The Legendary and Cautionary Tale of The Simpsons
Excluding their appearances on The Tracey Ullman Show, the Simpson family and their fellow Springfield citizens were introduced to the public thirty years ago as of this December. What they left us with was a legacy that ended up being more complicated than it should have been.
The Simpsons was like lightning in a bottle. Creator Matt Groening spontaneously drew the family while waiting to pitch an adaptation of his Life in Hell comic strip, and no one could have expected that this family of yellow toons would not only revolutionize animation, comedy and television as a whole, but also serve as a cautionary tale about a series becoming too successful for its own good.
The Simpsons started airing in an era that disrespected animation more than ever before. An era where a lot of the most prominent cartoons were thirty minute advertisement for toys, such as My Little Pony and Transformers. An era that almost saw Disney, now an increasingly bigger monopoly and a historical king of the animation industry, go bankrupt. The eighties were an awkward time, and right as they ended, the Simpsons get their own show and provide a streamlined transition between eighties pop culture and nineties pop culture.
The Simpsons changed the perspective of animated television the same way The Flintstones did in the sixties, but went even further. Its colourful visuals meant to attract channel surfing viewers. As Groening said, when “you’re flicking through channels with your remote control, and a flash of yellow goes by, you’ll know you’re watching The Simpsons.” It also effectively tricked people into thinking its tone was far more innocent than it actually was. The exaggerated proportions, bright hues, and goofy voices effectively masked the show’s true nature.
The Simpsons leveled the playing field, shaped the culture of its golden age’s decade, and continues to influence modern, successful creators such as Gravity Falls’ Alex Hirsch and Bojack Horseman’s Raphael Bob-Waksberg. The eponymous family was far from the first dysfunctional one that got to entertain audiences, but the impact they had was one of a kind. Their iconic designs had the purpose of allowing the characters to easily express themselves emotionally and providing recognizable silhouettes, according to Groening’s DVD commentary for the Season 1 episode There’s No Disgrace Like Home. The show contributed to the English language when Homer’s catchphrase “D’oh!” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, Their general demeanour, particularly Homer’s less than appropriate parenting and Bart’s anti-authoritarian streak, made moral guardians panic. Former President George H.W. Bush said in his 1992 campaign that his team is “going to keep trying to strengthen the American family. To make them more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons.” The Simpsons and its characters were cool, they were everywhere, and even made an appearance on Sesame Street of all shows a couple of years into its run. Bart was especially popular in the early nineties. His popularity triggered a “Bartmania” that saw “proliferation of Simpson towels, toys, lunch boxes and clothes”, and Bart was not spared from the endless commercialism.
Featuring one of the most expansive and memorable supporting cast in probably any piece of media or work of fiction, the show took every opportunity to satirize American life while simultaneously giving viewers interesting characters to watch. The sleazy bartender, corrupt mayor, incompetent cops, overbearing neighbours, devilish corporate overlord, stuffy principal, cynical teachers, stereotypical Indian convenience store owner, idiotic blue collar workers, and depraved kid’s show hosts, among many others, enriched the show’s world and our own understanding of society through their stereotypical, yet immersive personalities. Not only that, but these side characters tend to have just as many memorable quotes and stories as the Simpson family themselves, balancing the show’s content out quite nicely.
With such a morally inconvenient cast for a cartoon of the time and unapologetic mockery of numerous sensitive topics, The Simpsons modernized and normalized the adult cartoon, and greatly contributed to the boom American animation got in the nineties. Of course, family friendly channels Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon entered the picture and became staples of the medium, but more “mature” series also came along, such as Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill, South Park, Family Guy, and Groening’s own Futurama, bringing their edginess or tackling of controversial issues into the new millennium, often making The Simpsons look tame or more childish in comparison. The Simpsons effect was a true juggernaut.
However, things changed. To many people, The Simpsons was starting to lose track of what it great and became a victim of unfortunate circumstances.
The controversial retconning of Principal Skinner’s entire character and background in The Principal and the Pauper, Phil Hartman’s unexpected murder that led to Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz’s retirement from the show were only icing on the cake. Recycled plotlines were becoming more commonplace, and characters were starting to assimilate themselves into one prominent trait, usually a negative one. This phenomenon is also known as “Flanderization”, is even named after Ned Flanders’ slow transition from Homer’s overly nice, well-mannered Christian neighbour that he despises out of spite to a Christian fundamentalist and religious zealot that makes Homer’s disdain for him look completely justified. This was a result of the show killing off his wife Maude and absorbing her religion-motivated strictness into Ned’s character and him increasingly becoming a caricature of bigoted right-wing Christians, such as when he mocks Apu for his Hinduism in Midnight Rx.
Fans were becoming more disillusioned with the series, and became to cling nostalgically to the earlier seasons at the expense of the newer ones. Despite their appearances, the Simpson family was relatable for their relatively down-to-earth, working class life. Unlike other fiction American families, they “would go to church, have money problems, and watch television”. Behind the goofy exterior hid a show that explored the complexities of family, suburban and American life all at once. An episode like Bart Gets an F, for example, gives depth to one of the most irreverent characters in an already irreverent show. It balances out the show’s typical humour by giving a dramatic storyline to a goofier character. It adds more dimensions to what could’ve easily been a cast of caricatures, and shows maturity that people seldom expected from a cartoon. Part of the reason fans turned away from The Simpsons was the loss of this adult flair for content like Homer being raped by a panda in Homer vs. Dignity, an episode notorious for not only recycling several plot points, but epitomizing what people perceived as the show sacrificing wit and heart for unnecessary shock humour that made the tone as goofy as its visuals imply.
The Simpsons’ decline in quality is often debated, and depending on the person, how old they are, and how they were introduced to the show, this can vary from the mid to late nineties to even the post-Simpsons Movie era. People have been warming up to modern Simpsons episodes to a certain extent, but the damage is done, and the reputation is sealed. The Simpsons has become synonymous with the term “franchise zombie”, a series that is long past its prime, went through a dark age and is now met with mere indifference or even pity. The show still airs, gets good ratings, and shows no signs of stopping. It is still considered by many to be one of the most important, and even best shows in recent history despite the ratio of bad or mediocre episodes probably outweighing the good or amazing ones at this point.
There is a layer of tragedy within The Simpsons‘ history. This is a series that is not just a staple of American animation, comedy, or television, but a general American cultural icon, widely beloved by people of all backgrounds and professions. Its success is not just local, but international. It just shows that sometimes, too much of a good thing can be bad, and in this case, a lot of people now see Springfield as a land whose comedic resources have been sucked dry. One can still go back to the older episodes and have a blast, but it’s hard to notice the harm done to the show’s reputation by its longevity.
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