"When did the Simpsons start to lose its steam?" Such is a timelessly debated question amongst nerds, and the responses couldn't vary more over the years, from assertions that Mike Scully turned the series into a 'cartoon,' that episodes like 'The Principal and the Pauper' nailed closed the coffin of the show, that once Dave Mirkin rolled in, the series began moving away from emotionally centered stories, even the infamous quote 'Worst episode ever," came from a blogger scribing his hatred for the episode 'Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie," from season 4; but these days most fingers start to point to Al Jean's tenure as showrunner for a clear illustration of the family's fall from demanding adventures that commanded viewing. In 2004, during the series' 15th year, Harry Shearer was infamously outspoken at what he saw was a declining quality within the series over the previous three years. With Season 13, you can judge for yourself, as that is year one of Al Jean's tenure, and would be the first of those declining shows.
Truly the Simpsons has never stopped offering funny adventures for our classic characters, however its tone has surely shifted as time has passed, but as such it has managed to keep itself capable of renewing its palate of comedy and expanding its universe. It has managed to produce great episodes even during this past decade, but in contrast to the consistency within the first ten years, the show has certainly given justification to comparative criticism. Season 13 is filled with humorous offerings and many explore mature and inspired themes like spirituality, medicinal marijuana, reality television executions, and the infamous skewering of Rio. There is a lot to like here. Many episodes are wonderful examples of the series thumping its chest with refined wit and social criticism, and most are creative continuations of various setups that have worked to great effect in the past. Apu gets a nice infidelity tale, Homer takes on the role as the new Moe, Lisa flirts with adulthood, Bart falls in love again, a clip show, and the three act offering 'Tales from the Public Domain,' which is a nice alternaverse collection of re-purposed classics, even Homer and Ned's Vegas wives return.
While the 22 episodes included here are a certain source of mirth and continued adoration for the series, there is certainly more than enough room for reflection on the seasons' illustration of fans' indifference towards the show. The series has, since season 12, began to air the Halloween adventure, a long standing tradition of the holiday, on the first Sunday in November due to Fox's broadcast pre-emption by the World Series. This seemingly inane action has sadly influenced the perception of the show's urgency. Fortunately, season 21 has rectified this error, but nine years too late. Also, many episodes here feel to be the antithesis of the series' usual approach to storytelling, with nearly every episode using a broad setup that feels like traditional sitcom territory. While in said territory, the series was once reliable for reflexive comedy and biting satire, here the comedy seems to be relying on physical humor and passing sarcasm more than usual. Many episodes feel light in laughs, and our characters all seem to engage in scenarios where they learn lessons they've learned before.
While there are signs that things are becoming much more mechanized in the creation of episodes, and that perhaps the days of the show as the forefront for cutting edge animated humor are now behind them, this season still manage to charm. The many voices behind the past genius of the series continue their contribution to this season. John Schwartzwelder credits five episodes to his writing credit, Jon Vitti offers two, Simpsons 'brain' George Meyer even gets in an episode with now former show-runner Mike Scully, and Ian Maxtone-Graham too. But most of the writing is credited to the new staff at the show who have since established themselves as giants in their own right. Dana Gould begins his credit on the show, and has since become perhaps the most visible of Simpsons writers, and one of the greatest comedic contributors to the series. Current regulars Matt Selman, John Frink & Don Payne, Matt Warburton, Carolyne Omine, all contribute episodes that further establish a new tone for the series. What you get here is exactly a reflection of the transitioning writing staff: many episodes have a quality that feels reminiscent to the previous six seasons but are often next to ideas and comedic passages that are distinctly new to the series. That doesn't mean that this dualist approach hurts the series, it merely creates a new atmosphere within the show, one that some may not like, but that others may find perfectly suited to the series.
There is something about these episodes that makes the series feel as though it has entered a new age of sorts. What that may mean in the long term historical context of the series is uncertain. Many would say it is the beginning of the long winter before the Simpsons Movie, while others may say it is the continued illustration of the already declining urgency of the series. Certainly season 13 is a mixed collection of tales, but it is worth owning for any fan of the Simpsons. There is still a renewed energy from having a new voice in charge, and from a new writing staff excited to make its mark. There are great examples of the continued quality the series has been able to exude despite the occasional recycled plotline or brazen trudging out of a guest star. It may not be legendary, but it's better than most shows after 291 episodes.
An Episode Listing:
-"Treehouse of Horror XII" : Homer is cursed by a gypsy, Pierce Brosnan is a murderous computer, and the kids riff on Harry Potter. Definitely one of the better 'later' treehouse entries.
-"The Parent Rap": Homer and Bart are tethered together. Marge and Homer are put in the stockades for being bad parents. And Judge Constance Harm makes her first of many appearances. The KBBL Party Penguin!
-"Homer the Moe": Moe's swanky repurposed bar 'M' turns off his regular customers, so homer opens a bar/hunting club in his garage. R.E.M. guest star. It's a good Homer/Moe adventure.
-"A Hunka Hunka Burns In Love": In a strange entry in the pantheon of both Mr. Burns and Snake, Mr. Burns falls in love with a cop named Gloria, who later turns out to be the ex-girlriend of Snake. Enter Homer to his aide, to help Burns win the heart of Gloria, armed with an extremely potent aphrodisiac (which leads to a truly hysterical shot of combined horror later on). Gloria has since made several returns as Snake's love.
-"The Blunder Years": After Homer starts freaking out for no reason, an investigation leads to a truly wonderful flashback homage to Stand by Me with the roles recast as Moe, Lenny, Carl, and Homer.
-"She of Little Faith": A Christmas episode about Buddhism that takes some nice swipes at the commercialization of Xmas. Plus this episode continues the show's trend of wonderfully sweet Lisa-centric stories.
-"Brawl in the Family": Homer and Ned's Vegas wives return, Delroy Lindo guest stars as a moderator attempting to wrangle the dysfunction out of the family. "Another case of Monopoly related violence."
-"Sweets and Sour Marge": Homer tries for a world record and the town gets one: World's fattest town. Sugar is banned, Homer becomes a sugar smuggler. Ben Stiller stars as a corporate junk food executive.
-"Jaws Wired Shut": Homer's jaw is, you guessed it, wired shut. He communicates by chalkboard and becomes a much better father and husband because he learns to listen. Popeye parody included.
-"Half Decent Proposal": The Return of Artie Ziff, and he's a billionaire (which was aluded to in season 4's the Front). Artie tries to buy off Marge's love, to which leads to a recreated prom night love triangle quite cleverly. Then Homer joins an Oil Rig with Lenny, whose heartbroken over Carl for some reason.
-"The Bart Wants What It Wants": Bart falls for Rainier Wolfcastle's daughter (voiced by Reese Witherspoon). Bart then find himself in a love triangle with Milhouse. Plus, see Skinner at an open mic night.
-"The Lastest Gun in the West": Dennis Weaver of Gunsmoke guests as an aging cowboy whom Bart helps to revive his career on the Krusty the Clown Show.
-"The Old Man and the Key": A Grandpa Simpson episode that revolves around him getting his license to impress a hot new woman at the Old folk's home. A solid episode.
-"Tales From the Public Domain": An inspired take on three classics: The Odyssey, Joan of Arc, and Hamlet.
-"Blame it On Lisa": The Rio episode full with rainbow rats and roaming monkey gangs.
-"Weekend at Burnsies": The Homer as a pothead episode. A classic.
-"Gump Roast": An uneven clip show, that doesn't stand well on its own, like most of the later clip shows.
-"I am Furious Yellow": Greetings True Believers! Stan Lee guest stars as an insane version of himself. Bart creates a comic book based on Homer's angry life and becomes a poor successful writer in the process, paid only in worthless stock. One of the best this season.
-"The Sweetest Apu": Homer catches Apu cheating on Manjula and walks backwards in shock all the way home. Another great one from Schwartzwelder.
-"Little girl in the Big Ten": Lisa pretends to be in College so she can be challenged and Bart becomes a Bubble Boy.
-"The Frying Game": Homer is accused of Murder and sent to death row with a 'shocking' revelation.
-"Papa's Got a Brand New Badge": Homer and his cronies become the law enforcement in town when the police are once again deemed inept to handle crime. A very funny episode with a great ending.
Don't avoid season 13, there's too many bright spots of hilarity.