I want to make this very clear: I love The Simpsons. Two Simpsons episodes, “You Only Move Twice” and “Cape Feare,” rank in my top ten episodes of all television. The show could plumb the depths of human experience while splitting sides, and has been recognized for its brilliance by critics, academics, and just about everyone I consider a friend.
I say “could” because The Simpsons should have been canceled about twelve years ago.
There were a few bright points after season 10. If the show had been canceled after a decade, we wouldn’t have seen the conspiracy of the Albuquerque Isotopes in Season 12’s “Hungry Hungry Homer,” or the villainy of Frank Grimes, Jr. in Season 14’s “The Great Louse Detective.” Hell, even Season 15 had a moment or two, particularly Homer’s tenure as ambulance driver in “Diatribe of a Mad Housewife.” After Season 8 or so, though, the show began to drop off sharply in terms of originality and humor. Including even Season 10 in “the good years” is frankly a generosity on my part.
Yet here we are, in the show’s 22nd season, and the show has been recently renewed for a 23rd. Meanwhile, the Fox Broadcasting Corporation (the network airing The Simpsons) continues to purchase and cancel shows willy-nilly. The network’s name has become nearly synonymous with mismanagement and cancellation. Yet Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and little Maggie grace our sets week after week with their increasingly unfunny antics.
Okay, Fox. Let’s you and me make a deal. I will forgive you a certain number of unnecessary Simpsons seasons if you’ll apologize for the following cancellations.
Arrested Development (2003-2006)
I’ll give you a little bit of credit here for keeping Arrested Development on for three seasons. Only a little bit, though, because your treatment of this brilliant property was just disgraceful. First you moved its timeslot, then you truncated seasons. When you balled up enough to just cancel the thing, you aired its series finale against the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. Really, Fox? That’s just cruel.
I can sort of understand your point of view. “Critically acclaimed” does not mean “non-critics watch this, too,” and Arrested Development was not a show that would easily catch the casual viewer. Arrested Development required a commitment. To say the show made use of running gags and in-jokes would be like saying Bruce Wayne was unhappy when his parents died, or cheese is a necessary ingredient in a grilled cheese sandwich. Individual AD can be decently funny when viewed alone, but it’s impossible to absorb the program’s genius use of nuance without having watched every preceding episode. It was difficult to recommend to others, because beyond, “it’s so damn funny,” there wasn’t much one could say about it without giving a lecture and drawing a chart. I get it, Fox. Arrested Development wasn’t worth the effort for you.
Perhaps it’s for the best. The show is much more easily consumed on DVD, to better separate all the tender, flaky layers. That doesn’t forgive that you denied me more antics with Lucille II and the dizzies and replaced them with Abe Simpson’s senility, or that you trot out endorsements for other shows thinly disguised as guest stars (I’m looking at you, Glee) when I’ve already seen Charlize Theron as the enigmatic Mr. F. That was even a low point of the series for me, yet it far outstrips anything The Simpsons is currently spewing forth in terms of humor, originality, and courage. I’ll forgive you Simpsons seasons 19-22 for an Arrested Development apology, and I’ll throw in 18 for letting Tobias say “I just blue myself.”
The Critic (1995)
You double-crossed The Critic. ABC didn’t want it, so you graciously accepted it into your lineup, but for a laughably short amount of time. As the child of Simpsons writers and producers Al Jean and Mike Reiss, maybe you felt obligated. I wasn’t there, I don’t know. All I do know is that you were an integral participant in The Critic‘s inability to find a supportive and loving network home and, by extension, an audience.
The Critic was like The Simpsons in that it poked equal-opportunity fun. Most jokes were aimed at Hollywood in the form of film parodies and industry jokes, but Southerners (Duke Philips) the rich (Franklin and Eleanor Sherman), the poor (Alice Tompkins), the overweight (Jay Sherman), the self-absorbed (Jeremy Hawke), and children from tots (Penny Tompkins) to teens (Margo Sherman) were all made targets as well. Most targets, with the notable exception of Hollywood, were gently mocked, making The Critic more soft than satirical. It was a show that could have easily hit everyone’s last nerve, but it managed to keep star Jon Lovitz in check just enough that he came across as lovable, rather than manic.
When stacked up against The Simpsons, The Critic managed to capture the spikiness of “Kamp Krusty” and the sweetness of “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish” in one package. A package that you, Fox, signed for and then decided you didn’t want. Shame on you. Even if you issue the most heartfelt apology on this show’s behalf, I will only forgive you for Season 17.
Firefly took place in a meticulously realized universe. The show’s politics were rooted in a fascinating imagined history. The clothing (just watch “Shindig”), professions (Inara’s, perhaps?), government (the Alliance still creeps me out for reasons I can’t quite articulate), language (if I had thought of cursing in Chinese, I wouldn’t have bottled up so many emotions in high school), and food (mmm… mudder’s milk) informed a universe in which I was rooting for the outlaws harder than I had rooted for any outlaws previous. That may not sound like a big endorsement, but I love me some anti-heroes who turn out to be heroes. Firefly gave me some Big Damn Heroes.
People have rubbed this one in your face for a while, Fox, and I wish I were a good enough person to avoid such antics. Turns out I’m not.
Seeing Serenity must have really burned you up, huh? Seeing the exciting worlds that Whedon would have explored, had you given him the time to tell his story properly? I hope the sting of squandered potential realized elsewhere kept you up at night. That story could have been yours to air, but you just didn’t believe in the ‘verse.
I hope it’s killing you inside. I will forgive you for the Season 16 episode “A Star Is Torn,” and that’s it. I don’t care how many times you apologize. I will die cursing your sudden, but inevitable, betrayal.
I actually remember when this show premiered, because I read about it in the newspaper. (Remember those?) The article was enticing, playing heavily on the Matt Groening connection, so I tuned in. I watched the series, and laughed loud and heartily, and you must have heard me, because you canceled it.
No, that’s silly. You canceled it because everyone loved it, but not before you yanked it all the hell over the schedule. It got so bad that folks didn’t even know when to tune in, but by that point it didn’t matter. The critics had already praised it, and thus it was doomed.
The animated sci-fi sitcom was a fresh concept that was easy to start watching, and man, did it have its share of one-liners. Was your animated bread-and-“butter up that bacon, boy” beginning to look a little tired by comparison? Dr. Nick can only say “Hi everybody!” so many times, but Dr. Zoidberg can play the incompetent physician just as well (“Now open your mouth and lets have a look at that brain”) and deliver the funny on a consistent basis. The science-fiction gags (“Well, it’s a type M planet, so it should at least have Roddenberries”) made it appeal to a niche audience of nerds, but references weren’t laid so thick as to be off-putting to those viewers who did not self-identify as geek.
The saddest part of all is the animated pathos you denied us. The Simpsons has had its tear-jerking moments, but I defy you to name me one episode sadder than “Jurassic Bark.” The plight of Fry’s dog Seymour is widely regarded as one of the saddest moments in animation. I’d argue that it gives even Pixar a run for its money. Yes, Fox, you heard me. Pixar. Remind me why you canceled this show?
Right. It’s just as Fry himself put it, in the fabulous “When Aliens Attack:” “You see? TV audiences don’t want anything original. They wanna see the same thing they’ve seen a thousand times before.” Apologize, and I’ll forgive you the rest of Season 16 and all of Season 15, but that’s only because other networks recognized your folly and filled the Futurama void.
The Tick (2001-2002)
Speaking of original television, here’s another excellent example you squandered. You sort of gave it a chance by giving a plumb spot on the schedule, but the quirky little program was unlikely to catch on immediately, and I think you knew it. Yes, I’m sure it was expensive to produce, but you only aired eight episodes. How much does a season of The Simpsons run? You couldn’t have diverted a few of those funds to a smart, funny, character-driven piece about a big blue tick?
It’s a shame, too, because in today’s near superhero-mania, The Tick might have survived. It had incredible source material and was impeccably cast. I can now only wonder what foes might have joined the ranks of Apocalypse Cow, or where Batmanuel’s womanizing ways might have gotten him. Captain Liberty’s relationship with the government was a goldmine of comedy and satire waiting to be explored. I forgive you Season 14’s worth, and not an episode more.
Look at that. You still have three season’s worth of The Simpsons I refuse to forgive, and those I do come at the cost of your heartfelt apologies. As a disillusioned fan, I will continue my avoidance of recent Simpsons, and instead revel in the bygone days of superior shows.