As an American man in his thirties, I can, if necessary, communicate entirely in Simpsons references. But however voluminous and close at hand my knowledge of the Simpson family and their hometown of Springfield, it doesn’t extend past the 1990s. Most of my demographic can surely say the same, as can quite a few outside it: take the Irishman behind the Youtube channel Super Eyepatch Wolf, author of the video essay “The Fall of The Simpsons: How It Happened.” We both remember tuning in to the show’s debut on December 14, 1989, and how it subsequently “transformed television as we knew it” — and we’ve both lamented how, in the nearly three decades since, “one of the best and most influential TV shows of all time became just another sitcom.”
So how did it happen? To understand what made The Simpsons fall, we have to understand what put it at the top of the zeitgeist in the first place. Not only did the counterculture still exist back in the 1990s, The Simpsons quickly came to constitute its most popular expression. And as with any powerful countercultural product, it was just as quickly labeled dangerous, as anyone who grew up describing each week’s episode of the show to friends not allowed to watch it remember. Yet its “rebellious satire” and all the consequent violations both subtle and blatant of the staid conventions of mainstream American culture (especially in its purest manifestation, the sitcom) came unfailingly accompanied by “comedy grounded in character and heart.”
The fact that The Simpsons’ first generation of writers might well revise a joke twenty or thirty times — creating the countless moments of intricately structured, multilayered verbal and visual comedy we still remember today — didn’t hurt. But even if current writers put in the same hours, they do it on a show that has long since lost touch with what made it great. While each of its characters once had “a very specific set of conflicting beliefs and motivations,” they now seem to do or say anything, no matter how implausible or absurd, that serves the gag of the moment. Celebrity guest stars stopped playing characters specially crafted for them but caricatures of themselves. Plots became bizarre. “The only thing that The Simpsons was a parody of now,” says Super Eyepatch Wolf bringing us to the present day, “was The Simpsons.”
While the show has been self-referentially acknowledging its own decline since about the turn of the millennium, that doesn’t make comparisons with its 1990s “golden age” any less dispiriting. One thinks of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, another generational touchstone, whose creator Bill Watterson ended it after just ten years: it still finds an audience today in part, he says, “because I chose not to run the wheels off it.” The Simpsons, by contrast, now draws its lowest ratings ever, and it would pain those of us who grew up with it as much to see it end as it does to see it keep going. But then, “entertainment isn’t meant to last forever. Rather, it’s an extension of the people and places that made it at a particular moment in time.” The Simpsons at its countercultural best will always define that moment, no matter how long it insists on running beyond it.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.