The Legendary and Cautionary Tale of The Simpsons

The eponymous family sitting on their famous couch.

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.

This includes some one time and very minor characters, but it goes to show how big this universe can get.

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 Simpsons is one of many shows which have passed their prime. Picture: Bennettua (Deviant Art)

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.

Homer’s negative traits were also amplified to the point where his post-Golden Age personality was nicknamed “Jerk-ass Homer” by fans.

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.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Born in the ’90s and with very little access to television or any form of televised entertainment, my first encounter of The Simpsons was when I was around 18 years old, and I thoroughly enjoyed the show. But just like many other shows that I have been introduced to of similar genre and themes like Family Guy, and American Dad it wasn’t too long until The Simpsons caught up with its own subject matter. I think there is an inherent fun in expanding a rich world like The Simpsons, but the negligence in not recognizing the underlying disadvantages of expanding said world as well as how the cast of The Simpsons suffered really dragged down the show. In fact, the tale of The Simpsons is symptomatic of many shows these days that had dragged out for too long like Family Guy (with Seth MacFarlane himself admitting that the show shouldn’t have been extended), and other non-animated tv shows as well like Lost, House, Grey’s Anatomy etc.

  2. 90s kid here, can state that simpsons was HUGE back in the day, especially if you had a comic book of the simpsons, other kids thought you were cool. Lol

  3. Ty Covert

    It’s always better for the show to leave town early than overstay its welcome and leave a bad taste in everybody’s mouth.

  4. There’s more reasons the simpsons isn’t as good as what it used to be but the 2 reasons I think are Disney buying fox and making the Simpsons part of the Walt Disney franchise (I think) and Disney likes to be safe with the shows it has the rights to and the 2nd reasons it’s (probably) because it’s been going on for over 30 years and when a show has been going on for such a long time it could start to get stale.

    The only reason I want it to continue is because I want it to continue its record of being the longest running cartoon.

  5. I have watched it since it came out when I was 11 and still really love it. I still think it’s much better than other shows that have come and gone. It’s. the only cartoon that hasn’t annoyed me where the kids aren’t unbelievably stupid, annoying, or brats. The same with the adult characters. Some shows I actually yell at because the characters are so stupid not funny stupid just annyoing stupid the Simpson’s never has done that and still don’t. Its too bad people are not enjoying it as much as I do still. I still look at things like a kid so I don’t compare old and new if I like it I don’t try and find things that are different from one season to the next. I just go with it things change but I still laugh SO I can’t get back the 90s and this show is still like an old friend I’m happy to see every Sunday

  6. Sanford

    Funny to think Rick and morty is like the new Simpson’s. Americans new dysfunctional family.

  7. Simpsons mania is really the only thing that makes me wish i was born in the 1980’s. i always wanted to know how big of a culture icon the simpson’s were back then. how the simpson’s completely transform fictional pop popular and so much more. But instead i was born in a time of zombie simpson’s :’(

  8. chipmiunm

    I continue to watch everyday on tv at lunchtime out of loyalty and affection, having accompanied me practically since infancy and pratically being my second family.

  9. Mcdermott

    Why simpsons doesn’t work today:
    1. It became boring
    2. characters changed alot , for the worse
    3. there is no emotion in it
    4. It started as an attack on pop culture while now IT IS pop culture

  10. antonio

    It’s really strange, at first Simpsons satirized popular things like video games, rebellion and everything wrong with society. Not wishing to appeal to nonsense and total disrespect with something, one of the biggest examples of how wrong simpsons are lately, is that episode in Brazil, I’m brazilian and VERY fan of simpsons but I really hated this episode, many will say which is why I could not stand the “joke”, but this episode is pure appeal to the absurd and stereotypical things, in another episode they even say that Brazil is the worst place they have ever been !, I still hope Simpsons gets out of this and go back to what it was before why this is killing the show.

  11. What happenes to Simpsons over decades happened to GoT in a couple of year’s.

  12. Most of the writers that cared about heart left. Great voice talent passed away, the show began to pander to being cool, and was no longer concerned about providing a genuine message and rather cared about what celebrities they could get and how much they could jump the shark. Finally and i think the most important it remained stuck in a time loop when the characters showed no character growth, essentially trapping them into charicatures. One thing that could have saved this show is to have characters actually age.

  13. The old Simpsons just simply sucked ass, it tried being different so it went full emo role like some young 10 year old who just discovered heavy metal.

    There’s nothing intrinsically good on broadcasting bad behaviour to the families of young kids. It gives rise of these people who have lack of authority and leave bad impression of the society as a whole. One could argue that main reason person like Trump was elected was because the boomer generation and older were raised with the Simpsons as the new hip thing to watch and to talk about.

    Simpsons basically was what South Park was as well. What Rick and Morty is doing. They’re acting super edgy and setting the limits on what you’re allowed to say by continuously toying with what’s considered ethical.

    There’s also a FUCKTON of nostalgia goggles being used to judge past Simpsons. The quality was bad and characters 1 dimensional. Newer episodes keep introducing new personalities of old characters and that’s supposedly ruining the show because you’re supposed to stick with same old.

    I mean its the same type of people who still think Mario Bros for the NES is the greatest Mario game ever created, and there’s simply no room for debate. Then there’s that group that chooses to pick Mario 3 as their best because I guess tanooki suit was neat, or maybe Mario 4 world where you’re introduced to Yoshi and there’s a lot of interactivity and new jump move. There is a plethora of games one could argue to be the best game of any genre. Same goes for cartoon. Personally I like to rate individual episodes or games above others.

    Like lets say Demon Souls, I completely hated that game from start to… wherever I managed to get and never returned. I hate Demon Souls and when people are talking about “souls series” I don’t really give a crap. I think 3rd game is the greatest of them all, quickly followed by 1st. 2nd was terrible misstep which still manages to be couple inches above Demon Souls. But if one were to ask me to rate Dark Souls 2 vs Salt And Sanctuary, I would rate Salt and Sanctuary way higher, even that game, along with every other game has flaws.

    I think the hate for Newest Simpsons comes simply from it being “perfected” world of Simpsons. Old Simpsons used to be simple and easy to follow low budged comedy, while new ones try to say actually something about the world, trying to perfect both comedy and story telling. Hatred simply comes from the fact there’s nothing to dislike. For many who don’t really bother think too deep into it, they would just be confused about this. For me this seems rather obvious that if there is nothing to hate, there also isn’t too much to like either. That’s why there is person like Trump in office, people simply elected him because he pissed off Democrats, they like him because he is hateful. Same goes with Simpsons, if you get show too perfected, it just looses the surprise factor. Also the fact the shows generally tend to become repetitive over time because you keep pushing new episodes, eventually people will see the pattern.

    Take for example Rick and Morty that is in season 4 I think, so the majority of jokes have been so far about farts, gas, family hatred, something being evil but it doesn’t matter, excessive use of f-words, excessive use of gore, overall insane events played out of proportion.

    Rick and Morty is a show that CANNOT surprise after 3 seasons when all the comedy is derived from such simple ideas, last episode of sex-dragons was very very lame because it was ruined by their idea of comedy. They didn’t try to fit the idea of monsters and dragons and magic into crazy story, they chose to make dick and sex jokes instead. Again if you’re new to TV and never seen a wacky series like Rick and Morty before, you might get impressed, you might get a lot of views as a show, but eventually people are going to catch up, even if you did mature to the audience. We already know Rick is some sort of super wizard who can solve everything from time travel to preventing himself ever dying. Morty is a simpleton who can’t grasp bigger concept than 6 year old could. Because of these attributes, there is no real room for growth and change without breaking the show, which means the show will die much earlier than Simpsons or get hated because of the change.

  14. Louanne

    One thing I noticed is that the new Simpsons goes for more cheap jokes then the old Simpsons. The Simpsons in 1987(and some of the later decades) had more thought out jokes, that were more clever and just funnier than jokes in the Simpsons we have today.

  15. I never came across the term “Flanderization”, but you identify it well as one of the main phenomena which led to the downfall of the series. I remember that my interest for the show gradually went down after the various retcons and the changes made to Flanders.

  16. Older Simpsons’ episodes used humor in service of the story rather than as an end in itself. Example: “Lisa’s Substitute” (Season 2). Lisa has a crush on her substitute teacher who, unlike the rest of the teachers, is not cynical and nurtures her talents. But of course Homer embarrasses her in front of him and she is devastated, calling him “a baboon.” Homer’s response: “She called me a baboon. The stupidest, ugliest, smelliest ape of them all!” The joke works because it’s emotionally honest, and because, how does Homer know that about baboons? The joke was well-considered and didn’t try to stand on its own. That, I think, is what the later episodes are missing.

  17. mr helm

    They made Homer more emotional. Years ago he was an apathetic lazy guy saying things like “ya, but what are ya gonna do” etc but in modern years he has become more driven, emotional etc. An episode with a scene where he cries on the street with signs around him saying “Caution, Man Sobbing” is where i think the Simpsons declined even more.

  18. To me, it was good until the 15th season. After this season, there were always funny moments, but the simpsons appeared to have lost its soul. Plus, I found their try to adapt to contemporan culture failed. In the past, the simpsons spoke about general themes everybody could relate to: homosexuality, education, information, the film industry, art, proudness,… but afterwards, it was about more specific themes and references. For example, I felt weird when half an episode was about the rap or when they spoke about wikipedia. :/

  19. There will always be a culture to counter, I think the simpsons COULD have stayed good and relevant (perhaps with some changes being necessary since they themselves are the culture that needed to be countered) and I don’t think its that the writers are unfunny…its that they don’t GET the simpsons and WHY it was good. It’s sorta like when a executive tries to find that ONE thing that made something good and rolls with it and either miss the mark completely or don’t see that it wasn’t just one thing, it was the whole package.

    I gotta say though, as a child of the 90’s this was really eye opening. I stopped watching after a while and couldn’t really express into words what was wrong. But seeing how you talked about “jerk ass” homer really made me realize “holy shit…homer turned from homer to peter griffin”. And I have no idea WHEN that happened specifically so I dunno if peter acts the way he does as an extreme example of old homers dumbness and antics dialed up to 11 and then “jerk ass” homer copied peter because thats apparently what was popular, or if peter himself was a parody of “jerk ass” homer exactly as is and not dialed up to 11. But damn that really hit home to me.

  20. the 80s TV family was the best time in TV ever and I grew up with most of them.

  21. Ironically the Simpsons and Saturday Night Live fell apart at approximately the same time period, and neither has ever recovered.

  22. The Simpsons died when Mike Scully was promoted to Executive Producer in 1997.

  23. I wasn’t born in the 80s/90s, but I really do think The Simpsons went downhill at Season 9, and I’m not just saying it because everyone else has been saying it. While a few seasons around like Season 6 or so did have have some bad/weird episodes (like Lisa the Vegetarian), that doesn’t mean it went downhill after that. Again it did get pretty bad after Season 8 and it only got worse from there. Seasons 15 through 18 were the most horrendous. It’s not quite a bit as bad now but even still. It should’ve been cancelled a long time ago.

  24. Maricela

    Here’s the thing, we all agree that this show is bad now, but it’s obviously still making money. People obviously still watch it. I still watch it. I know it’s bad. But it comes on at the exact time I have my tea and I like something to watch while I eat. And honestly, it’s been going on for so long now, I don’t want it to end. I’ve literally known these characters all my life. It’s very possibly the first show I ever watched and honestly seeing it go would break my heart a little.

    I’m normally a believer in the idea of quitting before a show gets bad. That’s my go-to. But not this one. Not The Simpsons.

  25. A very good account. I think sometimes you have to separate the original iterations of the art from the work that comes afterwards, almost franchise-like, to cash in on characters or story themes that were gripping when they first came out but become tired and overused after e.g. several seasons. This is probably a phenomenon distinctive to TV with its different writers for the same shows, but I also think of Muse and their first 5 albums vs their later music which, to someone who has loved their music from the beginning, feels to have lost its gloss. Or the ‘champagne & limousine’ conundrums that some stand-ups face when they become famous and lose their access to relatable life experiences as a source for their materials.

  26. When the creator switched gears to futurama, Simpsons was officially done imo

  27. It started losing its edge around the time the flat out offensive South Park came out. And now we have the Rick and Morty.

  28. As a die-hard fan of seasons 1-7, the fact that this show is still on is just infuriating. 31 seasons!? What’s it gonna take to end this madness?? Even the actors must be getting tired of it!?

  29. It was the 90’s. Everything was badass.

  30. rolercoser

    The Citizen Kane of show analysis!

  31. Amyus

    Believe it or not, I’ve never watched The Simpsons, but as a testament to its place in popular culture, even I instantly recognise the brand. At one time it seemed to be everywhere I turned and that ‘Doh!’ catchphrase became rather annoying. Still, that aside, this was a fascinating article and you made your points really well. Thank you for the read.

  32. As a long time fan of the Simpsons….been watching since the beginning I have found myself letting the shows go to DVR and binge watching earlier episodes. Some of them are eerily scary in their predictions of the future, even if in jest….for example the mention of President Trump in one early episode. I think that the show, like any creative endeavor cannot continue to live up to expectations year after year. Imagine if the Rolling Stones were still touring…oh wait…they are. Point being that all things have a shelf life and turning out a constantly funny and relevant show week after week is difficult at best. Even with new writers and the advent of computer animation, we as viewers change (the average age of those of us still watching legacy media like television has gotten older and society changes. Fed a diet of cake and ice cream every day for 30 years, we will all get tired of it. Perhaps the Simpson’s hasn’t gotten bad…perhaps we’re just tired of it.

  33. This is such an insightful look in the downfall of this former hit TV series. Thank you for your contribution!

  34. Joseph Cernik
    Joseph Cernik

    A good essay. Just an amazing series to realize how long this has been on TV. Addressing the, perhaps, evolution of the show is an interesting perspective.

  35. I think if I have to swallow main stream media’s idea of animation in order to become a member here, I’m in real trouble. I’m looking for avant garde and this all looks like “let’s bow down to decades old pablum” .. on another mail list .. and now what? “Here, tells us how you feel about Bart Simpson and his clan.” I feel sick about them. Bored and sick. -blue

  36. It never occurred to me that The Simpson’s had gone to hell! I assumed I simply stopped watching because I grew past it. I started watching it quite young, probably in 2002 or so, (I was born in ’98) because my older brothers (born in ’89 and ’95) were watching it after dinner. I always preferred a good book anyway, so it wasn’t hard to get me away from the TV but I do find that seeing the odd episode here and there can often be disappointing nowadays. I thought I was just too old for it, but it does make plenty of sense that perhaps the show has simply run past its natural death date. Heartbreaking to think about. It truly has been an icon.

  37. I started watching almost everyday in 1995. And it filled with good and bad memory which I will never ever forget in my life.

  38. Its one of my favourite tv show in 1995, I used to watched it almost everyday. And Im missing it now.

  39. Till now Simpson is still my favourite comic

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  41. I really love the Simpsons. It seems to me that every family has such characters, and everyone finds himself in them.

  42. I definitely remember a time when the Simpsons was a household name (even in Australia). Everyone’s parents, uncles, cousins and kids knew the show one way or another. I even remember the first time I watched the Simpsons Movie, back in primary school – end of term party, and the teachers had brought in the chunky projector, lightswitch flipped off and the snack brought out.

    Good times and perhaps not so good laughs, but laughs all the same.

    As an adult though, I rewatch episodes and look back on certain creative decisions, the scriptwriting and comedic choices that really fall flat especially in light of wider understandings of racism and discrimination.

    I think at one point, people really saw the show as being ‘ahead of the times’ with the plots they would construct and even some of the more controversial topics they would broach – but I don’t think anyone would say that now.

  43. The descent of The Simpsons is tragic, especially with the deaths of good characterization. The Simpson family becoming one-dimensional has made the show almost unwatchable. Plots are shallow and the cast of characters is too. This article is a great dive into what made that happen, great work!

  44. One of the things I do love about the Simpson’s that they do better than most other shows is make fun of their parent company– Fox– pointing out the dangers of their news platform and the disinformation they spread and fear-mongering they thrive on. It’s not much but it’s nice to see that writers aren’t being completely muzzled (although I do wonder if this is simply Fox internalizing/cannibalizing its own critiques in order to appease its naysayers).

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