So, I watched an offering from the geniuses at Red Letter Media: an interview with the creator of The People vs. George Lucas. It’s a film that studies the relationship between the creator of Star Wars and the fans of the original film, whose devotion for him shifted into disgust once he released The Phantom Menace – which, as experts have documented, was rubbish enough to embarrass Ed Wood or Tommy Wiseau. One question that struck me, as I watched it, is why George Lucas is the object of so much dislike for ruining Star Wars but Matt Groening faces none despite ruining The Simpsons.
Well, I answered it for myself. As much as people love The Simpsons few have invested as much of themselves in the programme as the fanboys did in Star Wars. Its fall was marked by a slow decline, provoking gradual disaffection, rather than a sudden failure after great expectancy. George Lucas, autocrat at the head of his filmic empire, was the natural focus of ill-feeling while Groening is just part of a corrupt democracy. And, besides, it’s dumb to feel personal animus towards people who’ve given so much happiness and are, as far as we’re aware, doing their best. In truth, it was a dumb question.
Yet the artistic declines of the films and the programme do bear similarities. The creators of both debased their work by choosing to adopt the trends of genres they inhabited. Lucas smothered the bland narratives of his prequels in special effects while Scully, Jean, Maxtone-Graham and co. resorted to the gag-based formula so prevalant in TV nowadays; that which seems to assume that all viewers suffer from attention deficit disorders and will nod off if they aren’t barraged with aimless, unhinged and ephemeral wisecracks, sight gags and bodily expulsions. In an episode where Homer, Marge & co. travel to Italy they find a collection of “wanted” posters. Under “plagiarismo” is Family Guy‘s Peter Griffin. The irony, though, is that while Seth MacFarlane pinched the bases of his characters from The Simpsons the latter have been ripping off the style of his show: where characters and storylines are mere platforms for jokes. But just as lightsaber fights in grandiose settings remains tedious if we’re not so invested in the combatants as to give solitary shits about their outcomes, a joke will be far less special if it bears no relation to a character or narrative.
A further similarity is how both Star Wars and The Simpsons have been marked by the degradation of much-loved characters, as their creators seem to have misunderstood why they were liked in the first place. The thoughtless, reckless but essentially well-meaning Homer has become a malicious lunatic who kills women, frames his wife for federal crimes and otherwise exists to scream, get hurt and meet celebrities. Continuity, meanwhile, isn’t simply disrespected but outright scorned. Lucas goes back to edit the original films while The Simpsons put out contradictory storylines so frequently that it has to be an in-joke. There have been so many different re-tellings of how Marge and Homer met that I fully expect that in Series 25 we’ll learn it was at Obama’s 2012 inauguration ceremony. The makers both openly deride people who think that shattering the suspension of disbelief more thoroughly than a collapsing set might blemish the experience.
I know I said I don’t blame Matt Groening but I think he bears a measure of responsibility nonetheless. He’s responsible because he didn’t end the show after, say, the 11th series like a farmer euthanizing a blind, incontinent sheepdog before it urinates on all their happy memories. I guess the question is how much responsibility artists have to their audience; whether ownership is transferred to supporters of creations that – while only figurative – should be a consideration as they’re furthered. And, frankly, the answer is yes. If people want their viewers, readers or listeners to invest themselves in the adventures of the characters they’ve formed they can’t expect them not to react emotionally if they don’t live up to expectations. This doesn’t mean storylines and characters shouldn’t progress – I’m cool with being introduced to the unfamiliar – but artists should treat the work that has preceded it with respect its audiences feel it’s due. Unless, of course, they loathe everything they’ve achieved and feel contempt towards the people who’ve appreciated it; in which case they could at least be honest enough to come out, admit it and allow them to move on.