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The Simpsons Myth: Was It Really That Much Better in the Past?

It’s one of those things that, repeated often enough, becomes the truth. The Simpsons were funnier in the old days. In fact, limping into its twenty-first season, there are probably die-hard fans out there looking for what they might deem a “mercy killing” from Fox, and the vast majority of us have just really stopped watching. However, as I went back this week and re-evaluated all the Futurama movies, it got me thinking: is it really fair to make the argument that The Simpsons aren’t as good as they once were?

It's a tough balancing act...

I have a confession to make. I stopped watching regularly some time around the thirteenth season of the show. I did notice a decline in quality, I’ll admit, but it wasn’t a decision based on principle. I was just commuting to college and missing the airtime – and my dinnertime viewing was confined to my aunt’s fanatical love of Emmerdale, Cornation Street and those other British soaps. Each to their own, I suppose. So I fell out of touch.

I have, occasionally, been able to drift back in and out. Sometimes my aunt will watch television in the sitting room, so I can enjoy Bart and company in the dining room as I eat, or I’ll be home on a weekend and will stumble across an episode by chance. And I won’t pretend that I’ve seen the sort of raw comedic genius I saw in the show when I was younger – but it certainly isn’t consistently terrible or horrible.

It’s worth considering my age. I’m twenty four years old. The show came on the air when I was two years old. I grew up with it, after a fashion. Every day, I’d come home from school, do my homework, eat my dinner and watch an hour of it. And – I have a confession to make, here, that I’m not particularly proud of – I used to dread it when the really early episodes came on. You know the ones I’m talking about – the ones where Homer sounded like Walter Matthau or Smithers was African-American or Bart had to learn a sincere moral at the end of the episode. My favourite run of the show warms up towards the end of the second season, and runs straight through until the tenth (or even eleventh).

It’s these episodes I can quote by heart, or feature a supporting cast of characters I can name by rote (I’ve had difficulty keeping track of the newer additions – Gill is really the latest addition to the vast supporting cast I’m familiar with). I’ll probably provoke the wrath of true Simpsons fanatics if I confess that Cape Feare and You Only Move Twice are perhaps my favourite episodes from the show. These were the golden years of the show and seem to be the ones that fans refer to when they complain about the quality of the latest crop of episodes.

I’m going to be controversial, and I’m going to suggest that maybe – just maybe, mind you – the show hasn’t dramatically declined in quality. I don’t think the new episodes are as bad as people say. Indeed, one of the more recent seasons produced Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind, which may even be in my list of the top ten episodes the series ever produced. Similarly, there are some moments of the series which still manage to get me rolling in the aisles (there’s a spoof of the opening of The Sopranos from a few years back which is right up there with the best Simpsons moments). So I don’t subscribe to the argument that it’s a “bad” show these days.

At least it has stayed out of the gutter... mostly...

On the other hand, I don’t necessarily think that the golden years of the series were as perfect as we remember them. Seriously, in the early years of the 1990s, what did television comedy look like? Seinfeld and Cheers are really the ones that have endured. the Simpsons is distinctly unlike either of these shows – it was a breath of fresh air. Sure, later in the decade we got Fraiser and Friends, but still… Network comedy wasn’t something to write home about, certainly not in those days.

However, The Simpsons had the fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you look at it) of kickstarting a whole trend of animated sitcoms aimed at adults. Without The Simpsons, there would be no Family Guy or King of the Hill or God, The Devil and Bob or any of those types of shows. In the space of ten years the show went from being the only show of its kind to being part of a dime-a-dozen cartoons-for-adults range of programming. And that ignores the impact the show had on live-action television. I honestly believe that Scrubs, for instance, would not exist with The Simpsons.

The focus of this sort of television changed. The Simpsons, which had seemed so fresh and new for mocking the establishment, became the establishment. And I honestly believe that The Simpsons took “all around” comedy as far as it could be taken – different shows took different facets and ran with it. So Family Guy took the randomness and pushed it to eleven, for example, while never really managing to emulate the show’s heart. The Simpsons had become the standard that television comedy would be judged against. That’s quite something for a show to adapt to, particularly a long-running show. Maybe Fawlty Towers had the right idea, finishing after twelve episodes. Not to mention the simple fact that the show had to cycle through writers – which led to a shifting focus, and a change in the type of stories and jokes being told.

I won’t pretend that the show isn’t as hilarious as it used to be – any joke is really only funny the first few times it’s told – and I’m not really making excuses for it. There are some terrible episodes in the new seasons, but they probably seem more obvious now than they would have before – there’s a lot more on than there was back in those early days.  And, at the risk of provoking some backlash, I’m still not in love with those very early episodes.

Still, the show isn’t as bad as most make out. I won’t dare to pretend it’s nearly as important as it once was – those were the years that shaped a generation, after all – but I don’t think it’s half as bad as people say it is. I certainly don’t turn off the television in horror when a new episode comes on.

9 Responses

  1. I don’t get this policy of declining quality…it’s different, not better or worse. I like the recent episodes, personally.

  2. I don’t see the massive decline everyone else sees. Sure, they aren’t as good as Marge vs. the Casino, or Homer Goes to College, but how many cartoons are?

  3. My problem with the later series is that they kept insisting on making Marge and Lisa episodes. Marge and Lisa are the WORST characters. They also made Homer less angry and more stupid which got very old very quickly. I still like the show, I just which they would remember that most people don’t want to watch Marge and Lisa dominate entire episodes.

    They need to pick up steam again. There is only so many careers Homer can try or countries that they can visit

  4. I think expecting The Simpsons of today to be the same as The Simpsons of yesteryear is unrealistic. The first objective thing we can say is that the show is different. But it’s when we start looking at how the show is different that we can start to determine whether or not it’s better or worse at present. The Simpsons, for me, has traded its open and running commentary on American life and the American family specifically in order to try to ape the animated shows that pretty much exist because of Groening’s show. In terms of gags, a lot of the seasons of the last few years and change feel close to Family Guy; in terms of social critique it behaves as South Park does by very blatantly addressing “of the moment” hot button issues instead of approaching them in a more veiled manner.

    I don’t know if it’s “better” or “worse” but it’s certainly not as clever or as thoughtful and I can’t say that I’ve been as big a fan of most contemporary Simpsons episodes as the classic ones. Recently, though, I do feel like the show has shot up in quality.

    • I think you’re right, but only to a point. I think they’ve consciously strayed away from the “plotless jumble” that Family guy embraces – when they do go for that, it’s generally a parody of the style. Which is ironic, since Family Guy took a basic Simpsons idea – switching plot about a third into an episode – and took it to its logical extreme. Similarly with South Park, they’ve gotten a lot more consciously “of the moment” lately, but I don’t think they have the capacity to go as “balls-to-the-wall” as Parker and Stone’s work.

  5. The past season is definitely better than the previous 3-4 years before that.

    • It’s actually catch a few of the episodes from the past year or so which inspired the post. So maybe I just missed the real wilderness years.

  6. It is much worse now. End of discussion.

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