When Disney Gains The Simpsons, What Do We All Lose?

“Steamboat Itchy,” a Disney spoof from an episode of The Simpsons, which is now … a Disney property. Photo: FOX

In 2012, when Disney announced that it had purchased Lucasfilm and therefore owned the Star Wars franchise, it was hard for many fans to wrap their heads around the news. Would Star Wars movies now open with an image of Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom instead of the familiar 20th Century Fox logo? Were R2-D2 and Mickey Mouse now members of the same family? Even though Star Wars attractions had been part of Disney theme parks for decades, this collision of brands felt like a strange marriage.

Cut to 2019, when four new Star Wars films have already been released under Disney, a fifth is set to open around Christmas, the first live-action Star Wars TV show just debuted on Disney’s new streaming platform, and no one ever talks about how odd it is that Star Wars is owned by Disney anymore. (Well, sometimes they do, but only in the context of Maclunkey.)

It is remarkable how quickly we adjusted to that change, not to mention Disney’s acquisition of Marvel a decade ago. But as more and more cherished films and TV shows get shoehorned into new or different streaming services, I keep wondering what may get lost in that shuffle. How much will all this juggling warp our sense of pop-cultural history at a time when our collective grasp of it is already limited?

The streaming era has already started to erode that sense of history. Many of us watch TV with such a “stream it wherever you find it” attitude, the origins of certain shows become practically irrelevant. Kids and young adults who discovered Friends and The Office on Netflix probably think of them as Netflix shows, not as reruns (re-streams?) of sitcoms that first aired on NBC. Things get even muddier with streaming platforms tied to preexisting network or studio brands. For example: CBS All Access allows subscribers to watch recent episodes of current CBS shows, as well as CBS All Access originals like The Good Fight or Why Women Kill, but also plenty of older shows owned by CBS Television, including Cheers, Family Ties, and Twin Peaks. If someone were to discover these shows here, they might believe they originally aired on CBS. That is not true.

Cheers and Family Ties were part of the most widely watched Thursday night block of television in NBC history, and perhaps the best prime-time block in TV history, full stop. Twin Peaks was broadcast by ABC and barely got green-lit back in the day because it was so off-the-charts bizarre. There is no way that CBS, the most mainstream of the broadcast networks, would have put Twin Peaks on the air in 1990. Even its quirkier ’90s-era fare, like Northern Exposure and Picket Fences (a response to David Lynch’s deep dive into blood-stained doughnuts and the darkness of the human psyche), only pushed boundaries to a certain point. The fact that CBS is now publicly associated with one of the most daring network shows ever made is like saying Taylor Swift invented the term “squad.” It’s misleading.

This is hardly the end of the world: Cheers and Twin Peaks both are available to stream on Netflix, too, for now anyway, and Cheers will be accessible on NBC’s forthcoming streaming service Peacock. (“Everybody has their own streaming service” is the new “Everyone has their own podcast.”) Anybody who’s curious about the history of these shows can easily Google their way to a ton of information about how they began. And ultimately, it’s important that anyone interested in TV history has a way to access those older shows. I’d much rather have a budding TV scholar be able to experience Twin Peaks on CBS All Access than not get to see it at all.

But as streaming services proliferate and more shows start appearing in unexpected places, this kind of agnostic approach to pop culture could further blur the perception of certain shows and movies, as well as the public’s ability to ascertain their place on the artistic spectrum.

Consider HBO Max, a streaming service that will debut next May from WarnerMedia, which owns the premium cable network as well as TNT, TBS, TruTV, and Cinemax. WarnerMedia is leveraging the HBO name as well as HBO’s years of exceptional programming to sell the service to consumers. Movies will also be part of the mix, in keeping with HBO’s mission as a place to watch recent theatrical features. But so will HBO Max original series — because we simply do not have enough! — and many Warner-produced TV shows that were never associated with HBO, like Friends, The Big Bang Theory, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. These are all beloved sitcoms that, especially in the case of Friends, will help attract a wider audience to HBO Max. But they are not HBO shows. Neither is South Park, which will be on the platform, too. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to look at HBO Max and question whether the wide mix of programming it will offer, at least on the TV side, could dilute the HBO brand, or at the very least seem confusing to potential subscribers.

It’s possible that HBO Max will distinguish between HBO content and non-HBO content, making this a moot point. It’s also possible that TV is watched so differently now that this won’t matter to anyone except purists like me. But with so much content available, people are hungrier than ever to know what’s necessary viewing and what isn’t. They want context and guidance for the endless hours of TV that are being thrown at them. With so many platforms trying to cut into some of the streaming pie, this becomes harder and more costly for viewers to do.

Which brings me to Disney+, arguably the most high-profile new streaming service of them all. Disney possesses the most identifiable brand in all of entertainment and the most dominant one. When most people think of Disney, they think of Mickey Mouse, crickets who wish upon stars, and waiting in very long lines at amusement parks just to spend a couple of minutes spinning around in a fake teacup. They think of uplifting, imaginative experiences that can be enjoyed by the whole family. Many of the acquisitions Disney has made over the years — Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel, and National Geographic — all fit within that particular framework.

Will Disney+ be any broader than that? When Disney bought 20th Century Fox earlier this year, it also inherited the studio’s famed back catalogue (which, as my colleague Matt Zoller Seitz has reported, has led to its own set of problems in the repertory film world). In the launch phase of Disney+, the platform includes only a smattering of Fox titles, ones that were seemingly handpicked to fit with the company’s uplifting family vibe. (Like Millions, a PG-rated Danny Boyle film originally made for Fox Searchlight. From the director of Trainspotting, finally: a Disney movie!)

If you subscribed to Disney+ today, you can watch classic Fox movies like The Sound of Music and, just in time for the holidays, the original Miracle on 34th Street. But it’s strange to think of The Sound of Music as a Disney movie. And when I saw a tweet from @disneyplus that plastered the word “Disney” above the title of Miracle on 34th Street, it made me very upset, the kind of upset that makes you want to go into a courtroom and cart in bags and bags filled with letters stating that Miracle on 34th Street is actually a 20th Century Fox production, not magically a Disney one all of a sudden.

But that doesn’t hold a candle to how hard it is for me to adjust to this.

The Simpsons is now a Disney property. You can only stream it on Disney+. This has been public knowledge for months, but my heart and head still cannot accept it.

It feels odd because The Simpsons — a show that once depicted Lisa getting strung out after drinking the water in an parody of the “It’s a Small World” ride — has mocked Disney for years. Based on the Simpsons-related promotion around Disney+, it has no plans to stop. But The Simpsons being part of the Disney family is disturbing for reasons beyond that: As a work of animation, the ethos behind The Simpsons is the complete opposite of what Disney traditionally represented. Yes, the show has some genuinely poignant family moments, but it excels at sly, sarcastic humor that exposes the inherent hypocrisy and absurdity within American society.

Disney animation has cuddly animals; The Simpsons has Santa’s Little Helper, a scrawny dog picked up from a seedy race track. Disney movies have wide-eyed, sweet children going on adventures; The Simpsons has Bart Simpson telling his father to get bent. Disney is Ned Flanders saying “Okily-dokily!”; The Simpsons is Homer Simpson saying, “Shove it, buddy!”

It feels contrary to the spirit of The Simpsons to see it wrapped in digital Disney clothing, even more now that we know Disney+ is streaming the series in a cropped format. Imagine your child coming up to you one day and saying, “Hey, I just started watching this really funny Disney show! It’s called The Simpsons.” This will happen to someone! And if it ever happens to me, this is what I am going to look like.

Do I have to get over it, the same way we all had to get over it when Star Wars turned into a Disney franchise? Maybe. But I just can’t shake the feeling that, as we gain more and more and, wow, still more portals to more content, we’s losing sight of what made certain pieces of pop culture special. We can watch just about anything at any time — well, as long as we’re willing to pay for it every month— but the meaning and significance behind those shows and movies feels like its fading. That’s something we may not miss until, like the cropped parts of a brilliant animated series, we realize it’s been erased from the frame.

When Disney Gains The Simpsons, What Do We All Lose?