The Simpsons Season 14 Retrospective

The Simpsons Season 14 Retrospective

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Season 14 is one of the most easy-going and uninhibited seasons in Simpsons History. The Simpson family had just completed a rather tumultuous year full of car crashes, kidnapping plots, and shocking swerves. Now it’s time to sit back, go on a vacation or two, and make grand gestures for our loved ones.

It’s such a relaxed and worry-free season of The Simpsons, it makes me so nostalgic for the sunshine-y days of… 2002? Wait a minute, that can’t be right. Against all odds, Season 14 is a year about The Simpsons’ struggle with success. Now, maybe I shouldn’t go too overboard.

It’s not like our favorite family doesn’t have their share of problems. They most certainly do. I mean, this is the season that completely traumatizes Marge, in one of the saddest Marge stories ever done on the show. However, unlike Season 12 that continually laughs about bad situations they’re forced into, Season 14 takes a sunnier, more optimistic approach.

This is a year all about agency, finding the strengths within the characters and highlighting how they can affect real change. I mean, let’s look at their accomplishments. The family gets Krusty elected to Congress, Lisa petitions Quimby to solve a light pollution problem, and in a Treehouse of Horror, even passes a firearms ban. In America.

On an individual level, the characters constantly seem to be moving onto new exciting opportunities. Lisa gets promoted to the 3rd grade, Bart gets himself emancipated, Homer gains ownership of both the nuclear power plant and the church, Marge becomes a model, Santa’s Little Helper becomes a beer spokesperson, and Ned dates a movie star. There is this upward trajectory to most characters. This isn’t a season of repeatedly kicking people when they’re down.

We want to give them everything they could possibly want, and see how they deal with it. There is an uptick in contest-related plots this year and, by and large, they all go exceptionally well. Mrs. Krabappel and Lisa both become finalists on a national stage, Marge gets second place

in her bodybuilding contest, Homer becomes king of Mardis Gras. That last one didn’t work out that great for him, but hey, at least he didn’t finish in 2nd like everyone else. But even when the characters don’t win… Like, Lisa clearly blows it in the finals… It’s still treated as a victory. Incidentally, both Lisa and Mrs. K get impressive rocks. There are a ton of episodes that open with the family getting treated to something nice, whether it’s a Skybox, a spa treatment, a WNBA game, or a trip to the botanical gardens.

There’s a real party atmosphere to Season 14… Everyone is in the mood to celebrate, throw a big shindig for the neighborhood. When things go badly, it tends to be a result of too much indulgence, punishing their hedonistic lifestyle. If it sounds like I’m describing Season 14 as “First World Problems: The Season,” it’s because I am. Even when there’s legitimate personal conflict, the characters land comfortably on their feet. Gone are the days of Homer living in the treehouse.

Now when he has a marital crisis, he moves in with this friendly gay couple in their upscale apartment. When Bart feuds with Homer and moves out, he quickly becomes friends with Tony Hawk. When Homer becomes depressed and resentful toward his family, they treat him to a Rock & Roll Fantasy Camp.

Jesus Christ, Season 14. You know things are going usually well when one of the family’s most miserable scenarios is becoming stars of their own reality TV show. One criticism of later Simpsons is that they stop feeling like a true working-class or middle-class family and I think Season 14 is a notable example of this shift.

The writers want to create memorable situations so they need to yada yada yada away any barriers that would prevent them from happening. It’s incredibly silly how Homer and Marge can enlist the help of Jackson Browne and Weird Al, but the show treats it matter-of-factly, that this is a fairly normal thing that people can do. Contrast this with the Mike Scully years, which also emphasized how the characters or plot can inexplicably do incredible things… But in a different way.

There was always this subversive and self-conscious air about it, where they do something cuckoo-bananas and laugh about said cuckoo-bananas. Instead of stretching flexible reality to its limit, now we’re more in this alternate dreamlike reality where these contrived situations are commonplace. It’s basically the vibe of classic era Simpsons, only if they lived in L.A. and made about twice as much money. Kinda surprised Homer didn’t just pay off that private eye, given how the rest of the year went. To be fair, the carefree vibes are balanced out by a great deal of danger in these stories.

These aren’t the most relationship-driven plots, so they often need to invent a perilous situation in Act 3 to resolve things. Sometimes the characters cause the problem, sometimes they walk into it. They really like this sorta “Final Boss” format where the characters utilize their prior success to save the day. The Simpsons were less interested in doing hard-hitting satire or social commentary during this year. They’ll have Homer live with gay roommates for an episode, but it’s more of an antiquated 2000s version of slice-of-life than than something with actual commentary.

Instead, they’ll take shots at corporate America, the paparazzi, the TV industry, and steroids. Or, most shockingly, and I know this is gonna blow people’s minds, but I’m starting to suspect Congress is full of corrupt do-nothings beholden to special interests. From a commentary perspective, it feels a bit like The Simpsons Greatest Hits. It should be noted that they very consciously avoided getting too political in the post-9/11 environment. Al Jean had said multiple times on commentaries that the reasoning was that public opinion would change so rapidly during this time. And with how long animation takes, they didn’t want to release an immediately dated satire.

They dipped their toes in the political waters later, but aside from a couple overly patriotic jokes, Season 14 largely ignores that real world context. I swear to god I’m not trying to “Mr. Enter” this review by bringing up 9/11. Given The Simpsons' more satirical bent and, you know, the fact these episodes were being written during this era, I think the escapist direction of Season 14 is interesting. It kinda contradicts the historical narrative that all media constantly had this maudlin or fear-mongering vibe. It’s like The Simpsons made a stereotypically “late 90s” season in 2002.

That being said, despite cooking up upbeat stories, the show did balance things out by mixing in a teaspoon of melancholy. Their secondary characters often start out in these extremely sad lonely places before things start turning around for them. Because the majority of pathos is upfront, we don’t think of “Special Edna” or “A Star Is Born-Again” as particularly heavy affairs, compared to say, “Bart the Lover” or “When Flanders Failed.” Season 14’s favorite technique is to do a fun and breezy concept and insert one laser-focused moment of pathos, usually somewhere in Act 2.

How will we punctuate the loss of Reverend Lovejoy or Santa’s Little Helper? We’ll have Flanders and Homer sobbing at the act breaks. How do we convey THESE unfortunate developments? Marge, bring in the waterworks. There is so much laser-focused crying in Season 14, they start signposting it. Some of these examples feel like the writers desperately trying to get some character stuff into these frivolous sitcom plots, whereas others are simply played for laughs.

There’s like three different Homer jokes that involve alternating between glee and sorrow. My favorite variation is this one. Oh, speaking of which, the writers have officially rediscovered their love of breasts in Season 14. I had joked last time that the show became obsessed with dicks… And, yeah, there’s a lot of crotch stuffing and dick jokes throughout this year too. How’s it hangin’, Ranier. But considering this is a season with “Large Marge,” Booberella, and this little number, it’s safe to say that Season 14 is servicing its fans.

Also, people into furries, female body-builders, and basketball mascots would probably be into this era. I kinda wanna bonk Season 14 with a bat right now. As a whole, I would say Season 14’s sense of humor is warmer and less subversive than the last few years. Like, sure, they’ll still do their share of fakeout screw-the-audience jokes, with misleading newspaper headlines, misread social situations, and sign jokes.

But we’re continuing to get diminishing returns on this joke archetype. Like, I really enjoy that Lenny/Carl gag where they both see Carl’s face in the stars. But, by and large, most of the screw-the-audience jokes land more in the “cute” range. Thanks to the Spelling Bee episode, the biggest development in the humor department is the rise of witty wordplay. They love doing these overly descriptive, self-aware puns about a given situation. They’ll have Tony Hawk telling Homer he’s going down and then up and then back down again.

In Moe Baby Blues, Moe asks if you mean “get out” or “get out” and refers to an Italian-American-Mexican standoff. Or Sara Sloane describing men’s obsession with their botox, tai bo, and Xbox. OK, that one’s the best. There can be a Seinfeld-y bent to some of these, where you can almost hear them in the writers room bantering about it. To be clear, it’s not like the show suddenly turned into “Frasier” or anything.

They still had their share of slapstick, pain gags, and gross-out humor. It’s not nearly as bloody as Season 13, they became more interested in shocking the characters as much as possible. We get an uptick in fantasy sequences and dreams in Season 14… I think with the amount of achievement-oriented stories, the characters are more apt to have big dreams or worry about their future.

With sexy results. Season 14’s other new favorite rediscovery is wacky animal jokes. God, there are sooooo many animals this year. Stories that feature Stampy the Elephant, research lab animals, jellyfish, a canary, a colony of beavers, and a Santa’s Little Helper episode.

There are, like, four different monkey jokes spread out throughout the season, not even counting Mr. Teeny stuff. Season 14’s wacky animals very much align with that, “Isn’t that weird?” joke philosophy of this new era. Some of these animal jokes are the direct result of the appalling amount of TV the characters watch this year.

Yeah, we have definitely returned to the days of starting multiple episodes on the couch. Once again, I’m not knocking it, it’s a good way to kick off a story. Season 14 does feature plenty of stories that are directly influenced by television, with The Simpsons being in commercials or TV shows or getting a satellite dish. Honestly, this emphasis on TV jokes and reference humor isn’t all that surprising, as it tends to be a staple of Al Jean productions.

They’re not shy about saying, “Hey, remember the Blair Witch Project or Dead Poets Society?” I gotta say, some of the references are so dang weird all these years later. I guess Billy Crystal’s baseball fandom was becoming a real problem at the time. And as someone who once lived near old order Mennonites and would frequently hear the clop-clop-clop of buggies, this gag always gets a laugh.

What an oddly-specific takedown. We are still continuing our journey through the Al Jean Music Montage Era. Whether the characters are learning old-timey skills, going shopping, or performing for the elderly, they’re gonna set that shit to music.

Much like the previous year, Season 14 does contain a lot of music in general. Characters will suddenly break into song, maybe we’ll get inexplicable performances of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” or “O Canada.” As a high school band geek, I do appreciate hearing “Adagio For Strings,” “Clair de Lune,” and “Jupiter” from The Planets.

If licensed music isn’t your thing, we do get plenty of cast members singing covers or originals. Welcome back, Sideshow Bob! There’s so much music, they ended up deleting a song and putting it in the credits. Since Season 14 has such a strong Hollywood vibe, it is absolutely jam-packed with celebrities guest starring as themselves. This might actually be the big tipping point, where we’re really not seeing many originals.

This year, we got Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Eric Idle, Scott Thompson, and Marisa Tomei playing brand new characters. Otherwise, we’ll get celebrities like Little Richard, Elliot Gould, Tony Hawk, Helen Fielding, Steve Buscemi, and George Plimpton appear as themselves, often as a quick little cameo. For their big guest star episode, this time they got Brian Setzer and a bunch of niche rock and rollers. But enough about celebrities. I know what you all really wanna hear about. It’s time for the Secondary Character Stock watch! …So I guess we’re sticking with that drop, huh? In these recent retrospectives, we have chronicled Moe’s rise as the most prominent secondary character.

And there’s an argument that Season 14 might be the peak of the mountain. Moe is just all over this thing, whether it’s the typical plot check-in for Homer or him forcing his way into the story. Not to mention one of Moe’s most well-known spotlight episodes. However, his minions, Lenny and Carl, took a slight step back this year.

Like, they still get a bunch of random jokes, but there’s no “The Blunder Years” or “Half Decent Proposal” to show them off. Previously, Mr. Burns had a strong bounce-back year, but got mostly ignored in Season 14, just getting “C.E.D’oh” and a few very minor appearances elsewhere. Instead, Principal Skinner surged back into prominence, thanks to a strong selection of Springfield Elementary plots and his romance with Edna Krabappel.

He and Edna get engaged, which was seemingly going to be a major development for both characters. Thanks to this higher school focus, Ralph Wiggum and Nelson Muntz enjoyed a boost in screen time. Milhouse has a sneaky strong season too, playing important roles in “Large Marge” and “The Bart of War.” I gotta say, this has got to be one of the most awkward Milhouse seasons ever, which is really saying something.

Also, pretty sure Milhouse is in love with Bart this year. These were strange times for Flanders, who got a rather nuanced spotlight, but was mostly the hyper-religious Flanderized version of himself. A hyper religious version who watches Homer and Marge. Krusty had a solid year too, getting major roles in “Large Marge,” “Mr. Spritz Goes to Washington” and the spelling bee episode. Chief Wiggum, our old reliable, continues being his omnipresent self that I am frankly tired of mentioning.

As for the biggest winner of Season 14? Well, I’m going off the beaten path and am going with Cletus. Now Cletus only appears in, like, eight episodes, but it seems like the writers are going out of their way to give him more face time. I dunno, maybe he’ll disappear again in Season 15. It just feels like there’s momentum building behind him as a regular.

As for the family, let’s kick things off with Lisa. We got a relatively more feisty and passionate version of her this time. This is a year where she’s super into spelling, astronomy, and JTT. She has run-ins with both Bart and Homer, one due to insecurity, the other due to Homer’s garbage parenting. Of the main family, Lisa turned into the biggest caricature of herself.

She’s become so issues-focused, that now she’s anti-riding horses. C’mon guys. Bart didn’t have too many major shifts in Season 14… Lots of pranks, schemes, and wisecracks throughout. These Bart’s stories tended to play around with his facade. How supportive he is of Mrs. Krabappel only to betray her when worried about his image.

He’ll fight with Lisa in the 3rd grade, then come around to help her. He’ll get super insecure with his classmates or feel unsafe with Sideshow Bob around. I think it’s a pretty well-rounded year for Bart, a nice mix of internal and external conflicts. If I had to use one word to describe Season 14 Homer, it would be “overindulgent.” This is a year where he gets his own army of clones, owns the church and power plant, gets obsessed with rock and roll fantasy camp, and goes waaaay overboard with car appliances.

Homer’s living large in Season 14, it’s hard to keep this guy down… Which unfortunately causes him to neglect his relationships. Marge, Lisa, and Bart each end up resenting him at various points. Homer is still the big wacky fun guy we all love, he’s just somehow even more self-involved than usual. As for Marge… Well, let’s just say this was a year of transformation. Transformation and fighting with Homer.

While I’m not the biggest fan of double marriage crisis episodes in one season, I do appreciate that they were trying new things. I like how supportive and kind she is to Moe, or how she takes charge in the preteen braves episode. Even still, there’s no denying that this is one of the most uneven and bizarre Marge seasons ever. And finally, thanks to “Moe Baby Blues,” Maggie had one of her strongest years ever.

These two are just adorable together. In addition to her spotlight, the writers were really into jokes about Maggie dancing, Maggie ending up in weird places, and her love of beer. Turns out Maggie is a mean drunk. Going into this retrospective, I was expecting a retread of the Jean and Reiss years, almost like a Diet Season 4, if you will.

Lots of down-to-earth relationship stories married to incessant TV watching, parodies, and references. And to some degree, the trappings of Season 4 are definitely still present a decade later. But the year that Season 14 reminds me most of isn’t one of Al Jean’s previous efforts, it’s actually one of Oakley and Weinstein’s. Season 14 reminds me a lot of Season 8.

Or at least a less experimental version. We’re seeing the show return to some of those Season 8 storylines, moving Edna and Skinner’s relationship to the next level, introducing Frank Grimes’ son, and giving Homer another affair with the gay community. But setting those specifics aside, there’s a sort of ascendant quality to both seasons with their story selection.

These are both years about characters moving up in their careers, trying their hand at something new, or feeling insecure about others’ success. There’s that indulgent, party atmosphere to both seasons that is so intoxicating, so easy to revisit. The problem with these kinds of “vibes” seasons is that they’re not always a ton of substance to the stories. This isn’t a year that significantly challenges the audience or The Simpson family’s relationships.

Really, almost all the big emotional moments were given to their secondary characters this year. But that’s OK, Season 8 didn’t need to be as heavy as Season 7. Season 14’s more optimistic and relaxed attitude provides its own distinct advantages. We don’t always gotta kill alligators, sometimes it’s fun to just enjoy a vacation. Maybe start a war with some beavers if you want. And hey, if you really wanna be depressed, they still have “The Strong Arms of the Ma” to rewatch.

Let me know in the comments what you think of Season 14 and its overall vibe. This felt like a big stepping stone season, that the big stylistic shifts are crystalizing here and will continue on. I’ll be back next time with the Top 10, which will honestly be one of the easiest lists to put together. Spoiler warning, I’m a really big fan of a bunch of these. As always, thanks for watching.

2022-06-16 10:34

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