Moving Pictures
Jul 02, 2010, 09:20AM

More than 20 years later, The Simpsons is still a classic

Not like that Hammerman show... [Insert Sideshow Bob rake-to-the-face groan].

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Recently I’ve been revisiting a television series that was a staple of my childhood and a very important part of my life: The Simpsons. Having seen every pre-2003 episode at least three times, my interest waned, and before last week I hadn’t watched the show in several years. Upon viewing a smattering of selections from seasons three through seven, I’ve rediscovered the show and what made me such a rabid fan more than a decade ago.

I first saw The Simpsons circa 1998, right around when most purists would say the show’s gradual downward slope in quality began. As a kid who was obsessed with cartoons and cursing, The Simpsons was a revelation. To think that an animated series could be so ribald and adult was shocking to me. I was a massive fan almost instantly, watching episodes in syndication every weekday and new ones every Sunday, collecting toys, shirts, and other merchandise, and searching for information regarding the show on the Internet. South Park would later satisfy my fascination with blue humor to an even greater degree, but that show lacked the warmth and the sincerity of The Simpsons at its best.

What separates The Simpsons from the rest of television is the mix of a fatalistic comedic sensibility and its very true commentary on the human condition. Although the show has always contained plenty of slapstick and silliness, ultimately each episode is imbued with something very real and true, whether it’s Homer’s decision to keep a job he hates for his infant daughter Maggie in “And Maggie Makes Three,” Bart experiencing the shallowness and fickleness of fame and popularity in “Bart Gets Famous,” or how Lisa decides to stop eating meat in “Lisa the Vegetarian.” The Simpsons has always been more than just a cartoon, and that’s what puts a notch ahead of its closest analogues South Park and Family Guy: both too crude and cynical to ever convey emotion like “Mother Simpson” or “Lisa on Ice.”

What struck me last week is how funny The Simpsons still is and, at the same time, not at all dated. Other television contemporaries like Seinfeld and Dr. Katz are now quaint by their sheer 90s aesthetic, and South Park’s reliance on current events makes it even less timeless. But The Simpsons is focused on themes that will never die: family, honor, loyalty, and guilt…the list goes on. No other series has so artfully combined comedy that sugarcoats nothing and serious emotional weight. Most importantly though, the show is still just as funny as it was when I first saw it as a tot. And though its quality has since dipped, what can you expect from a show that’s been running for 20-plus years? Regardless of the show’s post-shark-jumping output, those first seven seasons will always entertain.

  • Couldn't disagree more about South Park. I think it way surpasses the Simpsons. In fact, I think the Simpsons laid the groundwork to make South Park the best show on TV. Yes, South Park does social commentary, but, they do it in a timeless fasion. 8 years ago they did an episode on pedophilia and the church. It is as relevent today as it was then. The way they covered Terry Schiavo is still relevant since it had major undertones of the right to life issues.

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  • The overused phrase "jump the shark" implies a clear moment when something crashed. There is no such moment in The Simpsons. I think most people have a special affection for the early seasons of The Simpsons because it was new, fresh, rule-breaking, and we, as an audience, were young and impressionable. I, for one, get nostalgic for that part of my life and certain episodes bring me back in seconds. We were frustrated with the first Bush. We'd never seen a cartoon like The Simpsons before, and had never experienced a channel like Fox. But imagine if the show had begun with seasons 10-21 (or whatever arbitrary season you like), people would be saying that 1-10 just don't have the same je ne sais quois-- because they wouldn't be new, they wouldn't be rule-breaking. In fact, I suspect fans would be irritated with the seasons for being to touchy-feely and not satirical enough. At my book launch party for The Simpsons in the Classroom, several people in attendance chanted "Dana Gould, Dana Gould," praising his episodes as the best(2001-2007). Personally, my favorite episodes are scattered throughout the show's run. Sometimes I think the blogosphere has HEARD that the show has jumped the shark so many times, people have started to believe it, even if they can't put a finger on the moment it happened. I think the producers will pull The Simpsons before it actually jumps the shark.

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  • I did break that into paragraphs, so you know.

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  • I disagree. The first ten years were better simply because there was ground left to explore. After 2000, writers really began to grasp at straws for plots. There's only so many times you can do an episode about Homer's weight, Bart and Lisa's various romantic endeavors, or Marge's search for meaning. The later seasons are lesser simply because a lot of the ground they cover has already been covered before. Thus, writers are forced to incorporate silly or ridiculous plots to make quota. And while I think the writing on the Simpsons is still some of the best on TV, there's no way I would ever say the Gould years could top the first ten. The show just isn't as inspired now, which is to be expected from a show that's past its twentieth season.

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  • Hmmm . . . we're almost saying the same thing, just looking at it in a slightly different way. You're saying the ground had already been covered, so the later seasons aren't as strong, and I'm saying that a different (NEW) perspective on the later seasons would show that they ARE just as good. Look at it this way, using your example of Bart's romances: would you still think, say, "Bart's Girlfriend" is superior to "Stealing First Base" if they'd made "Stealing First Base" first? Probably not, because you'd say, "Oh, Bart already had a difficult girlfriend. So this time she's voiced by Meryl Streep instead of Sarah Silverman. Whoop-dee-do." I will admit that some of the seasons in the teens weren't as strong as, say, seasons 6 and 7, but I will also argue that 11, 13, 20, & 21 have some of the best damn Simpsons episodes they made.

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  • Of course, we're arguing something that's completely subjective, so neither of us can actually win.:)

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  • True, neither of you can win. Mostly because Donald Duck fighting Nazis can't be beat. Topical yet timeless.

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  • Leaping Lizards, you people know too much about too little.

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  • "Sometimes I think the blogosphere has HEARD that the show has jumped the shark so many times, people have started to believe it, even if they can't put a finger on the moment it happened." Bullshit. Season 10 is when things started going downhill, partly for reasons out of anyone's control -- i.e. the death of Phil Hartman, who really was crucial to the show I think. This was also the season Matt Groening turned his focus to Futurama, and veteran writer David X. Cohen went with him. Add to that the fact that you've got probably more guest stars than seasons 1 through 9 combined, which sometimes worked well but often than not felt like an easy way to distract from episodes short on laughs. For some reason I've always remembered the season 10 finale, "Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo" as being a real breaking point -- if you put it side-by-side with a similar earlier episode, "Bart Vs. Australia" (from Season 10) everything about "Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo" makes it the weaker episode: the set-up, the stereotype/cultural differences jokes (which play off the 'ignorant American tourist' much better in Bart vs. Australia), the emotional resolution, etc etc.

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