Like many other former fans, I stopped watching The Simpsons sometime in the mid-2000s. It’s not that I think it’s uniformly terrible now — it’s still better than a whole lot of other shows on TV — or I’m boycotting it on principle. Hell, I even end up tuning in a few times per season, for a “Treehouse of Horror” or if someone I like is guest starring. But unlike its newish neighbor in Fox’s Sunday-night animation block, Bob’s Burgers, The Simpsons just can’t hold my attention anymore.
Sure, part of it is just that, a quarter-century into its run, the show rarely comes up with the kind of brilliantly loopy storylines that sustained it through the ’90s. What bothers me even more, though, is that a show that once had so many smart and original things to say about American culture has long seemed behind the times, its criticism mild and stale. In perhaps the most glaring example of this unfortunate trend, The Simpsons welcomed Portlandia stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein (as well as Patton Oswalt and, briefly, The Decemberists) to Springfield for an episode about hipsters.
That’s right: In 2012, two full years after Brian Williams called out The New York Times for “discovering” Williamsburg, the Simpson family got its first dose of the hipster aesthetic. But, as much as the young and urban-dwelling among us might judge Matt Groening for being late to the warehouse party, it wasn’t even the timing that was the biggest problem with the episode; it was its utter failure to say anything original or perceptive about the subculture it was supposedly skewering.
Titled “The Day the Earth Stood Cool,” the episode found Armisen and Brownstein’s hip ex-Portlander couple, Terrence and Emily, moving to Springfield with their too-cool-for-school kids and artisanal donut truck. They remade their suburban house into a modern architectural marvel, complained about “restaurants with two locations,” and bragged about having “a graduate degree in mid-century kitsch.” They composted and breastfed and went for midnight bike rides. Their elder son, T-Rex (voiced by Oswalt), told Lisa, “We don’t own a TV,” and — in one of the episode’s few funny one-liners — Lisa replied, “I didn’t know that was an option.” While Marge was put off by their exotic lifestyle, Homer donned a seasonally inappropriate scarf and took the kids to a Korean gangster film festival, all in hopes of becoming a “cool dad.”
But everything fell apart at T-Rex’s birthday party, when Bart caught the stuck-up kid poking fun at the hand-painted denim jacket Homer made as a gift for him and labeled Papa Simpson a “poseur.” In a confrontation later, Homer delivered a pseudo-wise monologue professing that “parents are supposed to be lame.” What followed was a rift between the families that could only be repaired when the Simpsons’ lifetime supply of baby formula put out Terrence and Emily’s compost fire.
Meanwhile, Springfield became a hipster mecca, overrun by farmer’s markets and food-truck bazaars and dudes with fussy mustaches. Bart and Lisa’s school became a “charter co-op,” where The Decemberists took over as music teachers. (Another great line delivered by Colin Meloy: “Who wants to learn a song about press gangs and infanticide?”) Of course, Springfield couldn’t stay cool forever — as soon as “everyone” knew about the place, its moment passed just as suddenly as it had come. In the episode’s final few moments, we watched the hipsters file out in search of the next nameless, artsy town that no one (except them) knew about yet.
That was the beginning and end of the insight The Simpsons had to offer: 1. Parents shouldn’t be cool. 2. Hipsters are shallow and trendy, solely interested in finding and appropriating obscure places and things.
It’s not that I expected “The Day the Earth Stood Cool” to provide graduate thesis-level analysis of the hipster; the show’s job is to make us laugh. But, as Portlandia illustrates over and over again, comedy is only as funny as it is perceptive. That show is consistently excellent because its satire of Portland (and similar cities’ and neighborhoods’) coolness is specific and nuanced. The Simpsons, however, should never have taken on this topic because it just had nothing to say about it.