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The Simpsons – The Springfield Files (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

A young network hungry to find its place in the American television market, Fox managed to produce two of the television shows that defined the nineties. Both The X-Files and The Simpsons were bold and innovative television shows that captured the zietgeist perfectly. Both shows offered an insightful, innovative and occasionally subversive look at American pop culture in the last decade of the twentieth century. Both have endured quite well, speaking to a generation that came of age in the nineties.

While The X-Files wound itself up in 2002, The Simpsons endures. The show has been running for almost a quarter-of-a-century at this point, and there is no sense that it will ever let up. While there are stock criticisms to be made about how The Simpsons is not as funny as it once was, the series has continually and perpetually reinvented itself. The success of these various iterations has varied. The Simpsons was a different show in 1989 than it was in 1992 or 1996 or 2000.

"Mulder and Scully. FBI."

“Agents Mulder and Scully. FBI.”

However, the show was in the middle of an incredible hot streak in January 1997. The show was in its eighth season, and on the cusp of overtaking The Flintstones as the longest-running prime-time animated series in the United States. This was a phenomenal accomplishment, and there was no indication that the show was in decline. Although fans will argue about exactly how long the so-called “golden age” of the Simpsons actually lasted, the series was still in the middle of it by January 1997.

So The Springfield Files makes a lot of sense as an obvious overlap between the two most important weekly shows airing on Fox at this moment in time. The Springfield Files was treated as a big deal at the time. It aired two weeks before Superbowl XXI, which would help give The X-Files its highest-ever ratings with Leonard Betts. It was sent to the press for review before it aired, to help generate word of mouth. The result is a delightfully satisfying intersection of two massively successful and influential shows.

Reading the scene...

Reading the scene…

The Simpsons and The X-Files share quite a few similarities. Both aired on Fox, and had arguably succeeded because the network was young and hungry enough to support experimentation. Although both shows became ratings juggernauts and critical darlings, they both spent their first years howling in the wilderness – waiting to find an audience. When that audience did arrive, they were the ideal demographic – young, loyal, vibrant viewers with disposable income.

Indeed, both shows came to capture the mood and spirit of the nineties for a certain generation of television viewer, permeating the popular consciousness. There are people of a certain generation who are conversant in quotes from The Simpsons. The additions of the word “d’oh!” and “meh” to the Oxford English Dictionary have been credited to The Simpsons. The main characters are all recognisable archetypes unto themselves.

By the book...

By the book…

To be fair to The X-Files, it may not have reached quite that level of pop culture permeation. However, the show is almost as iconic. While casual television viewers may not be able to identify episodes or quotes as readily as they would with The Simpsons, people still recognise “Mulder” and “Scully” as broadly drawn archetypes of the believer and sceptic. “I want to believe” and “trust no one” are phrases inexorably linked to the show. Even the Cigarette-Smoking Man is the archetypal pop culture government stooge.

However, the similarities extend beyond the fact that both were unlikely success stories for Fox. Both The Simpsons and The X-Files were shows that seemed to succeed against the weight of expectation. Although Chris Carter and his production team were very careful to avoid characterising The X-Files as a genre television show, the series belonged to a number of niche and non-mainstream categories. It was a very unconventional hit, blending dramatic sensibilities with aliens and mutants and ghosts.

King of Kong...

King of Kong…

The Simpsons faced a similar up-hill battle. While The X-Files was careful to avoid falling into what might be termed the “sci-fi ghetto”, there was no way to hide the fact that The Simpsons was a prime-time animated television show. As such, the series faced considerable prejudice in trying to establish itself as a worthy and engaging piece of nineties American popular culture. There are still people who will refuse to watch a film or television show based solely on the fact that it is animated or features “little yellow people.”

Indeed, The Simpsons was a fixture of the “Outstanding Animated Programme” nominations at the Emmy Awards (at least until 2014), but it was curiously absent from the field in 1993 and 1994. The show had dared to submit its episodes into the “Outstanding Comedy Series” category and had been roundedly snubbed. “We’re a prime-time show, so we feel we should be treated like the big kids in the Emmys,” Matt Groening had tried to explain in July 1991 after the series was absent from the nominations.

"From Sweden."

“From Sweden.”

While The X-Files would crack that “big kids” league, The Simpsons found itself forced firmly into the animated series ghetto. Having failed to earn (what many felt to be much-deserved) recognition in the “Outstanding Comedy Series” category, the show went back to nominating itself in the “Outstanding Animated Programme” field, where it enjoyed considerable success. In fact, Lisa’s Wedding took home the award in 1995. Homer’s Phobia would claim the award in 1997, the same year that The Springfield Files aired.

In contrast, The X-Files found itself getting a lot more mainstream attention at this point in time. The fourth season would receive an “Outstanding Drama Series” nomination, David Duchovny would earn an “Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series” nomination and Gillian Anderson would take home the “Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series” award. The show would repeat those three nominations the following year, and Gillian Anderson would receive another nomination the year after that.

Reading the signs...

Reading the signs…

Regardless of the difference in the way that the Emmys treated the show, it was clear that Fox knew what to do with these success stories. In May, towards the end of the eighth season, The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase would suggest that the network’s entire line-up was built around The Simpsons, The X-Files and Melrose Place. As such, The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase affectionately spoofed the network’s attempts to spin-off from these successful television shows.

While exaggerated for comedic effect, there was a point to all of this. In the mid-nineties, Fox’s schedule was populated with attempts to mimic the success of The X-Files with shows like VR-5, Strange Luck or Sliders. Similarly, the success of The Simpsons had inspired the network to double-down on prime-time animation with shows like The Critic, Family Guy and King of the Hill. After all, King of the Hill debuted directly following The Springfield Files.

See also: Kevin Costner's career.

See also: Kevin Costner’s career.

Indeed, Fox would eventually convince both Chris Carter and Matt Groening to offer their own new shows within those broad templates. Fox had clearly intended for Carter’s Millennium to break out in the same way that The X-Files had. It would take a little longer for Fox to sign off on Matt Groening’s Futurama, but the principle remained the same. Although Millennium and Futurama were both radically different from the earlier – more popular – shows, the goal was to re-capture that magic.

So there is considerable common ground to be found between The X-Files and The Simpsons, as unlikely as that may sound. Both shows were at their zenith in 1997; having some cross-pollination could only be a good thing. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson both lend their voices to The Springfield Files, stepping comfortably into their iconic roles as Mulder and Scully. It is absolutely fascinating to see these two iconic characters wandering around Springfield.

Smoke 'em if you got 'em...

Smoke ’em if you got ’em…

According to Al Jean on the episode commentary, the crossover had been in the works for quite some time before it even happened. As Jean recalls, the writers wanted to crossover with The X-Files before the show was really a breakout hit:

This might be the longest from story to execution. There was a story retreat in – I think – ’92, were we were trying to think of ideas. We were working at Sony, and I went into the bathroom. There was a copy of TV Guide with The X-Files on the cover and I thought, “This is a good idea!” So I came back and I said to Mike, “We should just do a crossover.” And then we pitched it, and nobody wanted to do the episode. So, again, we got this deal where we could do something on the side. Then we said, “Okay, we’ll do this.”

To be fair to Jean, his chronology may be slightly askew here. The X-Files did not debut until 1993. It received its first TV Guide cover in June 1994. Still, that suggests that The Springfield Files was two-to-three years in the making. That’s longer than some shows last.

"Oh boy. Here we go."

“Oh boy. Here we go.”

Indeed, the delay between the initial conception and the final broadcast of the episode can arguably be detected in the finished product. The X-Files was broadcast on Friday nights for the first three years of its run. As such, it makes sense that Homer would bring Mulder and Scully to Springfield to investigate an X-file on a Friday night. (Homer explicitly acknowledges that the mysterious alien-like creature is sighted according to television scheduling, noting it appears ever Friday night “like Urkel”, the character from CBS’ Family Matters sitcom.)

However, The X-Files had moved from its Friday night slot to make room for Millennium. Instead, Fox had positioned the fourth season of The X-Files as part of a Sunday night line-up including The Simpsons and King of the Hill. This schedule would prove quite a potent combination for the network. So it feels nice to have The Springfield Files air in the same season that The X-Files had joined The Simpsons on the Sunday night schedule. Fans could catch Mulder and Scully later that same evening in El Mundo Gira. If they really wanted to.

A whale of a time...

A whale of a time…

The Springfield Files represents one of the first major crossover episodes for The Simpsons. While the series had attracted an incredible variety of vocal talent, very rarely had fictional characters and worlds directly intersected with The Simpsons. In Fear of Flying, Homer had briefly visited the bar from Cheers, featuring most of the cast of the show in-character. However, that intersection was fleeting. Mulder and Scully hang around for most of the middle section of the episode.

Of course, The Simpsons had featured the lead characters from other shows before. In A Star is Burns, Jon Lovitz’s Jay Sherman had crossed over from his own show, The Critic. However, there is a significant difference between Jay Sherman and Mulder and Scully. Those two iconic FBI agents were not just transitioning from live action to animation, but also from drama to comedy. As such, The Springfield Files is a novelty at this point in the show’s lifecycle.

Alien encounters...

Alien encounters…

In the years ahead – perhaps emboldened by the success of The Springfield Files – The Simpsons would commit to a number of equally high-profile crossover adventures. Keifer Sutherland and Mary Rajskub would repise their roles from 24 in the episode 24 Minutes. The show would bring over the cast of Futurama for its twenty-sixth season episode Simpsorama. Although it could not secure Claire Danes or Damian Lewis, the show would directly play with the premise of Homeland in Homerland.

There are several fascinating aspects of The Springfield Files. Most notably, it manages to balance its obligations to both shows. The Springfield Files is very careful and attentive in how it handles The X-Files. For example, while the first scene featuring Mulder and Scully adds a picture of J. Edgar Hoover to their office, the iconic basement set is faithfully recreated. Alf Clausen’s music comes as close to Mark Snow’s iconic score as possible. The Cigarette-Smoking Man cameos, as does Mulder’s speedo from Duane Barry. (Not to mention the glimpse of Mulder enjoying sunflower seeds at Moe’s.)

The truth of the matter...

The truth of the matter…

Indeed, it’s telling that the biggest disappointment with the episode’s depiction of Mulder and Scully is the rather generic investigation that Mulder cites as their worst case ever. When Scully dismisses their trip to Springfield as “the worst assignment [they’ve] ever had”, Mulder chimes in, “Worse than the time we were attacked by the flesh-eating virus?” While it could be an obscure reference to F. Emasculata, it feels like a missed opportunity to reference the bizarre nature of some episodes of The X-Files.

It wouldn’t even need to be too specific – just weird enough to serve as a punchline to somebody who hasn’t actually watched The X-Files, but also well-observed enough to resonate with those viewers who watch both shows. How about, “Even worse than that time we tracked down the man-sized mutant fluke-worm?” Or, “What about the fat-sucking vampire?” Or, “How about the human black hole?” Cases that are eccentric enough to seem weird out of context, but also references that demonstrate The X-Files could be very weird television.

Alien encounter...

Alien encounter…

That said, the fact that this is the weakest aspect of the crossover speaks volumes about just how much care and attention went into it. The personalities of Mulder and Scully are comically exaggerated, but The Simpsons understands what makes these two archetypal characters resonate. The versions of Mulder and Scully on display here are not so radically different from the versions that Vince Gilligan would present in Bad Blood a year later. These are ever-so-slightly tweaked and skewed iterations of the two iconic characters.

The little details work very well. Mulder’s monomaniacal fixation on weird science is only ever-so-slightly exaggerated. While Mulder is excited by reports of “another unsubstantiated UFO sighting in the heartland of America”, Scully suggests, “There’s also this report of a shipment of drugs and illegal weapons coming into New Jersey tonight.” Mulder is dismissive. “I hardly think the FBI is concerned with matters like that,” he observes – only the slightest exaggeration of Mulder’s actual position, which is that more conventional law enforcement work is generally a distraction from his mission.

Small-town American horror story...

Small-town American horror story…

Similarly, the show’s most delightfully on-the-nose piece of characterisation sees Mulder getting lost in one of his own episode-closing monologues at the end of the second act. “Somewhere out there, something is watching us. There are alien forces acting in ways we can’t perceive. Are we alone in the universe? Impossible. When you consider the wonders that exist all around us… Voodoo priests of Haiti! Tibetan Numerologists of Appalachia! The unsolved mysteries of… Unsolved Mysteries! The truth is out there.”

It is both a pitch-perfect parody of the sort of purple prose that Chris Carter would weave into the voice-overs that frequently closed out The X-Files, the sort of indulgent dialogue that Darin Morgan affectionately spoofed in War of the Coprophages. Indeed, Scully has heard all this before; she checks her watch and just wanders off. On the commentary, writer Reid Harrison admits that he did not know too much about The X-Files while writing the script and a lot of the gags came from the other members of the staff, but there is a sense that those involved know the material.

The Feds are whaling on him!

The Feds are whaling on him!

However, despite the fact that Mulder and Scully are well-served by The Springfield Files, the script is careful not to let them overwhelm the narrative. Harrison has admitted that he came up with the basic idea for the story before the writing staff decided to integrate Mulder and Scully, and that shines through. Barring brief cameos in the final sequence, Mulder and Scully are only active in The Springfield Files for the middle third of the episode. The Springfield Files is still an episode of The Simpsons, and the comedy is well-served by it.

While the Mulder and Scully sequences are memorable in their own right, The Springfield Files has no shortage of gags relating to the quirky community and its residents – from Homer’s comical inability to remember the name of the movie Speed through to the recurring gag about Moe secretly smuggling black-and-white animals. Indeed, the first act is devoted almost entirely to Friday evening in Springfield, from slightly dated (but no less funny) jokes about Waterworld through to the sad fate of Hans Moleman.

Radioactive man!

Radioactive man!

The Springfield Files never feels like the cynical crossover that it could easily have become. It doesn’t feel like a transparent ratings ploy, or a network-dictated piece of synergy. As odd as it might seem, Mulder and Scully seem quite comfortable in Springfield. Indeed, Springfield itself is really just the quirkiest of the quirky small towns that Mulder and Scully visit on a regular basis, an eccentric little community where the absurdity is ramped up to eleven. Almost like Away in the Manger from Picket Fences, we get a sense of what it must be like to have The X-Files drop in on a small community like this.

Sure, Springfield isn’t a town full of cannibals like the community that Mulder and Scully visited in Our Town, but it is a little hamlet with its own shady history and dark (or at least ambiguous) secrets. It might not have its own lightning observatory like the town in D.P.O., but Springfield has its own eccentric claims to fame with the ever-present tire fire or the world’s largest cubic zirconia. The residents of this small town are just as quirky as any of the supporting cast members featured in Humbug.

A logical choice...

A logical choice…

In fact, the abiding weirdness of Springfield is the same sort of weirdness that Doctor Blockhead seems to suggest will soon fade from American life. Despite the dysfunction associated with Springfield, there is a romance to the community. As Paul A. Cantor notes in Atomistic Politics and the Nuclear Family:

Springfield is decidedly an American small town. In several episodes, it is contrasted with Capital City, a metropolis the Simpsons approach with fear and trepidation. Obviously the show makes fun of small-town life – it makes fun of everything – but is simultaneously celebrates the virtues of the traditional American small town. One of the principal reasons why the dysfunctional Simpsons family functions as well as it does is that they live in a traditional American small town. The institutions that govern their lives are not remote from them or alien to them. The Simpson children go to a neighbourhood school (though they are bussed to it by the ex-hippie driver Otto). Their friends in school are largely the same as their friends in the neighbourhood. The Simpsons are not confronted by an elaborate, unapproachable, and uncaring educational bureaucracy. Principal Skinner and Mrs. Krabappel may not be perfect educators, but when Homer and Marge need to talk to them, they are readily accessible. The same is true of the Springfield police force. Chief Wiggum is not a great crime-fighter, but is well-known to the citizens of Springfield, as they are to him. The police in Springfield still have neighbourhood beats and have even been known to share a donut or two with Homer.

Although they do not interact with them directly, Police Chief Clancy Wiggum and Mayor “Diamond Joe” Quimby are precisely the same archetypal characters that Mulder and Scully encounter on a regular basis – inept, corrupt or territorial small-town figures with their own agendas and a place secure in their local community. The Simpsons just plays these ideas to their absurd conclusion.

Fox-y agent...

Fox-y agent…

Indeed, the thematic and philosophical overlap between the shows may run even deeper. Asked to articulate a moral for The Simpsons, Matt Groening has suggested, “That your moral authorities don’t always have your best interests in mind.” It seems like a sentiment with which Chris Carter might agree. While the corrupt authorities in The Simpsons are frequently inept rather than malevolent, The Simpsons is a story about a bunch of people trying to get by in a frequently absurd and topsy-turvy world where it seems like the system is conspiring against them.

Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa may rarely find themselves running up against a nemesis as downright sinister as the Cigarette-Smoking Man, but they frequently butt heads with institutions so large and labyrinthine that they no longer assist the people they were created to serve. It is telling that whenever the government (or any comparable authority) intrudes into Springfield, it discovers that any attempts to impose order on the chaotic American town are ultimately futile. (Just ask Rex Banner or the Army Colonel or Russ Cargill.) Mulder would certainly empathise with the residents.

Spock sings!

Spock sings!

To cite a convenient example of The Simpsons‘ anti-authoritarian leanings, The Complete Guide to The Simpsons pointed out that the episode which aired directly before The Springfield Files – the classic El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer – included a “blink and you miss it” gag about government surveillance. In a joke that seems even harsher in 2015, a quick peek through the Simpson family floorboards reveals that the phone is tapped by (handily labeled wires to) the CIA, FBI, ATF, NSA, KGB and MCI. No wonder the Cigarette-Smoking Man got down so quickly.

The Springfield Files is a highlight for both fans of The Simpsons and fans of The X-Files, beautifully capturing the overlap between two shows that seemed to speak to an entire generation. It is a nice reminder of just how big these two shows were when they were at the top of their game. What might easily seem like self-congratulatory back-slapping instead winds up serving both shows remarkably well. The Springfield Files might end with a clearer-cut resolution than most episodes of The X-Files, but it does seem to get at the truth of both shows.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the fourth season of The X-Files:

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9 Responses

  1. In terms of big Simpsons crossovers, this past years Family Guy one didn’t get much popularity.

    • Fair point. I have yet to see it, I must confess. I don’t watch either show as much as I used to. (That’s not a judgement on quality, I hasten to add.)

      • As with the Simpsons, Family Guy has hit its stride. the show’s whole focus is now throwing rapid jokes and ensure one is funny. That said, it works because I still laugh at least once during any given episode of Family Guy.

  2. Season 8 was the last year of “my” Simpsons. I was in law school when this aired, taped it on VHS, and watched it a dozen times over the rest of the terms (so much more interesting than Commercial Paper). Galt showing up in the lineup (along with ALF) shows a writer’s room on top of its game mining the rich but rarely-trod corners of the cultural zeitgeist.

    Also, your write-up is not only lovely, but, in an X-Files-worthy twist, episode narrator Leonard Nimoy died within hours, if not minutes, of this post going live. I am not OK today.

    • I know. That was a weird coincidence, wasn’t it?

      My own Simpsons fandom lasted a bit longer. I remember the moment I personally lost a lot of faith in the show – the Florida episode. I don’t think I laughed once, which was the first time that had happened. (Ironically, I had caught the two previous episodes while on vacation in Florida.)

  3. Regarding odd crossovers, here’s a surprising one from the Adlard Topps era -http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2013/08/23/comic-book-legends-revealed-433/3/

    • That’s amazing. If only I’d known about it back at that stage of the read through.

      Still, might make a nice addition to the book version, if I get around to it.

  4. Great article as always! That comment on how people refuse to watch animation hits too close to home. I love animation, sometimes even more than live action, there can be so many styles and so many things accomplished that can’t be done in live-action. Ah well, their loss

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