Today sees the release of TV (THE BOOK), a collection of essays and arguments from our critic Matt Zoller Seitz and HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall that determine the best 100 American TV shows of all time. Since we know you’ll want to start debating the rank even before the book is in your hands, Matt and Alan shared with us the section discussing their pick for the best show ever, one that will come as no surprise to Vulture readers: The Simpsons. After you’ve digested that, head over to Alan’s site to read their essay honoring another beloved show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The Simpsons (Fox, 1989–present)
If, by some chance, you stumbled across a person who had never seen a frame of The Simpsons, and they wanted to know why it was so popular, so respected, so beloved, how would you explain it?
You could start by showing them Sideshow Bob stepping on eight rakes in a row in under thirty seconds. The scene, from the classic season 5 episode “Cape Feare,” represents the whole spectrum of humor folded and refolded into a single gag. Layer one is the lowest form of humor, violent slapstick. The sight of Bob stepping on rake after rake after rake is a monument to comic excess, pushing one joke past all reasonable limits—a gag on the same wavelength of Jonathan Winters in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World systematically destroying an entire gas station with his bare hands, or Laurel and Hardy in Big Business repeatedly trying and failing to get a piano up a flight of stairs. At the same time, though, it is also conceptual humor, because it is also about the idea of excess. As David Letterman demonstrated on his late-night shows when he repeated the same knowingly lame catchphrase for weeks on end, sometimes a gag is funny the first time, less funny the second, still less funny the third, then ceases to be funny at all, until the audacity of continuing to repeat it wears down your resistance and makes you laugh again. Finally, the rake gag is a bit of character-based humor with actual philosophical overtones: Sideshow Bob, who keeps trying and failing to murder his young nemesis, Bart Simpson, throughout the show’s run, fears that the universe is indifferent to his desires, and may even derive joy from watching him suffer. What simpler way to confirm Bob’s fears than by topping the lead-up to the gag—Bob being mangled and torn while hanging beneath the Simpsons’ station wagon en route to witness protection at Cape Feare Lake—with a series of rakes to the face? That the onslaught of the rakes is so tedious, so basic, so not personal, only makes it worse. Everywhere Bob steps, a rake, a rake, another rake. The rakes stand in for every twist of fate that sabotages Bob’s plan, every indignity heaped upon him, every eventuality his supposed genius could not foresee, every moment of potential glory snatched from his grasp. And of course the rake is also Bart Simpson: the Road Runner to Bob’s Wile E. Coyote, Droopy Dog to Bob’s Wolf. Bob’s guttural shudders (a brilliant verbal flourish by guest star Kelsey Grammer) are not merely expressions of physical agony but marrow-deep self-disgust. Each time a rake hits Bob in the face, it confirms his secret fear that beneath his educated facade and delusions of omnipotence, he’s still an unemployable TV clown, a second banana in his own life, a living embodiment of unmerited hubris and well-deserved failure—all of which, point of fact, he is. This lone gag crystallizes every facet of Bob in relation to the world of The Simpsons.
And he’s not even a regular character!
That one could write a similarly expansive lead paragraph drawing on any one of dozens of other Simpsons gags—maybe hundreds; at the time of this book’s publication, Matt Groening’s animated sitcom was nearing the end of its third decade—gives some hint of the show’s richness.
As conceived by Groening, James L. Brooks, and Sam Simon, and continued by an endlessly repopulated writers’ room, with a brilliant voice cast (headed by Dan Castellaneta as Homer, Julie Kavner as Marge, Nancy Cartwright as Bart, Yeardley Smith as Lisa, plus Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer, and other utility infielders, including Pamela Hayden, Tress MacNeille, and the late Phil Hartman), The Simpsons is so ambitious, intimate, classical, experimental, hip, corny, and altogether free in its conviction that the imagination should go where it wants, that to even begin to explain all the things The Simpsons is, and all the things it does, you would need an immense Venn diagram drawn on a football field, each circle representing different modes of comedy. And even then, summing up The Simpsons would be impossible, because the best gags, the best scenes, the best episodes, the best seasons, contain multitudes within multitudes within multitudes, like that rake gag. Trying to identify any one aspect as the key to the show’s genius would be a folly as unwise as building the monorails that destroyed Ogdenville, Brockway, and North Haverbrook, and nearly ruined Springfield. The show has been on for far too long (so long that it now predates the existence of many of its viewers), done too many amazing things, and been through too many evolutions.
The Simpsons is the greatest show in TV history for all the reasons listed previously, plus so many more, that contemplating them all feels a bit like Homer’s daydream about a trip to the Land of Chocolate. It went to more places—tonally and topically as well as geographically— tackled more issues, and told more jokes about more subjects than any comedy has before or since, and at its peak (roughly seasons 3–12) did it better than anyone else. But it also found a deep reservoir of emotion in its depiction of the Simpson family itself, as well as the complicated dynamics between husband and wife, brother and sister, father and daughter, student and teacher, spike-haired brat and gunboat-footed, Gilbert and Sullivan–loving maniac.
Even the question “What kind of show is The Simpsons?” is hard to answer without sounding reductive, because it has kept morphing throughout its run. It began as a laugh track–free sitcom in the schlubby dad–harried mom–bratty son–precocious daughter vein, but one that happened to be animated (a mode that Fox’s subsequent King of the Hill stayed in). But within a few seasons the slapstick had become more extreme, the structural flourishes more brazen (the peak was probably the anthology “22 Short Films About Springfield”), and the pop culture references had become multivalent.
The season 4 finale, “Krusty Gets Kancelled,” for instance, contains a scene where the show’s resident action-film superstar, the Arnold Schwarzenegger manqué Rainier Wolfcastle, appears on Springfield Squares, hosted by newsman Kent Brockman. It is simultaneously a send-up of 1970s game shows (specifically The Hollywood Squares); the supposed “newsman” as celebrity (in the 1950s, longtime 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace was a radio actor and cigarette pitchman at the same time that he gained fame as an interviewer); Schwarzenegger’s attempts to remake himself as a star of family comedies like Twins and Junior; the 1980s craze for comedies about “nerds” (Wolfcastle is on the game show to pitch his latest picture, Help, My Son Is a Nerd!, which has the same plot as Back to School and, according to him, is “not a comedy”); and the cliché of the resident who won’t leave his home during a disaster (when a tsunami approaches, the longtime occupant of a bottom square, Charlie, refuses to leave because he’s been there thirty years, and is instantly washed away). This same episode contains references to Judy Collins, Joey Bishop, Elvis Presley’s 1968 comeback special, Howdy Doody (via the ventriloquist’s dummy Gabbo, whose success shatters Krusty), Cold War–era Eastern European animation (Worker & Parasite, the cartoon video Krusty shows when Gabbo steals Itchy & Scratchy), and parodies of Johnny Carson’s farewell episode of The Tonight Show (via Krusty the Clown’s comeback special, where Bette Midler serenades Krusty the way she did Johnny as his final guest). Celebrity cameos include Midler, the Red Hot Chili Peppers (who replay a moment when Ed Sullivan asked the Doors to neuter a line from “Light My Fire”), and Carson, who offers Krusty career advice and lifts a Buick over his head.
And yet, despite its nonstop maelstrom of satire, parody, whimsy, and shtick, The Simpsons never forgot the family at its core. This is what raises it above so many imitators. Bart’s rebellious attitude and catchphrases (“Eat my shorts!”) made him the show’s initial breakout character, but in time, he and Lisa would both be more memorably deployed to explore the melancholia of childhood: Bart’s belief that he’s peaked at age ten or the despair he feels after facetiously selling his soul to best friend Milhouse; Lisa’s constant fear that she’ll never find a place or group where she feels like she belongs. (When jazzman Bleeding Gums Murphy invites Lisa to jam with him, she improvises a song with the lyric, “I’m the saddest kid in grade number two.”) Marge, with her frustration at always having to be the responsible parent, provided gravity that became more valuable as the show’s plots became more outlandish: Homer joins NASA and goes into space; Bart offends the population of Australia and is sentenced to being kicked by a giant boot; Mr. Burns tries to block the sun’s rays from reaching the town. And even though there was only so much that the writers could do with Maggie, who doesn’t age and never masters more than one word (“Daddy,” spoken by Elizabeth Taylor, of all people), they still managed to establish her as both the wisest and the toughest Simpson (she shoots Mr. Burns and stages a prison break from a totalitarian daycare center).
But it was Homer who would become the show’s most important character, and its comic engine. He was the American male—and the American psyche—taken to a logical, hilarious, unnerving extreme: sweet and well-intentioned but also selfish, gluttonous, impulsive, and proud of his ignorance (“Oh, people can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent—fourteen percent of people know that”). As revolting as Homer can be, he’s also a wish-fulfillment object, albeit one who could not be further away from the likes of James Bond or Bat- man. What man hasn’t daydreamed of indulging like Homer and failing upward? What man wouldn’t want to foment unrest against spoiled movie stars (“And when it’s time to do the dishes, where’s Ray Bolger? I’ll tell you where! Ray Bolger is looking out for Ray Bolger!”), become the voice of a focus-grouped addition to your kids’ favorite cartoon show (“The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show”), or (in 2007’s The Simpsons Movie) adopt a pet pig and teach it to walk the ceiling like Spider-Man? Okay, maybe those aren’t common fantasies, but Homer’s imagination was the only dazzlingly uncommon thing about him. An early running gag saw Homer peevishly telling Marge that his latest scheme—such as managing a country-western singer in season 3’s “Colonel Homer”— was his lifelong dream, only to be reminded that his lifelong dream was something far less grandiose, like eating the world’s biggest hoagie. The character’s idiocy, so perfectly captured by Castellaneta, could be heroically perverse—and never more so than in “King-Size Homer,” where he gains more than a hundred pounds so that he can get on disability and work from home. (Lisa: “Ew! Mom, this whole thing is really creepy. Are you sure you won’t talk to Dad?” Marge: “I’d like to, honey, but I’m not sure how. Your father can be surprisingly sensitive. Remember when I giggled at his Sherlock Holmes hat? He sulked for a week and then closed his detective agency.”)
Homer himself has gone through as many changes as the show, from week to week as well as season to season; if you look at his actions in terms of a rap sheet, he’s more monstrous than any of the characters on Seinfeld. Only his genuine (though often submerged) love for his wife and kids and town keeps him redeemable. His oafishness, selfishness, drunkenness, belligerence, and other unpalatable qualities were there from the start, but in the early seasons (the first two especially) he was a melancholy figure, for the most part more a danger to himself than others. Castellaneta’s voice even sounded gentler, verging on a Walter Matthau sad sack. Until longtime writer-producer Al Jean began his current marathon stint as showrunner in season 13, the series went through many bosses, each with their own sense of where to draw the line on Homer’s behavior.
The character’s moral and emotional mood-ring quality creates yet another obstacle to defining what, at its best, The Simpsons is. Some writers (and fans) believe that the jerkier Homer is, the more memorable he is. Others prefer that kindness and/or self-awareness—or at the very least haplessness—dominate. The Rorschach test episode for this question tends to be “Homer’s Enemy” from season 8, where new plant employee Frank Grimes is driven mad by the realization that Homer is an incompetent drowning in unearned privilege while Frank, a smarter, more hardworking, more ethical person, struggles and suffers. When Homer is too intentionally cruel, it can give the show a more tragic feeling and make it seem sadder when Marge or Lisa forgives him his latest sin; but when he stumbles into his worst behavior, the family feels more in balance. The impact of moral choice was never far from the show’s mind. The Sopranos, Seinfeld, and Mad Men built a good part of their reputations on showing the dynamics of such decisions: how people can have the correct or right decision presented to them and still ignore it and do whatever gives them pleasure. But The Simpsons was more economical, often distilling the process down to a muttered aside by Homer about food. When the chronically unhealthy Simpsons patriarch suffers a heart attack from nervousness while asking Mr. Burns, his boss at the nuclear plant, for a raise, he falls dead on the floor, and Burns tells his assistant to send a ham to the widow; Homer’s spirit murmurs, “Mmm…ham…,” and climbs back into his body in hopes of eating some.
While the five core Simpsons remain the show’s most valuable characters, The Simpsons owes its longevity as much to the ever-expanding, ever-stranger population of Springfield (state unknown) as it does to the writers’ ability to keep cranking out variations on stories where Marge gets a job, Lisa makes a friend, or Homer offends a celebrity. In the ancient, malevolent, supremely self-centered Mr. Burns, the series was making fun of the one-percenters decades before it became de rigueur. Springfield’s Kennedyesque mayor “Diamond Joe” Quimby offered a window on corrupt, self-interested politics and the complacent electorate that does nothing to change it. The elementary school, the nuclear plant, Grandpa Simpson’s nursing home, Moe’s Tavern, Comic Book Guy’s shop, and many more Springfield locations gave the series an endless bounty of characters (incompetent police chief Clancy Wiggum, ambulance-chasing lawyer Lionel Hutz, slack-jawed yokel Cletus Spuckler) who could stumble in, get a laugh, then step aside to let the story continue on its merry way. You wouldn’t want to move most, maybe any, of the Springfieldians into their own series (an idea the show mocked in season 8’s “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase”). But their tonnage has given the series a richness that belies its animated format, as well as the one-note quality of local citizens like Disco Stu, mob boss Fat Tony, and Doris the Lunch Lady. After all this time, Springfield can feel disturbingly like a real city, complete with people you’d cross the street to avoid.
The Simpsons is similar in a way to a couple of other long-running TV series, 60 Minutes and Sesame Street, in that when a program remains a part of national life for more than two decades, it ceases to be a mere show and becomes something in between an institution and a utility: a thing that we have, use, and take for granted.
This is most apparent in the still-constant use of Simpsons quotes in daily life. The show has supplied a sentiment for every occasion, so many that it now gives the King James Bible a run for its money. Any stupid mistake can be acknowledged with a frustrated cry of “D’oh!” If you want to explain why you prefer a clearly inferior option, just say, “Barney’s movie had heart, but Football in the Groin had a football in the groin.” If you’ve just heard someone say something unrealistic or unhinged, you can dismiss them with “Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.” If you’re bracing yourself to deal with a new boss, a new presidential administration, or any other sort of dreaded leader, channel Kent Brockman and announce, “I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords.” If you need a bald-faced lie to explain where you were last night, say, “It’s a pornography store! I was buying pornography!” If you’re struggling to get across a basic concept, as Homer’s brain once did when it tried to teach him why $20 can buy many peanuts, say, “Money can be exchanged for goods and services.” If you’re lost for words when making a toast, there is no better fallback option than “To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”
That The Simpsons has been on so long past its peak is really the only reason to suggest it shouldn’t be considered the best series of all time. But the narrative that the current show is a ghost of its former self doesn’t withstand scrutiny if you pay close attention to the second half of its run, which has had lackluster periods (over the course of almost three decades, what person, or nation, doesn’t?) but has continued to produce episodes so imaginative and funny that if The Simpsons had started its run in 2004 instead of 1989, it still might’ve cracked this book’s top 100. Whenever you’re about to count The Simpsons out, it produces a magnificent segment like the 2008 “Treehouse of Horror” short “It’s the Grand Pumpkin, Milhouse,” in which a giant humanoid pumpkin wreaks havoc on the town after discovering the ritual butchery of jack-o’-lanterns and the cooking of their seeds (“You roast the unborn?”). Or it stages a crossover episode that amounts to a withering referendum on its would-be competitors (see the Simpsons half of a 2014 crossover with Family Guy that rebuked the upstart not by slagging it but by being more inventive, visually striking, and humanistic). The shift to high-definition animation and a more rectangular 16×9 frame (versus the original 4×3 format) has made the series more visually daring; even when the writing failed to match the depth of the show’s first decade-plus, the compositions, editing, and production design equaled or bested them. Modern episodes like “Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind” (Homer tries to re-create the forgotten events of the night before), “Holidays of Future Passed” (a flash-forward where Bart and Lisa grapple with the disappointment of their middle-aged lives), and “Halloween of Horror” (the show’s first in-continuity Halloween episode, where Homer tries to protect a terrified Lisa from a trio of home invaders) demonstrate a level of formal and/or emotional complexity that make them worthy of consideration alongside the best made when Conan O’Brien and Greg Daniels were on the writing staff.
“Treehouse of Horror” has been a consistent bright spot, mainly because of its freestanding nature. Its segments treat the Simpsons and their fellow Springfieldians as players in a repertory company and cast them according to their most metaphoric qualities, as a fairy tale or a Rod Serling screenplay might. The ability to derange, mutate, mutilate, kill, and resurrect the main characters for shock effect without regard for continuity (or perhaps we should say less regard) seemed to energize the writers even during weak seasons. The tonal and visual variety displayed in a quarter century’s worth of “Treehouse” shorts (seventy-three as of this writing) constitutes a triumphant achievement in itself. The show has attempted other anthology-styled episodes over the years— everything from the aforementioned “22 Short Films” to episodes based on Greek mythology and the Bible—and elsewhere you can find still more examples of shows-within-shows. These include the hyperviolent Itchy & Scratchy shorts played on Krusty’s kiddie program—Tom and Jerry by way of Ralph Bakshi, minus the sex, thank Jeebus—which could be The Simpsons’ way of critiquing audience bloodlust even as the goriest sight gags elsewhere on the show feed it (“I told that idiot to slice my sandwich!”). The fresh couch gag at the end of every opening credits sequence amounts to an anthology on the installment plan; the shift to HD has encouraged the show’s writers and animators to experiment more boldly within it, and even to allow outside animators to try their hand at it. The twenty-sixth season opened with a couch gag from aggressively outré animator Don Hertzfeldt, who imagined The Simpsons continuing through the year 10,535, and pictured the family as black-and-white octopuses with tentacles and eyestalks, screeching gibberish catchphrases at one another.
Once upon a time, the notion of The Simpsons’ continuing forever— past the life spans of Groening, Brooks, Simon (who died in 2015), Jean, Castellaneta, and everyone else who’s contributed to its current incarnation—would have seemed horrifying. But the series has reinvented and rediscovered itself enough times over the decades that the idea of its pumping out new episodes in perpetuity can be oddly comforting. Arguably no show should last eight hundred seasons, but if any show can, it’s The Simpsons.
The playwright Anne Washburn seems to agree. Her 2012 off-Broadway production, Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, pushes the idea of The Simpsons as pop culture’s lingua franca to science-fictional extremes. Act one, set immediately after an unspecified apocalypse, observes a group of terrified refugees wondering why humankind suddenly lost all electrical power and struggling to bond by trying to remember the plot of “Cape Feare.” Act two is set a few years after that, with surviving members of the group forming a theatrical troupe that performs stage versions of Simpsons episodes; their story lines are bizarrely and somewhat poignantly garbled by virtue of being handed down via the oral tradition—not unlike the epic poems of, ahem, Homer. Their production-in-progress is interrupted by the appearance of a murderous rival troupe that aims to steal the first group’s Simpsons-derived “plays” and add them to their own repertoire. Act three is set seventy-five years after that—a self-contained play within Mr. Burns. It takes place entirely on a storm-tossed boat, the same setting as the climax of “Cape Feare,” which was inspired by the 1991 film Cape Fear, which was a remake of the 1962 film Cape Fear, which was adapted from the 1957 novel The Executioners. Here the Simpsons are tormented not by Sideshow Bob but by a demonic figure who seems to be a mix of Bob, Cape Fear’s maniacal redneck Max Cady, Mr. Burns, and Satan. The performers wear spiky masks that invoke the traditions of Greek tragedy and Noh. When blood is shed onstage, it’s hideous—a hellish spectacle befitting a society that has lost hope along with law, order, and electricity. The closing section is sung-through, in the minor key of a lament: a grim homage to the moment in “Cape Feare” where Bart distracts Bob by getting him to sing all of the songs from H.M.S. Pinafore. When good triumphs and order reasserts itself, the audience feels not the warm reassurance of low-stakes weekly ritual (the feeling we get from watching The Simpsons today) but cathartic relief at being alive at all, as well as giddy incredulity at the idea that bug-eyed banana-yellow cartoon characters would survive the end of civilization. Wolfcastle’s muttered aside in “Krusty Gets Kancelled” might have been the tagline for Washburn’s play: It’s not a comedy.
But then, neither is The Simpsons—not exclusively, anyway. It always had the culture and the species on its mind even when it was clowning around; in those infrequent moments when The Simpsons drops its grin and goes melancholy or lyrical, you can see it. Think of the lovely moment near the end of the season 6 episode “Bart’s Comet,” wherein the town of Springfield reacts to news that a comet (named after Bart, who discovered it) is fated to wipe them out. When panic spreads, Ned Flanders—as usual, the town’s only unselfish citizen—opens the doors of his bomb shelter and lets his neighbors pile in. The comet peters out after striking Principal Skinner’s weather balloon and all’s well that ends well, but the episode is best remembered for a moment of existential terror that gives way to graceful resignation: The camera tracks slowly across the faces of Springfieldians packed into Flanders’s bomb shelter as they sing “Que sera, sera / Whatever will be, will be / The future’s not ours to see …”
Indeed, it’s not. But if a modern-day Nostradamus predicted an apocalypse that would wipe out most of humanity but leave a resilient handful quoting The Simpsons, what TV fan would doubt him? We’ve come this far.
Excerpted from TV (THE BOOK): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz. Copyright © 2016 by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz. Used with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.