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A Life Sentence of Simpsons

 The Big Issue Australia 06 September 2019

Max Attwood is 21; the same age the series will soon celebrate. He reflects on growing up with an animated family and a nagging sense that things were different once. (898 Words) - By Max Attwood

TBI Australia_Homer Simpson

The Big Issue Australia

The Simpsons first aired in Australia in February 1991. I was two at the time. Now the show is about to enter its 22nd season, I'm on the verge of turning 22. Somewhere along the way it caught up with me.

I remember watching it when both it and I were much younger - me in my fifth year; The Simpsons in its third season. The episode was called 'Separate Vocations' and explored alternate sides to the Simpson children: Bart got interested in law-enforcement; Lisa quit saxophone and became a delinquent. I didn't understand most of the jokes, which contained references to the Vietnam War, the Brando film The Wild One and 1970s TV show The Streets of San Francisco. Obviously, The Simpsons was slightly more prodigious than me. But I did like seeing an old man hitting a machine with a broom. And I did identify with Bart. His youthful exuberance and disdain for authority appealed to me. I made plans to grow up to be like him.

By the age of 11, however, my focus, like that of the show itself, had shifted to Homer (convenient, as my plans to be like Bart had only got me as far as being like his nerdier friend, Milhouse).

It was no surprise that the 200th episode, the ninth season's 'Trash of the Titans', would be concerned with another zany Homer scheme, this time to become the city garbage commissioner. Not only did I now get most of the jokes, I stored them all in a vast mental database to swap with friends at school. It was not uncommon for entire conversations to be made up of Simpsons quotes, a habit it took another five years and persistent requests from a girlfriend to break. In among the quotes were dark murmurs: The Simpsons was past it, voices whispered. Not as good as it used to be. I scoffed at such suggestions. It had been going strong for 200 episodes. I couldn't see it falling anytime soon.

It had to happen one day, though. Everyone experienced The Letdown at different times; for me, it was the season 17 episode 'Simpsons Christmas Stories'. After watching it, I sighed, put down the TV remote and decided to stop watching new episodes. This had been coming for a while. I had been uninspired by Marge's time as a manatee trainer, unimpressed by Lisa's bout of insomnia, and unmoved by the revelation that Homer's dad might not be his dad (following on from revelations his mum might not be his mum, it lacked impact). But 'Simpsons Christmas Stories' finally pushed me over the edge. I just wasn't laughing anymore.

The jokes were still there, but I felt I knew them all. The characters were the same, but now they seemed one-dimensional and simple. The plots were clichéd, uncreative and frequently just bizarre. The same show that once spent an episode detailing Homer's reluctant decision to abandon his childhood dreams in order to provide for his family now had Grampa Simpson being rescued from a tropical island by Santa Claus.

So that was it. I stopped watching new episodes.

I even tried forgetting many of the newer episodes I had watched. Like a TV Luddite, I refused to acknowledge anything later than season 10. I was a happy Simpsons watcher again, marvelling at all the jokes I'd never caught before, all the references that had slipped by, and the elegant lunacy the plots managed to counterbalance with genuine heart. All I had to do was stick to old episodes. But nothing can be ignored forever. The Simpsons was still powering along, seemingly untroubled by my neglect. It came time for me to watch it again. I could claim it was research for this article, but the truth is I was curious. Was it any better? Worse?

The episode, from season 21, was 'Stealing First Base'. I sat down to watch. Then I laughed. Quietly, at first. Homer being confused by metrics raised a smile. A GPS device questioning its own existence got a chuckle. Principal Skinner commenting that the group hired to deprogram a cult member "turned out to be an even crazier cult" drew a guffaw. Finally, a genuine burst of laughter. Bart read The Very Hungry Caterpillar and, on finishing it, quipped: "Damn, that caterpillar is really hungry!" A familiar feeling swelled inside me, a little voice in my head muttering: "I have to quote that". I laughed, but then abruptly stopped, remembering that this was The Simpsons. It had to be held to a higher standard.

This, you see, is the curse of the long-time Simpsons fan. The show is still funny. It probably will be until it ends. But it has always been funnier. Always been fresher. Always been more daring, more shocking, more subversive. As for when, exactly, well, everyone has a different opinion. Season four, say some. Season 10, say others. When Principal Skinner was still Principal Skinner. When Apu was still single. When Conan O'Brien was a writer. When it was an animated comedy, not a cartoon.

I have my own opinion, of course: when I was younger.

Originally published by The Big Issue, Australia. ©

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