Randomly select any episode from Seasons 3 through 8 of The Simpsons and you’ll most likely be greeted with one of the best episodes of TV comedy you could ever hope to see. Randomly select any episode from the past 10 years though, and you’re almost guaranteed to end up saddened, watching a show that is not even a shadow of a shadow of its former self. So how, many years past the decline of the TV series, did 2007’s The Simpsons Movie actually manage to recapture some of the magic that made Matt Groening’s classic sitcom so enduring and beloved?
For starters, the writing team on the movie was closer to that which oversaw runs like seasons 4 and 8 (probably the two greatest television seasons of all time) than the most recent seasons before the movie (17 and 18). Groening, James L. Brooks, Mike Scully, John Swartzwelder, and more from the golden era found themselves drawn back to the universe that they had brought to such vivid life for this most special of Simpsons occasions. And with this team returned something that the series had been missing for years: a genuine understanding of its characters.
Homer Simpson is, all in all, a good man. That might seem like an odd sentiment to kick off a paragraph, but bear with us. In the early seasons, Homer might be thoughtless, self-centered, and a bearer of burdensome schemes, but he loves his family, and, when it comes down to it, will do anything for them. He slaves away at his miserable job at the nuclear power plant, the sole breadwinner despite how much he hates it there. Take ‘Last Exit to Springfield’ for example: when Lisa needs braces, Homer puts his job on the line and organises every other worker at the plant to unionise for a dental plan.
He often sees Bart’s potential, he gives up his dream job to make enough money to raise Maggie, and he makes time for his children’s activities. And as proven when Flanders forcibly adopts the kids, they love him for it. Even God Himself, in ‘Homer the Heretic’, can’t really find fault in the way Homer feels about his family. Vitally, it’s this Homer that made his way to the big screen in 2007, not the bastardised and cruel Yellow Peter Griffin who is most often found in recent episodes.
With a real, lovable human at its centre, rather than a mere cipher for jokes, The Simpsons Movie can do what the series always did best and ground its absurd hilarity with real warmth. Sure, the EPA might have sealed Springfield off in a giant glass dome, but the heart of the film is Homer’s journey to learning the importance of community. For all his successes with his family, Homer’s relationship with Springfield was always a tetchy one at best, so to have him sacrifice an easy life to save the town feels like a genuine step forward for his character.
But enough with all the drama – The Simpsons Movie is also incredibly funny, bringing in the vast majority of the series’ unbeatable supporting cast (regrettably, the only major exclusion is Sideshow Bob) and finding time to check in with each and every one of them as society in Springfield collapses. The Simpson family escaping via sinkhole from the dome is a classic comedy set-piece, almost on a par with such immortal series scenes as Homer’s failed leap of the Springfield gorge, and there are countless other superb sight gags.
Perhaps the ultimate masterstroke, however, was bringing back the greatest ever one-off Simpsons guest star, Albert Brooks, as villainous EPA head Russ Cargill. Upping the “mad with power” vibes that he put to such perfect use as Hank Scorpio, Brooks’ Cargill is an instant classic of a Simpsons character. His “tough guys and soft guys” speech, immediately followed by a wallop in the face with a pair of binoculars, is knock-you-out-of-your-chair funny every single time, and every other scene he features in is comedy gold too.
Sadly the movie, as great as it was, did not mark a return to form for the series. Its decline continued, no longer just bad by Simpsons standards, but often bad television by any standard, and recent seasons have featured some truly, tragically awful episodes. Had they finished their run after Season 9, The Simpsons could have gone down as the closest to perfect any TV show has ever been. In reality, The Simpsons Movie was a necessary, albeit painful reminder, of that wasted potential.
More importantly, it illustrated just what separated Groening’s creation from the Family Guys and South Parks of the world: a genuine heart and characters that were ridiculous but real, making the laughs that much more satisfying.