At some point, a show stops being a show and becomes a utility: gas, electricity, water, The Simpsons. That’s not my line; it’s cribbed from a quote about 60 Minutes by its creator, the late Don Hewitt. But it seems appropriate to recycle a point about one long-running program in an article about another when it’s as self-consciously self-cannibalizing as The Simpsons. Matt Groening’s indestructible cartoon sitcom has run 23 seasons and will air its 500th episode on February 19. It hasn’t been a major cultural force in a decade or more, unless you count 2007’s splendid The Simpsons Movie, but it’s still the lingua franca of pop-culture junkies, quoted in as many contexts as the Holy Bible and Star Wars, neither of which includes lines as funny as “Me fail English? That’s unpossible!” I haven’t seen the 500th installment yet because it wasn’t done when I wrote this piece, and that’s probably for the best; pin a thesis to any single chapter and the kaleidoscopic parade of The Simpsons will stomp it flat. Early in the show’s run we rated episodes. Now we rate seasons. In seven years, we’ll be rating decades.
Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie Simpson appeared in short segments of Fox’s The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987 and got their own series roughly two years later. By now, the series has sunk its roots so deep into the popular imagination that we tend to forget it was once considered déclassé, maybe even dangerous. Twenty years ago, Evangelists and politicians denounced The Simpsons as a televised toxin that weakened parental authority and coarsened the culture. Oblivious to the love that Homer, Marge, and the kids showed for one another, they blasted the clan as a disgusting, dysfunctional unit that was unfit to anchor a prime-time cartoon. During his 1992 reelection campaign, President George H. W. Bush even pledged to help U.S. families be “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”
No such luck. Over the last two-plus decades, The Simpsons has spawned T-shirts, soundtracks, plush toys, figurines, bedsheets, costumes, comic books, video games, velvet paintings, tattoos, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day floats, college courses, and a wiki with 8,059 articles. It was, and remains, a densely written and supremely self-aware show and a comedic achievement on par with George Carlin’s discography and the films of Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and the Marx Brothers. Together with Seinfeld and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, The Simpsons refined a new TV template, the meta-sitcom — a half-hour comedy spiked with satire, pop-culture references, and postmodern riffs worthy of Ernie Kovacs and Monty Python. This self-awareness didn’t just keep the show’s writers amused; it inoculated The Simpsons against complaints that it was repeating itself, even when it obviously was. The infinitely varied couch openers and the “Cape Feare” scene in which Sideshow Bob steps on six rakes sum up the show’s demented gift for repurposing jokes, milking good material. The Simpsons recycled plots, catchphrases, and sight gags until they turned into signatures. My favorites are Homer’s ever-changing lifelong dream (manage a beautiful country singer; eat the world’s biggest hoagie, etc.) and nuclear mogul C. Montgomery Burns’s chronic failure to recognize his most destructive employee, Homer. (Smithers: “He thwarted your campaign for governor, you ran over his son, he saved the plant from meltdown, his wife painted you in the nude ... ” Burns: “Doesn’t ring a bell.”)
The Simpsons is high and low culture, commerce and art, and a formative influence on viewers who went on to realize their own lifelong dreams of working in television. Whenever Family Guy or Community or 30 Rock cuts away from its main story for a five-second fantasy or flashback, it’s employing a gimmick that The Simpsons perfected. To quote the title of a 2002 South Park episode, “The Simpsons Already Did It.”
That phrase covers criticism, too. The Simpsons was one of the first pre-Internet series to engage the members of its audience head-on, speaking to them (and sometimes sparring with them) through its scripts. These preemptive strikes still pack a punch. Last year I wrote an unflattering story about The Simpsons that said the past twelve seasons weren’t a patch on the show’s glory years and that Groening & Co. should have turned the lights off years ago. A reader who liked the later seasons argued that the problem wasn’t The Simpsons but unrealistic expectations plus bottomless hunger for “the new and shiny.” She strengthened her point with a quote from season eight’s “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” in which Lisa says of the long-running cat-and-mouse cartoon: “There’s not really anything wrong with [it] … but after so many years the characters just can’t have the same impact they once had.”
After spending the last week watching most of seasons 15 through 23 — which aired after I’d lost interest and pretty much checked out — I must formally withdraw my “should’ve packed it in” verdict. The post-2000 seasons are uneven, often weak, but there are flashes of greatness, too. Season nineteen’s “Any Given Sundance,” in which Lisa takes her muckraking documentary Capturing the Simpsons to Utah, should be required viewing in film schools. (“Every title means the opposite of what it means!” Marge says after watching a junkie drama titled Candyland.) The season-sixteen episode “All’s Fair in Oven War” has one of my favorite Bart-and-Milhouse subplots. Marge shames Homer into dumping his skin magazines, and when the boys find Homer’s stash, which has been denuded by Marge’s scissors, we see what might happen if people really did read Playboy for the articles: Bart listens to The Essential Miles Davis and fantasizes about having orgies in his treehouse (“Whatever they are”), and Ralph Wiggum tells his dad he wants to get on the Pill. The annual Halloween “Treehouse of Horror” anthologies have been especially strong. I can’t look at a jack-o-lantern without thinking of the 2008 segment “It’s the Grand Pumpkin, Milhouse!,” a Peanuts spoof in which an orange demon gourd terrorizes Springfield while proclaiming his bigotry against yellow pumpkins. (“All pumpkins are racist! The difference is, I admit it!”) This current season has been the strongest in years; I’d stack it up against season eleven, maybe ten.
That “Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie” quote reminded me of “The Brando Curve,” a phrase that a Marlon Brando–worshipping friend used on anyone who claimed the actor gave a few great performances and a lot of silly or fussy ones: “There are maybe ten performances in the history of cinema that are as rich as the greatest movie you can name. Marlon Brando gave five of them, and the worst of the rest are more interesting than most actors’ best. Cut the guy a break.”
If you grade on the Brando curve, weak Simpsons is still some nice cartoonin’, boy. That we can even talk about the show this way is high praise in itself. In any case, it’s unfair to expect each and every season to match the show’s glory years, which produced some of the best … comedy … ever. This is no mere television show; it is television, typed the critic, knowing in his bones that The Simpsons said it first.