After 26 seasons and 552 episodes, it's hard to stay fresh. Nonetheless, The Simpsons is trying, employing two big gimmicks in its season premiere Sunday night: a bizarre, buzzy couch gag from animator Don Hertzfeldt and a long-teased character death that underwhelmed pretty much everybody. Still, the strategy worked; this was The Simpsons' highest-rated premiere in years.
But the main event came an hour later, when Family Guy premiered "The Simpsons Guy," which brought the Griffin family to Springfield for an extended encounter with the Simpsons.
The Simpsons and Family Guy each inspire constant, breathless hyperbole, both positive and negative. "The Simpsons and Family Guy crossover was The Best. One. Ever," crowed Cinema Blend. "One of the most fascinatingly weird things to ever happen on television," said Entertainment Weekly. "A blight on humanity," complained Vox.
The truth is a lot less exciting than any of those things. More than anything, "The Simpsons Guy" was lazy — a fundamentally misguided attempt to make two totally different tastes cohere, like a tuna-and-peanut-butter sandwich.
The dominant flavor of "The Simpsons Guy" is Family Guy. Though the majority of the episode took place in Springfield, this isn't quite a crossover; it's an extra-long Family Guy episode in which the Simpsons appear as versions of themselves, warped through a Family Guy lens.
"The Simpsons Guy" opens, inevitably, by mocking the idea of crossover as a pathetic, headline-grabbing stunt by a couple of sell-outs. It also anticipates a blogger backlash that never really happened, as a bunch of straw-man feminists run the Griffins out of Quahog for drawing a sexist comic that also makes light of spousal abuse. Great timing, guys!
The Griffins stumble into Springfield, where each character is paired off with their rough analogue: Peter and Homer, Lois and Marge, Stewie and Bart, Meg and Lisa, Chris and Maggie, Brian and Santa's Little Helper. From there, everybody splits up to repeat the same antics and catch phrases you've seen before. (Well, almost everybody; Family Guy doesn't have much use for Lois, so she and Marge are basically pushed aside for the episode.)
The edgiest moment comes when Stewie, attempting to emulate one of Bart's prank phone calls to Moe's Tavern, says, "Your sister's being raped!" and hangs up. As expected, the gag wasn't nearly funny enough to justify how glib or gross it was. To be fair, that seemingly pointless lack of taste may have been the point; a clip of the scene was revealed months ago, leading to an inevitable condemnation from the Parents Television Council. This is where a cynical writer might suggest that the scene in question was revealed early because Fox knew it would drum up additional controversy, driving more attention to their big crossover episode.
It all builds to a scene in which Homer and Peter turn on each other, parroting the most common complaints about each other's shows. Family Guy is a dumber, crasser rip-off of The Simpsons; The Simpsons is a soulless, long-in-the-tooth version of the innovative show it used to be. (Whatever truth there is to those complaints, "The Simpsons Guy" is Exhibit A.)
"The Simpsons Guy" ends with a remix that blends one iconic moment from each show: Peter's seemingly endless series of fights with a giant chicken, and Homer's ill-fated jump across Springfield Gorge. Homer stands in for the chicken, in a long, bloody fight that turns the characters into superheroes and takes them into outer space, before returning back to Earth to riff on Homer's failed jump and repeated tumbles down the canyon wall.
Much of "The Simpsons Guy" was boring, but the echo of the much earlier, much more poignant Simpsons episode was a little disheartening — if only as a reminder of how far The Simpsons has fallen. When The Simpsons first visited Springfield Gorge in season two's "Bart the Daredevil," it was for a genuinely heartwarming story about the complicated relationship between Bart and Homer. Here, it's a lame wink at the end of a crass, gratuitous gag.
The Simpsons and Family Guy have long been paired because they seem to have plenty in common: They're animated, family-centric sitcoms, with a deep roster of supporting characters, settled into a cozy Sunday time slot on Fox. In a larger sense, Family Guy wouldn't exist without The Simpsons, because no animated sitcom would exist without The Simpsons' trailblazing example. But beyond those superficialities, the shows are actually a pretty uneasy fit. The Simpsons is character driven, relying on a careful balance of wit and heart; Family Guy is unpredictable and anarchic, using shock value and knowing pop-cultural references as the framework on which to hang a loose, shambling story. This pairing, which essentially amounted to a lazily thrown-together "greatest hits" album, didn't do justice to either show.
Which raises the question: Was there any good creative reason to make "The Simpsons Guy" — and if not, why did it happen? Matt Groening famously had his named removed from what turned out to be a pretty solid crossover between The Simpsons and The Critic, which he felt violated the show's larger continuity — but he certainly hasn't shied away from promoting "The Simpsons Guy." When did he become so complacent that he would shrug his shoulders at "The Simpsons Guy," which sits far less coherently within the Simpsons universe?
"The Simpsons Guy" makes the best case against itself in the sarcastic monologue that opens the episode: "Yay! A crossover always brings out the best in each show. It certainly doesn't smack of desperation." Sounds about right.
Maybe this is what happens when you've done it all. Later this season, The Simpsons will cross over with Groening's other big series: Futurama, which bowed after seven seasons last year. On paper, it's a more promising pairing; the shows share a coherent animation style and a barely hidden sentimental streak. Fingers crossed.
(Images courtesy Family Guy/The Simpsons, 2014 TCFFC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)