Earlier this year for whatever reason I started thinking about the way me and my peers would quote or reference episodes of The Simpsons. To this day, I have never heard a reference or quote that I did not recognise but I have not watched the show regularly since my University days. I still hear and see the quotes from time to time and despite not having watched at least the last ten seasons, I always get the reference. I always get the reference because it’s always one from seasons 1-10 and season ten also happens to be when I stopped buying the DVD sets too. What does this alone tell you about the quality of The Simpsons today?
In preparing to write this I did some reading about the show and discovered that I’m far from the only one to notice the shows decline in quality around seasons 9 or 10. In scrolling through the episode list for season 10, I can see that it probably began there though it was still mostly a great season. I continued to watch the show for the next few seasons and I recall watching a few episodes of season 20 after the movie released but not really enjoying them. And the movie itself which was something I always wanted as a kid, I thought was terrible. I didn’t change my mind after re-watching it on a flight earlier this year.
So what happened?
If you want to start from the beginning, the show has been around since the late 80s and began as it’s own show (I believe) from Christmas of 1989. Amazingly and unfortunately the show is still running and will be for at least a couple more years. I expect when it is finally cancelled that the final episode will garner a lot of interest. I confess that I too will probably be overcome with a mix of curiosity and nostalgia. But ultimately, I think the show was a product of the 90’s and it really should have ended around the turn of the century.
I have read and heard it argued though I’ve no links ready that the show actually began to decline in quality around season four or five. If you recall the very early (not Tracey Ullman shorts) episodes, Homer was a mid-witted but earnest breadwinner in a somewhat dysfunctional but loving middle-American family. People could relate to this and that’s what made the show such a success. It also used to tackle serious issues that affected real American families with regards to bullying, belief, education and adultery. The episodes covering this also had positive messages to end on. Despite the agnosticism of the shows creator Matt Groening, episodes like ‘Homer the Heretic’ explored Christian belief in a way that is rarely seen in film or on television.
Then beginning from around season three Homer started getting noticeably dumber and from seasons four and five or so, remained that way. The show’s plots got a bit zanier, occasionally a bit racier but they were still entertaining, often clever and driven by the characters. By the time I stopped watching it, I could describe in detail many of the shows characters who were believable people. Even the more ridiculous characters like Cletus are based on people that do exist.
By the late 90s the show was starting to introduce more and more celebrity cameos and the plots were becoming increasingly absurd. An episode starring Mel Gibson was written entirely around Mel Gibson being in it. I like Mel Gibson but without Mel Gibson, the episode would have been nothing. Contrast that with Lisa’s Substitute which has Dustin Hoffman playing Mr. Bergstrom, a passionate substitute teacher. If Dustin Hoffman had not voiced the teacher, it would have made a difference but the character was the character independent of who voiced him. As the show went on, more and more episodes were made around the guests rather than the guests working around the episodes. I have no idea how common this is now but I remember a similarly bad episode with Mark Hamil.
So even when the show was at it’s height it increasingly relied on silly gags and special guests with many characters being reduced to delivering silly lines that would be repeated in the school yard the next day. The show also became increasingly political and noticeably to one side. The earliest I can recall this happening was an episode called The Cartridge Family where Homer buys a gun. In this episode, (as was already increasingly the case) the writer’s opinion was spoken through Lisa who in favour of stronger firearm laws. Her case was made stronger by her father using a revolver to do everything from crack nuts to turn off (shoot out) the lights in the house. Lisa’s shrill voice meant that these beliefs were often ignored by both the other characters and the general public. But episodes generally ended with her being right in one way or another.
I imagine the show is a lot worse now if the last season I watched and the terrible movie are anything to go by. It will always be a show that I remember fondly and if I still watched television, I imagine I’d enjoy watching repeats to this day. As it is, I haven’t even watched the DVD sets I own for many years. If it had ended around the turn of the century, I imagine it would have a much better legacy than it will now that it has dragged on for so much longer.