The Simpsons

Friday, May 7, 2004 by

It was an ending, and that was enough. With one final familiar yet reliably disarming gag – our heroes watch themselves being edited for transmission, note the bludgeoning exposition (“the Simpsons are going to Delaware!”) only to conclude “this’ll be the last season” – and one shamelessly unsubtle cheap crack – Huckleberry Hound: “I was so gay, but I couldn’t tell anyone” – Homer and co left the BBC to take their business elsewhere.

Not that you would have noticed. The hysterics, the anguish, the fireworks, the agonising post-mortem – that was all through with ages ago. Nope, instead it was a discretion and abashment ill-suited to of one of the greatest TV shows ever that escorted this most lucrative of imports out the back door and on its way, via six months of awkward yet contractually binding gardening leave, to the altogether more pampered pastures of Channel 4.

Why was this allowed to happen? There’s never been that satisfactory an answer. The Beeb dragged their distracted heels over re-negotiating the rights, then suddenly announced they weren’t prepared to pay “football match cash” of an unspecified kind to hold onto a programme that regularly delivered them almost 4 million viewers. It was a position as laced with self-righteousness as it was absent of logic. For your most watched, most famous show, you should pay sums proportionately way higher than you do for everything else on your channel. It’s obvious. For the big hitter, you shell out big money, then sit back and enjoy the prestige of having such a flagship, high profile acquisition return the favour by handing you the most loyal and enthusiastic audience around.

But no, the BBC let The Simpsons go, and not even at a point when they could mount a case for arguing the programme was seriously running out of steam (it isn’t) or starting to lose viewers (it wasn’t). Worse, not only have they surrendered a hefty pile of episodes as yet unaired in the UK (around four seasons’ worth), but that precious back catalogue of over 200 already-seen stories, the bulk of which continue to stand up to innumerable repeat screenings.

The programme had felt right in its 6pm BBC2 berth virtually from the moment it arrived there in March 1997 from a haphazard and undignified shuttle around the BBC schedules. For the seven subsequent years it’s been that most sought after of quantities: part of its audience’s routine. Early evenings equalled The Simpsons for the best part of a decade, indeed the best part of a TV generation. It successfully won and held ground at what’s long been one of the most fought over and uncompromising of territories: that frenetic junction point of crossovers from daytime to primetime, from niche to mainstream, from working hours to leisure. Sitting in the spot formerly occupied by DEF II and its successors also meant BBC2 ended up pulling in a substantial youth following. Credible, popular, and walking all over the news on BBC1 and ITV: a faultless possession. And an advertiser’s dream.

That BBC2 signed off with a clip show was fitting on one level, but the fact it was also one of the most ludicrous clip shows you could imagine offered up symbolism on a bigger scale. “Behind the Laughter” debuted in America back in May 2000, but turned up on the Beeb recently enough to still feel, non-terrestrial airings aside, like a virtually brand new episode. Purporting to re-cast the Simpsons as a real family who had their lives turned into television entertainment but then suffered an acrimonious descent into feuding and substance abuse, it was a reminder of everything the programme has always done well. You had verbal misdirection (Ned Flanders: “I’d see them sitting on that couch all day long, just staring at that Hollywood hogwash.” Homer: “Our favourite show was ‘Hollywood Hogwash’ …”), straight-faced nonsense (Marge: “They told us what to wear, how to dress, even which clothes we should put on …”) and best of all expertly-formed parody in the shape of appropriately melodramatic voiceovers: “For America’s favourite family, everything was coming up roses – but those roses contained ready-to-sting bees …” “… the dream was over. Coming up: was the dream really over? Yes, it was. Or was it?”

But you also had all-too plentiful evidence of the one element that’s so come to blight later series of The Simpsons: inconsistency. For a long time the show got away with the occasional botched joke, the self-indulgent piss-take or the boring storyline because they were always in the minority and always relegated to second place behind strong and well-crafted characters and narratives. Somewhere round about the start of series nine (1997 – 98, arriving on BBC2 in October 2001), in a process OTT has already observed in detail, everything went awry. Priorities and planning seemed to fall into disarray before your eyes on the screen, and though you knew there’d always be something to laugh at in a Simpsons episode, it was no longer the episode itself that was funny. So it was with “Behind the Laughter”. Constituent parts, individual set-piece gags and one-liners, were hysterical. The overall premise, that all-important central purpose, the very point of the episode in fact, was not.

For all the deployments of those signature Simpsons tricks, even the greatest staple of them all, the in-joke (seen here blown up to easily its largest scale yet), the episode majored in taking so much of our appreciation of the programme for granted as to exclude room and reason for a decent amount of originality. The Simpsons used to demand your attention by being funny, new and exciting all at the same time; nowadays you’ll be lucky to get two of those three in any one episode, so you feel like you’re having to put more into the business of watching the show to get more out. Was that a deliberate reference to an earlier story, you wonder, an accidental reworking of an old plot, or a knowingly idle re-hash of former glories? Is it really worth bothering to find out? For that matter, is it worth bothering with at all?

Such is the point at which The Simpsons leaves the BBC for the promise of more rewards (certainly of the financial kind) on the other side. It’s long been rumoured that it’ll continue to run at 6pm. News now arrives, however, of plans to pitch it into the Friday night gap left by Friends and Sex and the City, where it will surely flop, being on too late for children and in the process becoming a strictly “adult” proposition. Such wilful ghettoisation would be as self-defeating and disastrous as when BBC1 tried to turn The Simpsons into a kids show by airing it within Live & Kicking in 2000.

Still, maybe it’ll settle into its new home and, as the wheel turns and more old writers continue to return to the series, evolve into something as different yet as thrilling as, say, 1997′s “Mountain of Madness” was to 1991′s “Burns Verkaufen Der Kraftwerk” – six years and a massive difference in style and aspiration apart, but both equally hilarious and memorable. If it doesn’t, well, there’ll still be those bankable one-liners and the nostalgia of older, better times. With BBC2 already busy sweeping over The Simpsons‘ traces and Channel 4 preparing to hoist the welcoming banners high, there’s nothing left but to wish “Good luck” to one and “You’ll regret this” to the other. As for deciding to which we should say what, well, that remains to be seen.


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