Like every other well-balanced 20-something of my generation, my childhood years were defined by watching The Simpsons. I distinctly remember how important it was to have watched Sunday’s episode so that you could talk about it at school on Monday. This would have been during the tail-end of what is considered the “golden age” of The Simpsons (Any episode from the first eight seasons.)
Now, considering I was only one-year-old when the first season originally aired, I actually caught up on most of the earlier episodes through syndication, which allowed The Simpsons to air five days a week immediately after school. The beautiful genius of The Simpsons was that their comedy audience included both children and adults, and somehow the jokes managed to hit for both demographics. Now as I revisit the earlier episodes for the 50th time (it feels like), I’m finally able to appreciate all the literary, film and other pop-culture references that made the show so great.
I’ll make a point to catch any old rerun of The Simpsons.
However, I can’t recall the last time I’ve sat down to catch a new episode live on Sunday night. Part of that could be that I’m just too busy to find the time to sit down and watch it on Sundays. But the bigger issue is…
The Simpsons really shouldn’t be making new shows on television anymore.
As a bit of an aside, I’ve been working on this post for a while now. I was planning on posting my thoughts on the state of The Simpsons last week, but I felt that it would end up being more of an opinionated rant than anything backed up with facts or first-hand accounts from people who know what they’re talking about. I remembered talking about the decline of The Simpsons with Leif Larsen at the Manitoban offices a few years ago, and he recommended reading The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History by John Ortved. So I read it.
For a fan of the series looking to get a better insight into the creation of The Simpsons and rise to prominence should certainly check the book out. The format can be hard to follow, as there are lengthy quotes from showrunners, producers and writers of the first eight seasons, but the quotes are also the most interesting parts of the book.
Anyways, based on the information presented in the book, you can track the transition from the ‘golden age’ based on the transitions between show runners. For the first eight seasons, there were four different showrunners (sometimes in groups of two or three). Casual fans might not recognize names like Sam Simon, Al Jean or David Mirkin, but they were the men tasked with producing the show and keeping the writer’s room in line.
(Stories from the writer’s room was the most interesting part of the book, by the way. Especially the chapter on Conan O’Brien, but I might be somewhat biased because I’m a huge Conan fan.)
Anyways, Looking at the first eight seasons, each showrunner got two seasons in charge. Then, Mike Scully took over for season nine and stayed on from 1997-2001. His run was followed up by Al Jean, who has been The Simpsons showrunner ever since, as the show heads into it’s 25th season (!) this year.
Now, part of the reason why The Simpsons will never be as good as the golden-era episodes is simply because back in the early 90s, the show was still fresh, controversial and new. The characters (especially the humongous cast of secondary characters) had not gone through “Flanderization”, which, according to TVTropes.org:
The act of taking a single (often minor) action or trait of a character within a work and exaggerating it more and more over time until it completely consumes the character. Most always, the trait/action becomes completely outlandish and it becomes their defining characteristic. Sitcoms and Sitcom characters are particularly susceptible to this, as are peripheral characters in shows with long runs.
Named for one of the examples in The Simpsons, Ned Flanders, who was originally just a considerate neighbor and attentive father (contrast to Homer), before becoming obsessively religious to the point of lunacy.
First off, considering that The Simpsons is the longest-running animated series, longest running sitcom and longest running scripted primetime series in US television history.
That will almost force the writers to have to try and find topical material to write about, or to go with more outlandish story ideas. And in the fifth and sixth seasons, when Homer went to space, Bart got an elephant and the Simpson family creates an international event in Australia, these wacky adventures were the exception, not the rule.
But maybe it was the two-parter “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” episode where the show hit one of its highest marks in popularity and hype, while at the same time jumping the shark as a series.
Here’s a test for anyone who considers themselves a Simpsons fan. Go through the full episode list (all 500+ episodes), from season one to season 24, and just based on the titles, see how many episodes you recognize—whether it’s the plot or specific jokes and gags that have stood the test of time. You’ll realize just how stacked the first eight or nine seasons are, compared to the next 15 seasons.
You can also see just how over-the-top the stories became. Even though it’s always been a cartoon with an often absurd and satirical sense of humour, the early episodes were always grounded in it’s own version of reality. Now check out this entry from Wikisimpsons on the upcoming season.
An episode dedicated to Kent Brockman? Comic Book Guy getting married? A Futurama/Simpsons crossover episode?
Come on, man. The only reason why I’m somewhat looking forward to the Futurama crossover episode is because it should hopefully cleanse my memory of the Family Guy/Simpsons crossover in production.
Anyways, the one thing that I think fans, former-fans, or haters can all agree on is that whenever The Simpsons mercifully comes to an end, it will be an emotional series finale. For millions of people around the world (myself included).
The Simpsons have been there throughout my entire life. And just like something you sort of take for granted after a while, as much as it’s been played out and deserves a respectable close, it will be a sad day when The Simpsons comes to an end.
But the time has come…and passed… and will come again. Al Jean, speaking to Entertainment Weekly, says he hopes to get to 30 seasons by the end of the decade. So it doesn’t seem like The Simpsons will be ending any time soon.
But at least we can all look forward to reruns, which will probably air on television until the end of time.