Okay, this is very nerdy, but bear with me.
I’ve been watching lately a fair few episodes from what I’d call the “Late Imperial” era of The Simpsons – that is, the era in which, at its best, it was still the best thing on television; but in which it wasn’t hitting its “best” with every episode. This has largely involved watching most of season eight, but I’ve also watched odds and sods from seasons seven and nine as well. And this got me thinking in more detail about a theory I’ve had for a little while, which is this:
I believe a Simpsons episode is more likely to be good if it opens with an in-universe TV show/film/radio show than if it doesn’t.
I’ve come up with this theory based on the fact that the “show within a show” kinds of fiction (largely covering TV shows, but also including movies and radio stations) often tend to be among the funniest and most memorable moments in the series’ history (particularly when they involve Krusty, Kent Brockman or Troy McClure). And for some reason, when an episode opens with one of these scenes, it instantly feels sharper and more imaginative than one that just brings us in to a random scene somewhere in Springfield or at the Simpsons’ home. This is particularly noticeable during these later seasons (and when I say “later”, I mean “later in the good period” – we’re going by the assumption that the programme is largely not worth watching, and thus non-existent in my head, after around season eleven), when it’s the more dull and boring episodes that seem to start in this mundane way, and the better ones that give the laughs by opening with – for example – the Krusty Komedy Klassic, or an edition of Eye on Springfield. It therefore feels to me like I’m simply more likely to enjoy an episode if it’s got one of these opening scenes (which from now on I’m referring to as “TV openings”, even though they also covers other forms of media).
So, I’ve decided to test it out. And count up data in Excel. And turn it into a graph. Because that’s how I roll.
The test, then, goes like this. I’m going through four seasons – the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth. This is because I think figures would be unfairly skewed by looking either at the first five seasons (during which the show is as close to consistently perfect as anything can be, and so attempting to graph it would be useless), or any from the tenth onwards (where I simply don’t know a lot of the episodes well enough to pass judgement on them, or where I know that the majority are too weak to offer fair data). This “middle period”, however, seems to be the most variable in quality – in that there can be utterly fantastic episodes in the same season as major stinkers – and so the most interesting to test out.
For each season, I’ve listed the episodes and – from memory, without looking them up or checking whether or not they have TV openings in order to avoid subconsciously skewing the data – given each my own rating out of 5. It’s worth noting that these are my own, personal opinions – I’m basing this survey on my taste, and not on any sort of general consensus or view of objective quality. I’ve also excluded, in each season, the Treehouse of Horrors and clip shows (or, in season eight’s case, the Spin-Off Showcase), as they stand somewhat separately from “normal” judgement. Finally, I’ve gone through and marked out which episodes count as having “TV openings” (there’s got to be a better phrase for this, right?), and which ones don’t. Here are the ground rules:
– The first scene of the episode has to feature an in-universe TV show, movie or radio programme, being watched/listened to by onscreen characters
– For the most part, the first shot of the episode should be a shot of the screen in question. However, I’m also allowing episodes that have an establishing shot (e.g. Bart and Lisa switching on the TV in In Marge We Trust) so long as it’s clear that the TV show is still part of the first scene
– Circumstances where the TV show in question is talking to us the viewer (rather than characters onscreen) shouldn’t count. Since I’ve excluded clip shows, Treehouse and the Spin-Off Showcase, though, I think the only example of this is The Springfield Files.
After that, I gave an average rating for each season, and then for each season’s episodes with and without the TV openings. And then I put it all in a graph. So without any further ado… on with the data!
Although this season has a couple of episodes I’m not keen on – Bart vs Australia is the first ep, post-season-one, that I’d only rate at 2 out of 5 – it’s still remarkably strong on the whole. The average rating is 4.26. Nine of these episodes have TV openings, and they’re all pretty spectacularly good – five get the full 5/5 rating, and four get 4. Therefore, their average is a whopping 4.56. Meanwhile, the average of the 14 “without” is a mere 4.07. So far, so good.
The average ratings start to drop with this season – down to 3.57 already. Things are also much closer when testing the hypothesis – of the seven episodes that have TV openings, only one is a 5er (Two Bad Neighbors: “It’s the grand nationals of sand-castle building… preview!”) , while there’s also one I’d only rate at 2 (Scenes From The Class Struggle In Springfield, which opens with the family watching Bumblebee Man – I’m being generous by counting it). This all makes for an average of just 3.57. Meanwhile, of the remaining sixteen eps, there are four stone-cold classics (including Radioactive Man and Team Homer), and despite some clunkers, there’s an overall average of 3.56. So for season seven, it seems clear that opening with a fictional TV show doesn’t really make a difference.
Ah, the season whose watching caused me to have this theory in the first place. Will the figures bear it out? Well, the overall season rating is down again, to 3.48. But we’ve got seven TV openers again – and this time it’s a much stronger crop. The average rating is 4.00, with an excellent set that includes Bart After Dark and Homer’s Enemy. Even the weak My Sister, My Sitter (opening with an Eye on Springfield ep) can’t bring the average down too much. Elsewhere, though, it’s disappointment – the remaining sixteen episodes only average at 3.25, despite including Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment and You Only Move Twice. So in season eight the contrast is much more stark – the funnier, more imaginative episodes, on the whole tend to open with footage of a spoof TV show or film. But the mundane episodes on which this season often falls back are easily identifiable by not doing so.
Finally, a season that does still have its moments, but also a lot of duff filler. Average rating is just 3.30 – the only five-star ep I’d count in the entire season is The Trouble With Trillions. Interestingly, though, that ep doesn’t actually fall in the TV openings – and all of a sudden, my theory is thrown out somewhat. Because the five TV-opener eps include two rated at only 2/5 – making for an average of 3.30. This compares with the rest of the season’s average of 3.39. It seems that by this point, the makers had got bored of these sharp and funny pop culture spoofs – and as a result, the episodes that feature them are no longer generally the funniest.
Here, then, is how those four series graph against one-another:
ON THE WHOLE, HOWEVER
Despite season nine being the one at which the bottom falls out of my theory, it still just about holds true over the course of the four seasons. Of 92 episodes counted, with an overall average rating of 3.65, there are 28 with “TV openings” – and they hold an average score of 3.89. Meanwhile, the episodes that don’t have them only average 3.55. Therefore, the results are clear: Simpsons episodes that open with a spoof TV show or movie are (a bit) more likely to make me laugh than ones that don’t.
There. Was it worth all that? Probably not. But graphs are fun. And my mom says I’m cool.