Ahhhh, The Simpsons. I owe Matt Groening so much gratitude for the lifetime of laughs he's given me so far. He's the creator of my favourite show ever. Or at least it was until it started going downhill a decade ago. Can it be saved? I think so, and here's how:
Let Harry Shearer (and whoever else needs a break) go
This summer, as The Simpsons prepared for its 27th (!) season, there was a big uproar that Harry Shearer wanted to leave the show. Shearer, for those of you who don't know, provides the voices for Ned Flanders, Mr Burns, Principal Skinner (and many many more), and is rumoured to earn about US$400,000 per episode for his troubles. To lose him would be a disaster.
Or would it?
There are at least three reasons why Simpsons producers should have let Shearer walk.
First, voice actors get lazy (or maybe uninspired). Shearers been doing these voices for 26 years. He does them well, but it's only natural that he would get a little bored with them. In the beginning, the voices he performed were all extremely unique. Principal Skinner was stuffy and nerdy, Lenny had a happy whine, and Kent Brockman scoffed with nasal bravado. Fast forward 20-some years and all the characters start sounding a little more alike. Their voices are simply not as dynamic as they once were.
But they could be.
Chances are you have at least one friend that can pull off a perfect Homer Simpson impersonation. Or maybe they perfectly capture Marge's hoarse nagging. So there are probably plenty of eager young voice actors who are able to do spot on voices for all of the Simpsons characters.
Putting the established Simpsons voice actors out to pasture (if they are considering it) would improve the show exponentially because first, it brings in dynamic new voices who will revive the unique personalities of each character.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, these new actors would be much cheaper than the established stars of the show.
Repeat: animation is supposed to be CHEAPER
Close to 99 per cent of Springfield rests on four or five shoulders - or rather, vocal chords. Dan Castellaneta (Homer, Krusty, etc), Hank Azaria (Moe, Apu, Chief Wiggum, etc), Tress MacNeille (Dolph the bully, Agnes Skinner, etc), Pamela Hayden (Milhouse, Rod Flanders, etc). Nancy Cartwright (Bart, Nelson Muntz, etc). Aside from these six (including Shearer) Julie Kavner covers Marge and her sisters, and Yeardley Smith does Lisa (and only Lisa). That's about it.
Springfield's population is about 30,000, but I only count six people up on that stage
By outsourcing the voices to new actors, producers could put the money they'd save towards writers. Better talent here would help the show find its footing again.
Don't let a character die when the actor does
It is always sad when people close to you pass away, especially when their deaths come as a surprise. It's only natural that you want to do something as a tribute to your departed friends.
When actor Doris Grau died in 1995, the show retired the character of Lunchlady Doris for 10 years. Touching, and not too damaging to the show, considering that the lunchlady is a background character.
However when legendary actor Phil Hartmann was killed in 1998, his characters died with him. No more Lionel Hutz, attorney at law. No more Troy Maclure (who you might remember from various infomercials and miniseries). These characters were much more versatile, but they'll never be used again.
We'll remember you, Troy, we'll remember. <sniff>
Perhaps an even bigger change came in 2013 when Marcia Wallace passed away. As the voice of Bart's teacher, Edna Krabappel, the show stuck with tradition and retired the character. But as Bart is one of the top two stars of the show, it's only natural that the story will follow him in school, which will involve his teacher, Edna K. Not anymore. This leaves a pretty big hole that writers still have not figured out how to fill. Rumour has it Modern Family star Sofia Vergara will fill in as Bart's teacher this season, but no word as to whether that will be a permanent replacement or just a one-off.
Again, this relates back to my first point: let the actors go, but keep the characters open to be voiced my new talent.
Hits from the Bongo
The Simpsons have had a lot of adventures in 26 years. They've travelled to almost every state in the USA and countries on every continent. There's been romances and bromances, marriages and divorces, deaths and births (and adoptions). A lot has happened, so it can be tough for writers to come up with new developments - as we've seen in the last couple of years.
There's only so many times we can be entertained by one of the Simpsons finding a hidden talent. In the past few years we (and all of Springfield) have discovered that Homer can sing opera, cut hair, and play rock n roll guitar, while Bart can drum, play piano, and dance ballet like a star.
Again, it's tough for them to keep giving us adventures that seem like something the character would get into without it being something the character's already done. Too often writers have fallen into a trap of taking a running gag and stretching it to a full episode. Moe has women problems so he dates a short girl. Really? That's a plot? Marge gets angry with Homer for being insensitive. Fine as a gag, but as a full length episode? Again?
Instead of getting intense, full-length adventures, we're getting weak openers that awkwardly segue into the main plot, with a side plot that's been stapled on because TV shows say you always need a side plot. Booooo-ring.
But there is a gold mine of Simpsons stories waiting to be told.
A few years back I was thrilled to discover Simpsons Comics, published by Bongo Comics. The stories in them are hilarious, and because they star characters you know and love, it is easy to imagine their voices in your head. So far, only a select few have been re-imagined for television, while the rest remain as a stockpile of awesomely funny Simpsons stories.
The Simpsons Comics series alone has more than 200 issues, and that's not including spin-off series like Bart Simpson, Bartman, or Krusty Comics. That is literally hundreds of super-funny tales ready to be converted to TV. What are you waiting for?!?
TV is good, stupid fun - but it doesn't have to be. Sam's got 11 awesome shows that'll teach you a thing or two
Recognise that nowadays the show is more about "Springfield" than "the Simpsons"
One of the things that has always made the Simpsons great is the supporting cast of the other residents of Springfield. Over the years we've grown to love and empathize with villains like Mr Burns, icons like Krusty, and losers like Milhouse. But guess what? After seeing so much of these characters and learning their histories, their strengths and their weaknesses, they're no longer just "supporting" cast.
I'm not suggesting that we get spin-off shows like Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane did with The Cleveland Show, but we are ready for the occasional episode that has nothing to do with the actual Simpsons family.
Too often we're presented with a great dilemma involving Kent Brockman, or Chief Wiggum, or Smithers, and instead of seeing how it could possibly go, the directors always feel they have to somehow wedge one of the Simpsons family members into the plot. Not necessary anymore.
Other shows have already shown this by example, such as when South Park devoted an episode exclusively to Pip, and another one to Butters. American Dad did it, too, when Hayley's loser boyfriend Jeff has to survive on an intergalactic shopping mall. Those episodes worked, and showed us that we don't constantly need the show's namesakes onscreen just to keep us watching.
I know a lot of you reading this might not be aware of it, but there was a time not long ago when things would play once on TV and then they were gone forever - or at least until the network decided to rerun the episode a few months down the road. No PVR. No torrents. No DVD. No video-on-demand. (Though there were VCRs, but they were pretty crappy.) If you didn't have your butt in front of the TV at the pre-arranged time, you might never ever see that episode.
But in the midst of all that temporary TV, the Simpsons offered a constant slew of throwaway jokes, things that would flash by in the background, or a one-liner that would be ignored as the dialogue continued.
A prime example is the opening sequence. As Marge is flipping through a magazine at the grocery store, Maggie is scanned by the cashier and the price flashes (US)$847.63, the monthly cost of raising a baby in 1989. It blips twice for less than a second, and then it's gone. Even if you recorded it on your VCR (check your grandpa's house), it was still a difficult joke to catch.
If this was Season 20 it would be twice as slow
Now, the show spoon-feeds you the jokes. Many times the characters pause to let the joke sink in, or the camera even freezes over top of a funny sign or image for much longer than it needs to. It gets so bad that in "There's Something About Marrying" (otherwise one of the best episodes in the last 10 years) Homer actually holds up and illustration in front of the camera for several seconds of silence before asking: "Have you read them all? Okay, good."
I don't know if this is happening because the Simpsons thinks its audience has grown dumber, or if it's because with weaker writing they need to stretch every joke as long as possible to fill an episode. Whatever the reason, it's gotta stop. Bring back the rapid-fire, throwaway jokes.
Make more "permanent" changes
When the show decided to do an episode about Lisa deciding to go vegetarian, they invited former Beatle Paul McCartney to appear on the show. McCartney agreed, under one condition: Lisa would permanently become a vegetarian. To this day, while her family gorges themselves on pork chops (mmmmm.....pork chops), Lisa will enjoy a bowl of broccoli and some tofu.
Similar changes happened when Lisa discovered Buddhism, when Milhouse's parents got divorced, when Maude Flanders died. These were not just crazy adventures that somehow reverted to their original state just in time for the next episode. These were permanent changes that allowed for character development and long term story arcs.
In fact, Springfield residents, despite living in a two-dimensional world, have a lot more depth than many of the characters on live-action sitcoms and dramas. We know that Barney Gumble, in addition to chronic belching, is a gifted artist who struggles with alcoholism. Krusty is not just a B-list entertainer: he was estranged from his father for most of his life, has major money issues, and no will power. The list goes on...
These permanent changes and developments to the city and its characters work, and writers would be wise to (carefully) make them more often. And hey, it's a cartoon that can last forever, so people can always fall off the wagon, get divorced, get remarried - "permanent" doesn't have to mean "permanent".
Every few years, South Park does a trilogy of episodes, like Imaginationland, Night of the Meteor Shower, or the Coon series. These episodes are great. They win awards.
A two- or three-parter allows the writers to create a deeper adventure, one that doesn't have to be nicely wrapped up by the closing credits so things can return to normal. It's the TV equivalent of a slumber party: you can take out all your toys, legos, and costumes, and build something much bigger than normal, because you don't have to clean it up and put everything away before bed.
The Simpsons, for some strange reason, don't do these. It's strange, because the one time they did it was met with overwhelming success. The Season 6 finale "Who Shot Mr Burns? Pt 1" captivated viewers around the world, as everyone tried to figure out who the attempted assassin was.
The Simpsons have had ongoing stories and long running arcs, and they do make permanent changes (as mentioned above) but these are mostly played out as small running gags in through multiple episodes: we see Ned and Edna's relationship develop over many months, and we learn more about Homer's (constantly) failing health.
It's good that there is a narrative thread that runs through an entire sesason, but it's not the same as having an intense two-or-three-episode installment.
Working in a longer format is something that would be quite welcoming for fans of the show, especially as it would mean less reason to create another disappointing Simpsons movie (or more practice at creating one that might work).
I don't know if Matt Groening, the Simpsons staff, or anyone over at Fox will listen to any of my suggestions, I mean, after all, who am I? Oh, just a guy who's watched every episode of The Simpsons multiple times.
Except for that musical episode, "All Singing, All Dancing" - nope, nope, nope.
Know any other ways to save America's finest family? Leave a comment and let me know. And don't forget to follow me on Twitter @YPSamGus!