Monday, September 15, 2008

Storytelling Engines: The Simpsons

(or "And Then The Children Were Rescued By...Oh, Let's Say Moe.")

The storytelling engine of the Simpson family is a pretty familiar one to anyone who watches television. The average family with a not-so-average life is pretty familiar ground for television comedy, and has been ever since the days of 'I Love Lucy'. Matt Groening (who supposedly based the series on his own family) created a deceptively simple family structure that generates plenty of stories--the dumb-but-loveable dad, the mischievous-but-good-at-heart son, the intelligent-but-socially-awkward daughter, and the slightly-stir-crazy stay-at-home mom each have their own reasons to provide the writer with storylines (and hyphens, apparently.) Groening's main contribution to the genre was to open up the throttle slightly in a way that works well with the choice of cartoons as a way to deliver the series. Homer isn't just dumb, he's cartoonishly stupid. Bart isn't just mischievous, he's cartoonishly wicked, et cetera, et cetera.

The series developed the other elements of its storytelling engine over its first few seasons, bringing in supporting characters like Moe and Barney, settings like the nuclear power plant and the school, and gradually developing more ways to generate stories as it went on. This is pretty much par for the course with any sitcom (although as a cartoon, the Simpsons have the advantage of not having to worry about actor availability. You can develop a much larger supporting cast when they're all really Hank Azaria.) Again, this is nothing we haven't seen in any sitcom.

But all family sitcoms suffer from the same problem--there's only a limited number of stories you can tell that don't fundamentally break the status quo (and let's not forget, the "status quo" is simply the set of elements making up the current storytelling engine.) One of the key elements of a family sitcom is that in the end, despite the wacky adventures, the family finds a way to put things right at the end of every episode. The more wild the adventure, the harder it is to put things right, and so eventually sitcoms falter as they run out of new wacky adventures.

Which is where the Simpsons broke ranks, back in Season Five. Oh, sure, they'd had a few adventures that were a little outrageous, ones that maybe stretched the limits of the audience's belief that things would really be "back to normal", but the episode 'Homer Loves Flanders' marked a real departure in the series' whole direction. In it, Homer becomes best friends with annoying goody two-shoes Ned Flanders, and at the end of the episode, nothing occurs to break up their friendship. Indeed, they deepen their mutual respect for each other in the episode's climax, prompting Lisa to comment, "Is this the end to our wacky adventures?"

And then the episode ends with a coda, where "next week", Homer hates Flanders as if nothing had ever happened. From that point on, the Simpsons operates on the assumption that unless a future episode explicitly mentions a change to the status quo, it's assumed that everything simply resets back to the default state. So Apu and Manjoula really get married, because she shows up in later episodes, but Bart and Lisa don't wind up trapped on a desert island along with the whole class of Springfield Elementary.

This is a whole new kind of idea, a post-modern take on the storytelling engine that takes it for granted that the audience is not only familiar with the storytelling engine of the Simpsons, but the concept of a storytelling engine in general and the way that a sitcom works. It allows the writers much more creative freedom than the traditional sitcom--they don't have to come up with an ending that returns everything to normal, they just have to take their ideas as far as they can logically go, and let the audience's knowledge of the "sitcom rules" do the rest. Arguably, the series has overused the idea a bit, as it moves on into its twentieth season, but then again, the very fact that it even has a twentieth season, when such legendary sitcoms as 'The Cosby Show' and 'All In the Family' didn't even run for half that length, shows that the Simpsons' elasticity is one of the overlooked elements to their long-running sucess.


Austin Gorton said...

Well written and thought-provoking as usual.

Similar to the fact that the Simpsons creators don't have to worry about actor availability, they get a leg up on traditional sitcoms by not having to worry about the characters aging.

This can cause problems too, because it limits the kind of stories they can tell (there's only so many 4th grade stories one can tell, etc) but the greater elasticity of the show compensates for this, either by skewing the characters older (this happens to Lisa-technically only 8, even if it is a very smart 8-a lot) and then letting the status quo snap back into place between episodes, or via the various "flash forward" episodes in which we've seen older versions of the characters in potential futures.

Anonymous said...

Great post, but it overlooks one crucial element, that the story engine broke down after 1997. After that, the show relied on increasingly idiotic and contrived gags, mostly centered around Homer acting like a borderline sociopath and having him scream in pain.

Tragically, The Simpsons sunk to the all-time low of ripping off Family Guy's style of humor, and yet they have the gall to accuse Family Guy of plagiarizing _them_.

By not ending the show when it was actually, you know, funny, Matt Groening has pissed all over his artistic legacy and become the very thing he used to mock.

And yes, before anyone asks, I am a very, very bitter man when it comes to a show I once loved.

Michael Hoskin said...

There is no consensus on when the show stopped being worthwhile (especially considering the hordes of fans who seem to still enjoy the program), but I gave up around 2000; I understand the bitterness because for every wistful memory of the program in its heyday I'm left with a mournful sigh.

John pinpointing "Homer Loves Flanders" as where the engine began to falter is a fine insight - obviously the show became elastic enough to remain on the air, but over the long-term the abolishment of continuity and emphasis on the characters' cartoony nature steadily sucked my interest away.

Austin Gorton said...

I dunno, I don't want to sound like a Simpsons apologist (I still watch the show, mainly out of habit, but it does have a few good moments here and there, even today) but I'd say that the "abolishment" of continuity (which is often cited as a cause for the sheer dropoff in quality in later years) really isn't the problem.

As John pointed out, continuity on the show has almost always been pretty fast and loose, though they've always kept certain developments in play: Apu and Manual remain married, as John mentioned, Lisa has remained a vegetarian, Barney's struggles w/alcoholism (yeah, he went sober then drunk again, but those changes were part of a story), Maude Flanders has remained dead (even if that was a bad, bad episode), etc.

So while the creators aren't afraid to hit the reset button at the end of an episode, they do stick to certain character developments, even in the crappier newer episodes.

Personally, I blame Ian Maxtone-Graham and the majority of seasons 11-15-ish for the quality dropoff. It's picked up a bit since then, but sadly, it sure isn't the show it once was...

magidin said...

I'm not sure if it's the story-telling engine that broke and drove down quality. As I've understood it, the story telling engine is the background against which you cast your stories and the set-up that helps you generate stories. The problem with the Simpsons is not, in my opinion, that the story-telling engine was changed or that it broke, but simply that the writers stopped caring about telling coherent stories and started being more scattershot. Look at the early episodes, and the individual stories have a set-up, a build-up, a climax, and a conclusion; today, you often get one thread in the first ten minutes, something entirely different in the last 15, and a completely random and senseless 5 minutes to connect the two. It isn't that the story engine go broken, is that they stopped telling stories. The engine is still there, but either the writers are either too burned out, tired, or uninterested in actually using it as anything other than backdrop.

Anonymous said...

I don't have anything specific to add, except to say that I'm glad you decided to expand your story-engine series to include television shows, especially long-running ones. So when are you going to do one on Law and Order?