I’m told that there was some sort of mega-Simpsons marathon on TV yesterday. I’m told, rather than I know for sure, because I don’t watch a lot of TV, and in any event I’m spending most of my time in a research library coming up with awesome stuff like this for your amusement (and my dissertation). Yesterday morning I had a good-natured, light-hearted spar session with one of my Twitter buddies (he happens to be the author of a couple of great books on Slayer) where he chided me for not spending the entire day watching Simpsons episodes. At the heart of this jocular spat is a terrible truth: I’m not really a very big fan of The Simpsons.
I know that’s un-American, if not completely unimaginable. But it’s true. In my life I think I’ve seen maybe five or six episodes of the show, and they didn’t impress me. It is absolutely astonishing to me to behold that The Simpsons has been running continuously on American television for nearly 25 years. I certainly remember when it debuted, and most of the five or six episodes I saw when I was in college, at what I guess was the series’ heyday in the early 1990s. Again I look back at that sentence and am amazed: this show was in its heyday when I was an undergraduate in college. And it’s still on the air. How this happened utterly baffles me.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t deny or malign the impact that The Simpsons has had on American popular culture in the past quarter century. There’s no question that it’s an important show in the history of television, and most likely a significant piece of art in its own right. Matt Groening, who created the show, is justifiably hailed as being brilliant. Bart Simpson is the Charlie Brown of the post-Cold War era, and Homer’s trademark “D’oh!” is now indelibly part of the English language. I get all that. It’s just that, for all of this, The Simpsons never engaged me on an emotional, intellectual or artistic level. To me it’s a cartoon sitcom. There, I said it. Believe it or not there are such people who think that.
The “couch gag” is a perennial trope of the opening sequence of The Simpsons, which varies from show to show.
My first encounter with The Simpsons was not on TV, but in a movie theater. Shortly before the show debuted on Fox in December 1989, Matt Groening and the producers sought to drum up buzz for it by releasing a few Simpsons cartoon shorts to run before some big-name movies out that fall. One of them was The War of the Roses, starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner (a highly under-rated film in my opinion). A Simpsons short ran before that movie. It was funny, and I remember thinking, wow, that’s great–if we’re rebooting the old days of cartoon shorts before movies, as was the custom in from the 1930s to the late 1950s, that’s pretty cool. (Better than endless previews of superhero movies, which is all we seem to see these days). But alas, no such plans were afoot. The short was merely meant to promote the series. The only show I watched at that time was Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I wasn’t enthused enough about the short to change my viewing habits so as to stay home Sunday nights watching a cartoon sitcom.
I think the initial power of The Simpsons, aside from the iconic art style of Matt Groening, came from the time in which it premiered, and specifically how the American family was being depicted on TV at that time. The period 1989-90 was the heyday of what some television historians have called the “anti-family sitcom,” which, instead of depicting an idyllic middle-America dream of what a family should be, which had been the blueprint of family shows since the 1957 debut of Leave It To Beaver, showed families more like they really are: riven by conflicts, often with wisecracking, misbehaving kids, marital strife and the various maddening details of modern life left in rather than excluded. Shows like Roseanne and The Simpsons were the vanguard of this movement. Clearly there would have been no Simpsons without the 1980s mega-hit The Cosby Show, which was simply a modern redress of the Beaver-like “perfect family” show advanced forward in time 30 years. Indeed, I don’t think you can understand The Simpsons without understanding The Cosby Show, which was its direct progenitor. The gestalt of The Simpsons, in a way, is simply reaction, not action.
The Simpsons are so culturally pervasive that this image of Homer appears in the corner of a bronze bas-relief in the grand entryway of the Cunard passenger liner Queen Mary 2, launched in 2004.
But where have all the “perfect family” shows gone since the 1980s? As I said, I don’t watch much TV, but I certainly don’t hear about squeaky-clean family shows burning up the airwaves the way one did 25 or 30 years ago. Nowadays, family sitcoms are almost always wisecracking and satirical rather than milquetoast and sanitized. The Bundys–Family Guy—American Dad–these are the families that have been on TV since 1989, and they’re stamped from the mold of The Simpsons, not Beaver or the Cosbys. In this sense you can see the cultural impact the Simpsons has had. I think the “perfect family” show is dead as a genre, except perhaps in some fringe niche market. The Cleavers, Bradys and Huxtables of the TV universe are now as archaic as bell bottoms and makaha beads. Bart Simpson drove a stake through their hearts. Maybe it is for this that The Simpsons deserves to be lionized.
That still doesn’t make me a fan, though. And maybe, after 25 years, it’s time to move on to another trope, to reinvent TV in some new creative, rather than reactive, direction. That’s just my uninformed, unpopular opinion. Homer, Bart and Lisa have been clowning every Sunday night since the first George Bush was in the White House. Maybe it’s time for them to make their entry into rerun-syndication Valhalla. Or maybe that’s blasphemy. You be the judge.