Crosstalk: Is It Time For The Simpsons To Call It A Day?
Steven Hyden: I hate to be that guy, Nathan. I feel like the Dr. Kevorkian of A.V. Club Crosstalks when it comes to classic television shows about loveably dysfunctional families. First I sparred with Scott over The Sopranos, now I'm picking a fight with you over whether The Simpsons—bedrock of my adolescence—has overstayed its welcome and should be put out to pasture.
Before I say anything else, let me state some important facts for the record—The Simpsons is one of the best sitcoms ever, if not the best. Its impact on pop culture has been seismic; with the possible exception of Seinfeld, I can't think of another show from the past 20 years that has spawned more catchphrases and quotable lines. In its prime, The Simpsons was incredibly sharp, multi-layered, and insightful, not to mention the hands-down funniest satire of American culture in any medium. On a personal level, The Simpsons—along with Saturday Night Live, David Letterman, and Mad magazine—shaped my sense of humor as I entered my teens. It essentially pulled me aside and said, "Hey, Steve, a lot of the stuff you take for granted is actually really dumb. Don't take it at face value. Here is what you should make fun of for the rest of your life." I don't doubt that being a regular Simpsons viewer during my formative years made me a funnier, smarter grown-up. I owe a lot to The Simpsons, so my intention here is to give back. Not by being a fanboy apologist—I'm sure those people are already crucifying me in the comments section—but by pointing out two other undeniable (at least in my view) facts:
1) The Simpsons is not as funny as it used to be, and
2) this is hurting the show's legacy.
I take no joy in making this argument, but given the show's obvious decline in quality over the past, say, five or six years—I'm being generous here—some tough love is desperately needed. Then again, maybe the decline isn't so obvious after all. I haven't been a regular Simpsons viewer since 2000, which is the last time I saw an episode that was consistently funny all the way through. (It was the "Behind The Laughter" episode, which featured a great line I still quote from time to time, and which is pertinent here: "The Simpsons TV show started on a wing and a prayer; now the wing was on fire, and the prayer was answered by Satan.") Arguing over whether something is funny is a loser's game; one man's guffaw is another man's groan. But The Simpsons is heading into its 19th season this fall. It's already the longest-running sitcom and animated show in American TV history, and it's only one season away from matching Gunsmoke for longest-running scripted primetime program. With 400 episodes in the rear-view mirror, it's possible the concept is a tad exhausted, isn't it? After all, The Simpsons writers are pretty brilliant dudes; if there was still a good idea or two left in the tank, surely they would have thought it up by now.
The advantage The Simpsons had for years over other family sitcoms—the characters never age—has became a disadvantage. These characters, so iconic, have no room to grow. After so many episodes, this is true even of the show's galaxy of secondary characters. So you end up rehashing the same situations (Lisa is smart but insecure, Marge is a control freak, Homer is stupid) with diminishing returns. Here's an old complaint, but a valid one: The Simpsons has come to rely too much on wacky Homer shtick and tired, meaningless guest stars. (Really, are we supposed to believe Kiefer Sutherland doing Jack Bauer is anything more than a Fox-sanctioned, decidedly un-Simpsons cross-promotional opportunity?) Simpsons writers have just seemed, well, bored for most of the W. Bush years, and content to amuse themselves with in-jokes, non sequiturs, and self-consciously silly plot twists. This boredom has effectively marginalized a former pop-culture titan into a show that only the fanboys who pore over Simpsons DVDs like the Dead Sea Scrolls can appreciate. A new Simpsons episode used to be an event; now it's like an album you buy out of loyalty by an artist you love, but who's clearly past his prime.
I normally am not one to say that people should retire against their will. I have no problem with The Rolling Stones continuing to tour and make albums, and I'm pumped to see Harrison Ford once again wear the fedora and bullwhip as Indiana Jones. To me, The Stones and Indy have built up a strong enough record that I can conveniently overlook the stuff I don't like. I'd be more than happy to continue not watching Simpsons and letting fans enjoy its mediocre slide if it weren't for the fact that in syndication—where classic TV shows are ultimately remembered and judged—the later seasons are given as much weight as the early ones. Which means The Simpsons is gradually being diluted into a middling, occasionally funny show that future generations will think is laughably overrated by old fogies like us.
Come on, Nathan, you know that's true, right? As a fellow lover of The Simpsons, join me in saying goodbye so we can move on to the next generation-defining pop-culture artifact. Sure, it was great while it lasted, but the dream is over.
Nathan Rabin: Dammit, stop sounding like the voices inside my head! I couldn't agree more with you about The Simpsons' significance. I don't think it's hyperbole to call this the Simpsons generation. That said, I think you've set your standards way too high. You stopped watching regularly because the show wasn't "consistently funny all the way through" any more? Good Lord, what show is consistently funny all the way through these days? Even Flight Of The Conchords, a show I love, is fairly inconsistent. Some shows are gut-bustingly hilarious. Others are moderately amusing. And Conchords just started out.
Is The Simpsons as good as it used to be? Of course not. What is as good as classic Simpsons? (Answer: nothing.) Is it still in the upper one percentile in terms of televisual goodness? I think so. Like all cultural institutions, The Simpsons tends to work in cycles. I agree that it hit a creative rut a while back, but I think it's managed to work itself out of its slump and find new wrinkles in old characters and dynamics, like the FOX News-bashing element in its 400th show, or the recent episode that ends with Lisa and Maggie alone and Lisa brooding "I always knew it would come down to this."
If you think the current Simpsons episodes are mediocre, then you must be living in an infinitely more awesome universe than myself, because in my world, even sub-par episodes of The Simpsons are a whole hell of a lot better than 99 percent of the competition. So you're perfectly fine with The Rolling Stones, well into their 70s, charging yuppies hundreds of dollars to watch them trot out ancient hits because they've "earned it," but The Simpsons, apparently having not created a Rolling Stones-level canon, has a solemn obligation to disappoint millions of loyal fans by calling it quits?
I must concede that I don't want The Simpsons to end, partly for selfish reasons. When the last Simpsons airs, I'll feel like a big part of my childhood and adolescence has died with it. I'm not really ready to make that leap, and the enormous outpouring of excitement and enthusiasm greeting The Simpsons movie suggests that a whole hell of a lot of people feel the same way.
While there's something to be said for shows like the British Office going out on top, I'm really excited about the prospect of, I dunno, 10 more years of the American Office. The Simpsons has amassed a canon of comic genius on par with anything in the history of television. I want its universe to keep expanding.
When I interviewed Matt Groening a while back, he said, apparently with a straight face, that The Simpsons was now as strong as it's ever been. I was utterly incredulous. He had to be joking, right? Yet the episodes I watched that season did seem to benefit from renewed comic energy and momentum. Groening attributed it to a combination of old pros with stints dating back to the glory years and fresh, young, no-doubt-Harvard-educated young Turks who grew up watching The Simpsons and were geeked to be part of its legacy. Part of that was certainly self-serving spin, but there was an element of truth to it as well.
Let's face it: It's much too late for The Simpsons to go out on top. But I like to think the show has gotten to the same comfy place that De La Soul occupies these days: They'll never reclaim the genius of their early, revolutionary work, but they're in a good groove, and they're still making relevant contributions to a pop-culture landscape littered with their acolytes and wannabes.
I, too, was frustrated by the preponderance of in-jokes and snarky postmodernism a while back, and I viewed them as unfortunate symptoms of creative exhaustion, but I think the writers have cut back on them lately, and rediscovered the richness and vitality of their supporting cast.
I don't know how many times I've watched a new, late-period episode of The Simpsons and thought "Hoo boy, that wasn't any good," only to later think "That was actually pretty fucking funny" when it pops up as a rerun. I think there's some unreasonable, Comic Book Guy part of my brain that expects new episodes to be as good as, say, "Homer's Enemy" or "Krusty Gets Kancelled" and is quick to be disappointed by anything less. But a more pragmatic part of me can appreciate late-period Simpsons for what it is: a really good show still capable of scattered moments of greatness.
If only fanboys can appreciate The Simpsons these days, then why is there such an exuberant outpouring of excitement over the movie? Heck, why is there such an outpouring of excitement over goddamned Simpsons-branded 7-Elevens? It can't all be marketing hype. Besides didn't all the fanboys stop watching after [insert ostensible shark-jumping moment here]? Aren't they all snorting with disgust at the idea that The Simpsons is still slugging it out and committing the unforgivable crime of being imperfect instead of leaving a pristine, flawless corpse?
I love The Simpsons for what it was, but also for what it continues to be. Will I feel the same way after the movie? I honestly don't know, but it's one of the only shows I still make a point of being home to watch ('cause I don't have TiVo).
The Simpsons has earned my undying loyalty by giving me more hours of pleasure than just about anything else in the world. I'm in it for the long haul, for the highs, the lows, and of course the creamy middles.
Et tu, Steve? Have you no compassion for this greatest of all television shows?
Steven: I am full of compassion, my man. I even have some for you. Judging by your passionate love of new Simpsons episodes, coupled with the De La Soul reference and lack of TiVo—seriously, Nathan, what up with that?—I'd say you have a serious case of "stillstuckinthe'90sitis." Come on, do you really believe that "even sub-par episodes of The Simpsons are a whole hell of a lot better than 99 percent of the competition"? Still? In 2007? Maybe in 1997, but not today. Because a sub-par Simpsons episode today can pretty damn unfunny, if you ask me. Even a good episode is rivaled by the likes of 30 Rock, The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Sarah Silverman Program, and the increasingly hilarious Flight Of The Conchords. And while I'm not a fan, shows like Family Guy, South Park, and all the weird and wacky stuff on Adult Swim have clearly picked up The Simpsons' pop-culture torch and run with it.
Look, as I said before, it's useless to argue over whether something is funny. So instead of giving you the "Jane, you ignorant slut!" treatment, I'll concede that maybe the last few seasons are as awesome as you say they are. After all, you have watched them much more closely than I have. I'm even kinda curious to check 'em, based on your enthusiastic endorsement. But here's the thing—I'm a little sick of these characters. I mean, I love them, Bart and Homer and the gang are part of my childhood and all, but this show has been on the air for so fucking long. The Simpsons became its own show in 1989 after two years of shorts on a sketch-comedy program starring a can't-miss future comedy superstar named Tracey Ullman. I turned 12 in 1989. The latest crop of high-school grads was born that year. Milli Vanilli was still a legit musical act, Kirstie Alley was a viable box-office draw, and we hadn't gone to war in Iraq even once yet. Obviously, a lot has changed since then, but The Simpsons keeps churning out episodes. Even if you think the show is still funny, it is finite, isn't it? At some point, you have to say, "Man, that was awesome, let's move on to something else." I loved Seinfeld, but if that show were still on, I'd be like, "That fucking George Costanza, why can't he get it together?"
You said you want The Simpsons to stay on partly because of nostalgia. I'd change "partly" to "mainly." I have some affection for my childhood, too, but I also don't want to be the 30ish guy hanging out at the high-school football game with his old letter jacket on. My point is, the moment is over and it's never coming back, no matter how often you try to make it. And believe me, I've tried. Occasionally I'll check out a Simpsons rerun in syndication for old times' sake, but more often than not, I'll end up with a relatively recent episode instead of a glory-years installment, and I'm almost always disappointed. Not because I think The Simpsons committed the "unforgivable crime of being imperfect instead of leaving a pristine, flawless corpse," but because I'd rather see the great old episodes than the tired rehashes from the later years. This is what separates The Simpsons from The Rolling Stones, the show's musical equivalent in terms of influence and endurance. Obviously, The Simpsons has "earned" some slack—you can't take its glory years away. But while I can enjoy Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street while blissfully ignoring Steel Wheels and A Bigger Bang (which aren't totally bad, by the way), I have to wade through a diluted pool of syndicated episodes before I get to the good Simpsons stuff on the tube. Will future generations raised on Family Guy and Adult Swim even bother to wade? It's a question worth considering if you love this show.
I'd say nostalgia—more than the show's supposed creative comeback—is also what's driving excitement for The Simpsons Movie. Hell, even after all this, I'm excited to see it. But I can't completely turn off my critical facilities. You were right to be incredulous when Matt Groening suggested that The Simpsons is as good as it's ever been. Of course that was spin. Yes, Groening is a creative genius, but he's also a very successful businessman heavily invested in his greatest financial venture. He isn't going to badmouth the product, especially when there's now a potential summer blockbuster to sell. It's amazing how Simpsons fans will forgive (and even praise) the kinds of cheesy promotional cash-ins (like the branded 7-Elevens) they would mock if they were tie-ins for, say, Shrek. (Say what you will about that overexposed DreamWorks franchise, but at least there was never a hit single called "Do The Shrek-Man.") As much as I love The Simpsons and respect its accomplishments, I also can't ignore the great empire's unseemly mercenary side.
So now it's time to play Charlie Sheen to your Michael Douglas in Wall Street: How much is enough, Nathan? If The Simpsons shouldn't end now, when should it end? Loyal fans are likely to be on board from here to eternity, and Groening seems to think the show is still going to the toppermost of the poppermost. Will this universe keep expanding forever?
Nathan: Ah, Steven. When you're a young punk, you think you have a solemn obligation to kill yr idols. But a wizened old man like myself feels an equally strong responsibility to appreciate my heroes and the many years of joy and laughter they've brought me. [Nathan Rabin is not in fact a wizened old man. —ed.] Here's the thing: The Simpsons has brought me more hours of pleasure than anything else in the world. So I'm willing to cut them a whole lot of slack. I'll go even further: I am more than willing to err on the side of being overly grateful. If that makes me a sad, deluded old fogy, then so be it.
Yes, I do believe that The Simpsons is still better than 99 percent of the competition. I think 30 Rock, The Office, and Flight Of The Conchords are part of the one percent that's consistently stronger than The Simpsons, and those shows are all fucking babies compared to the grand old man of animated comedy. I like Family Guy, but to me, it's like Oasis compared to The Beatles: a passable, even pleasurable imitation, but no substitute for the real thing. It certainly hasn't improved on The Simpsons, and the last time I checked, South Park was still burdened with strident libertarian sermonizing, scatological humor, and obvious, easy pop-culture current-events parody.
Even superior acolytes like King Of The Hill, Futurama, and The Critic exist unmistakably in The Simpsons' outsized shadow. The Simpsons has been on for two decades, and nothing has usurped its place in the pop-culture pantheon. Only Family Guy has come close, and it lacks The Simpsons' emotional depth and satirical thrust.
It seems like part of your aggravation with late-period Simpsons comes from the way the shows are rerun in syndication. With all due respect, that's a load of fucking horseshit. If your delicate comic sensibilities are horribly offended by being offered episode 326 when you really want to see one of the first 80 episodes, why not watch the show on DVD exclusively? That way you'll never have to be traumatized by a weaker late-period episode ever again.
If you're going to give me shit for not having a TiVo, I think I'm entitled to mock your sad reliance on the whims of the syndication schedule. Empower yourself, Steve! I think future generations weaned on Adult Swim and Family Guy will be willing to "wade" through even weaker episodes of The Simpsons on account of Matt Groening's brainchild being the gold standard by which all other animated comedies will be judged.
Gosh, maybe young people are looking for something more than random silliness, cutaway gags, and instantly dated pop-culture references. The Simpsons is the whole fucking package—heart, substance, incisive social commentary, yuks galore, indelible characters good for so much more than just the odd wisecrack—which is why people stick with it even when it's less than transcendent.
I agree with you that much of the excitement over The Simpsons Movie is nostalgia-based, but then sometimes nostalgia is driven by a genuine, sincere sense of appreciation for something worthwhile and deserving. I think that's the case here. I don't know that all the Simpsons merchandising craziness necessarily hurts The Simpsons. I don't think Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band the movie makes the album any worse. If anything, it just highlights what a masterpiece the original was.
Yes, The Simpsons has been around forever. I don't think that's a bad thing. Like Saturday Night Live, it's an institution I don't ever want to see go away. It's been through immeasurable ups and downs throughout the decades, and it'll go through a whole lot more, but I sleep a little sounder each night knowing both institutions are alive and kicking. For the record, The Simpsons, in spite of a fair share of weak episodes, never suffered through the kind of epic, seasons-long creative droughts endemic to SNL. I am a creature of habit, and The Simpsons is a habit that I have no interest whatsoever in kicking.
When I die and my life flashes before my eyes, I strongly suspect that at least half the images will be from The Simpsons. In between my birth and death will be a lot of "I sleep in a drawer!" and "Oh boy! Sleep! That's where I'm a Viking!" I won't mind a bit. You can have your next big thing, whatever it might be, and I'll stick with what I know and love.