I love The Simpsons. You love The Simpsons. Everyone loves The Simpsons… up to a point. Traditional logic dictates that The Simpsons stopped being good around its 12th or 13th season. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where the rot set in, say the nay-sayers, but subsequent seasons are not-so-affectionately known by critics as ‘Zombie Simpsons’ episodes; though it still struggles on, the show is now a shambling, creaking, brain-dead version of its former self. In other words: The Simpsons sucks. Everyone hates The Simpsons now. Worst. Show. Ever.
Wait. Let’s get a grip. Let’s rewind.
THREE DECADES OF D’OH
The Simpsons first appeared on US television screens in April, 1987 — back when TVs were half the size and twice the weight — in short cartoons forming part of The Tracey Ullman Show. Fox gave the first family of TV their own show in December 1989, sensing they had a hit on their hands. Good shout.
Since then, it has become the longest-running scripted primetime TV show ever, boasting 639 episodes over 29 seasons. In a nutshell: The Simpsons is old. It’s old as hell. There’s a very good chance it’s older than you.
Here are a few things The Simpsons pre-dates. The collapse of the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War. The fall of the Berlin Wall. Gazza crying at the World Cup. Smartphones. Text messaging. Hell, the proliferation of the mobile phone. Netflix. Blu-ray. DVDs. Also: Sky TV. The births of Daniel Radcliffe, Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber, all of whom went on to guest star. The release of movies like Die Hard, Goodfellas and RoboCop, all of which the show went on to parody. The Sony PlayStation. The Microsoft Xbox. Who are we kidding: The Simpsons is older than the original Nintendo Game Boy. Oh, and depending on your definition of what constitutes a working information superhighway, The Simpsons also pre-dates the internet, which means it technically also pre-dates people complaining about TV shows on the internet.
The show’s first 10 years were a dream. It cannot be overstated how much Matt Groening changed the medium of televisual animation; what was once considered to be the exclusive domain of kids was now being aimed squarely at adults too. The gags! The catchphrases! The colours! The eating of shorts! The Simpsons instantly exploded in popularity: the show went global, the voice cast became celebrities and the quality of the show in the early days was consistently, impossibly hilarious.
THE SIMPSONS DID IT
Granted, such reverence does not make for much of a defense of The Simpsons’ recent seasons. However, in criticising the current iteration of a show that would air for nine whole days if you broadcast every episode back-to-back, you cannot overlook just how revolutionary The Simpsons was for its time – and how it stood alone. Back in its day, The Simpsons was untouchable: no other show even came close. In fact, there was no competition at all. Is it fair then, that The Simpsons of 2018 — in a time when Netflix release a new adult-oriented animation every week, and every episode must compete with at least two or three other screens in any given room — should even be compared with the show’s Golden Age?
This is where volume plays a part. The Simpsons has aired more episodes than South Park and Family Guy combined. In fact, South Park had a whole episode dedicated to the maxim ‘The Simpsons did it’, where every crazy scheme turns out to be a retread of a Simpsons episode, while Peter Griffin clashed with Homer in a 2014 crossover special.
639 episodes is quite the boxset. It’s a binge-watch that’d surely kill you. Using the peer-reviewed law of entropy (in this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics), it is only natural that the quality of the show would decline over time. That’s science, friend. Take the best TV shows ever written and try to extrapolate 639 episodes from the source material and say your prayers, because that way lies the mouth of madness. The fact The Simpsons still airs at all is a miracle — we’re lucky each episode isn’t just Homer and Bart banging their heads against a wall for 22 minutes.
Rather than compare The Simpsons’ recent seasons to its glorious early days, the only fair comparison is to the rest of the modern TV landscape, bearing in mind that most of the animated shows you know and love wouldn’t even exist were it not for Matt Groening. This is where The Simpsons of 2018 does falter somewhat. There are sharper shows (South Park lives and dies on the bleeding edge of the zeitgeist), there are smarter shows (Bojack Horseman does a surprising amount of emotional heavy lifting via the concept of a sad sitcom horse) and there are edgier shows (Rick and Morty frequently pushes the envelope of acceptability).
In comparison, The Simpsons looks extremely old-fashioned and outdated (reminder: the show is as old now as The Flintstones was when The Simpsons first aired). It offers very little for the millennial audience, but then it doesn’t try to. In fact, the Season 8 episode ‘The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show’ is a great example of how TV shows dilute their brand when trying to appear cool. (That’s right: even on the topic of TV shows getting stale, The Simpsons already did it).
WORST. SHOW. EVER.
When the show does deviate from its well-beaten path, it’s criticised for taking too many risks. Take the Season 9 episode, ‘The Principal and The Pauper,’ in which it was revealed that Principal Skinner was an imposter named Armin Tamzarian. You’ve never seen such outrage! Every time the writers attempt a new gimmick episode – like the two-part mystery ‘Who Shot Mr Burns?’, or the episode built out of LEGO bricks, or the Futurama crossover – fans voice their displeasure online with all the patience and demeanour of Comic Book Guy (“Rest assured I was on the internet in minutes registering my disgust throughout the world”). Whether right or wrong, The Simpsons is constantly punished for failing to evolve over its 29 years on the air; look no further than the controversy surrounding its depiction of Apu.
So, yes: criticisms of the show are not always wide of the mark – The Simpsons is quite obviously not the show it used to be. But in holding up new episodes to the colossal benchmarks of its earlier seasons, we set it up to fail – and that’s selling it short, because even the worst episode of new Simpsons is better than most other stuff on TV.
Later seasons have played home to some genuinely brilliant episodes. Season 17’s ‘The Seemingly Neverending Story’ used flashbacks within flashbacks to ingenious and hilarious effect. Season 19 episode ‘Any Given Sundance’ was an incisive takedown of the independent film industry (Homer: “Maybe I can finally meet Jim Jarmusch, and ask him who he is!”). Season 23’s Christmas episode ‘Holidays of Future Passed’ was smart, funny and emotional, culminating in a scene where future-Bart and future-Lisa discuss the difficulties of parenting (a stark reminder that, for every year the show ages, the characters are otherwise cursed to stay the same age).
Sure, every season has its duds, but there’s plenty of great stuff in the recent seasons too. They can’t all be ‘Lisa’s First Word’ or ‘Deep Space Homer’ or ‘Marge Vs The Monorail.’
MAKE THE SIMPSONS GREAT AGAIN
Besides, don’t people always prefer things the way they used to be? TV shows. Star Wars movies. The size of chocolate bars. The perceived greatness of America. It is a fundamentally human way of thinking to romanticise the past while turning one’s nose up at the present. You think there weren’t people sat around watching The Flintstones in the ‘60s, moaning about how all the jokes about dinosaurs were getting old?
It’s the same rose-tinted worldview and lack of perspective that results in every generation thinking they have it worse than the last guy, and why every new episode of The Simpsons is considered a slap in the face to the show of old. Simpsons producer Dana Gould, who worked on the show from Season 12 onwards, put it best: “The people who say ‘It was never as good as it was five years ago’, it’s like… well, neither are you. That’s the problem.”