Mythology: The Simpsons
By Martin Felipe
March 24, 2010
It's become trendy to criticize The Simpsons, to claim that the show isn't what it once was. I can't deny this. The quality has declined over the years, but I challenge any show to be as good as The Simpsons still is after 450 episodes.
It's easy nowadays to check off a list of flaws, but think about what Matt Groening has accomplished. The Simpsons broke the record for longest running primetime show this year, beating Gunsmoke's 20 seasons. (Technically, one could include a show like 60 minutes, but I'm just going with scripted here) I admit, Gunsmoke is a glaring omission in my viewing history, so I can't vouch as to its sustained quality, but most shows start to show signs of wear somewhere around seasons five through seven.
Now in The Simpsons' case, 21 years and a movie into its run, for the quality to be at the level it's still at is bordering on miraculous. Of course, The Simpsons of the '90s is considered among the best shows of all time, let alone the decade. The Simpsons of the 2000s are where the cracks started showing. I would posit, however, that if '90s Simpsons are in the A range, the more recent offerings still merit a B at worst.
Again, I don't dispute the sentiment that the quality has slipped; I just take issue with the hyperbolic "Simpsons suck now" rhetoric so prevalent on the Internet. It's not transcendent as it was in the heyday, but I challenge most any show, no matter the initial quality, to be as good 450 episodes along as The Simpsons is still able to be.
Having said that, the show's legendary status is pretty endangered at this point. The backlash is in full swing and I'd hate for such a landmark of quality be tarnished by lesser product in its autumn years.
The problem is manifold. I think it started with shows like King of the Hill and South Park popping up in the late '90s. These shows would never have been possible without the success of The Simpsons, yet, their existence makes The Simpsons seem less unique, less fresh. Of course, the comic sensibilities of the three shows are distinct, but the mythologies, for lack of a better word, are of the same ilk. They all take place in a small town populated with a huge cast of supporting players, none of whom age, or even evolve much.
Then, as we neared the millennium, Matt Groening himself created another prime time animated show of his own in Futurama. While Futurama may lack the warmth and heart of its Groening predecessor, the comedy is sharper. For that matter, and this is nothing unusual to shows which enjoy a show runner of such distinct voice, as Groening focused more attention on his new baby, The Simpsons began to feel a bit diluted, as others took some of the work load off of his shoulders.
Other shows, Family Guy being the most prominent example, came along, aping The Simpsons' style. Opinions of Family Guy's quality are divisive, but it did further damage to The Simpsons' unique position in the marketplace. For that matter, the explosion in the last decade of live action, laugh track free, single camera comedies further diminished The Simpsons' novel style. The Simpsons was becoming more commonplace.
Other factors contributed to the program's fall from grace - recycled ideas, surreal plot turns and gags, the need to further exaggerate character foibles so as to top what's come before, fewer cutting edge comic targets. Signs of old age indeed. Thing is, this would defeat any show in time. I would argue that The Simpsons retains enough of its brilliance and its wit to remain in the top 10% of all programming in any given week. In the '90s, it would have been the very best, now it's only in the upper tier. Lesser than it was? Of course! Does it suck now? Don't be silly.
Nevertheless, the stink of plunging quality remains, fair or no. It's had a record breaking, honorable run. With the triumphant return of Futurama imminent, it might be time for Groening and company to close shop on Evergreen Terrace and focus their attention on Planet Express. To be on-the-nose, that's where their future is. The Simpsons has earned its place in the annals. Let's let it go before we need to qualify that honor and pass the baton on to a show with miles left in the tank. Let's put Homer out to pasture and welcome in the return of Zoidberg.