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Why The Simpsons couldn’t survive the new millennium

Countless other shows have stood the test of time and remained relevant. Why did the most successful comedy of all time fall behind?

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It’s no secret that The Simpsons isn’t what it used to be. There’s something kind of bizarre about a fan community of a show that’s currently making new episodes being so steeped in nostalgia, but despite the show being in its 28th season, Facebook fan pages rarely reference anything that aired after 2000. Simpsons trivia and karaoke events bill themselves as “seasons 1-10 only”, and ratings have been steadily dropping for years.

People disagree just when the golden age ends – fans I’ve spoken to have the decline starting as early as season 8 or as late as season 13 – but they all agreed it was less of a sudden drop in quality and more a slow process of it feeling not quite the same.

So, what happened? How did one of the most beloved comedies of all time turn into a show that most of its self-proclaimed biggest fans don’t even watch anymore?

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The simplest answer often mustered up by Simpsons enthusiasts eager to explain its demise is that a show just can’t stay good for that long, and that people run out of things to do with the characters and their world. It’s an interesting theory, but looking at other successful long running comedies I just don’t buy it. South Park has managed to remain relevant and celebrated among its fans into its 20th season, and season 12 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is shaping up to be its most successful season yet, both by viewership and critical acclaim. The diversity and richness of The Simpsons’ massive cast has at least as much room for growth and exploration as either of these shows, and yet its IMDB ratings have been declining steadily since season 9.

Prominent Simpsons critic ‘Charlie Sweatpants’ (probably not his real name) of Dead Homers Society lays out his theory in his blog-turned-book, Zombie Simpsons. Poorly summarizing a 12 chapter book in one line, I’d say his argument centres primarily on two related factors: writing choices and staffing.

He points to the retirement of almost all of the original writing staff of the first four seasons, and the second wave of new hires around season 5, through seasons 8-12. He claims: “That the writing staff was able to be successfully restocked once was a small miracle; it simply couldn’t happen a second time.” He also points out that the show suffered significantly from the deaths of voice actor Phil Hartman, known for his characters Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz, and Doris Grau, who was celebrated for her work as both the show’s script supervisor and her amazing delivery as Lunchlady Doris, as well as countless bit parts and one off characters.

While the talent of the staff can’t be discounted – writers like George Meyer, Conan O’Brien and John Swartzwelder are often considered the best comedy writers of their generation – it feels like there’s more going on.

When I asked Ellen Dodd, cofounder of popular Simpsons meme group CompuglobalHyperMegaNet Australia and New Zealand, what feels different about the newer episodes, she told me it feels like there’s “some kind of desperate attempt to stay modern and be relevant”. It didn’t matter that they don’t know what a Newton is, or if Rory Calhoun is long dead. The jokes still work, even today. But with the newer episodes, so many of the jokes feel uncomfortable and embarrassing, a half-assed attempt to tap into the zeitgeist.

Some critics say that The Simpsons should end its constant attempts to have a take on what’s going on in current events. But the thing that they don’t quite understand is that The Simpsons has always tried to stay relevant. They’ve never just focussed on timeless stories, jokes or ideas, but constantly parody politicians, celebrities, and new trends and technologies. The episode 22 Short Films About Springfield is littered with references to Pulp Fiction shortly after its release, there’s a crossover episode with the critic in season 6, and a whole episode in season 7 about president George H.W. Bush.

But all those episodes feel genuine and true to the show in a way that Lady Gaga’s guest star spot doesn’t.

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The real issue is that The Simpsons is an exploration of modern culture, a satirical mirror at the world it exists in, but it is also, at its core, a product of the 1990s. The Simpsons features a cast of characters, a style of comedy and a pace of development which are all inextricably 90s, and any attempt to pull it into the 21st century creates a sort of uncanniness, where everything feels a little bit off.

I recently rewatched a season 20 episode, Mypods and Broomsticks. For those unfamiliar, the episode’s A plot is about Lisa getting an iPod, and the B plot is Bart becoming friends with a Muslim kid who just moved to his school. I wanted to watch it for this article because I remember it exhibiting a lot of this temporal dissonance – a 90s satire of 21st century situations and 90s characters dealing with 21st century problems – but one thing really surprised me: the writing was good. Not just the writing, either: there were some really well directed jokes, some great pieces of voice acting, strong visual gags and all the hallmarks of quality Simpsons. While I’d be hesitant to compare it to all time favourites like The monorail episode or the lemon tree episode, the standard of writing was up to a low-mid tier episode from the golden age, and wouldn’t have felt out of place in, say, season 10 or 11 of the show.

This was strange, because I didn’t remember any of that quality from the first time I watched the episode. In fact, when I first saw that episode in December 2008, it was when I finally gave up on new Simpsons. I still check in now and then and watch a recent episode or two, just to see what’s happening, but I gave up on my mission to see every episode that day. It had only just come out then, and everything about it felt tired, toothless and jarring, to the point that I spent more time groaning than laughing.

There was something uncomfortable about Lisa’s plotline in particular. Wanting to buy an iPod but not being able to afford one feels wrong on Lisa. It’s not merely a case of her acting out of character, either. The characters in The Simpsons, especially in the early years, were always pretty dynamic, to the point of inconsistent. Mike Scully, who wrote on the show from season 6, explained how dynamic he intended the characters to be on a recent podcast, saying that “We always laugh on the show with Bart, because there’s a lot of episodes where he’s like, the cool, badass kid, [e.g. when he leads the gang in the lemon tree episode] and then there’s others where he’s being picked on by all the bullies. [e.g. when he takes up ballet lessons]”

If anything, Sam Nall, cofounder of USyd’s short-lived No Homer’s Club, notes that the characters have gotten more consistent over time, to the detriment of the show. “Everybody’s been flanderized, especially the main cast. Every character has to be just one thing these days. Homer’s just stupid, Marge is just a nag, Lisa is just the conscience.” Flanderization is a TV trope named for Ned Flanders, where a character becomes consumed by what was once a minor characteristic and loses all depth – in Flanders’ case, his religion. At first he was just a good, decent neighbour who paid attention in church to counterpoint Homer sleeping through it, but by season 7 he was a religious zealot.

So if the characters have gotten more consistent, not less, why do we keep getting these jarring character moments like Lisa’s iPod plotline? It’s because Lisa would never want an iPod, not because it’s out of character, but because iPods and Lisa don’t exist in the same universe, or, at least, not at the same time. Lisa’s character is so heavily rooted in the 90s that it creates a cognitive dissonance when you see her dealing with 21st century issues and trends. Lisa’s social isolation and nerdiness don’t make sense in a world where science and technology are celebrated by the masses. There are still nerds, of course, but not the kind of nerd Lisa is. Perhaps the challenge of trying to fit these essentially 90s characters into 21st century boxes while keeping them consistent is why the characters have lost so much of the depth and diversity they once had.

The tiredness of these jokes was something new to The Simpsons as well. In the 90s, The Simpsons was on the cutting edge of satire. Fox was a relatively new and minor network in 1989, and James L. Brooks managed to negotiate a deal that the major networks would never have given anyone: no executive notes. Standards and Practices could still censor them to keep them FCC compliant, but other than that the writers had total creative control. While networks like Adult Swim, HBO and Netflix have made this hands off approach more popular, it was a unique deal at the time, and allowed The Simpsons to push boundaries other mainstream shows couldn’t get away with. Compared to the boldness of today’s satirical landscape, it’s easy to forget that The Simpsons was once considered biting social commentary and very controversial at the time.

There was a large movement of concerned parents boycotting the show for its inappropriateness, citing Bart as a particularly bad influence, way back when the show first started coming out. George H.W. Bush even cited The Simpsons as a symbol of moral corruption during his election campaign.

So how did a show Charlie Sweatpants called “The most Anti-Authoritarian Show On TV” end up feeling toothless and stale?

 

Well, first of all, it can’t keep up. Back in the 90s, the pace of parody was slower. The Simpsons’ development cycle, from the time the story is broken and the first draft is written to when it goes to air, ranges from six to nine months. That means that writers have to write a joke at least half a year before it makes it to air. In the 90s this wasn’t a problem for satire, but today it’s incredibly slow.

South Park, which focuses much more on relevance over timelessness than The Simpsons ever did, has a development cycle on the scale of days. Over this last presidential campaign, they were able to follow Trump’s journey from joke candidate to real candidate to president in step with the news cycle, releasing an episode about him becoming president the day after the election and allowing them to feel timely. At an even quicker development pace, comedy news programs like The Daily Show are satirising news events the day they happen, and on the internet, news and cultural events are joked about on Reddit and Twitter in real time as they happen. With the ever increasing pace of both our culture itself and the comedy commenting on it, six to nine months is way too long for a joke to stay in the zeitgeist. This, more than anything, is why so many Simpsons jokes these days feel like your mum sending you a meme or your physics professor dabbing. It’s not the writers or producers, but the behemoth that is the show itself, always just out of touch, its finger six months behind the pulse.

But The Simpsons can’t speed up its development cycle too much without compromising the show. That extra time to go through rewrites and table reads, and to get the animation style they use just right, is part of what makes the show The Simpsons. It’s a style of TV making that made sense in the 90s and allowed it to be great in the 90s, but is now leading the show to suffer in the 21st century.

It’s not just the speed, however, but the satirical tone of the show itself which has fallen behind the times. Given the vastly different space of TV satire in the 90s, the show developed a level of subtlety which today reads as toothless. The most obvious example being the lightly veiled stand-ins for public figures. While The Simpsons creates characters like Drederick Tatum and Rainier Wolfcastle, most modern comedies would feel confident they could get away with using Mike Tyson or Arnold Schwarzenegger directly as a character. Simpsonised celebrity treatment looks relatively toothless, like they’re too afraid to use Steve Jobs’ real name when making fun of him, for example. Ironically, without the groundwork The Simpsons laid in the 90s, such extreme satire may have never reached the mainstream. They swung the pendulum so hard that, over the years, it has left them behind.

When I asked Sam Nall if there were any good episodes after season 12, he told me “It’s not even episodes, that’s the disappointing thing. In season 13 and 14 it becomes about moments. Like, sometimes there’s a moment or a joke that’s like ‘wow, that is class Simpsons right there.’ But just for a moment, then it’s back to bad.” The Simpsons, classic Simpsons, is great on a joke level and an episode level. The variety and creativity of the jokes is timeless and a credit to the talent of the early Simpsons staff, but the bedrock those jokes are built on is great episodes. What made these episodes great was the show’s ability to hold a mirror up to society through the use of their incredibly deep and dynamic cast of characters to make believable stories. As culture has evolved, the characters have lost their relevance, and the mirror has been distorted by a changing world of satire. It happened so gradually that the creators may not have even noticed at first, but even if they had, there was nothing they could do.

The Simpsons has become a cultural relic, and as the bedrock faded the jokes got worse too, either because they couldn’t pull the talent they needed anymore, or because everybody has just stopped caring as much. But even at its best, all The Simpsons can hope for now is a few brief moments of its former glory.

But that’s okay: while the show itself may be beyond repair, its legacy lives on in the entire landscape of great comedy it has inspired. There’s hardly a comedian working today who doesn’t draw from The Simpsons. And if you want to go back to the source, there’s still 8-12 seasons of amazing Simpsons and it isn’t going anywhere.

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