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Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Simpsons: That '90s Show

This has been fully written and in the pipeline for so long, its topicality has long since expired. Too many other things just kept getting in the way. But why waste a perfectly good and complete post, right? Besides, at Fox's current ratio of new episodes to repeats, this episode'll be on again in no time.


The episode of The Simpsons which aired on Sunday January 27th, That ‘90s Show, has already become one of the more controversial episodes in recent history. It is a flashback episode, not unlike The Way We Were or Lisa’s First Word, in which Marge and Homer tell tales of their past to the kids. This time, the story involves Marge’s experiences at Springfield University and the evolution of Homer and Marge’s relationship after their high school courtship and before their marriage and the birth of Bart, all set against the backdrop of the 1990s. We see Marge and Homer living in a Melrose Place-esque apartment complex, Homer’s membership in first a Boyz II Men-style band with Lenny, Carl and “Lew the cop” and then in a Nirvana-inspired grunge band, and Marge’s relationship with an uber-PC, post-modern college professor.

Wait a minute, you, O Wise Blog Reader say, the Simpsons were on the air in the 1990s; Homer and Marge were married, Bart was ten, Lisa was eight, Maggie was an infant. How the hell could Marge have been in college and Bart unborn during this episode, you ask, confused rage seeping into your voice? Some of you might even recall the episode I Married Marge, in which we saw Bart’s conception and birth shortly after Homer and Marge saw The Empire Strike Back, which puts the date of Bart’s birth squarely in 1981.

But here’s the catch. Bart’s still ten. Lisa is still eight. Maggie is still a baby. Homer and Marge are still in their late thirties. This episode just posits that if Bart is ten, then he would have been born in 1998. Thus, there are eight years in the nineties for Marge and Homer to spend together before starting their family. This is even acknowledged by Lisa through some dialogue at the beginning of the episode.

What the Simpsons' writers have done with this episode is draw attention to something they’ve been subtly doing for years: sliding the timeline of the show forward due to the fact that their characters never age. In this regard, the show is not unlike the comic book universes of Marvel and DC, in which characters age very slowly, so that Batman, who first appeared in 1939, is always thirty-something, rather than the near seventy-year-old he’d be if the character aged in real time. In the Marvel Universe, for further example, the Fantastic Four went into space and got their powers (the event which is considered the “beginning” of the Marvel Universe in the comics) perpetually ten years ago. So today, they did that in 1998, even if the original issue that event occurred in was published in 1961. In 2018, they’ll have received their powers in 2008. And so on.

Such a concept is a difficult one to grasp, even for long-time readers of shared universe comic books. Was Bart born in 1981, as the episode I Married Marge said? Yes. Then did Homer and Marge spend the ‘90s unmarried and childless, as That ‘90s Show claims? Also yes. How is that possible? It just is. It’s true when you watch one episode, not true when you watch the other. Such “selective recollection” is often necessary when dealing with characters that never age.

Now, one can argue up, down, and sideways that not aging the Simpsons' characters, even gradually, is dumb and largely responsible for the creative rut into which many feel the show has fallen. I might even be inclined to agree with you, at least on some level. But I’m not about to argue that point here. The fact remains, for better or worse, the Simpsons' writers and producers and creator Matt Groening long ago decided to take advantage of the medium and keep the characters perpetually the same age. With that decision firmly entrenched, the writers of today simply decided to have some fun and craft an episode that wouldn’t be possible if they stuck with established continuity that was already stretched past credibility (Bart was born in 1981, but is still ten in 2008).

Some are bothered by this episode because it not only retcons the established continuity of the Simpsons, such as it is, but also, they argue, because it fundamentally alters the thematic foundation of the series. The Simpsons has always been about a working class family struggling to make ends meet, a deliberate attempt on the part of the creators to scoff in the face of the seemingly prosperous yuppie lifestyle of the ‘80s and the rise of the middle class in the ‘90s. Marge and Homer, as established in The Way We Were, were two working class kids, a bright young woman who fell in love with a lovable but directionless guy. They got pregnant, married and started a family because they had to, irrelevant of their own personal hopes and dreams. The Simpsons, when it began, was essentially no different than any other socially relevant sitcom. Go back and look at those early episodes, filled with obvious morals and family dysfunction. Look past the animation and you’ll a show that is much more Roseanne than Looney Tunes.

But that working class ethic, that struggle against the system to survive and raise a family that mirrored far more conventional sitcoms, was wiped out by the creators long before That ‘90s Show. The days when Homer and Marge worried about making ends meet when Homer lost his job following the German takeover of the power plant, or when the family had to stretch the budget to pay for an expensive surgery to untwist their dog’s stomach passed by many years and episodes ago. Nowadays, “money trouble” for the Simpson family is as realistic as Wile E. Coyote not falling until he realizes he’s run off the cliff. Any sort of working class sensibility was long ago washed out of the series, not with this episode, but gradually, over time. It was taken out in favor of more zany humor, outrageous situations, and pop culture references. Now a Simpsons episode is more likely to be about what new job Homer will get or what crazy scheme he’ll concoct which will threaten his marriage to Marge than it is to be about Homer getting a second job at the Kwik-E-Mart to pay for Lisa’s pony or Bart struggling to pass the fourth grade.

So That ‘90s Show is not the death knell of realism or working class ethos on the show just because it shows us that Marge now went to college, that she and Homer realized some of their dreams before starting a family, just because it implies their decision to start a family was just that, a decision, and not born of unlucky or foolish circumstances. That ‘90s Show is just one more episode in a long run of episodes (dating, some argue, all the way back to Mike Jean’s arrival as producer in the ninth season ten years ago)which has gradually changed the dynamic of the show from a traditional sitcom rendered in animation to something even more surreal, goofy and zany.

I liked this episode; I laughed more than I have at a lot of the more recent episodes. Sure, some of the jokes went for the cheap laugh, but I’ve always been guilty of enjoying a cheap laugh. I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of Marge’s history professor, whose overly PC attitudes reminded me of a couple of my own college professors, and more than a few of my fellow students.

The Simpsons abandoned realism many years ago. They've been using a sliding timeline since the beginning. For good or bad, and the case can be made for either, this is the reality of the show. With that in mind, I’d like to see more of this kind of episode, which acknowledges and attempts to take advantage of the sliding timeline to tell a funny and enjoyable story, plain and simple.

2 comments:

G. Kendall said...

Nice analysis. If anything bothered me about this episode, it was the way they got the timeline of the '90s wrong. Beanie Babies came out YEARS after Nirvana broke up!

Teebore said...

Very true.

Though perhaps the writers were intentionally presenting us with an alternate, idealized world, one in which Beanie Babies came out in time to ease our post-Nirvana pain :)