The iconic show has had its ups and downs over the years, but its ups have been worth the downs.
There was once a time when The Simpsons didn’t exist, when Homer was just a baseball reference, D’oh was a precursor to a wide variety of foodstuffs, the sucking of a pacifier did not conjure up the image of a starfish with a bow on its forehead, and Hans Moleman was, well...nothing.
Marge, Maggie, Lisa, Homer and Bart are today a part of our popular culture. They are The Beatles of television. You know the medium existed before them, but somehow it was less colourful or entertaining. Matt Groening’s creation, which started so small in 1987 and then got so big, is now so integral of our television years, that it is now somehow easier to criticise the show than to lavish praise upon it.
In this vein, a whole generation of fans, critics and general naysayers seem to have spent the last decade or so hurling abuse at each new episode that has aired, simply because those episodes do not (cannot) match up to the ones broadcast during the show’s halcyon years, between 1991 and 1996. But nothing can be compared to those episodes because they singlehandedly created a new realm of pop culture.
The show’s influence, as a result, quickly came to transcended television and, even to this day, it can be seen across a spectrum of movies, paintings, comics and in everyday lingo.
It is hard to fathom just how relentlessly funny, witty and astounding this early and teen period of The Simpsons was. Stories like Bart Gets an F, Dancin’ Homer, Flaming Moe’s, Mr Plow, Krusty Gets Kancelled and Marge vs. the Monorail (this list could go on for paragraphs) became part of the Western culture’s cultural psyche and everyone, it seemed, for a while, had their favourite peripheral character from Springfield that they could quote from, if needed. It was always going to be impossible to maintain this form, and so, on September 28 1997, the show began its inevitable decline.
Why so specific a date, you ask?
Because this was the date when season nine’s The Principal and the Pauper aired, the episode that many cite as the beginning of the end for Homer, Marge et al as pop culture icons.
Principal Skinner as an imposter?
And then everything just returns to normal?
No, no, no, no, no!
This one story was just too silly and preposterous for people to get their heads around. It was also the start of a decline in the series and the quality of its writing.
Bombastic narratives that involved Marge seeking another new job (Realty Bites), Homer embracing the NRA (The Cartridge Family) and the writers chastising Scientology (The Joy of Sect) seemed to abandon some of the key dynamics of earlier seasons. And then there were the cameos, each of which unbalanced the episode’s narratives that they appeared in, with pompous star after pompous star (U2 in Trash of the Titans, for example) heading to Springfield to look cool, or simply to promote their latest music release, movie or sometimes just themselves.
The popular consensus would have it that these seasons led to the series slumping into a general malaise that it has never climbed out of. Yet each episode in these seasons also maintained impressive ratings, brought new character’s to the fore in fresh and interesting ways and, perhaps more importantly, remained funny. Maybe not to the level of previous years, but still to the point where The Simpsons managed to remain funnier than much else on television.
Since then the show has continued in a similar vein. In March this year, it was renewed for seasons 33 and 34, increasing the number of broadcast episodes to 750, while season 33 of The Simpsons also premiered last month. As such, there remains no end in sight to The Simpsons franchise. Indeed, it has now reached the stage where you cannot review each season on their own, you need to talk about them in groups of years.
Soon it will be decades.
As such, The Simpsons has now plateaued into a comfortable aura, where its confidence has been able to grow, and because of this, its writers, animators and voice artists have been able to take the show in a new direction as vital and current as it has ever been. The show has also seen over the years alternative and subculture heroes such as Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore guest-star, as well as an appearance by Julian Assange. The show’s writers have even taken aim at a bizarre hotchpotch of indefensible events and personnel, which have included documentary film festivals, food blogging, Theodore Roosevelt and Moneyball.
This unsettled rhythm, which was most frenetic in the early to mid-00s, was later replaced by a slightly different creative approach which saw such cameos become more subtle, and the animators embrace new technological advancements to create visual jokes that were previously beyond their capabilities (Banksy’s couch gag being one of the more famous examples of this).
Yes, there have been missteps along the way, such as involving the public to decide on the fate of Edna Krabappel and Ned Flanders’ relationship at the end of season 22, whilst some particular episodes have been woefully insipid, but with Springfield having turned into a fertile ground for comedy tales, due to its endless parade of evolved characters, there is now no guessing when the series will finally come to a close.
And that’s even before we open up the topic of the movie and potential cinematic franchise (drawing in $536 million, as of writing). The Simpsons may have evolved from being very funny, original and unique, into a fully-fledged international franchise, but that does not necessarily mean it has run out of creative juice along the way.
It’s just become more commercially successful.
Which in itself is no bad thing.