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The Revelation of Maude Flanders

Bob Chipman | 1 Sep 2014 12:00
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simpsons maude flanders

What I took away from FFX's Every Simpsons Ever marathon wasn't quite what I expected.

Well, well, well. Would you look at that.

It's always struck me a little strange that one of the most inflammatory things someone can say about modern popular culture is to suggest that The Simpsons was still airing good episodes after its tenth season. Well... it used to be the tenth season, at least -- the cutoff now tends to be whatever season the person complaining went off to college, work or whatever other activity superseded regular Sunday night TV prime-time viewership.

That FXX's 12-day, 288-hour marathon celebrating the series' exclusive-arrival to the cable network would become an ongoing pop-culture mini-phenomenon unto itself seemed to catch the entertainment media by surprise -- doesn't anyone who wants to watch classic Simpsons episodes for that long already own all the DVD sets? -- but I can't see how it was anything but inevitable. Fan or not, this particular show has run for so long and been so popular that it remains one of the last examples of a near-universal cultural touchstone. Finally, something to reference on social media that won't just be a shout into the void or (at best) the other two or three people you know who like the same thing. Everyone "gets" a Simpsons reference, even if they don't.

(In fact, this was actually the premise of a high-concept off-Broadway production, Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, which imagines a post-apocalyptic world where the ability to recall, share and thus help others remember jokes, characters and storylines from The Simpsons has become the new currency of a civilization putting itself back together -- the last shared connection humanity has to an increasingly distant past.)

For my part, re-watching it (or, rather, using it as 12 days' worth of periphery-viewing background-noise while I wrote columns and edited videos) has been pretty delightful: There's a lot of memories attached to these old episodes... but not necessarily of the episodes themselves. I find myself realizing that I'd been remembering details incorrectly, or that I recalled lines and references that've become part of my shared-language among family and friends as said by my family and friends more completely than the quotes themselves. It also helps put to lie the "Zombie Simpsons" fallacy -- the notion of a seismic downward-shift in quality. There are good episodes as recently as last season, and entries from the infallible "classic" era that don't really hold up. (Mr. Burns sexually-harassing Marge in Marge Gets a Job, Season 4 Episode 7? Not really that funny outside of the let's-kidnap-Tom-Jones business at the end.)

It's also been a godsend for watching the way the various characters -- all of whom were broad caricatures of sitcom stock-types at first -- develop their specific traits and personalities over time. TVTropes actually calls this "Flanderization" after the show, but the more profound developments occur with Lisa. She starts off as the good/smart contrast to mischievous-underachiever Bart, but quickly became the philosophical-center of the series (and a feminist icon besides) based on what 30 years of writers successively defined and redefined "good" and "smart" to mean.

Another thing that jumps out? The way unplanned later developments make earlier episodes feel strange: Like the way the unexpected passing of voice-actress Marcia Wallace puts a sad sting on the buildup to the marriage of Ned Flanders and Edna Krabapple, which had been shaping up as an interesting new direction for the two major supporting characters. But it's the first Mrs. Flanders who caught my attention this time.

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