Here's a sentence you didn't expect to read today: There's a recent Simpsons that's entirely worth your time. Seriously. “Halloween of Horror,” the fourth episode of the series' 27th season, is a rarity: a late-era Simpsons rich with feeling, sharp jokes and the sense that this family and their story are worth your emotional investment.
It's a small marvel of TV-craft, an episode that demonstrates what creativity can flower when the show violates its own long-established rules: “Halloween of Horror” is not the usual holiday dash through three quickie horror-flick parodies. Instead, it's a substantial, episode-length engagement with the question of how commonplace horror imagery can shock a youthful mind — and of how truly helpless an everyday family might feel in a home-invasion scenario. If anything, it's a thoroughly mature sequel to the first season's “Some Enchanted Evening,” the one where Bart, Lisa and Maggie face down a murderous babysitter. And it's a strong entry in the long line of episodes exploring the show's most complex yet enduring relationship: that between a book-smart kid and her boorish but loving father.
“Halloween of Horror” inspired me to sample this season's other new Simpsons. The other Halloween one, the usual trilogy of tales, wasn't bad, but the dreary dream-sequence one where Homer and Marge “divorce”? Yet another of the rake-slaps to the face that define the show from, say, its 10th season on. I found myself asking a question I've asked since May 19, 1996, when the stellar, big-hearted “Summer of 4 Ft. 2” aired back-to-back with the sour, indifferently plotted, celebrity-packed, only occasionally hilarious “Homerpalooza”: If TV's best-ever comedy can't stay great, should it maybe just go away?
To make some sense of the listless late years of The Simpsons, I sought out the experts: Jack Picone and Dan Mulhall, hosts of the funny, insightful and breathtakingly self-indulgent Worst Episode Ever podcast. These guys are dedicated to rooting out the single worst Simpsons ever, and have ranked 56 doozies in their first 57 episodes. (Episode 25, an April Fools' Day prank, is an earnest, full-length parody of their own podcast, one in which they set all their knowledge and passion on a “post-classic” ep of Empty Nest.)
Picone and Mulhall are digressive goofs, improvising their own pop-drunk comedy over plates of Popeyes chicken, and their show is a parade of inside jokes and recurring characters (along with the surprisingly open-minded TV criticism). While their mission is to discover the worst, they're quick to honor the best, never shying away from toasting the rare late-era gem. What they said makes sense:
Should The Simpsons have ended by now?
Jack: There are definitely more bad episodes now than good ones, by more than 2-to-1, which is kind of mind-boggling. I've gotten really good at compartmentalizing, which has helped me keep an intellectual and emotional divide between the episodes I grew up loving and everything that's come after, so the bad episodes don't really affect my opinion of the good ones. Crystal Skull doesn't ruin Raiders. To that effect, I'm not sure I'm upset The Simpsons still continues to exist.
Dan: “Should” it have ended is a tough one. A big part of me wishes they'd gone out on top around 2000, kind of like Seinfeld did. But the show still has its fans, whether it's people younger than us who only found it in what we call the post-classic years or our peers who just kind of never gave up hope that Sundays at 8 p.m. could be great again. In a very real way, The Simpsons raised us and thousands of people like us. I don't think any number of bad episodes could diminish how good seasons three through seven are, but it is kind of strange that if I have kids and put on The Simpsons to replicate my experience for them, it's most likely going to be an episode from a later season. I'm going to have to shield them, like hard-core Star Wars parents protecting their kids from the prequels.
Jack: It would be weird and kind of sad to live in a world with no new Simpsons, even if they're barely watchable. It's sort of like when you have an old pet who is blind and crippled and probably better off dead but you can't bear the thought of losing it no matter how often it poops on your rug. And The Simpsons is continually pooping on the rug.
What do you think went wrong? Why did it go wrong so quickly? To my mind, by season nine the show was starting to sputter and by 10 was most often bad…
Jack: It's hard to say if The Simpsons could have kept up that perfection for as long as it did. Comedy is fickle and very much of its time. We've tried to do this before, on the show, and can't come up with a comedy that has been on for decades that has consistently stayed funny. It would have had to adapt and modernize, at least a little, and it looks like that's where The Simpsons has failed. Lately I've been wondering if maybe it really was just lightning in a bottle, a perfect storm of talent that came together in just the right way — Sam Simon, George Meyer, [Matt] Groening, the cast, Brad Bird, Conan O'Brien, David Mirkin, Al Jean and Mike Reiss.
Dan: If they couldn't keep the quality up, it's tough to think anything else could. And no other show like this has been on this long, so they're completely in uncharted waters.
Are you hopeful that it might get better? Have you found many moments or episodes in the post-classic era that honor that high standard?
Jack: We're hopeful but not very confident that a comeback is in The Simpsons' future. One great season would make the last 18 totally worth it, but the best chance of that happening would take some serious experimentation and reimagining of the series. But it can't just become an entirely different show — they can't just put Homer and Bart into a Rick and Morty plot. It still has to have the same fundamental core.
Dan: Though how cool would that be? They did do that couch gag last year, but, damn, a full-on crossover…
Jack: But it's not impossible. If the same people who made The World Is Not Enough can make Casino Royale, then even a perfect season 28 is possible. Watching later episodes for the podcast, we've come across a few moments — and I stress moments — that are objectively good. Emotional beats, gags, the thriller scenes in this year's Halloween episode — but they are few and far between.
Dan: Season 27's “Halloween of Horror,” which aired only a few weeks ago, is a high point and a reminder that the show can do great things. We had done the recent season premiere on the podcast and not loved it, but then we were getting tweets and emails from listeners saying, “Hey, this in-canon Halloween episode … it's pretty great.” It was a pleasant surprise. We try to be fair but critical, but we do get surprised when a modern episode has an emotional core and a lot of good laughs. If they keep trying to do both of those things while telling a story that makes at least some sense, it's time for a comeback season. We also liked last season's “Bart's New Friend,” the Judd Apatow episode, for a lot of the same reasons. It treated the characters like people and not gag-delivery systems.
What are some hallmarks of the post-classic episodes?
Jack: I feel like any given episode can range wildly in tone, humor, quality. I don't think any post-classic season is worse than another. They're for the most part equally scattershot and mediocre. They do seem to focus more on grating wordplay humor — Wiggum makes a lot more awful puns than he used to. Then there's Jerkass Homer, a Homer who is mean-spirited and intentionally annoying and hurtful to others, rather than the classic Homer, who was well-intentioned but stupid.
Dan: I've said on our show before that Homer used to be affably stupid, but sometimes now he's a full-on monster.
Jack: Most of the characters have taken on that quality, actually. The show is also more topical in a way where, rather than use a specific reference in a comical way, they're content just to make the reference, like how those awful parody movies will have Iron Man just walk in for a scene and that's it — that's the “joke.” Because of that, a season-18 Paris Hilton reference feels a lot more dated than a season-six Knight Rider joke. Or should I say Knightboat?
Every week there's a canal! You can find Worst Episode Ever in all the usual podcast-hosting places, or at www.weepodcast.com.
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