Thoughts on FXX's Simpsons Marathon

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FXX is currently in the middle of re-broadcasting all 552 episodes of The Simpsons, the longest-running sitcom and (American) animated program, and also the longest running scripted prime-time series ever (passing Gunsmoke in 2009). The show debuted in 1989, meaning anyone born that year has probably already earned a college degree and moved back in with their parents.

The marathon began last Thursday (8/21), and will run through Labor Day (9/1). Really puts those weekend-long Star Trek marathons Channel 39 used to run back in the day to shame, doesn't it?

Like many others, I watched my fair share of the first few days of the the marathon. It brought back a lot of memories, and also elicited a few observations. Some cromulent, some not so much.

1. Crop Report

As reported in Indiewire and elsewhere (and as noticed by most of us the minute we started watching), FXX is inexplicably broadcasting the old, pre-HD episodes in 16:9 aspect ratio instead of the 4:3 in which they were originally aired.

To FXX's credit, it's also been using the original, pre-syndication cuts of each episode, so many jokes we're seeing haven't aired in 20 years. At the same time, I'm curious why the network thought cropping the frame and reducing digital noise would matter to a bunch of people who probably watched the first seasons on 18" CRTs through clouds of bong smoke. I mean, the show didn't even switch to HD until 2009.

More to the point, the haphazard edits render many of the jokes incomprehensible. For example:

No word yet on whether the FXX reruns will also be 16:9, though they will reportedly be the abbreviated syndication versions (episodes on the FXX app, "Simpsons World," will be 4:3, which will be a great relief to everyone watching on their iPhones.

"Somehow I Managed to Squeeze in Eight Hours of TV A Day." Something miraculous happened this weekend. Well, maybe "miraculous" is the wrong word. "Pathetic?" "Troubling?" Whatever the case, I had a bit of an epiphany on Sunday when I realized, halfway through Season 6, that I'd watched more TV in the last three days than I had in the previous three months.

And it may even be longer than that. Without my usual fall/spring diet of Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and The Good Wife (don't hate), my television diet drops into hunger strike territory, relegated to trying and failing to get into The Leftovers or The Strain and whatever snippets of CBS This Morning I can catch between school/work prep (that Norah O'Donnell can scroll through my teleprompter any day). I had a rare four uninterrupted hours to myself on Sunday, and I crammed at least eight episodes of viewing into that instead of actually venturing outdoors or otherwise accomplishing anything.

It was like my post-graduate years all over again. In the words of Peter Gibbons, I did nothing, and it was everything I thought it would be.

"Yes, Yes, It's All A Rich Tapestry." I really wish U-Verse had the functionality to just right click a block of programming and "select all," because honestly you could choose every episode in Seasons 3 through 8 inclusive and not find a dud in the bunch. A laundry list of highlights would take ten pages, but here's a (severely abbreviated) list:

Kamp Krusty A Streetcar Named Marge Homer the Heretic Lisa the Beauty Queen Treehouse of Horror III Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie Mr. Plow Lisa's First Word Homer's Triple Bypass Marge vs. the Monorail Selma's Choice Brother from the Same Planet I Love Lisa Duffless Last Exit to Springfield Whacking Day Krusty Gets Kancelled

And that's just Season 4. The glory years of The Simpsons happily coincided with some of the best times of my life: finishing college, meeting (and eventually marrying) my wife, getting into grad school. Add to that the privilege of seeing some of the best TV ever made as it was released. Groening and company's run during those years was so stratospherically above anything else on TV at the time we could perhaps be forgiven for thinking the good times would never end. But end they did.

"Stupid TV! Be More Funny!" For many people, the decline can be traced to a particular date and episode: September 28, 1997, 4F23, "The Principal and the Pauper." In it, Springfield Elementary School principal Seymour Skinner is revealed to be an impostor named "Armin Tamzarian" who assumed Skinner's identity in Vietnam. That's stupid enough on its own, but in a move that would become a trademark of the show from that point on, the big twist had no lasting effect on the show itself (aside from increasingly unfunny in-jokes). Where previous seasons managed to mix hilarity with heart, the new regime (led by new show runner Mike Scully) started reducing the show to the nonsensical, Homer-centric gag reels which have been the norm ever since.

"I Remember You From Such Filmstrips as 'Locker Room Towel Fight: The Blinding of Larry Driscoll.'" While I definitely agree The Simpsons started going downhill in Season 9, I don't think it really went over the cliff until Phil Hartman -- who voiced two of show's best characters (Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz) -- was murdered in 1998.

It felt like whatever heart was left in this show was torn out, Laura Powers style, when Hartman was killed.

I personally stopped watching for good during Season 12 (pretty sure it was "Homer vs. Dignity that was the last straw). And while there have been a few diamonds in the rough ("Weekend at Burnsie's," "E-I-E-I-(Annoyed Grunt)," "Bye Bye Nerdie"), nothing I've heard or seen about the bulk of the show's last 15 seasons have made me regret my decision. What I saw of FXX's marathon was great, but I suspect ratings are going to come back down to earth as the last ten seasons air. After that, things will return to normal and The Simpsons will go back to being that show Fox plays previews for during Bob's Burgers, nothing more.

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