“The Simpsons” is an American cultural icon, and it has been a recognizable property for 30 years. Not only is it the longest-running cartoon in history, but in 2018 it managed to surpass Gunsmoke as the longest-running primetime scripted series.
The show’s image has been spread by virtually every conceivable product, from clothing to amusement parks. Yet in its unprecedented runtime, it begs the question as to how the Springfield family managed to remain on TV for so long. Has the writing been that good, or is it a matter of money? Many fans are of the opinion that not only has the show decreased in quality, but in fact has betrayed its original function as a relatable outlet for the counterculture.
In 1989, the state of TV was in a relative plateau as far as general structure was concerned. Family-centered shows tended to be lighthearted and did not push too far into any issues that “The Simpsons” addresses. While there were certainly exceptions, the general truth to this was what drove Matt Groening to create “The Simpsons.”
The inspiration for the show originated in an earlier comic strip series by Groening, “Life in Hell.” While the characters were different, a strong spirit of dissent toward social norms carried over from the comic into the animated series. After their first appearances in animated “Tracey Ullman” sketches, “The Simpsons” found their own footing.
“The Simpsons” was a major contribution to the growing counterculture of the early ‘90s and generated many controversies over its runtime. President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush both attacked the show’s disregard for “normalcy” (though at least the latter would change her view after receiving a “letter” from Marge Simpson). Bart Simpson’s status as a bad role model was the standard opinion of parents and many celebrities, though defenders of the character regarded him as a realistic reflection of youth at the time, relatable in his actions and views.
The voice cast of “The Simpsons” would, for better or worse, forever find themselves in the shadow of their characters on the show over most other credits. Writers for the show have also seen varying success, with Conan O’Brien being among the most famous.
Yet those responsible for “The Simpsons'” success would not stay forever. The writing gradually changed over the course of the ‘90s, and the show went in new directions with the flow of new staff. In 1997, Ken Keeler wrote the Season 9 episode “The Principal and the Pauper.” This episode is still regarded as the most notorious episode, marking the beginning of “The Simpsons'” disgrace.
By this year, the show had been running for eight years, and in that time viewers had become intimately familiar with the characters. But in the second episode of “The Simpsons”‘s ninth season, that relationship was broken for many. The premise of the episode asserts that Principal Seymour Skinner is in fact an imposter. He once was a delinquent named Armin Tamzarian who was drafted into the army during the Vietnam War. When the “real” Seymour Skinner was supposedly killed, Tamzarian assumed his identity. Criticism came from a broad spectrum of sources over the following years.
Not only did publications and fans have scathing opinions on the episode, but Groening himself (who by that time was not working on the show) denounced it. In an interview with East Bay Express, Skinner’s voice actor Harry Shearer had this to say: “I said, ‘That’s so wrong. You’re taking something that an audience has built eight years or nine years of investment in and just tossed it in the trash can for no good reason, for a story we’ve done before with other characters. It’s so arbitrary and gratuitous, and it’s disrespectful to the audience,'” he said. “Then it was, ‘OK, action.'” He laughs. “Really.”
The decline in quality, since then, has been gradual. The rest of the season holds up fairly well, but over the next few years things started to get worse. Plotlines started to be reused, and more jumping-the-shark moments dominated the show’s media coverage. Maude Flanders was significant for being the first to recurring character to be killed off.
While there is a level of respect to be found in their wish to maintain continuity, that intent completely contradicts the precedent of “The Principal and the Pauper” (where in a “meta-ruling,” Judge Snyder declares that the events of the episode shall never be discussed again).
The departure of the original writers also marked the departure of the original charm the show was born with; without them, the show struggled in adapting to the changing social conditions of the 21st century. “The Simpsons” itself became a contemporary part of culture, finding itself lampooned by newer shows as it became an engrained part of our culture. With its core purpose supplanted by the culture it created, what is the state of “The Simpsons” today?
A large draw for modern “Simpsons” episodes tends to be guest stars. In older seasons, a guest star tended to portray an entirely fictional character or a stylized parody of themselves. Today however, it is often not the plot or humor that is intended to bring in views, but the star themselves.
In “Lisa goes Gaga,” the show was featuring Lady Gaga to the point of being an advertisement for her. That episode also featured the radical personality shift in some characters, namely Lisa. This episode expressly features her fawning over a celebrity in a manner that her previous self would have balked at.
“The Simpsons” was not created to be an advertisement, nor was it intended to find gimmicks to maintain relevance. It was a groundbreaking phenomenon at its inception. It challenged the status quo of media and ushered in a new, more open social discourse. And for 179 episodes, “The Simpsons” managed to do so relatively unabated. Even after its “plunge,” the show continued to receive praise from fans and critics.
“The Simpsons,” however, is not what it once was, and in many ways it can’t be. But there is a reverence that should be remembered just as easily as criticism. It can be easy to forget that most shows never get close to that initial window of acclaim, let alone the opportunity to whither from it for so long.