Even the heat death of the universe cannot prevent Fox from renewing The Simpsons. The show staggers on, a grim spectre of its majestic former self, but it’s no secret that the opening sequences handled by guest animators are the only part still worth watching. For the definitive proof, look no farther than 2014’s “Clown in the Dumps”, a thoroughly unremarkable episode you may dimly recall hearing about because the producers hyped it as killing off a major character. As the title’s rubbish pun suggests, this was actually the very minor figure of Rabbi Krustofsky, father of Krusty the Klown. It was a milky bait-and-switch, the kind of feeble grasping for relevance tinged with nerveless fear of creativity that characterises the show’s long winter years. No, the only thing that matters about this episode is the opening sequence animated by Don Hertzfeldt, which may well be the single greatest moment in Simpsons history.
From the first frame of Hertzfeldt’s piece, there’s that inescapable sense of New Simpsons wrongness – the phone’s overly detailed button pad, the television’s unpleasantly flat screen. This is The Simpsons made in 2014, unseemly and exposed, as if by computerised floodlight. Homer rushes to the couch, happily turns on the television, but something’s different: the remote control is adorned with a spinning red vertical disc, one that should be immediately familiar to anyone who’s seen George Pal’s film adaptation of HG Wells’s The Time Machine. The screen reads September 28, 2014 – the day this episode was first broadcast. Growing annoyed, Homer presses some buttons, and as the date reels backwards, so does he: his eyes shrink, his brow and jaw reshaping themselves into an approximation of his original appearance in the Tracey Ullman shorts. (This would have worked better if Homer had briefly revered from soulless computer animation to the lovingly hand-drawn style of the classic series, with the aspect ratio shrinking from its 16:9 panopticon to the dreamlike, wistful boxiness of 4:3, but it’s a small complaint.) The display settles on April 19, 1987 – perhaps this is the metaphysical limit beyond which a Simpson cannot go, or perhaps he just didn’t hit the right input to regress to some even more primordial form. Startled and confused, Homer mashes the remote with his palm, and time begins to flow forwards again, faster and faster. Homer loses control, hurtling past the present day, then centuries and millennia into the future.
We see the living room reimagined in flat bold pastels, followed by a version that’s ragged and tattered, and then a rapid sequence of increasingly alien variations; 8-bit graphics rendered in three dimensions; a weirdly distorted stereoscopic negative; a cave or bunker; a great desert rock formation; a stylised and cartoonish aquatic version; an abstract mosaic; a more realistic undersea coral reef, with an actual shipwreck in place of Marge’s painting; a gingerbread house; a lurid negative with the couch covered in cephalopodic suckers; an outdoor bench before Mount Fuji; clean retrofuturism with Marge’s painting replaced by an intriguing image of two moons; a grey room with the couch bizarrely reconfigured, as if for creatures of completely inhuman form; and finally a sleek metallic blue room with HAL 9000 lurking in the background. Wells’s Time Traveller was driven by insatiable curiosity to observe the uttermost endpoints of evolution, but Homer is more like us: a helpless passenger being conducted to his fate. Falling to the floor, Homer begins to change again, cycling through various future incarnations, and not in ways that correspond directly to his surroundings: a spiralling conglomeration of ribbons; a scaly crab-like creature; a green wire-frame figure; an articulate paper doll; an assemblage of knotted balloons; a blocky robot; a pale mass of tentacles. With only hints of thrashing arms and legs visible, these split-second forms are left elegantly to the imagination. This isn’t conventional time-travel so much as astral projection – a delirious glimpse of things to come.
There’s a blinding light, and the television monitor slows to a halt on the Sun-Date of Septembar 36.4, 10,535. In a featureless white void, Homer drifts into a frame, an expressionless head attached to three quivering tentacles. “THE SAMPSANS EPASODE NUMBAR 164,775.7”, reads a caption – the family name corrupted by malformed future tongues, an unknown calendar robbing us of even that slim compass rose. (“Clown in the Dumps” itself is episode 553.) “CONNECTING TO NEURAL NETWARK / AMUSEMENT IS CONTROL / AMUSEMENT IS CONTROL / HAIL HAIL MOON GOD / WATCH WATCH / YES YES / WATCH Y / PUT IN THE EYE HOLE / GROW LIKE PLANT”, declares a scrolling text. Homer turns, frightened and unblinking, to survey his surroundings. “D’oh,” says Homer. “D’oh. D’oh. D’oh.” He seems to have difficulty stopping, as if his catchphrase has become as natural as silence. Nonetheless, he manages to gasp out his message. “Family. Meet me at. The kitchen cube.”
The tentacled head of Homer Simpson drifts into a grey space that could almost be said to resemble a room, towards a block that flickers with light. In an instant, two monstrous creatures materialise to face him, all the more grotesque for their familiarity. One a cycloptic, distorted shape with its mouth on a stalk and a faint semblance of pearls at its neck, the other a shapeless pool of flesh, vestigial limbs twitching, its identity suggested by the spiky hair on its rectangular head. “I AM SIMPSON. I AM SIMPSON,” says the degenerate form of Lisa, the moral centre of the show. “DON’T… DON’T HAVE COW, MAN… DON’T… DON’T HAVE COW, MAN,” gibbers the creature that was once Bart, drooling as it feebly regurgitates a catchphrase that ceased to have meaning millennia ago. Hertzfeldt’s animations have often featured abstract “things” rather than classifiable creatures – he explains that this creates an effect that’s “a little more weird and dream-like” – but they’re never this straightforwardly repellent; they look like entities from a David Cronenberg film, entropic mockeries of the human form. “15610.7 / BEAM EPASODE NOW INTO EXO-SKULLS AND VIGOROUSLY TOUCH FLIPPERS”, offers one flickering message.
At the other side of the “table”, Homer find the horrific sight of Marge, now reduced to a soulless, bug-eyed face embedded in the iconic blue hair. “ALL HAIL THE DARK LORD OF THE TWIN MOONS,” declares Marge. The same text is displayed at the side of the screen, with a sigil containing two blood-red orbs; stripped of all personality, she has been reduced to a mouthpiece for some ungodly author. A teratoma-like glob of flesh descends to settle between Bart and Lisa, and no sooner do we register Maggie’s bow and pacifier than it unfolds into some kind of faceless organic transmitter. “MAKE PURCHASE OF THE MERCHANDISE,” says Maggie, the near-sacred silence she kept over the decades casually shattered. The text offers further instructions: “CONSUME NOW / CONSUME IT / RUB IT ON YOUR FLIPPERS / NOW AVAILABAL / IN THE SAMPSANS / OUTERNET MARKAT: / SAMPSANS HELMAT / SAMPSANS LASAR HAT / SAMPSANS MOON VEST / SAMPSANS APE SPRAY / SAMPSANS SAMPSAN”. The three “children” repeat themselves, endlessly talking over one another, a cacophony of desperate assertions of identity and commands to spend, spend, spend.
Evidently, this is not the reunion the confused, temporally-stranded Homer hoped to have with his family. At last, he blinks, and seems to regain a measure of agency. We cut to Homer’s perspective and see sunlight streaming in the kitchen window, with trees swaying gently in the breeze outside, thrillingly – strangely – rendered in live action (actually 35mm outtakes from Hertzfeldt’s film It’s Such a Beautiful Day). The window itself flickers and glitches, so it’s unclear whether this is an interior part of Homer’s reverie or a hologram of the distant past, projected to give the family some sense of familiarity, now triggering Homer’s recollection. “I have… memories,” says Homer uncertainly, the vast expanse of time he’s just skimmed over beginning to flood into his mind. “Memories…” In a piece of non-linear storytelling that’s rather remarkably ambitious for an opening sequence – even for this opening sequence – we’re shown a series of three flashbacks, brief glimpses into how this nightmare future came to pass. In “THE SAMPSANS EPASODE NUMBAR 20,254”, Homer and Marge are some sort of translucent holographic robots, standing on an abstract mountain range beneath an orange sky. “Still love you, Ho-mar,” intones Marge blankly, and gently slaps his head with one of her two limbs. Next, we see a fragment of “THE SAMPSANS EPASODE NUMBAR 37,211.4”: five yellow bacteria propel themselves through greenish water, chanting in squeaky unison, “WE ARE HAPPY FAMILY.” Finally, in “THE SAMPSANS EPASODE NUMBAR 100,411.2”, two misshapen creatures speak in a blurry, flickering wireframe snowstorm. We see one has blue hair, but need subtitles to decode its distorted words: “I WILL NEVER FORGET YOU”.
Emerging from this reverie to find himself still in Epasode Numbar 164,775.7, Homer blinks and turns to his wife, as if hoping to see some trace of their past love. “ALL ANIMALS CAN SCREAM,” she barks. He turns to the children: Maggie has vanished, perhaps with important advertising to conduct elsewhere, and the grotesque Bart and Lisa stop yammering and fade to silence. “D’oh,” says Homer. Then the sequence ends.
The decline of The Simpsons from gold (seasons 2–8) to unwatchable trash (exact estimates vary) is fairly clear to any audience member willing to think critically, and has been examined in detail by countless commentators, but who could have predicted that the cruellest evisceration would be aired at the beginning of an actual episode? True, the show always poked fun at Fox, but this was a frivolous indulgence, its target external to the show itself. Corporations exist to sell their products to a sedate populace – they have nothing to fear from the cautious ribbing of their staff writers, and may even benefit from the cool, easy-going impression such jokes cultivate. They consented to air Banksy’s opening animation largely unaltered, but that one took aim at the supposed treatment of Korean animators – something the cool factor of collaborating with a popular artist could be trusted to outweigh in the eyes of most viewers. No, Hertzfeldt’s sequence is something new: something which tells us, in no uncertain terms, that this show is deteriorating crap which we should all stop watching. How can the show even continue past this point? Why didn’t it immediately fold in shame, finally realising what it has become? If you watch the version of the sequence on Fox’s official YouTube channel, it ends by cutting to an image of 21st-century Homer and Marge, their smiles rendered and shaded with the vacuous precision of the production line, the date for the next season premiere superimposed over their frozen bodies, as if what just watched an advertisement for this show rather than the exact opposite; next, a list of Fox services we can use to stream new episodes. I understand they must have approved it, but they genuinely don’t seem to get it, do they?
In a yellow desert of unfunny jokes, indulgent celebrity cameos, and recycled ideas, the guest-animated couch gags remain oases of precious imagination and artistry; the result of handing the keys, ever so briefly, to people who are actually interesting: John Kricfalusi, Bill Plympton, even the Rick and Morty team. In 2013, Guillermo del Toro himself directed one, transforming the opening sequence into a maximalist, Hieronymous-Bosch-esque panorama of his own id, with Simpsonised versions of his own creations mingling freely, excessively, endlessly with those of his dearest influences. Del Toro saw his couch gag as an opportunity for fun, a jubilant moment of bacchanalia between more serious film projects; in a holiday from his stated dislike of winking postmodernism, he blended all he loved into a carnival of sound and colour. Lisa’s music teacher was transfigured into the masked hero of Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise – an indescribably weird horror musical from 1973, absolutely unknown to the general population, thrust for one glorious second into the cultural spotlight. Del Toro tried to add a luchador in at the last moment; practically had to be wrestled off the project himself in the end. I really thought that we had reached peak New Simpsons; that this would forever be the brightest spark in the show’s long decline.
I was wrong. Where del Toro was content to assemble something merely enjoyable, Hertzfeldt had the ambition to craft something beautiful – a genuinely moving short with a great deal to say about The Simpsons itself. And I legitimately think it’s some of Hertzfeldt’s best work, too, which is saying something. Introduced and developed in a matter of minutes, his characters are generally as thinly-sketched as they look. In this case, however, Hertzfeldt has two and a half decades of material history to draw from, giving him the unprecedented opportunity to apply his intense and idiosyncratic technique to some of the most enduring and well-known characters in contemporary fiction. All the techniques that he honed with his earlier films are on display here, in mature and confident form. And let’s not forget the excellent sound design: Hertzfeldt himself voices all Sampsans apart from Homer – who is still Dan Castellaneta – imbuing them each with a delightfully diseased sense of wrongness. (Julie Kavner’s voice can also be heard low in the mix during Marge’s lines, adding an unsettling touch of familiarity.) Hertzfeldt also plays about forty seconds of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2 on piano, perfectly underlining the tragic sweetness of Homer’s reveries.
In its early years, The Simpsons made only cautious forays into the future. “Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie” ended by flashing forward forty years to show Bart as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; the fifth season’s “Rosebud” leapt a million years ahead to show the eternal dance of the cyborg Mr Burns and his teddy bear Bobo on the Planet of the Apes. These brief scenes were non-committal, leaving the audience to decide whether they were fantasies or the true fate of Springfield and its inhabitants. Growing bolder, the writers began to set entire episodes in the future – first the outstanding “Lisa’s Wedding”, and then the much weaker “Bart to the Future”, but these still couched their stories in the safe ambiguity of unreliable diegetic fortune-telling. Eventually, the flash-forwards began to coalesce, with “Future-Drama”, surprising late classic “Holidays of Future Passed”, and the latter’s rushed and regrettable sequel “Days of Future Future” forming a basically coherent futuristic trilogy. As the show stops hedging its bets with prevaricating framing devices, the Simpsons’ projected fate grows more solid and tangible. Bart marries his partner Jenda, has two sons, then divorces; Lisa weds Milhouse, and has a daughter; Maggie becomes a singer, and gives birth to Maggie Junior. No alternatives or bolt-holes are presented: this is simply what happens, the inarguable destiny of Springfield revealed as a kitchen-sink sci-fi scenario culminating in a very literal merger with the universe of Futurama. This is the context in which Hertzfeldt made his contribution. The Simpsons had already been circling the drain of the future for some time: it just needed that last nudge. We’ve seen “SB-129” – we know the ultimate future is eternal isolation in a white void. We needed this.
Curiously, as Homer falls to the floor, the first few centuries shrieking past, the background is taken quite specifically from “Days of Future Future” – all the framed photographs have Homer’s face blocked by post-it notes, which refers to a subplot in that episode which saw Professor Frink transferring the dead Homer’s consciousness into a series of clone bodies, only for Marge to throw her husband out when he wastes them all and ends up living inside a computer. (It’s a bit like the Doctor Who episode “Heaven Sent”, if only “Heaven Sent” was rubbish.) We can see Homer marrying Marge; Homer enjoying a Duff with Gerald Ford; Homer posing with an adult Bart and Bart’s sons. Regardless of the quality of the invoked episodes, this ties Hertzfeldt’s animation directly into the cohesive future the show has been building, blurring the line between diegesis and external self-reflection, and giving Hertzfeldt’s nightmarish future an unsettling and compelling credibility. This isn’t just a non-sequitur like most couch gags: conscious effort has been made to have it interlock with established continuity. This is the true future of the Simpsons.
We might take this as Hertzfeldt suggesting that future audiences will want the show’s status quo to grow increasingly strange and surreal, but that doesn’t quite work: changes in The Simpsons are like changes in the gravitational constant, as imperceptible as they are cosmic. The differences between Tracey Ullman Homer and classic Homer are incremental, barely intentional, a Darwinian accumulation of accidents and refinements rather than a Lamarckian process of directed change. No, Hertzfeldt’s implication is that humanity itself – as in, us, the society both producing and consuming The Simpsons in a feedback loop endlessly reflecting and externalising us as we are in the present moment – is the subject of this evolution. Hertzfeldt is telling a story about some kind of Kurzweilian technological singularity, a revolution that catapults us into an era of change and development so vast and rapid that previous culture and biology is instantaneously left in the dust, but he doesn’t depict this future directly – instead, he depicts its dreams, its media, in an elaborate piece of shadow-puppetry. The Simpsons and The Simpsons evolve to match the consensus of what society considers good comedy television, rapidly cycling through an infinitude of forms as the rate of cultural turnover accelerates. (Incidentally, there are some real similarities here to Mr Burns, A Post-Electric Play, a 2012 theatre production set in a post-apocalyptic future where scavengers struggle to recreate the Cape Fear episode. Speculative fiction centring on the idea of The Simpsons as a modern myth is a niche subgenre in its own right.)
What’s most fascinating here is the way Hertzfeldt navigates the tension between diegesis and reality. The Simpsons has always operated on a sliding timeline, the same cosmological model used by most long-running comic-book series, wherein the chronological setting always corresponds to the year of production but the characters never age. In 1990, Maggie was born in 1989; in 2014, Maggie was born in 2013. Like all stories, it dissolves into ashes upon examination, the waveform of imagination collapsing into hollow artifice. Finding irreconcilable contradictions between episodes aired years apart is trivially easy, but those produced within a year or two of each other are generally consistent – it’s similar to the principle by which you might boil a frog, if you were so inclined. First Hertzfeldt directs our attention to the sliding timeline, highlighting the changes accumulated in Homer’s design over the preceding decades. This established, he takes that same process to its logical conclusion, extrapolating an imaginary future. Since the sliding timeline is a shadow cast on fiction by reality, this involves speculating – if not entirely seriously – about our own future as well as that of the Simpson family. If the on-screen advertisements are aimed at us, what do they say about us? There are some chilling ideas here, not least the suggestion that intellectual copyright law will survive into the post-singularity future.
It’s puzzling, then, that it aired with relatively little fuss. The Dead Homer Society is a resource I recommend highly for any Simpsons fan: a group blog which analyses the shambling qlippothic wreckage of The Simpsons with critical intelligence, even-handedly highlighting the occasional sputtering glimmers of quality in new episodes while using their shortcomings as a mirror to illuminate their classic forebears in new and interesting ways. Given this, I was taken aback when they described Hertzfeldt’s sequence as “…pretty bad. It was a decent concept and had a neat look to it, but it took way too long given how little actually happened and how repetitive the images were,” and dismissed it to spend the bulk of their article delineating the particular mediocrities of “Clown in the Dumps”.
I was astonished to see some online commentators actually complain that this fascinating, thought-provoking, and stylistically unique animation was too long, as if adding another minute or two to a bog-standard New Simpsons episode would have been the better option. In fact, the opposite is true: these couch gags cannot be long enough. Their cannibalism of an episode’s runtime is something to be encouraged, a beautiful cancer that spreads imagination and creativity. Why stop at two minutes or three? Let the show be devoured entirely by its opening sequences: let them swell to five, ten, twenty minutes; let them burst their banks and turn their episodes inside-out. The Simpsons began in 1987 as a series of short, almost plotless vignettes – let those vignettes have their revenge, and tear the show to shreds.
Elsewhere in the blogosphere, Sleeman Munk suggests, I think insightfully, that the sequence functions as a metaphor for mental illness, specifically dementia. It’s a striking idea, and an affecting way to link an essentially inward-looking piece – a work of art about works of art – to lived human experience and trauma; to endow it with substance and make it real. Despite the surreal sci-fi setting, Homer’s sad acceptance of Marge’s failing memory upsettingly parallels the experience of caring for a family member with a condition like Alzheimer’s. Much like Alan Moore’s revamp of Marvelman, the poignancy here comes from placing the burden of complex emotion on a simple cartoon character who was never meant to bear it. This is the sort of thing that can easily slide into juvenile shock humour and edgelording, but personally, I find The Sampsans as quotable as anything in the classic series. There are ten lines of dialogue – eleven, counting “D’oh” – and each one is imbued with millennia of pain and loss and hilarity. (The effect of all this leaping back and forth in time isn’t entirely unlike Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and achieves a similarly universal impression of the human condition. So it goes.)
The basic idea of Homer accidentally travelling through time with a household appliance and encountering vastly different versions of his own world is taken from “Time and Punishment”, the middle segment of “Treehouse of Horror V”. This is the show’s best Halloween episode, and also the only one that manages to be genuinely disturbing: all three segments are unusually violent, involve systematic fascistic cruelty that crushes every hope of escape, and conclude in unsettling anticlimaxes that leave the audience with a lingering sense of unease. (Despite the Dostoyevsky reference, “Time and Punishment” is actually based fairly closely on Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder”, about a man who travels to the Cretacious era to hunt dinosaurs and inadvertently causes a malicious dictator to win an election in his own time by stepping on a butterfly. In a parallel echo of Wells, the Simpsons version has the dinosaurs wiped out by the common cold.) Another likely influence on The Sampsans is the “Treehouse of Horror IX” segment “Terror of Tiny Town”; a parody of the 1992 film Stay Tuned, this one finds Bart and Lisa sucked into their television set as a result of placing plutonium in the remote control. On the most rudimentary level, it seems that Hertzfeldt combined these ideas to arrive at “Homer using a weird modified television remote to travel through time”, then used this as the basis on which to construct a rather more sophisticated and abstract critique of the show.
The other overt inspiration, and the source of the particular “hurtling uncontrollably forward through time” conceit, is of course The Time Machine. Wells’s Time Traveller spends much of the novel in 802,701, a period by which humanity has diverged into the cherubic, docile Eloi and the carnivorous, subterranean Morlocks who breed them for their meat. Later, he escapes farther into the future (Pal’s film memorably rendering one Morlock’s rapid decay via stop-motion animation – something Hertzfeldt expands on for Homer’s transformations). Eventually, he finds himself on a dismal shore beneath a red-giant sun, the shapeless octopoid creatures of Earth’s evolutionary destiny lumbering towards him, and flees. As we can see from the design of the remote control, Hertzfeldt’s main point of reference seems to have been the film, but there are still substantive echoes of Wells: the advertisements projected across our screen suggest a Morlock/Eloi dynamic, with dull-eyed cattle enslaved by media overlords, air-raid sirens evolving to television evolving to outernet. Homer’s tentacled final form, meanwhile, resembles the ultimate being encountered by the Time Traveller, its external horror rendered internal. Interestingly, Hertzfeldt only brings Homer to the year 10,535 – this isn’t the truly distant scale of billions or even millions of years, but a cosmologically very modest extension of our own society; one that requires vast technological acceleration to plausibly emerge from us.
(Incidentally, The Time Machine and The Simpsons also share a certain fixation on linking humans to rabbits. In an excised chapter, Wells has the Time Traveller encounters a race of degenerate Eloi descendants resembling rabbits, while Matt Groening, who got his start writing rabbit-centric comic strip Life in Hell, originally planned to conclude The Simpsons by revealing that Marge’s hair concealed a pair of rabbit ears. This idea resurfaced, to a certain extent, in “Simpsorama”, which aired soon after “Clown in the Dumps” and saw Bart becoming the progenitor of a race of rabbit monsters.)
Hertzfeldt’s most famous work is probably Rejected, an animated short that presents itself as a sequence of increasingly surreal, gory, and inappropriate television advertisements he supposedly created for the Family Learning Channel, and which gradually begin to fray and meld together in entropic, apocalyptic chaos. In 2005, Hertzfeldt wrote a retrospective text-only commentary for Rejected. As the short goes crazy, he segues into fanciful futuristic metafiction, and the result is essentially a prototype for his Simpsons animation: “in 2001, REJECTED was nominated for an academy award. in 2004, the internet movie database ranked it the third most popular short film in history. in 2663, the rylakian crab apes declared the film their glorious high leader and began beaming it directly into their exo-skulls every moon cycle holiday while masturbating excessively … in 37164, a revival of the film, loosely adapted from obscure ancient earth mythology, was staged as a high school play on the rondar moon by sentient flippered beings…” It’s remarkable how many Sampsans elements are present here, and in such specific form: Hertzfeldt has already arrived at the idea of using an unimaginably remote future as a lens for exploring and critiquing the real world’s attitudes towards wildly successful pieces of media, and already linked that media to brain-beaming, mindless onanistic compulsion, and, yes, flippers. Again, this future isn’t what happens to the characters in Rejected: it’s what happens to us.
The Hertzfeldt work most relevant to The Sampsans, however, is his 2015 short film World of Tomorrow. Produced at the same time, the two animations are clear companion pieces. They share exactly the same aesthetic – an authentic translation of Hertzfeldt’s hand-drawn minimalism to digital animation – and show clear signs of emerging from the same mind at around the same time, with commonalities including the conceit of a television set as a portal to the future, the borrowing of great classical music for its raw emotional impact, a preoccupation with the way society might change over vast spans of time, and a fixation on tragically lost memories (portrayed, to otherworldly effect, using heavily processed live-action footage). World of Tomorrow is the story of Emily, an ancient time-traveller who abducts her toddler self to show her visions of the future. After Adventure Time, everyone realised how much better getting real kids to voice children was than hiring adults; if there was any justice, World of Tomorrow would kick off a new trend where we just recorded toddlers and rewrote and edited around them, because that technique works phenomenally well here. Much of the film’s power comes from a handful of staggeringly affecting moments where the younger Emily’s simple, innocent, unfiltered observations pierce the older Emily’s blank indifference to reveal emotions she has long since lost the ability to express or understand. A sixteen-minute short that doesn’t waste a second, it could certainly be defended as Hertzfeldt’s greatest work – the perfect balance between his vivid high-concept Simpsons animation, his interesting but meandering feature work, and his entertaining but sometimes tryhard and edgelordy short videos. Seriously: if you have time to read this, you have time to watch World of Tomorrow.
It’s not stated explicitly, but there’s a specific relationship between World of Tomorrow and Hertzfeldt’s Simpsons short. When Emily transports her younger self forward in time, the two meet in a space called the “outernet”. An evolution of the internet, the outernet takes the form of an abstract, fully immersive light-show in which people can share memories and experiences directly. The outernet, as you may recall, is also mentioned in the advertisements superimposed on-screen when Homer arrives in his nightmare future. In other words, it seems that The Sampsans is a fictional show produced and consumed by the decaying dystopian society depicted in World of Tomorrow. (Interestingly, “Holidays of Future Passed” featured a similar concept referred to as the “ultranet” – a depiction of some intermediary technology, perhaps?)
To continue examining this implied new world: who is the Dark Lord of the Twin Moons? Marge’s declaration doesn’t emerge from anything within The Simpsons, but seems imposed from outside the narrative, a worshipful line of propaganda inserted by fearful or brainwashed writers. Is he an alien overlord who has subjugated Earth, or some post-human dictator autochthonous to our own corporatist culture? The title could be taken either way – a literal reference to interplanetary origins, or a supernatural icon of some unknown futuristic cult; a gimmicky fictional character, or a real-world future terror fawningly depicted by lickspittle producers. (If the Dark Lord is indeed an existing Simpsons character monstrously evolved, who else could it be but Charles Montgomery Burns?)
The Simpsons isn’t just a TV show; it’s an impossibly vast cultural edifice, endlessly unspooling, its senility every bit as deep and full and communal and unifying as its eternal glory years. Those of us born after its ascent cannot conceive of a world without it. None of us watch the new episodes, as such, but someone must. It keeps getting renewed, after all. Who are these people? No-one knows. They are the phantom hordes that submit to symbiosis with this parasite god, and we have no way of knowing what either shall become in their efforts to sustain the other.
A process of transmutation has already begun: where watching The Simpsons on television was once a communal and regimented family activity, we now consume classic scenes as cut-up fragments on Facebook pages like Rock Bottom and Twitter accounts like Simpsons Screens, while every line of every episode is available for instantaneous perusal, animated-gifification, and general memetic manipulation on Frinkiac. The decaying husk of the show has been dissected – vivisected, if you want to credit the wretched thing with some trace of a heartbeat – its every slice scanned and uploaded to cyberspace, liberated from the tyranny of time and thought and memory. One particularly dense running joke in online fandom is to take unrelated screenshots from Frinkiac and splice them together, crafting strange new jokes that hybridise and remix disparate images and dialogue, with results ranging from ornate dadaist nonsense to the obscurely, stupidly clever. We can see The Simpsons evolving into something else, both in the shambling metastasised revenant that is New Simpsons and in the way that the classic episodes continue to be experienced and enjoyed in new and different ways. Equally, it’s a little unnerving to see major Simpsons fan pages advertising lesser shows and shilling for unrelated products. Are these the first steps to the remote, alien future of The Sampsans?
The Simpsons are not a dysfunctional family. They never were. They fight constantly, yes, but they always make up and hug at the end of each 21-minute cookie-cutter slice of their lives. Homer is the dense alcoholic and Marge the nagging shrew; Bart the troublemaker, Lisa the do-gooder, Maggie the non-entity. Where real nuclear families are fraught with pain and regret and resentment that spans decades, the Simpsons are trapped in an eternal cycle of minor, simple squabbles and guaranteed forgiveness. (Indeed, Nuclear Family would have made a good alternative title: considering Homer’s occupation, the entire show can be read as an extended ironic pun on the concept.) Even after their wilder, more transformative adventures or occasional character growth, they inevitably snap back to their irreducible Platonic archetypes. The show isn’t a cartoonish exaggeration of real life: it’s a comforting pastel sketch.
On his excellent David Bowie blog, Pushing Ahead of the Dame, Chris O’Leary wrote that “Ashes to Ashes” is the final Bowie song; that regardless of Bowie’s subsequent work, that 1980 single retains a tonal and thematic quality of sweeping finality and morbidity that essentially earns it a position as the epitaph of the singer’s discography. “It’s the final chapter that came midway through the book. Bowie sings himself offstage with a children’s rhyme; eternally falling, eternally young.” In a guest post for TARDIS Eruditorum, O’Leary extended this idea to Doctor Who, proposing a cosmogony in which the final Tom Baker serial Logopolis was, is, and always will be the show’s ultimate conclusion: “It can’t be written out of continuity, no-one’s had the guts to revisit it or revise it. It’s the terminus, the still point, the quiet word-death of the show.” From there, the concept’s infinite extensibility becomes clear: “Find the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ Equivalent” is a tremendously fun parlour game – a fascinatingly subjective way to reappraise instalments buried deep within sprawling serialised texts, elevate them to the height of some definitive capstone, and see how this change in perspective alters our impression of the entire psychogeographic superstructure. Chronology is a crude and unordered thing: the temptation to mine diamonds from its guts and see how they look on crowns is irresistible. Imagining the final episode of The Simpsons is a perennial online parlour game in its own right, the subject of a million Reddit threads. Some of these proposals have attracted media attention. Others are beautifully idiosyncratic and personal. Everyone has their own take: mine is that we’ve seen it already. Hertzfeldt’s opening sequence fills exactly the same purpose for The Simpsons that “Ashes to Ashes” does for Bowie, or Logopolis does for Doctor Who: it is, and always will be, the true ending of The Simpsons, saying everything that needs to be said about the show’s trajectory and finally laying it to rest.
So, why has Homer’s jaunt through time slowed to a halt at Epasode Numbar 164,775.7? By this point he’s lost control entirely, so it wasn’t his decision to stop and get off here. Instead, we need to look at what differentiates this final state from the flashes we see of earlier eras. In those, the Simpsons – well, the Sampsans – were still a family. As the millennia wear on, their relationships – most importantly the original, primal, almost cosmic bond between Homer and Marge – begin to fray and dissolve. That’s why we finally stop at “164,775.7”: Marge has finally forgotten Homer entirely, and there is nowhere left to go.
This, I think, is why Homer can travel no farther: the last trace of love in the bond that held the Simpsons together has evaporated. They’re still bound, still confined by the strictures of the show, but the heart is gone. Nothing will ever change again: the show’s evolution has reached its blank, barren endpoint. Bart, Lisa, Maggie, and now Marge are gone, and soon Homer will be, too. Why? Because the society for which The Sampsans is being produced is one that has ceased to have a place for love and its depictions. It’s a devastatingly sad conclusion, but one with real weight and real teeth, and that’s what this show deserves: a triumphant, tragic epitaph, celebrating its glory years but acknowledging its fall, laying The Simpsons to rest within The Simpsons itself. Hertzfeldt’s short retroactively makes the show’s endless, cruel protraction worthwhile, if only so that we could have this moment. The last subversive message of The Simpsons, that great satirical show of the 1990s, is that the unchecked continuation of The Simpsons heralds the ultimate emotional atrophy of the human race.