Welcome to a new (potentially) recurring series entitled “I’m All Out Of Love”, in which I take a pop culture subject (film series, director, actor, television show, etc) and dissect how my ‘love’ of them from early on slowly dwindled and what my current stance on them is.
The Simpsons has been an international institution for 25 years now. Anyone who was either alive in the 90s or born in the 90s has not only been aware of The Simpsons, but also know who a majority of the main characters are. Even if you’ve never seen a single episode of The Simpsons before (which would perplex the hell out of me), you’d still probably know who Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie are based on how engrained they are in pop culture. As for me, I was not only aware of The Simpsons in my youth, I was OBSESSED with them. I had stockpiles of merchandise, I was buying every season on DVD, I made sure I was able to get home every Sunday evening in time for the show to start or at least had the VCR ready to record it (this was before DVR, kids). Then, at a certain point, all of that stopped. The fervor died and my desire to keep up with the show just faded. Many might attribute this to the long standing opinion that The Simpsons‘ quality has weakened in its old age, but I think there’s a bit more to it than that. However, before we can analyze why my desire for the show dulled, let’s look back at the initial glint.
Given that the show has been around longer than I’ve been alive, I couldn’t watch every episode as it aired. So, my first exposure to The Simpsons came during its run in syndication. Back before either DVDs or internet piracy, syndicated television was a goldmine for anyone who wanted to cash in on the success of shows that had hit the 100th episode mark. So, since The Simpsons managed to hit this back in 1994, it was naturally a staple of syndicated television for a long while. I can still remember coming back from elementary and middle school, turning the channel to UPN 44 (back when that existed as a network) and watching a solid two hour block of Simpsons episodes while ignoring/rushing through my homework. Some of my favorite memories from childhood were me watching episodes new and old with my family or friends and seeing all of them laugh at different moments. It showed that the show could make audiences of all ages, nations and ethnicities laugh at something.
But specifically for a kid, The Simpsons was a show that helped dip my toes in the mysterious world of mature content; it was bright and colorful enough a cartoon to gain my young interest, yet it dealt with subjects I wasn’t aware of at all at the time, like sex, alcohol and politics. Hell, as a big pop culture connoisseur, The Simpsons‘ pension for pop culture references served as my first exposure to a lot of films, television and music. Would I had watched Citizen Kane as early as I did had it not been for the show’s recreation of the classic opening shot in the episode Blood Feud? Would Twin Peaks be on my radar if I hadn’t heard it mocked for its bizarre tone in Lisa’s Sax? Would my continued fascination with The Beatles be as strong as it is if I hadn’t wanted to know why The B-Sharps performed on a roof at the end of Homer’s Barbershop Quartet? The answer to all of those questions is a definite “probably”, but I still consider the show to be a gateway drug to many a pop culture facet, which only strengthened my love for the show as time went on.
The Love Affair
There was a point in my life where I watched The Simpsons on a regular rotation. Whether it be through syndication, DVD release or watching the new episodes as they aired, I would constantly cycle through my favorite episodes of the series, which were plentiful. The humor was always so wild, so unpredictable. Even if I had seen an episode dozens of times, there was always something new I could discover. The show was never too afraid to diversify its sense of humor, going for the juvenile, the surreal, the satiric, the macabre, the clever or just the plain silly at any point. I honestly wouldn’t have such a diverse sense of humor if I wasn’t exposed to episodes as jam packed with laughs as Marge vs. The Monorail (“No, the world needs laughter.”), The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show (“He’s totally in my face!”) or Treehouse of Horror V (“DON’T MIND IF I DO!”) from an early age.
My love for the show didn’t just have to do with its humor, though. A big part of what held a show like The Simpsons together is how it treated its characters. Everyone from Homer to Apu to Ned Flanders to Mrs. Krabapple had familiar traits of ineptitude, yet always found some sort of solace with who they were and attempted to make peace with the fact that they weren’t perfect people. Some of my favorite episodes aren’t the ones that existed mainly to fire off as many jokes as possible. They were the ones that focused on who these characters were as people within a half hour, which made them all the more relatable and gave life lessons I could latch onto in between the laughs. Lisa’s Substitute taught me to believe in my own abilities. Rosebud made me realize that it’s better to pass on objects of the past that could bring joy to others. Lisa’s Wedding showed me that, no matter how silly the people in your life are, their willingness to accept and love you is what really matters. The emotional moments made the show more than just hysterical; they made it impactful.
Nothing Lasts Forever
I can’t exactly pinpoint when my interest in the show truly started to drain. Many a Simpsons hater cites anywhere between season 9 and season 12 as the point where the show “became terrible.” Honestly, I never really thought the show became outright “terrible” as much as it became far more inconsistent. With the show now running 25 years at about 22 episodes per season since season 2, it can’t help but eventually reach a point where the consistent rate of laughs dwindles. I do agree that the first season where the problems started to creep up was season 12, which has this disjointed mix of genuinely hysterical or emotional episodes (Trilogy of Error, HOMR) and ones that show evidence of the show’s decline (Simpson Safari, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes). The latter category which has plagued many a season mainly consists of episodes that focus on big guest stars over story, recycling of old jokes and (worst of all) having the well established characters degrade into very exaggerated one dimensional versions of what they were.
That last problem I think is what ultimately hurt the show most for me. Take Homer Simpson; initially a lovable dolt of a family man who might screw things up yet usually has his heart in the right place, Homer soon turned into a self centered moron that cared more about his next weekly scheme than his loved ones. The Homer from episodes like Lost Our Lisa (where Homer strives to find Lisa after finding out she’s lost in the city due to her inexperience with the public bus system) was eventually replaced by the Homer in episodes like Co-Dependent’s Day (in which Homer drives while drinking wine with Marge and pins the eventual accident on her, causing Marge to be frightfully worried about being an alcoholic). This sort of problem has plagued many a beloved character over the years, including Mr. Burns, Bart and Ned Flanders, to the point where the third’s surname has become the namesake of this very trope over at the website TVTropes.com; “Flanderization.” Once episodes featuring all these negative traits started out numbering the genuinely good ones, I stopped following the show all together.
Currently, I have no ill will towards The Simpsons. How could I, with a show that consistently entertained me for a solid decade’s worth of episodes? I’ve gone back to the old episodes I love multiple times and I’ll still catch a new episode here and there, a few of which end up surprising me in terms of how funny and even touching they can be. Probably the best thing the show has put out in the last ten years was The Simpsons Movie in 2007, which pooled together the show’s best writers and displayed a story that brought the characters back to what they were; lovable yet heavily flawed. Hell, even the recent theme park ride at Universal Studios based on the show managed to do that in spades. A few recent episodes that I felt managed to do the same include Moe Baby Blues, Eternal Moonshine of the Spotless Mind and Holidays of Future Passed. Still, most modern day Simpsons episodes have displayed a track record for being something worse than horrendous; generally being boring. Watching a couple of current episodes in row is kind of like visiting an older relative in adulthood; you see a few hints of the person you loved so much when you were younger, but your enjoyment of them is dulled by the fact that all their stories & jokes feel too familiar and they just aren’t as spry as they used to be.
As I said before, The Simpsons feels like more of an institution than a TV series at this point. The show’s been around longer than I’ve been alive, so my generation has just sort of accepted the fact that the show continues to exist. It’ll be a sad day when The Simpsons eventually aires its final episode, but there definitely won’t be a single utterance of “it was cancelled before its time.” Even when it does pass, the show’s cultural impact won’t dissolve with it. I still have friends that post Simpsons gifs, YouTube clips and memes on Facebook, showing that the jokes still resonate with viewers all these years later. Even if it’s lost its touch, I’ll never really lose affection for The Simpsons and I’ll still proudly quote it whenever I feel its appropriate.
But what about the rest of you out there? When did you feel The Simpsons lost it’s bite? Or do you still feel the show is delivering quality content? Post your thoughts in the comments below.