An episode from The Simpsons' eighth season called “The Simpsons Spin-off Showcase” ended with a mocking song called “They’ll Never Stop The Simpsons”, which saw the writers poke fun at themselves and claim “we’ve got stories for years!” Some of the stories referenced in the song included: “Marge becomes a robot,” “maybe Moe gets a cellphone” and “a crazy wedding where… something happens.”
The joke is that the ideas start out uninspired and get even worse as the song goes along, but uninspired ideas from The Simpsons didn’t seem too likely back then.
The episode aired in the heady days of 1997 when The Simpsons was in a golden period of eight brilliant seasons. The show was one of the most critically adored and generally beloved television shows ever to grace the airwaves. Little did anyone know that the sharp decline of one the greatest television shows of all time was just around the corner. Watch an episode of any recent season and you might think Moe gets a cellphone isn’t such an awful idea after all. It certainly beats Moe becomes a judge on American Idol (yes, that happened).
The glory years of seasons 1–8 (maybe including some of 9, if we’re being generous) now stand as just the beginning of a show that has ran for 31 seasons (and counting). But so marked has been the show’s decline in quality that you might struggle to find any self-declared Simpsons fans who still tune in regularly, and those who do are likely to do so more out of a sense of obligation than anything else. Even harder to find are those that would defend the modern-day incarnation of the show or claim it’s still as good as it’s ever been (outside of writers, directors, producers, and the voice actors).
These days if a new episode of The Simpsons produces a smile it’s a “good” episode, whereas the classic episodes can produce belly laughs even on repeated viewings. Celebrity cameos are (over) used in every episode, usually to little or no effect, yet I can recall when the show used the likes of Dustin Hoffman brilliantly.
The Simpsons inspired a slew of animated shows for adults; from those created by series alumni like The Critic and Futurama to modern day classics like King Of The Hill, South Park, Family Guy, and American Dad! (although even at their best, none can hold a candle to classic Simpsons).
Even the animated shows that don’t share any real similarities with The Simpsons, like Bob’s Burgers and Archer, owe a debt of one kind or another to what was, once upon a time, a piece of groundbreaking television. Without it, television and popular culture, in general, would be a very different place — and yet, despite the respect and love it inspires (or at least used to) many want to see the show finally off the air as it limps on, with ratings declining year-on-year and overwhelmingly negative critical reaction. So how did we get here? To find out, we have to go way back to the late 1980s…
The Early Years
Pretty much everyone who watches The Simpsons knows the basic outline of its history: The Simpsons started life as “crudely drawn filler material” (as Troy McClure would one day put it) on The Tracy Ullman Show. The then-nascent Fox Network took a punt on Matt Groening’s animation and ordered 13 episodes for a series which began — in oddball Simpsons style — with a Christmas special that aired in December of 1989, making The Simpsons the first prime time cartoon since The Flintstones ended back in 1966.
The Simpsons was a burst of bright yellow color in a bland American TV landscape filled with by-the-numbers, crime-of-the-week cop shows and tepid, moralistic family sitcoms, with the anti-establishment youngster Bart Simpson as its early figurehead and spokesman. The early years of The Simpsons were different to the “classic” set up we all know and love: the show’s focus was primarily on Bart, while Homer — though by no means smart — is presented as a well-meaning if gruff father, rather than the crazy extroverted hedonist he would become. Bart was the initial “breakout” character and his recognizable face and catchphrases spawned countless items of Simpsons branded merchandise and helped launch a pop culture phenomenon.
The early seasons of the show were a template upon which to build. The animation was a bit ropey, the actors were sometimes still working out the characters’ voices (witness Homer’s Walter Mathau-esque deep voice early on) and the designs weren’t quite there but the show was still funny, and began attacking American sacred cows with unfettered glee.
We saw early glimpses of a Springfield that would become fully fleshed out over later seasons, but most of all we got a glimpse of The Simpsons' anti-authoritarian stance. Traditionally in American TV shows of the time, the family patriarch was well-loved, hard-working and good-hearted (if occasionally stupid). Then The Simpsons gave us Homer.
While mostly well-meaning (in the early seasons at least) he was still lazy, greedy and at times negligent (in Season 1’s final episode, “Some Enchanted Evening”, Homer unwittingly allows the notorious criminal “Babysitter Bandit” to leave — with triple pay! — before the Police could arrive to arrest her). Other authority figures aren’t spared a mockery either. Springfield’s Mayor Quimby is a corrupt womanizer who acquiesces to the whims of Springfield’s baying mobs at every opportunity, the Chief of Police is as incompetent as he is lazy, the local Reverend is a cynical man beaten down by life (and Ned Flanders), the most popular entertainer is a chain-smoking, gambling, illiterate TV clown whose show panders to the lowest common denominator, while the school teachers don’t seem to care at all about the children’s future.
The Simpsons began to show itself as an equal opportunities offender in its first two seasons. Similarly to modern day South Park (though not to the same extreme), The Simpsons would mock everyone; left and right on the political spectrum, authority figures to everyday families. At times it was more serious in tone than what would come later (the mini-dramas of “Lisa’s Substitute” or “Life On The Fast Lane” show how deftly the show combined the silly and the serious) but the early green shoots of greatness would only grow further, and the soon The Simpsons would become the greatest show on television.
The Glory Years
After a couple of promising, often hilarious seasons, The Simpsons came into its own from season 3 onward. Season 3 gave the world numerous classic episodes including “Flaming Moe’s”, “Dog Of Death” and “I Married Marge”. Seasons 4 and 5 gave us “The Last Exit to Springfield” (my personal favorite episode, where Homer battles Mr. Burns as the unwitting head of the worker’s union), “A Streetcar Named Marge”, “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet”, “The Last Temptation Of Homer”, “Cape Feare”… seriously, I could go on with this list for the rest of the article.
The character development of the early seasons laid the groundwork for what would come later, as The Simpsons added more weapons to an already well-stocked arsenal. The anti-authoritarian stance remained, but The Simpsons was unafraid to go anywhere in search of laughs. We saw spot-on movie parodies (the “Cape Feare” parody of… Cape Fear being a perfect example), puns, musical numbers and even “low” slapstick comedy like the famous scene of Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes. Does it make sense in the context of the episode? Not really. Is it funny? Oh, yes.
The Simpsons could go, creatively, wherever it wanted. As part of the contract signed with the Fox Network, it was agreed that the writers would be able to write free of any studio interference. So there were no infamous “notes” from above, no diktats from know-nothing producers with suggests for plots and new characters. The Simpsons could be whatever it wanted to be, and until season 9 it was a colossus, bestriding the television landscape and popular culture in general like no other show before it — certainly no other animated show.
How, then, did The Simpsons fall so far, to the place it occupies today? Looked upon as an irrelevance, involved in crossover shows with lesser imitators like Family Guy in a desperate lunge for ratings, leaking plot details online in an attempt to shock an apathetic public into watching (you’ve probably seen the headlines: “Homer and Marge Break Up!”, “Sideshow Bob Will Kill Bart!”). It should never have been this way…
Season 9 & The Sharp Decline
Season 9 is usually pinpointed as the time when The Simpsons began its slide into irrelevancy. In hindsight, it has some decent episodes, especially when compared to what would come later. Even the infamous, much-derided “The Principal And The Pauper” episode, where it’s revealed that straight-laced Principal Skinner is a street punk fraud with a stolen identity, seems like a veritable classic when compared to just about anything from modern day seasons.
So season 9 did have its moments, but there were clear signs that the show was losing its way. In fairness, it was understandable. By this point in The Simpsons’ history, the turnover of writing staff meant that the writers’ room was filled largely with inexperience, and with hundreds of episodes of backstory and already-done plots behind them, it’s easy to see why there did not seem to be anywhere new to go. This is why we got episodes that retconned the backstory of a beloved character, and numerous episodes around the easy theme of “[insert character] gets a new job”. Usually, that character was Homer.
As if recycled and lazy plots weren’t bad enough, The Simpsons fell back on the easy ratings hit of having a big name celebrity appear (usually playing themselves). Back in the classic years, celebrity appearances would be used for a reason, like the Dustin Hoffman appearance mentioned previously. The celebrities would give voice to one-off but important characters in an episode. From season 9 on, the celebrities would mainly be used for one-note cameos. They would appear, a character would reel off who they are and why they’re famous, usually in an incredibly jarring way, there would be a weak joke, and they would disappear.
One particularly incongruous appearance I remember is from season 19’s “Any Given Sundance” — indie film director Jim Jarmusch turns up, which prompts Lisa to reel off a laundry list of his films (because of course an 8-year-old would be familiar with his films!).
The ret-conning of character backed stories didn’t stop with “The Principal And The Pauper”, either. Another season 19 episode called “That 90s Show” re-wrote Homer and Marge’s history and the entire series’s continuity, all for a parade of 90s references and the “joke” of Homer overdosing on insulin while fronting a Nirvana-esque grunge band called Sadgasm.
Remarkably the show is still going, twelve seasons past that low point, but it’s running on fumes. I don’t see any way the show can now recapture its former glory. Surely it’s time to put an end to America’s (former) favorite family? We’ll always have the glory years, the constant TV repeats and the DVDs.
Thanks for the memories, The Simpsons, you’ve been great. But we’ve all been watching your decline for too long. It’s time for everyone to be put out of their misery.