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The Simpsons’ Ship of Theseus

So It’s Come to This

After 35 seasons, it’s naive to think a show would retain the same level of quality from its heyday. There could be some rare instances of improvement, but for the most part it will never live up to what made it beloved in the first place. Either because of necessary story and character development or real–world factors, no series can exist in the vacuum of its “Golden Era,” the time when most would agree the series was at its peak creatively.

Without some change, a series faces stagnation. In fact, The Simpsons, wouldn’t be as beloved if it didn’t tackle its early growing pains and become the show that shaped so many of our lives in the 90s.

Over the years, though, The Simpsons has lost some of the components that endeared it to us all those years ago. This has taken the form of the creators removing an episode from syndication because a guest star’s legacy is problematic, non-personing a character from the show because it offended some guy, or taking out a running gag because “times have changed.”

As ingrained as the image of Homer choking Bart is to most viewers, it will no longer be a common appearance on the show. Granted, it hasn’t been used for a while, so most could connect the dots that it was being phased out. However, when the show comments on it, it comes off as the writers patting themselves on the back, telling the world how enlightened they are while wafting their farts from champagne flutes.

For a show that prides itself on returning to the status quo at the end of each episode, sometimes much quicker than usual, any permanent change to the show is sure to result in a raised eyebrow at least. While some of these have been walk-backed, such as the Van Houtens’ divorce, others have become essential, such as Lisa’s vegetarianism, and it would be hard to imagine the characters without these traits.

This begs the question of how much the core concepts of a show can be changed until it no longer resembles what made audiences love it in the first place.

Why You Little!

Picking a joke about child abuse is an odd hill to die on, but it’s just another item in a long list of topics the creators have considered verboten. For a show that used to lampoon both sides fairly well, it took an unapologetic left turn so gradually, that most didn’t even notice. Sadly, the days of hearing Bill Clinton calmly state he’s “done it with pigs” are never to return. Excuse me while I wipe a single tear from my eye.

Anyway, it basically goes without saying these days that any entertainment will have a left-wing bent to it, but the overreliance on Lisa as the mouthpiece for any cause the writers chose to champion makes it unbearable. It doesn’t help that the reason for other people changing in these episodes is always because Lisa is sad. There was also the literal dick-sucking (allegedly) over Michelle Obama. In modern times, the message has taken prominence over the humor, and I get lectured enough by Captain Whatshisname every Sunday, thank you.

The show being on life support for the past 20+ years doesn’t impact the affinity we hold for the Golden Era, though, right? I would have agreed with that until the current creators couldn’t help themselves and had to put their fingerprints over one of the greatest episodes in the series’ history.

Cape Fear

Thursday, October 7, 1993 was the premier of one of the most beloved episodes in the series. On paper, an episode about an ex-convict out to murder the boy who sent him to jail twice might not sound like a laugh riot, but this particular episode is banger after banger: from “the, Bart, the” to “Hello, Mr. Thompson,” the labyrinth of rakes, and “bake him away, toys,” this particular episode is jam-packed with so many classic lines and jokes.

Thirty years later, this episode would be revisited for the middle segment on the newest Treehouse of Horror, only with a What If… style twist to it. After putting Saw, Se7en, and Silence of the Lambs into a blender, this is the episode the AI writers shat out. Also, child strangling is a no-no, but showing gruesome murders is fine and dandy like sour candy as long as it’s done under the guise of a Halloween episode.

From a story perspective, the Cape Fear episode didn’t have to be referenced at all. They could have started with a story where Sideshow Bob finally killed Bart, and the rest of the story would have been unchanged. However, that wouldn’t allow the current crop of writers to leech off the goodwill from an episode that has stood the test of time.

Comparing it to how Disney has crapped on the legacy of Star Wars may be hyperbolic, but it does draw attention to the trend of revisiting older, let’s face it, better episodes and trying to write their names into that narrative. Looking over the list of episodes from last season, I had completely forgotten Jacque, from Season 1, returned to take part as anything more than a quick cameo. Funny how I can quote an episode from the first season, but a later episode from the previous year’s left basically no impact on me. The less said about “Lisa the Boy Scout” the better.

Marge, My Friend, I Haven’t Learned a Thing

So Homer will no longer choke Bart. I think most sane people are fine with that. However, we all know it won’t stop here. Hell, it didn’t even start here. This is just another knot the show has made in the rope it will eventually use to hang itself.

I have no skin in the game when it comes to the success or failure of The Simpsons, outside of the time I have invested in watching it. From the online perspective, it sounds like most people my age no longer watch the show, so I am unsure who the primary audience even is nowadays? Perhaps I’m still sailing on a ship that only resembles the one I left port on 35 years ago. But as long as I have my DVDs of the best seasons, my gold house, and my rocket car, I don’t need anything else.


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