The Simpsons is a show that has long outlived its own relevance. In the 1990s it was easily one of the best things on TV — it was daring, funny, and best of all it had depth. The characters behaved (give or take) like real people. They tackled incredibly daring subjects for what was ostensibly a children’s cartoon. My favorite example is “Moaning Lisa”, in which Lisa learns it’s okay to be depressed even though the world is filled with people telling her to suck it up1. Can you imagine the show spending that much time on one character’s depression now? It has unfortunately become a string of gags. Plot and characterization have gone out the window as the writers and producers have worked themselves into a rut. It’s part of the problem you get when every episode has to end at the same place it started. Each episode is a hard reset. None of the characters ever changes. The result is that we’re left with a show that doesn’t even have the energy to end itself. They chug on mercilessly because they can’t do anything else, just going through the familiar motions.
Now in its 25th season a deadline is being imposed on The Simpsons from outside. Last year Marcia Wallace, the voice of Mrs. Krabappel, sadly passed away. The other cast members are no spring chickens either — Julie Kavner2 is 63, and Harry Shearer3 is 70. Most of the other actors are in their 50s. Long story short, this show can’t go on forever. They may be able to bumble past the loss of a minor character actor like Wallace, but once one of the show’s keystones passes away, they’re going to be forced to end it whether they like it or not. So go out now, with some dignity.
But this raises an interesting question — how the Hell do you end a show like The Simpsons? This is a show that has famously done everything, pulled every stunt, and is now just living off body fat. They’ve already pulled all the rabbits out of their hat (and then they ate the hat for good measure). In 2013 I was delighted to see they invited Guillermo del Toro to direct the opening sequence of “Treehouse of Horror XXIV” — easily one of the more original things they’ve done in recent years. Then it struck me. This is how you end it: call in a ringer. Only an outsider can blast away 25 years’ worth of accumulated cruft and give The Simpsons the send-off it deserves. It has to be an act of gleeful anarchy to end The Simpsons — of sheer pleasure in destroying something that we love so much and seeing it go out in a blaze of glory. That is the only thing that can break these lazy characters out of their routine and force them to react to something in a genuine way for the first time in 15 years.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is not the story of how The Simpsons should end, but it is the story of how I would end it.
Smithers gets cancer. Years of working at the nuclear power plant have taken their toll and the toxic love he’s had for Mr. Burns finally makes itself literal. He turns against Mr. Burns and lobbies to have the plant shut down. Burns confronts Smithers and warns him that he is meddling in things he doesn’t understand. Smithers makes a last-ditch bid for Burns’ love and finally tells him unambiguously how he feels. With ill grace Burns pretends to return Smithers’ affection, but Smithers realizes Burns is just doing this for selfish reasons and kicks him to the curb. The plant gets shut down and the police press charges against Mr. Burns. Burns is caught trying to skip town and is dragged back, desperate to leave, screaming incoherently about the terrible consequences the town has unleashed. But no-one believes him.
As the nuclear waste finally flushes itself out of Springfield’s water supply, the characters realize that the toxins are what has kept them the same age for the past 25 years. All the characters age 25 years in a day. Grandpa Simpson dies immediately. Marge and Homer are now old. Bart is 35, Lisa is 33, and Maggie is in her mid-20s. Amid the uproar Mr. Burns escapes, and Lisa is the only one who seems to notice or care. She realizes he is the only one who has not aged.
Bart is faced with the fact that he is nearly middle-aged, and he has wasted the first half of his life making slingshots and telling people to eat his shorts. He has no interests or skills that can serve him now that he finally has his independence. As he’s facing a stark future, he recalls the best time of his life so far was not tormenting Mrs. Krabappel and Principal Skinner. It was his friend/enemy relationship with Sideshow Bob, the only person who has ever given Bart a challenge that was worthy of his ingenuity. Bob is infirm now, and nearing the end of his life. Bart dedicates himself to giving Bob one last hurrah. He stages an elaborate Bob-esque plot to murder Bob, and Bob takes him up on this duel of wits with unbridled glee. Bart fakes his own death and allows Bob to think he’s won. Bob, having finally conquered his nemesis, doesn’t know what to do with himself as he faces a future where death is the only thing he can look forward to. But Bart has planned for this — he allows Bob to discover that Bart’s death was faked and that his arch-enemy is still out there, somewhere.
Homer and Marge have little left but each other. Homer’s job is gone and Marge’s two kids have vanished. The only one left is Maggie, who is a 25-year-old with the developmental age of a baby. She can’t talk. She can’t walk. Basically all this beautiful young woman can do is scream, spit, and crap herself. Marge wants to look after her, but she is too old to be looking after a mentally disabled adult. Homer isn’t much help because, never the healthiest man on the planet, he is now critically ill and bedridden in hospital.
Ned Flanders, having lost two wives4 and having aged terribly, loses his faith in God. He goes to the hospital at night where he confronts Homer and recounts all the cruel, callous things Homer has done to him, and how he has no reason not to kill Homer right now. He grabs Homer’s IV and bends the tube, cutting of the flow and causing Homer’s critical signs to waver. Flanders delivers a sinister speech about the meaning of life and death. Just as we think he’s about let Homer die, he releases the IV tube and leaves.
Lisa finally tracks down Mr. Burns and discovers that he had deliberately been experimenting on the inhabitants of Springfield. That is why he hasn’t got any older — he has kept his own supply of contaminated water that is keeping him young(ish). Lisa flies into a rage and nearly kicks the old man to death, but he is able to plead with her. Has his experiment really harmed anyone? Sure, Maggie is a wreck of an adult, but he has effectively given the inhabitants of Springfield 25 extra years of youth. If Maggie has lost her childhood, then Grandpa Simpson was given an extra adulthood. Lisa can’t quite fault this logic, though she can’t necessarily condone it.
Lisa returns to find her family in desperate need of her help. She has a mentally disabled sister, an elderly mother, and an infirm father. Lisa realizes she’s going to have to spend the rest of her life looking after these people. The bright future she always had in mind for herself is now no longer possible.
Meanwhile Milhouse has become a millionaire. The unreleased footage of his Radioactive Man movie has become a viral hit on the Internet and Milhouse is now a celebrity. He offers to marry Lisa and support her family. Lisa is faced with three terrible options: spending her life toiling to support her family; fleeing her responsibilities and leaving her family to rot; or marrying Milhouse for the money and enduring a loveless marriage to save everyone else.
Bart returns from baiting Sideshow Bob. He and Lisa — always at their best when working as a team — hatch a plan. They begin to chronicle the story of their family. They write The Simpsons from episode one onwards, and it becomes an enormous hit with the rest of the world. With the money they earn they are able to support their family.
The finale ends with Bart and Lisa being interviewed about their success by Conan O’Brien. He makes a sly reference to the monorail episode being a bit crap (in real life one of the episodes he wrote). He concludes by asking Lisa and Bart exactly where Springfield is located. As Lisa opens her mouth to reply, we cut to the closing credits.
Postscript: Itchy & Scratchy
No Itchy & Scratchy gag can be better than Worker & Parasite, but no writer can resist the chance to do their own, so I’m going to aim low.
Roger Meyers, Jr., maker of Itchy & Scratchy, buys the rights to the Star Wars franchise. He casts Itchy (the mouse) as Luke Skywalker, Scratchy (the cat) as Han Solo, and Poochie as Luke Skywalker’s son. Scratchy takes a shot at Itchy with a blaster, and Itchy turns to the camera and says, “Remember, kids — he shot first.” Itchy throws Scratchy to the Rancor while a bloated George Lucas/Jabba the Hutt cheers on. The Rancor is about to eat Scratchy, but Scratchy manages to jam himself into the Rancor’s mouth and prop the monster’s jaws open with his body. Itchy, ticked off, boards his X-wing, approaches Scratchy like the Death Star attack run, and fires two proton torpedoes into Scratchy’s mouth. Scratchy explodes like the Death Star.
On his way out of the cinema, the Comic Book Guy remarks, “Still a better movie than The Phantom Menace.”
I suspect the writers also like this episode more than most, because despite the fact that “Bleeding Gums” Murphy only stars in two episodes and has been dead since season six, he’s still frequently used in publicity artwork. ↩
Kavner is the voice of Marge, Patty, and Selma. ↩
Shearer is the voice of Ned Flanders, Mr. Burns, and Principal Skinner, among others. ↩
Maude Flanders died when the actress Maggie Roswell walked out over a pay dispute. Edna Krabappel hasn’t been written out yet, but Marcia Wallace has died so they’ll have to do something. I’m going to assume that the character dies too, although anything could happen, really. ↩