chip I have in my brain, but Lisa, you’re the person I always wanted to be.”

The scene is magical (and rare) because it gives us a new patch of emotional territory for these characters and their relationships. That’s tough for a show that has been on the air for so long, where  the temptation to rehash the same beats (only with new guest stars and pop culture references!) is so strong.

The Simpson‘s spawn have faced this dilemma as they enter a second decade. Family Guy battles on, its cutaway-dependent jokes occasionally hilarious but increasingly desperate, unable to come within reach of those first, pre-cancellation years, and absent the humanity that make its siblings pleasant to spend time with even at their weakest hours. From it springs the grotesque Seth MacFarlane animated empire, continually excreting spin-offs (American Dad, The Cleveland Show) cut from the same cloth and indistinguishable from one another. The resurrected Futurama now occupies a cable-TV niche, buoyed largely by the boundless creativity its distant future setting inspires and a willingness to let its character relationships evolve, inch by inch.

South Park remains the wild card. There has been no significant quality dip. When it is on the mark, as a few episodes every season are guaranteed to be, there’s no better satire in America. And although the “we’ll do it in a week” production schedule (one of the benefits of the simple character animation) guarantees that there will be misses, it is not hard to imagine the show throwing solid punches for as many years as Trey Parker and Matt Stone have grievances to air.

Yet South Park is the series that has most expressly toyed with its own mortality. Last year’s mid-season finale ‘You’re Getting Old’ climaxed with a fight between Stan’s parents Randy and Sharon. Sharon, fed up with Randy’s childish impulses, laments;

“How much longer can we keep doing this? It’s like, the same shit just happens over and over, and then in a week it just all resets until it happens again. Every week it’s kind of the same story in a different way, but it just keeps getting more and more ridiculous.”

It isn’t hard to see a self-critique by the writers in that appraisal. The episode ends with the tantalising prospect of change. Randy and Sharon split. Stan leaves the group, fed up with a world and people who seem shitty to him. Kyle and Cartman become best friends.

Audiences stewed for months, contemplating whether this was a sign that South Park was committed to evolving, or was perhaps readying for a finale. The conclusion to the follow-up episode pulled the rug out from beneath those expectations; just as Stan gave a speech reconciling himself to a change to the status quo, everything abruptly reset. In montage form, the family reunited, the Cartman/Kyle friendship splintered and Stan rejoined the group. The message? That Parker and Stone would stay the course, and proudly continue pushing that reset button, with increasingly ridiculous stories.

And yet, just as we were assuaged that everything was back to normal, the episode closed with Stan swigging from a bottle of whiskey to steel himself before joining his friends. Earlier, he drank to maintain the illusion of a world where nothing had changed. With that final swig, Park and Stone acknowledge that the status quo is precarious, and will not hold. Stan can choose to deceive himself, and pretend that things can carry on as they were before. But Parker and Stone know better, having exposed so publicly the inherent weakness of a format that won’t allow anyone to ever grow or change: it will ultimately repeat itself, and diminish.

The Simpsons and South Park, the greatest of the animated comedies, have begun to look over their shoulders. These episodes show the writers, and their characters, contemplating the past and considering whether, perhaps, the best stories they have left are those about growing up and saying goodbye. The era of the animated giants has passed. They may trudge on, like dinosaurs mired in a pit of tar, but I hope that they lumber into the sunset gracefully. A generation of kids (and adults) like me were shaped by their brand of comedy, and new series, from Community to Archer, proudly carry on their genes. I grew up with, and grew together with The Simpsons. In part, I know these elegiac stories stand out because they speak to a similar crossroads in my own life. I will miss these characters when they go (their best days forever accessible by a click of the mouse or a swipe at the DVD shelf) but it feels like we are both ready to move on. None of us can act like teenagers forever. Perhaps Bart Simpson shouldn’t either.

Of course, money may yet keep these characters stuck in time, and their shows on the air. After all, nothing perpetuates adolescence like a steady stream of cash. Aim for a 30th season, a landmark 1000th episode? Troy McClure (you might remember him from such TV series as “Buck Henderson, Union Buster” & “America’s Funniest Tornadoes”), in an episode aired 17 years ago, put it best;

“Who knows what adventures they’ll have between now and when the show becomes unprofitable?”

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