Is The Simpsons relying too heavily on gimmicks?

The Simpsons' media gimmicks, crossovers and auteur couch gags have become a bigger story than the show itself over the last few years...

Warning: contains spoilers for this week’s episodes of The Simpsons and Family Guy.

“It’s not selling out, it’s co-branding. Co-branding!”

So says Homer Simpson in the throes of a feverish nightmare at the beginning of “Brick Like Me,” the 550th episode of The Simpsons, which then unfolds mostly in a LEGO version of Springfield.

It’s a cute way to start an episode that uses an exercise in product placement to tell a story about parenting and creativity, which is mirrored at the end of that story when the episode acknowledges how The LEGO Movie did the exact same thing a few months earlier.

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Such meta-textual hat-tipping may be appreciated by more pernickety fans of The Simpsons, (it’s also telling that the antagonist of Brick Like Me is Comic Book Guy) but as the series continues to make headlines with Very Special Episodes rather than the canny storytelling and unparalleled comedy that characterised its golden years, is the series becoming overly gimmicky?

We ask in part because The Simpsons dominated Fox’s slate of comedy premieres on Sunday evening in the States in one way or another. The Golden Globe-winning Brooklyn Nine Nine may have been a big draw, but it was sandwiched between a Simpsons season première that saw the long-hyped death of a major character, and a one-hour Family Guy special in which the Griffin family visited Springfield.

The Simpsons premiere, “Clown In The Dumps” was the subject of a certain degree of media speculation for almost a year, when producer Al Jean announced that a major character would die in the first episode of the 26th season.

As it turns out, the episode was the last hurrah for Rabbi Krustovsky, the rabbi father of Krusty the Clown, who was voiced again, for the final time, by Emmy winner Jackie Mason. Of course, for more cynical viewers, the main takeaway will be that the death didn’t matter. Jean was trying to backpedal on some of the speculation in the weeks running up to the premiere by saying that the “iconic character’s death” had been over-hyped.

But like previous deaths of minor supporting characters, such as Bleeding Gums Murphy and Maude Flanders, the death was actually the kicking-off point for two other stories – Krusty’s decision to retire due to never having won his father’s approval and a more darkly funny B-plot about Lisa anxiously trying to save Homer from an early death.

The “Tonight, Someone Will Die” is a time-honoured gimmick to get people watching a show, and it almost never turns out to be a major character. The ongoing mystery and hype clearly got people talking about the new series, but it’s hardly like the series has left the public consciousness.

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Even before American channel FXX started running their Every Simpsons Ever marathon and the show enjoyed a huge resurgence of appreciation from tweetalong viewers rediscovering their favourites, there’s a whole period of the show that’s indelible in the minds of a whole generation of comedy fans. The newer episodes have naturally had more difficulty picking up that kind of traction and Sunday is probably the most attention that a new Simpsons episode has had since the long-awaited movie came out in 2007.

Outside of the new episodes themselves, it’s like we’re already seeing how the show will continue in the public eye after it finally comes to an end. After making over 500 couch gags, they’ve started drafting in other artists and auteurs in a similar way to casting guest voices. Banksy and Guillermo del Toro both provided couch gags for the title sequence that went viral on YouTube in the week before their respective episodes were aired. “Clown In The Dumps” had a surreal extended gag from Oscar-nominated animator Don Hertzfeldt, which extended from the present, back to the days of the Tracy Ullman shorts and then into a future that posits the series’ lifespan as endless.

Outside of that, Groundskeeper Willie recently weighed in on the issue of the Scottish independence referendum, planting his flag with the “Yes” campaign with a fetching “Aye Or Die” tattoo/birthmark. When the series eventually ends, it’s not hard to imagine that the characters can continue in such viral videos, just as Toy Story has continued in media outside of feature films since 2010’s third instalment.

All of that said, watching “The Simpsons Guy” feels like Family Guy needed the bump in interest from this crossover more than the older series did. Even though it can be seen that latter-day episodes of The Simpsons have tried to imitate the once-revolutionary style of the Seth Macfarlane show in their scripts and suffered accordingly, Family Guy‘s approach of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks has worn out a lot faster than the cultural phenomenon of The Simpsons.

Furthermore, “The Simpsons Guy” exhibits all of the worst impulses of Family Guy‘s more recent years, tempered by the relief of certain tensions between the two series over the years. To wit, the intertextual swipes at how one of these things is a lot like the other, to the point of intellectual property theft.

The Griffins have their car stolen by a confused Hans Moleman while driving away from Quahog, and wind up exploring the nearby Springfield. In the manner of the most straightforward fan fiction crossovers, the characters pair off with their binary opposites – Homer and Peter tool around trying to recover the car, Bart and Stewie prank people and get up to no good and Lisa tries to boost Meg’s self-esteem.

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All of the best jokes in the episode come out of a tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating tone. The writers all seem to be Simpsons fans, (or early Simpsons fans, anyway) but the writing quickly degenerates from light jibes about their own creative debt to Groening’s series into a seemingly endless “chicken fight” between Peter and Homer that goes far too long without a laugh.

As The Simpsons enters its 26th season, this episode was the first of Family Guy‘s 13th, which is around the same time that the former started looking a bit long in the tooth. But when Family Guy falls short, it’s often down to a quite nasty streak and what seems like an increasing tendency throughout Macfarlane’s canon to go for the easiest, dirtiest laugh, and the 40-minute length diluted the good moments in this one (for us, the courtroom scene and the whole Chris and Brian subplot with Santa’s Little Helper).

To go too much further into it would be too far off topic, because Family Guy has long since lapsed into high concept story ideas like this one as a launchpad for non-sequiturs and cod-outrageous gags, so its propensity for gimmicks doesn’t reflect too badly on The Simpsons. Still, the older show has definitely come close to scraping the barrel for ideas in its quarter of a century – this isn’t even their first crossover.

At the time, there was a very public feud about The Simpsons episode “A Star Is Burns,” which featured a crossover appearance from Jay Sherman, the film critic protagonist of Al Jean and Mike Reiss’ other Fox show, The Critic. Matt Groening saw the crossover as cynical and went so far as to take his name off the credits of the resultant episode.

Even so, “A Star Is Burns,” in which The Critic‘s Jay Sherman helps to judge a film festival organised by Marge, is still one of the funniest, most quotable episodes in the series’ history and it certainly didn’t hurt the show, even if it didn’t do much for the fortunes of Jean and Reiss’ series, which was cancelled later in 1995.

With that in mind, Groening seems to have gotten over that in time to promote The Simpsons Guy. It may be a Family Guy episode, but there’s the sense that it’s an exercise in cross-branding that will benefit two animated sitcoms that are both past their best, one a bit sooner than the other.

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We’re not done with gimmicks for the year either. Following Hertzfeldt’s couch gag, one of the segments in this year’s Treehouse of Horror Halloween anthology will bring back the Ullman-era Simpsons, old animation and all, as they try and kill the Simpsons we know.

And in Simpsorama, we’ll get a chance to say farewell to the cast of the cancelled Futurama when the Planet Express crew travel back in time to save the future. Both the non-canon scary story and the concession to Futurama fans arguably have justification to just give into the gimmick, but we’ll see how those turn out.

By sheer logistics alone, we must have fewer new episodes of The Simpsons in front of us than we do behind us. The highlights in recent years, though never quite as brilliant as any episode in the period when the show was at its most ingenious, have been the ones that tell a good story with some good jokes, as transpired with Clown In The Dumps, rather than trumpeting a celebrity cameo or an auteured couch gag.

With LEGO and copious crossovers all coming within 12 months, it remains to be seen how the ratio between the solid stories and the more gimmicky episodes will shift in seasons to come. Someday this show is going to end, but hopefully it won’t, at long last, run out of steam completely before Groening et al finally call it a day.

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