The Simpsons: An epic tale or a painful tragedy?
32 seasons in, Joshua Hughes considers considers the the downfall of The Simpsons
The Simpsons debuted on December 17th, 1989. It has set records as the longest running TV show in history and has just been renewed for its 33rd and 34th seasons. It depicts the dysfunctional American family based in the fictional town of Springfield. The family is, according to Homer, in the “upper-lower-middle-class” of society and many of the plotlines are established around this. For example, several episodes focus on the family’s tight financial situation such as “And Maggie Makes Three” in season four. Further episodes focus on Homer’s employment, with Homer having had a total of 191 jobs over the course of the show. Marge, Homer’s wife, is a homemaker leading to plotlines built around shenanigans in the Simpson home. And the local state elementary school acts as a setting for the exploits of the Simpson children, Bart and Lisa.
The humour of The Simpsons comes from both a sense of relatability but also the characters being blissfully unaware of the insane circumstances they find themselves in. This was best demonstrated in the episode “Homer’s Enemy,” when hard-working Frank Grimes is driven to insanity and eventual suicide due to the fact nobody else sees the absurdity of Homer being the nuclear power plant’s safety inspector. While this unawareness is a crucial feature to the show, cartoons in general also need a sense of relatability. Classic episodes such as “Homer’s Triple Bypass” and “Saturdays of Thunder” depict relatable situations but convey the events in overexaggerated and comical ways. The so called ‘golden era’ (seasons 3-10) portrays several relatable plot lines while conveying them through unrelatable scenarios. What makes these scenarios work is the fact that the show is based around a family whose position in society is relatable. The Simpsons was initially written when the Blue-Collar, working man, in America wasn’t a politicised position.
The Simpsons is a part of television history, and it’s a shame that it is now most famous for being the longest running TV show of all time
Fast forward to 2021 with the show recently celebrating its 700th episode, it is a far cry from the so called ‘golden era’. While it could be criticised for repetitive story lines (seriously how many times can Krusty get cancelled?) and introducing irrelevant side characters, the problem is deeper than this. The characters have become self-aware so the humour of the show slips into reality. This was most apparent to me in the season 31 episode, “Bobby, It’s Cold Outside,” in which the entire family break into a rendition of “Baby Shark” to annoy Homer. Not only is this unfunny, but it is also irritating. The constant use of cleverly named ‘myphones’ and computers in episodes takes away the opportunity for subtle humour and makes the overall pace of episodes too fast. While the increasing self-awareness of the characters has been detrimental to the humour, what is more concerning is what it hasn’t yet been portrayed. The family that Homer described as “upper-lower-middle-class” now no longer exists in the original sense when the show first aired. With the changing industrial landscape of America, the position of the family has become politicised. If the Simpsons are to be self-aware, the polarised nature of American society surely will be acknowledged in future episodes. The realisation is that if the Simpsons are to continue as the “upper-lower-middle-class” family, they will almost certainly be written as Trump supporters.
The Simpsons is currently going through a transition and whether it will settle into its new mould or be cancelled is yet to be revealed. While the majority of this article has been a political analysis, it comes from a love of the older seasons due to the fantastic writing and well-crafted jokes. People often convey their surprise when they learn writers such as Brad Bird, Conan O’Brien and Greg Daniels worked on the show, however, for someone who has watched the earlier seasons of The Simpsons it makes total sense. And yes, some of the humour and jokes are outdated – this is unsurprising due to the fact the show started in the 1990s.
Critical analysis of later episodes is not a suggestion that the writers should go back to writing jokes with similar content to earlier seasons. But it is more a critique of the overall writing and the subtle way the jokes were developed. Using devices such as fictional TV shows like Eye on Springfield or I Can’t Believe They Invented It allows humour to be built slowly and crafted as opposed to being rushed as quick gags. The Simpsons is a part of television history, and it’s a shame that it is now most famous for being the longest running TV show of all time. If you watch and compare episodes from the 5th and 25th seasons it is almost like you’ve watched two different shows. Ending the show now and finishing on a high would be the best thing for it – is what they should have said ten years ago.