This year’s San Diego Comic-Con panel for The Simpsons was substantial, but the most telling moment happened during a 20 minute game of “Simpsons Pictionary.” The group of show writers and animators, moderated by voice actor Yeardley Smith, were paired off, with the writers tasked with guessing characters and episode titles from quick sketches by the animators.
The bit was cute, and a good chance to see the animation team’s talent on display, but there was some presumably unintentional subtext in the second round that became increasingly hard to ignore: all the episode titles come from the show’s first six or seven seasons. Not a single answer was drawn from the past two decades. It’s become a cliche at this poke to rag on The Simpsons for coasting on its past success, and it’s perhaps mean-spirited to be too critical to such a genial group, but, well. If the shoe fits, why not wear it? Even if you bought it in 1993.
The panel did spend a considerable amount of time trying to build excitement about the show’s 33rd year. There was a gag about the “streaming wars,” an excerpt from the upcoming Halloween episode (writer Al Jean explained, “We have five segments on this year’s Halloween show,” a first time for the series), and some hints about what’s to come.
Writer Matt Selman talked enthusiastically about how “the premiere this year is the most musical episode we’ve ever done. Almost wall-to-wall music. It’s like a Broadway musical episode.” Kristen Bell will perform Marge’s singing voice, and there was a story panel preview of Homer singing in his underwear to a disgruntled Marge in the bathroom. There’s another romance in Moe’s future, and Al Jean teased a story about the “greatest tragedy Homer ever faced,” with Rachel Bloom guest starring.
By far the biggest announcement was what Selman described as a “a two-part epic love letter to prestige crime dramas.” Airing in November, the episodes will feature a stacked guest cast including Timothy Olyphant, Cristin Milioti, and Brian Cox; “It’s like nothing we’ve ever done before, and I really hope it makes sense,” Selman explained. As for which “prestige crime drama” in particular the story will riff on, Selman name-checked Fargo, prompting long-time animator David Silverman to mention just how much he loves the show, a micro example of the general gee-whiz enthusiasm that drove most of the panel, whether talking about the Simpsons, alternate jobs, or nicknames.
That enthusiasm is almost enough to cover for the fact that the little bits and pieces of modern Simpsons shown off during the video weren’t all that exciting. The panel opened with a gag about a new streaming service called “Simplix” that puts Simpsons characters into popular streaming shows, which resulted in a quick succession of posters that do just that, to varying degrees of effect.
The segment from the upcoming Halloween episode had a similar “low-hanging fruit” vibe, as Maurice Lamarche delivered a fine Vincent Price imitation narrating an Edward Gorey-like poem about Bart getting up to shenanigans.
The animation was gorgeous, a Simpsonsized version of Gorey’s familiar eerie style, but while the couplets were occasionally clever, there was no build to them, no real twist or surprise, and the segment ended in an anti-climax so rote it might as well have “beer o’clock” stamped across the bottom.
The parts of the conversation not focused on promoting the upcoming season or playing Simpsons charades were taken up with fan-sourced questions about the writers and animators that will be familiar to anyone who’s watched this sort of panel before. Yeardley Smith kicked things off with her own query: “Can we please have an episode where Lisa Simpson befriends The Rock?” Stunt casting is nothing new for the series, and Smith’s obvious excitement was charming; mostly it was just a surprise that Dwayne Johnson hasn’t already appeared on the series.
Smith’s plea was followed by a run of upbeat softball prompts: “What show would you like to write on?” (writer Carolyn Omine was into Always Sunny In Philadelphia; Selman had nice things to say about Bob’s Burgers, among others); “What does working on The Simpsons means to you?”, directed at Silverman, who said “It means an amazing thing happened to me in my career,” and also mentioned his awareness of just how long he’s been drawing for the show; whether or not the animators draw in their spare time (Debbie Mahan has an Instagram for off-hours work; Mike Anderson apparently doodles just about everywhere), and so forth. One viewer asked if the show had any plans for a series finale, and while there were a few interesting ideas, Selman gave what might be the most fitting prediction, with a cheerful, if chilling, “In some form or another, Disney will never let the show end.”
No one seemed particularly bothered by this idea, and while it wouldn’t be surprising if longterm Simpsons vets had more complicated feelings about the show’s longevity, there was no sign of such sentiment here. Maybe the closest the panel came to self-awareness was the late arrival of Matt Groening, warmly welcomed by all but visibly exhausted, briefly coming alive for a conversation about nicknames (“I won’t even go into my high school nickname which was ‘Matt Groin-Injury.’”), but not really present for anything else. Still, a name’s a name.