Who doesn’t love The Simpsons? Seriously, who? Have you ever met anyone who hasn’t even at least grudgingly admitted to laughing at least one Simpsons gag? (And if so, have you successfully avoided to manage meeting them again?)
Despite the ubiquitous love for The Simpsons, I think there’s a general consensus that the show is long past its prime. It’s a prevalent complaint and one that’s now older than the show was when people started bandying said complaint about. While it is a valid beef, it’s unfortunately often thrown around by dismissive jerks on the internet who have no ability to, or interest in, saying why they think the show’s over-stayed its welcome and usually use fall back to saying that something else is better, which isn’t really a reason at all.
So, after seeing a particularly bad recent episode I’m going to try to express why I think The Simpsons has jumped the shark without just needlessly comparing it to other shows. Ready? Here goes.
1 – Everybody Loves Moe
As a show carries on for years and years there can be increasingly little left to say about its characters. This is especially true for animated shows where the characters don’t age and the status quo is impervious the rigours of time (compared to a live action show, where you’re forced to confront the passage of time and can work stories from it). A good way to work around this is to expand the focus of the show and spotlight its secondary characters now and then.
The Simpsons has been on that bandwagon for years – even Principal Skinner got a feature episode in the early seasons – but after 24 years it’s burned through all of its secondary characters and even most of its tertiary characters to the point that they’re as familiar and worn out as the main family.
A good example of this is Moe, who has gone from a minor role as target for Bart’s prank phone calls and staple bartender to a solid supporting character to frequent interloper. Some episodes focusing on, or at least heavily featuring, Moe have been good of course – just look at The Homer They Fall, the epic tale of Homer’s venture into pro-boxing under Moe’s management, or Dumbbell Indemnity, where Moe falls in love with Helen Hunt and ruins himself trying to impress her.
Less successful, yet more plentiful, are episodes where Moe strikes up an unlikely friendship with one of the Simpson family. Once would have been fine, say Moe Baby Blues, when he befriends Maggie. Twice is pushing it, with Mommie Beerest when he becomes good friends with Marge. The third time, Moe’N’a Lisa, when his inner poet is unleashed through a partnership with Lisa, is the point at which good will curls up to die.
I’m not saying Moe isn’t an interesting character, with nuances and even some depth, but these episodes recycle the same basic story: he’s the prickly loner who finds a never-to-be-mentioned-again common bond with one of the family, allowing him to open up and put down his defences. Will he eventually have a buddy episode with Santa’s Little Helper? How many different permutations of the same basic story do we have to see? Apparently a lot, given…
2 – Déjà Vu All Over Again
A few seasons into The Simpsons, the writers realised that they had used the ‘family budget’ schtick several times despite the fact that next to none of them had ever encountered it in real life. So, quite fairly, they stopped themselves from using it again. If only they hadn’t stopped there.
Obviously, fractal family matters and marital problems are very real and common, but how many times does The Simpsons fall back on adding ‘drama’ to an episode by having Homer and Marge have a massive falling out, if not even a separation? Well, I’ve not bothered to count (there’s a limit to how much research I do for these articles) but it’s a lot. A lot a lot.
While you could argue such plots are traditional or necessary to the family sitcom, the law of diminishing returns very much affects them, sucking out any element of drama (such as there is any drama) and more importantly novelty. “Oh noes, Marge and Homer have broken up? Will they get back together by the end of the episode?” Well of course they will. The Simpsons is no stranger to making small changes to its status quo, despite its timelessness – killing Maude Flanders being a clear example – but it’s never going to follow through on a big change to its main cast like that. It’d ruin syndicated repeats for a start. They couldn’t even make Barney’s new-found sobriety stick.
So why bother with this plot at all? If something is neither fresh nor engaging, why keep using it? Running jokes in the series, from Homer’s bizarre bedside holiday photos to the iconic prank phone calls, have been retired, so why not these creaky tropes? Can it really be that the writers have no other ideas? I’d hate to say yes, but it’s hard to dispute given the proliferation of…
3 – Regular Theme Episodes
Quite quickly into its lifespan, The Simpsons struck upon the Treehouse of Horror format and made it a regular thing. In the early days, this was a welcome feature (even if they rarely aired any time near Halloween in the UK), as it was an opportunity to tell stories that broke the mould even for The Simpsons, with stories that were creepy, weird and completely outside of the bounds of a regular episode.
Over the years though, this dulled. Treehouse of Horror stories branched out from being outright horror stories to just slightly odd stories (such as the dolphin invasion segment Night of the Dolphin from Treehouse of Horror XI). Concurrently with this, reality in the regular episodes of the show started to become much more flexible – by the time Mike Scully’s tenure as show runner was over the show was comfortable doing things like large-scale parodies of The Prisoner as a full episode, not caring about its abstract, cul-de-sac ending. By this point, the Halloween episodes seemed less distinct and worthwhile (not least because continual gradual cuts to episode running times meant each segment had to be even shorter); a vaguely Halloween themed episode that had to happen every season for arbitrary reasons. It had become an obligation rather than a treat.
Treehouse of Horror isn’t the only example of this in the series though. Almost every year The Simpsons does another anthology episode, doing a set of themed stories (such as the American folk tales episode Simpsons Tall Tales and the aquatic tales episode The Wettest Stories Ever Told). And there’s the regular Simpsons holiday episodes, where the family are given yet another tenuous reason to travel abroad.
(There’s a slightly twitchy interactive map of all the Simpsons’ various travels here)
This regular schedule of episode themes and formats feels rather like strictly forced jollity, a betrayal of the rule-breaking ‘anything can happen’ atmosphere the show originally cultivated and flourished under. It’s hard to believe that a series tying itself down like that could be the same one that went out and created something so brazenly self-parodying as The 138th Episode Spectacular or out of left field like The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase. But then, the show’s been betraying its roots in other ways as well…
4 – Celebrities, Celebrities, Celebrities
In its early days, The Simpsons didn’t care much for celebrities. The show was quite keen to take swipes at anyone, from TV stars to athletes to even the incumbent president. No-one was safe from its mockery, (whether directly or through thinly veiled strawmen such as Schwarzenegger parody Rainier Wolfcastle) and that made the show both daring and fun to watch.
Then, somewhere along the line, things changed. The show steadily got more and more popular. Famous actors started to be happy enough to appear under their own name rather than bland pseudonyms like Albert Brooks used. Soon, everyone was keen to get a Simpsons bump and the show was happy to accommodate, going out of their way to write episodes around people like Michael Jackson and Tom Cruise (who ended up bailing on his, Brother From The Same Planet). From actors and actresses playing actual characters, by the late 90s any vaguely famous person could pop up on the show as themselves, usually adding nothing. The bar for a Simpsons cameo dropped from true icons like ex-Beatles (Homer’s Barbershop Quartet) to flash in the pan nobodies, like Evan Marriot (The Regina Monologues and yes, you can go Google who he is).
By the 00s, it was rare to find an episode of The Simpsons without an unnecessary celebrity cameo. Holiday episodes would pack-in the gratuitous guests (such as The Regina Monologues, which crammed in Tony Blair, Ian McKellen and JK Rowling as themselves, as well as the above-mention Marriot and Jane Leeves actually playing a character). There are few things more depressing than that forcedly excited tone of voice used by characters on the show when they flag up a new pointless cameo.
The show had gone from being a sarcastic outsider to the kind of slave to celebrities that it used to so cheerfully mock.
5 – Let’s see what else they can do!
A lot of talented people have and do work on The Simpsons. Many have already moved on to other things – hosting chat shows, staff writing for other shows, writing novels and creating new shows entirely. Not all of it has been successful, but there’s a lot of cool stuff that’s been produced by Simpsons alumni.
Which makes the show’s continued existence all the more disappointing. The Simpsons currently employs a huge amount of writers, enough that it runs more than one writers’ room concurrently. So many of the writing staff have been on the show for so long that the majority of them have reached the point of getting ‘executive producer’ credits simply as a mark of seniority, rather than having become true show-running EPs.
So it seems wrong that they should all be captive to The Simpsons still. Let’s see what else they can do! We wouldn’t have had Futurama if David X Cohen had stayed on The Simpsons writing staff, so imagine what shows we’re not getting from people like Matt Selman, Ian Maxtone-Graham and John Frink, to name just a few.
Bonus – That 90s Show
The epitome of the problem with modern Simpsons episodes can be found in one episode. That 90’s Show was another of The Simpsons’ lunges into its characters’ past, but this time allowing for the show’s sliding timescale, showing Marge and Homer’s young married life in the 1990s.
Previous attempts to flesh out the couple’s backstory had been quite successful. Done early in the series’ life, they were set in the late 70s and early 80s and allowed the show to take broad, loving pot-shots at those eras. Sure, they probably weren’t strictly accurate and featured some anachronisms, but they were fun episodes.
The trouble with That 90s Show though, beyond a mediocre plot, is that it felt rather misguided. You may not have noticed, but The Simpsons existed all through the 1990s. Not only that, it was kind of a big deal for all of it. A genuine pop culture sensation even. It already dealt with topical issues of the 90s in the 90s. So a one episode condensing of the entire decade felt redundant, a retreading of old ground, not to mention a horrible retconning of Marge and Homer’s past, complete with Homer as a pseudo-Kurt Cobain.
Weirdest of all was that The Simpsons would do an episode hitting the cultural touchstones of a past decade when it was a cultural touchstone. It’d be like doing a history of video-games and not mentioning Mario at all.
The entire episode was a bizarre misstep that only managed to shine a spotlight on the show having out-lived its natural lifespan. If you’ve been running so long that you can’t even do flashback episodes without walking into a quagmire, then it very much seems like you’ve been running too long.