If problems had begun to appear in the last couple of seasons, this season is the one where it no longer felt like the next episode was likely to be good, with a small chance of being a stinker. This is where the Simpson family stops being relatable and start being outright scary. It’s also where the show completely disconnects from reality, where things that were previously Treehouse of Horror material enter regular episodes. Witness, for example, Kirk Van Houten’s arm being sliced off, never to be mentioned again. Or the launching of a submarine captain as a torpedo when Homer randomly gets put in charge. It just doesn’t seem like The Simpsons in its prime any more. Family histories can be altered whenever it’s convenient to the plot, like when Grandpa shows Lisa that Homer and Bart were very smart as young children, and perhaps most irritatingly and controversially, Principal Skinner’s character is totally assassinated when he is revealed to be an imposter, which for many – such as Chris Turner in Planet Simpson – is the show’s ‘Jumping the shark’ moment. It’s not just the abrupt change in continuity that sits uneasily – it’s the sheer implausibility of the town’s reaction. That said, it’s not up there in implausibility with things like moving the whole town five miles on wheels.
None of these are the nadir of the season, however. That honour goes to ‘All Singing, All Dancing’, which may be my least favourite episode of The Simpsons ever. I’m just glad these episodes weren’t among the first I saw.
But there are certainly strong episodes here, too. Nelson as a star peewee footballer, Lisa falling victim to an elaborate advertising gimmick, and Bart actually facing some consequences when he gets caught in a string of lies all work well for the show. Moe finds love and actually gets some proper character development, and Mr. Burns – despite it coming over as a bit strange so soon after an episode where he was broke – has one of the season’s funniest episodes in possession of a trillion-dollar bill. The season finale, with Homer and Marge trying to reignite their sex lives, is also full of strong moments and still manages to feel like envelope-pushing, almost two decades later.
But the real problem with this show at this stage is how quickly the characters can be remoulded to fit an idea or concept. We’re already getting to the stage where Homer is a psychopath who doesn’t care if he kills. It’s a struggle for Marge to be interesting. Bart is badly in need of more depth and Lisa seems to be losing her strength of character and cleverness.
Sadly, it’s downhill from here.