Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Can Only Death Stop The Simpsons?

Recently, The Simpsons and the world suffered the loss of Marcia Wallace, comedienne who voiced Edna Krabappel. While the staff of The Simpsons have handled it well, giving her a touching chalkboard goodbye, her death has me again thinking about the monster that is The Simpsons's longevity. The show, despite being past its prime for over 15 years, is now on season 25 and Al Jean has announced hopes for at least 5 more seasons after this one. There was a lot of talk about it ending in Season 24 and yet it didn't. Lists have been made about everything that has changed on The Simpsons since the original fans mostly stopped watching. This show is one of the few even that could have been some of the current writers' favorites when they were teens.

But there are more issues with The Simpsons's longevity than simply the fact that the show many of us loved back in the day is going on long without us, like an ex who has a life well after you break up and move to different cities. It goes beyond the inferior quality of most of the episodes and the plain excessiveness of 25 seasons. Now, for the first major time since Phil Hartman, mortality is an issue. Sure other characters have died, such as Homer's mom and Maude Flanders, but they were mostly one-off characters or at least very minor ones. Sure Maude Flanders was the first major death...but even the show mocked how inconsequential of a character she was (and furthermore, the death was due to an actress leaving, not dying):

In many ways, Maude Flanders was a supporting player in our lives. She didn't grab our attention with memorable catchphrases, or comical accents. But, whether you noticed her or not, Maude was always there ... and we thought she always would be.

Now, however, an important secondary character has died - one who has arcs, love stories, multiple episodes, etc. And I worry that, with each year the Simpsons continues, it will get closer and closer to losing other major characters.

Perhaps the most alarming thing about Marcia Wallace's passing is that, for the most part, it wasn't overly alarming. It wasn't like John Ritter's death, or Phil Hartman's. While Wallace's passing was tragic, it was also roughly one standard deviation under the average female life expectancy. In short, she died younger than expected, but she didn't die overly young. Yet she was 45 when she was hired. By all means, the show probably wasn't expected to outlive the actress (unlike, say, the Harry Potter Franchise and Dumbledore's first actor).

I'm putting this image here since mainly cause I love this joke and because it shows how present Krabappel was in that universe

Now the main characters' voice actors are all notably younger. For now. But if the Simpsons keeps going as it seems it might, the show might ultimately have to face not only the death of a supporting actress, but a main voice actor as well. Seem unlikely? 12 years ago, the longevity and the inexhaustible nature of the show, despite its faults, was the subject of a moment of Simpsons self parody. 12 years ago. In short, the show has doubled its length since then. Another 20 years seems unlikely in any other sitcom. With the Simpsons, I'm less convinced of the impossibility.

Why does this unnerve me, aside from the usual creepiness of mortality? Maybe it's because of how the Simpsons carries on and how this event affects it seems like the perfect symbolic portrayal of how we think about life vs. how life actually is. Springfield was always going to have Edna Krabappel. She was there, as permanent as Moe's, Santa's Little Helper, even Bart. And now I'm thinking of a Springfield without Edna Krabappel. And it's reminding me that nothing lasts. Even in this world that gives the illusion of immortality - where the Simpsons can have multiple Christmas, Apu can get married, have children, and watch them grow to toddlers as Maggie remains permanently a baby - characters eventually need to say goodbye, all because their actors are not gifted with the same Wilde-esque pictures that their animated counterparts have.

I know, I'm being maudlin. But maybe it's because The Simpsons's refusal to end seems to be denying us the great pleasure of stories: "And they all lived happily ever after." Edna will never return to Seymour, she won't be with us as Springfield marches on, and as the years go on, she may be supplanted in canon with another teacher. In a scary way, perhaps, The Simpsons in this way might be the most realistic show of all. It has the illusion of narratives and completion, but ultimately like The Sopranos, things do not end - they just fizzle out. Death happens, there's brief (often off-screen) mourning, and life goes on. A character's death does not become the focal point of a story.