The ‘couch gag’ that adorns every opening of every Simpsons
episode has acquired a reputation onto itself. Differing every week, it’s the
one part of the show that has remained consistently surprising and in recent
years, ever more complex and grand. Are they all of the venerable series that
is worth tuning in for though?
The latest Treehouse of Horror episode began with a very
special couch gag (above) that was animated by John Kricfalusi in his usual style and
it caught the attention of Phelim O’Neill over at the Guardian who used it as
the basis for his
argument that the couch gags function less as a means to open the show and
more of a channel to introduce artists like Kircfalusi and Bill Plympton to
mass audiences who would not see their work otherwise.
In that respect, they function admirably and garner a lot of
media attention in addition to audience discussion. The downside though, is
that the remainder of the episode that airs immediately barely registers in any
of the accompanying discussion.
Does that prove the question in the title is accurate?
Hardly. The Simpsons continues to be viewed by millions every week who seem
more than content to tune in for everything including the couch gag. No,
the real question is whether the couch gag is the only part of the show worth producing.
Why spin the question around like that? The answer is pretty
straightforward. The Simpsons, being on the air as long as it has, and for as
many episodes as it has, simply cannot mine very much out of its cavernous yet
depleted reserves of characters and plots. They’ve covered just about
everything you can cover when it comes to scripted TV shows (so much so that
South Park famously devoted an entire episode
to ideas the Simpsons had already done.)
Given the shows reputation as one that always moved things
forward, it wouldn’t seem particularly flattering if it decided to repeat
itself for the simple sake of filling air time. Sure they’ve recycled concepts,
and placed characters in the same
situations over and over again, but the writers have always managed to put
some sort of different spin on it.
There are three parts of the show where creativity and
wackiness have been able to continue unbridled though, and they therefore
appear much fresher than the rest of the show. Itch & Scratchy pays homage
to the golden age of animated shorts, Treehouse of Horror is the one episode of
the season where canon does not apply and characters are subjected to all sorts
of fantastic (if gruesome) adventures, and last but not least, the couch gags,
which exist solely to remind the viewer that yes, the show is indeed a cartoon
The couch gag is the siren that tells the viewer to expect
the unexpected. It subject the characters to some sort of pratfall for the sole
purpose of entertaining the viewer, and the fact that they are disconnected
from the rest of the show thematically and story-wise, merely serves to
reinforce the fact that they are governed by a different set of rules. To whit,
a crew member told me that the plenty of people have worked on the show for a
decade or more, and the couch gags serve as much of a way of making their job a
bit more interesting as it does to give the viewer something different to watch.
The Simpsons may not be the pinnacle of televised
entertainment that it once was, but to say that the appeal of the entire show
has been reduced to just one sequence in the intro would be wrong. The couch
gag may indeed be the most varied aspect of the show nowadays, and it does
introduce viewers to animation artists and styles that they otherwise would
never know, but the rules that govern the couch gags are not the ones that
apply to scripted TV shows. They may be enticing people to tune in, but they are
not the only reason for doing so.