I said before there were three episodes in season 11 that could be seen as “Jump the Shark” moments. The first involved the jockey elves. The second was the death of Maude Flanders. And then there’s this episode where Barney Gumble, the town drunk, gives up drinking and it appears to stick for the foreseeable future.
This one is actually my pick for the Jump the Shark moment.
Huh, the season with all the potential shark-jumping also had a guest appearance by Henry Winkler…
Why does this one seem to be the one that, for me, was the moment The Simpsons changed? Well, for one, it signaled definitive sea change. With Barney going sober, it meant that his alcohol consumption was no longer to be seen as funny. Now, alcoholism isn’t funny at all, but the comical drunk character has existed for centuries. Suddenly, Barney’s pratfalls weren’t to be seen as humorous. There’s something noble in that, and the fact that Barney is by episode’s end now addicted to coffee (also supplied by a rather sinister-seeming Moe) is maybe a step up for the character as a human being, but it seems like Barney becomes less and less visible on the show in the future as a result of all this. This isn’t a change akin to Maude Flanders dying or Apu suddenly having eight babies. This is something fundamentally different.
Making something no longer fair game for humor seems to suggest a fundamental shift for The Simpsons. The show was never overtly cruel aside from an episode here or there; it was never Family Guy. One of the few things the Family Guy crossover got right was how much the Simpsons and their friends and neighbors were outright rightfully horrified by the Griffins. South Park portrayed Cartman, meeting “Bart,” as completely unimpressed by the Simpson boy’s antics compared to his own. So, while The Simpsons was never a cruel show, it also had a rep for not caring that much who they mocked. Shifting Barney into sobriety at the same time shifts the show, eleven years old plus however many years the shorts ran during The Tracy Ullman Show, into something that was more mainstream. That’s not a problem. That’s actually a good and normal thing until other shows try to do what The Simpsons never would and go too far, which is pretty much why I gave up on Family Guy long before I stopped watching The Simpsons regularly.
I think part of it is the script. It seems…off. Voice actor Dan Castellaneta co-wrote the script with his wife, and as the voice of Barney (and Homer), Castellaneta almost certainly has special insight into the character. But if there’s one thing I’ve seen, it’s that episodes written by the series star when said star is not a regular in the writing room always seem a little…off. I’ve seen it with The X-Files, I’ve seen it with Farscape, and I’ve seen it with The Simpsons.
So, when Barney realizes what he looks like watching a video of a birthday party he doesn’t even remember, it shocks him into wanting to clean up and even take Moe’s gift of helicopter piloting lessons. That comes in handy when Bart and Lisa get trapped atop Mount Springfield during a forest fire while they are out trying to take a photo for a contest for the phone book cover.
Were contests like that ever a thing?
There are some good jokes in the episode, like how Barney lives in an apartment above Moe’s, but mostly it just seems off. Homer’s big concern is the guys at Moe’s have decided he’s to be the new Barney as the comical drunk they all laugh at, and Homer maybe realizing most of his relationship with Barney for the past twenty years or so was centered around their drinking together. Marge can’t understand lose of a friend since she hasn’t had one in years and she’s doing just OK as far as she can tell.
But that’s it, really. I know Castellaneta has written a few other episodes since then, but in the meantime, the tone of the show has changed.
At least until tomorrow’s episode involving a near-fatal encounter with a beloved alligator.