There is a narrow range of maneuverability within this discussion: The Simpsons can be considered anywhere from great but, self-evidently of course, not as great as at its peak, to not particularly good and unworthy of remaining on the air. What goes unasserted in the contemporary canon is that The Simpsons has continued to develop over the years, adding new elements, particularly a sophisticated visual aesthetic, redefining and refining the absurdist comedy, and bringing multi-dimensional nuances to its brilliantly crafted characters. Put simply, The Simpsons is as good today as it has ever been.
Part I: Examining the Reasons for the Perceived Decline
Maintaining that The Simpsons are still producing at a high-as-ever level these days is not to suggest that the show hasn’t seen dramatic changes in its timbre and touch over the course of its life. Both an explanation for and the inevitable result of its incredible longevity, The Simpsons has undergone significant transformations in style and substance from its first tentative steps out of the shadows of The Tracey Ullman Show, to the loudly recognized heights of the Conan O’Brien days, and on and on through its most recent and increasingly experimental version.1 This broad arc of change could by itself contribute to the audience’s change in perception. (It COULD lead to the change in perception…) However, it is the changing context of the audience itself, encompassing the psychological needs of the individual viewer, working in tandem with the changes in the show, that has created the diminished “assessment” of the show in recent years. The audience has necessarily moved on from a time and place when and where a particular era of The Simpsons possessed special meaning in its lives. As people must leave that time and place at some point, and as that particular era of the Simpsons becomes further removed, with current era Simpsons resembling it less and less, those feelings of familiarity, nostalgia, comfort, et al. begin to fade. Ultimately, that same enjoyment one received from watching the Simpsons is no longer there, and diminished quality is offered as the explanation.
Formative Years Theory
The core of The Simpsons’ most devoted, rabid fanbase, those that began watching from the beginning and have literally grown up with the show, come from a range of, basically, ’75 to ’82 birthdays.2 These are the viewers that were old enough to remember watching their first Simpsons from the first season; and young enough to think it was new and exciting, that it spoke to them in a way that other shows and other people didn’t; old enough to continue watching and get drawn in as the show moved away from catchphrases into darker material, expanding the cultural references and directing its lens beyond the family and towards broader society; and young enough to have the time and desire to watch a cartoon slowly grow and progress into something more mature and sophisticated, in many ways its own chronology of development mirroring that of its audience.
What is the significance of Simpsons uberfans coming from basically the same narrow age group? It helps to explain why there is such an evaluative consensus on the general timeline of the series, including notably the presumed mid-series-ish “golden age,” as well as the near unanimity on its recent, or at least post-golden age, decline. Simpsons fans fell in love with the show during the show’s early years (’90 – ’94),3 which were not incoincidentally its fans’ “formative years,” that is, the pre-adolescent to adolescent, highly influencable period in which one’s comedic sensibility and even broader outlook on American society and culture could be derived in large part from art: a film movement, the written word, a musical group, or a TV show, in this case, The Simpsons. The mechanism, beginning for most sometime between late elementary and early high school, was essentially the same: a semi-dysfunctional ensemble of characters in Anytown, er, Springfield, USA, portrayed with equal parts sarcasm and earnestness, condescendence and flattery, helped craft a Weltanschauung in its devotees, comprised of a rebellious conscience, a suspicious view of authority figures, a japing attitude toward ambition, and a taste for the ironic and the hilarious.
Beyond the means to digest their surroundings, The Simpsons created in its vanguard the ability, if not necessity, to often, if not almost always, relate specific personal experiences in the context of Simpsons episodes. This process does not take place in the subconscious; rather, these people are extremely self-aware (super-liminal perhaps?) of the role The Simpsons has played in their lives.4 Beyond mere fandom and allegiance to a particular series, the genius of The Simpsons created in its fans a particular identity and a particular taste in comedy that informed subsequent creative enjoyment and discernment. The Formative Years Thesis presumes that individuals are most susceptible to developing longstanding creative and cultural tastes during a particular gestational period. However, it is once they identify with the specific influence that the effect bears its imprint: they are so enamored with their cherishment that they often cannot appreciate different styles of art antithetical, or even subtly different, from the influence itself. Their appreciation of comedy or art is so idiosyncratically tied up with the influence, they are unable to find deviations from that specificity worthwhile or impressive. Popular music provides illustrative examples. Individuals who grew up loving The Beatles and The Beach Boys, beyond mere enjoyment but to the point of self-identification (“part of who I am, an important part, is that I love this music”), are likely to require the prominence of melody in later choices of music; consequently, a-melodic styles (for example, The Fall) often will not be appealing, not because of poor quality or an inherent listener disinclination, but as a vestigial affectation born from preferences determined during their formative period.
Supplementing the thematic and substantive appeals to its formative-state fans, temporal considerations also participated in their burgeoning fixation, and ultimate reprobation. That the series’ core fanbase hopped on the trolley at a specific, and specifically young, age group is significant in that this demographic was generally free from worldly responsibility and had the luxury of devoting time and energy to the show, a necessity given that The Simpsons possessed features daunting to the non-obsessed: many more characters than a typical live-action TV sitcom, non-obvious visual cues as jokes in addition to dialogue, and subtle references to past material (not just storylines, but little-used character cameos, self-referential jokes, repeating themes). Like any powerful art, the more you gave, the more you got. Animation allowed for more freedom than live-action TV, and The Simpsons were able to pack content into an episode that a first-time or casual viewer may have missed. The guerdon for its fans’ investment was a special bond that placed the identity of the viewer within the context of the show. However, this identity changed. Formative-year fandom subsidized by the halcyon frivolity of youth would eventually give way, for many at least, to the heightened responsibilities of older age and interests that go beyond watching what is essentially a cartoon. Watching every new episode plus up to 10 per week in syndication (high school and college provided ample time and opportunity for Simpsons fans to indulge in their interest, while at the same time allowing them to become fluent in the lexicon and style of The Simpsons of a particular milieu, strengthening the bond) became simply not possible, again, for many at least.5 So as the individual necessarily grew and matured, entering a new stage of life, The Simpsons became a smaller part of the personal experience. This was exacerbated by The Simpsons’ dramatic change in style and content (as we shall see, infra) which further alienated an already distanced fan. The viewer no longer defines him/herself by a television show, and decreased quality is offered as the easiest explanation (I haven’t changed, you’ve changed). This phenomenon is not unique to the animated subject. Musical interest often follows this dark and stormy road through the tunnel of obsessive consumption and down the gravely grade to feeble abstinence. That frequently heard and always soporific argument, “they’ve stopped making good music since 1969” (or 1989 or 1993 or enter the year the speaker graduated from high school), is as frustrating to hear as it is easy to unpack: youthful discovery of a band or a style (“punk rock changed our lives”) leads to fanatical interest before the well of angst-driven interest dries up and is filled instead with other interests and obligations, the listener moves on, musical styles continue to move on without him/her, and the listener has ultimately eschewed most if not all musical pleasures. The mechanism is not much different than the Formative Years Thesis with respect to The Simpsons and is perhaps more common.6
The Emergence of the Absurdly Experimental Comedy
The changing backdrop of The Simpsons’ audience coincided with a gradual but marked shift in the style and type of humor employed on the show. Though there were other significant technical and substantive developments on the show which help support the claim that The Simpsons is as interesting and peerless as ever (Part 2, coming later), the current section deals with the emergence of a specific brand of humor that correlates well to the aging of the audience and helps explain the thinning of the show’s widespread adulation. Though also a charm that can be used to justify the current grandeur of The Simpsons, this change in the nature of joke tenor is better placed here because of its off putting and heightening effect on certain fans.7
From its inception The Simpsons utilized an expansive arsenal of comedic elements to simultaneously create biting yet playful cultural satire. Sarcasm, realism, and surrealism were hallmarks of the show both then and now and throughout. However, at some palaverously vague Abaddon-like tipping point, but clearly over time, the show began to focus less on the reality-based jesting that hitherto was its brioche and I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Butter, that is, humor acting as a way to address and lampoon reality, and more on the hilarity of the absurd and the comicality of the bizarre, that is, the joke being akin to a 2nd order differential equation where the x is Homer becoming the mayor of New Springfield following an area code dispute and the y is Homer becoming the crazy mayor of New Springfield following an area code dispute.
The Simpsons got weird as fuck. The show not only put its characters in crazier and zanier situations – one criticism asserting that it had finally become a cartoon – but made the references more obscure and the jokes more abrasive. What once was an homage to The Shining turned into screams of “I feel like I'm in Fitzcarraldo!” An endearing portrait of Homer as a reformable drunk gave way to Krusty “smelling the flowers” and the homeless guy vowing to buy “a suit of drugs.” Even the classic Simpson misdirection was intensified and floridified: “I’m not easily impressed. Wow! A blue car!” became, “This is a crowbar,” accompanied by Moe’s picture of crows sitting down at the “Old Crow,” complete with little stools. Whereas earlier era jokes, such as the famous “Lisa needs braces – Dental Plan” repetition interrupted only by the always classy pencil in the butt crack gag, cast a wide enough net to bait a mainstream audience, recent bits like Homer butchering Mr. Bojangles while begging (“Mr. Bo-jangles, we’re all, bo-jangled, who killed, Bo-jangles?”) were more likely to appeal to the devoted, possibly demented, few.
This creeping shift towards comedic inaccessibility was borne out of, more than anything, necessity. Yes, the humanity of the show’s early years was touching and moving, but how many times can an episode end with Homer and Marge riding into the sunset before staleness sets in and you begin inching towards Growing Pains territory? While adhering to methodical formulae done expertly (hello Golden Girls) may be sufficient for great art, even one that boasts the most subversive spirit found on TV since M.A.S.H., it is not the wisest course for those aspiring to be truly, once-in-a-lifetime great.8 So, The Simpsons went for broke, broke out the Buňuel references, and turned up the crazy on all of its characters (Moe is a suicidal poet-genius, Lenny lives next to a jai-alai court, and even Lisa corrals up a strutting gang of vagabond animals, including a raccoon and a canary, all to the sweet sounds of George Baker Selection’s “Little Green Bag”). The cost of such insanity was leaving behind a hefty portion of former diehards (current squares) to clutch the tattered, faded rags of beautiful memories from a past long gone as they shiver in the barren wasteland that their lives have become, while watching Entourage. Stay warm, friends.
1 The quality of the show has certainly seen fluctuations over time. The general consensus is that after a season or two of the show coming into its own and finding its groove, The Simpsons reached an impressive golden age unmatched in creative output by any TV show of its or any other time. This two-dimensional xanadu lasted from around ’92-’95 (though some would argue that the downturn began in ’94 after Kogen and Wolodarsky penned their last episode together). Many simply write off the Maxtone-Graham reign as increasingly garbage, and while even I will agree that there were a few lean, sub-par years approaching the millennium, the show rebounded in a big way in 2000 with Season 12 and backed it up the following year in what is perhaps the single greatest, and most experimental, season in the show’s history. The show continued to incorporate bizarre references and joke structures while magnanimously revolutionizing the visual representation of the show. I think it's fair to describe the last few seasons as general quality with a certain amount of hit-or-missness. The early returns from the first two months of this most recent season, however, are somewhat disappointing. I think it’s too early to make definitive conclusions, but I think we can legitimately ask, for the first time in a while, is this the year the ever looming Simpsons decline takes place? It’s probably not a good idea to question your entire thesis in the very first endnote, but here we are.
2 The high end of this range were those still young enough (around 14 years old) to get into what was essentially a cartoon at its inception and stick with it as it grew into something much more involved and much more intelligent than those who still considered it to be just a cartoon would have imagined. The low end were those old enough (around 8 years old at inception) to follow a prime time television show from week to week and season to season and to be able to understand the various pop-cultural references. Essentially though, it’s just my age plus or minus a few years on each side. I can safely say that I do not know a core Simpsons fan whose birthdate falls outside the range. Regarding the professional TV critics who praised the show from the beginning and who clearly fall outside the older end of the range: I do not consider these people to be in the core. These people had their taste in comedy shaped long before The Simpsons were born. There were also likely singing similar praises for The Cosby Show, Cheers, and Friends during their careers. Not evaluating the quality of those shows, but real Simpsons’ heads did not sing the praises of those shows.
This narrow age range of Simpsons followers contrasts sharply with that of the at-one-time contemporary, Seinfeld, whose fan base certainly included the Simpsons-age gang (teenagers through the bulk of the show’s run), and expanded into college students, young professionals (John Stewart recently claimed to Jerry Seinfeld that he knows every episode line by line), older professionals (the peer group of the actors on the show), and even the baby boomers (my parents watched the show almost as often as I did).
3 This seems axiomatic. I guess it’s possible that certain hardcore fans could have arrived at the show later, but they would then not meet the requirement of having grown up with it. Though fans certainly could have caught on at the tail end of Conan’s days and beyond, a glorious time no doubt, they would have missed the first evolution of characters and writing style, as well as the important "I was there from the beginning" of any interest that becomes so involved as to be self-identifying, that is, part of how you identify yourself is through the interest. Also, personal experience tells me that most Simpsons-heads were already watching within the first few years.
4 One of the more unique experiences being a Simpsons fan provides is the oft-repeated conversation where you and your friends each discuss how much The Simpsons has meant in your lives, not just in terms of giving you endless hours of enjoyment and laughs, but in making you the person you are, shaping your sensibilities, telling you which aspects of our government are ridiculous, and emboldening your hatred of aliens, illegal and extraterrestrial. More so than your family, friends, religion, or the state, The Simpsons is perhaps the easiest and most honest vehicle for its fans to analyze the tragedy and fortune of who they are and where they came from.
5 I somehow am able to make this work.
6 I have had the misfortune to hear two different people on two different occasions proclaim that music “stopped being good since Metallica’s ‘… And Justice For All.’” Perhaps more unpleasant was listening to a level headed friend’s earnest rebuttal to the proposition and the ensuing drunken back and forth. I think most people have at least overheard if not participated in that conversation.
7 Truth be told, the features described in Part II as attributes of the current version of the show could easily be placed in Part I as well, as they were likely to have also had an effect on deterring certain viewers, but categories rarely have firm boundaries and are used here for ease and clarity of organization and presentation. As almost always.
8 Could Arrested Development have sustained that level for significantly longer than it did? It’s hard to say, but it seemed they reached for too much too soon up against an audience that wasn’t ready, or wasn’t able, to plunge in. R.I.P.