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In Praise of The Simpsons

simpsons-20Living under a rock? Then you might not know that The Simpsons is celebrating its 20th anniversary tomorrow. (More importantly, you may want to reconsider your living arrangements. And how are you getting the internet under there?)

Tomorrow night my family will gather around the tv, which has spent more time raising the boy than I have, to enjoy the 450th episode of this groundbreaking series, followed by Morgan Spurlock’s documentary.

As some readers know, I talked to one of the producers of the documentary. (And she said she found my name in her first day of research!) Du and I were hoping to get into the documentary. We’re superfans, right? I mean, our book on The Simpsons is coming out in May and is available for preorder: http://www.amazon.com/Simpsons-Classroom-Embiggening-Experience-Springfield/dp/0786444908/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1263072262&sr=1-1 (See what I did there; it’s all about subtlety.) embiggening

Apparently, Du and I are not crazy enough. Well, we are, but it’s not that apparent upon just talking to us for a few minutes–we’re a simmering and longer-lasting kind of crazy. But we don’t have our whole back tatooed with images from the show. Who does? Watch the documentary and find out.

A few notes on the anniversary: if you’re counting from the first time the Simpsons family was on the air, the 20th anniversary would have been April 19th, 2007 (we first saw the Simpsons on The Tracey Ullman Show). If you’re counting from the first time the show was on the air, the anniversary would have been December 17th, 2009 (the first full-length episode was “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire“). Sunday night is relatively close to the next possible anniversary date, January 14th, when “Bart the Genius” appeared.

I know, I know, I sound like Comic Book Guy (Jeff Anderson). Well, I sound like him in nerdy-knowledge, but a lot of other bloggers out there sound like him in their constant irritable yammering about how The Simpsons isn’t funny anymore and about how it shouldn’t be on the air. Even my own boyfriend complains about The Simpsons–he got irritated with the show a few years ago when they had too many un-funny guest stars. Admittedly, there have been a few irritating guest stars, mostly of the sports-variety (they don’t card read good). Luckily, the show has gotten better on this particular front.

But I want to address the critics’ repeated concerns. First, if you think the show shouldn’t be on anymore, don’t watch it. Some of us do still enjoy it, so let us have it. However, when you turn from The Simpsons, don’t be surprised when you realize that the vast (vast) majority of what’s on television doesn’t even deserve a discussion about continuing quality, as it never had quality in the first place.

Let’s address the quality issue. Some argue that The Simpsons isn’t funny anymore. I will agree with most critics that Seasons 4-8 were amazing (the Conan years were the best!), but there were some duds then and some winners then. There are dud episodes now, but there are some winners, too.

In fact, I don’t think the show has changed all that much. We’ve changed though. Yes, like Kent Brockman, I’m placing the blame squarely on you, the viewer! Think back to those early years of The Simpsons–it was innovative and scandalous not because of anything inherent, but because we found it so. It was new–we were shocked & pleased. Arguably, The Simpsons and our reaction to it changed television. Now we have South Park and Family Guy and the myriad shows on Adult Swim. Those shows often seem to be the innovative and scandalous things we long for. But note how the older a show becomes, the less scandalous we find it.

A show can only push an envelope in the beginning. Then we get used to the new position of the envelope and something else has to come along to push it into a new place. That doesn’t mean the show changes or gets less funny. In fact, it means the opposite–the show is the same–our expectations have shifted. The Simpsons and South Park often seem quaint today compared to newer shows because we have become immune to their brand of shock. That’s what repeated innoculations do.

I will readily admit that I’ve changed as a viewer. I’m not the same person I was in 1989. I have become desensitized to a lot. But I still believe that The Simpsons is superior to its cartoon progeny. Why? Because it’s still well-written. Because I actually care about the characters and the community it’s built (I actively dislike most of the characters on Family Guy, in comparison, no matter how funny the constant references to the popular culture of my childhood are). I enjoy watching the shows repeatedly–the layers of jokes and references in the show are unparalleled in contemporary cartoons (Arrested Development came close in the non-cartoon world). Thus, I see new things every time I watch. While jokes may be funny on the second viewing of the other shows, I don’t see anything new in the watching.

The Simpsons provides us with a language we speak, a perfectly cromulent language in fact. It gives us something to talk about with people from other cultures–laughter is universal & so is laughing with the show. And please don’t forget, whatever  you think about the show now, that The Simpsons paved the way for the currently edgy shows you love. Wanna take bets on whether your favorite show will reach 450 episodes?

I didn’t think so.

Happy Anniversary, The Simpsons!

Love, Karma your_image1

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3 comments to In Praise of The Simpsons

  • Du

    Right on, Sister! As I told someone recently: the least impressive episode of The Simpsons is better than the best eposide of almot everything else on television.

  • Jake

    I like that last line about 450 episodes because it’s an absolutely ridiculous “checkmate” line. Quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality. Some of my absolute favorite shows only had a few seasons and I realize that it was because they weren’t popular enough, but does that mean that the Simpsons won? No it doesn’t. It just means that you’ve conveniently disregarded the fact that the quality of a show is ultimately subjective and has nothing to do with ratings and numbers of episodes.

    Your idea about some people not liking the Simpsons anymore because it’s not as edgy as the shows of today misses the mark for me.

    Part of why I haven’t watched the Simpsons in years is that the integrity of the characters began to fall apart. Homer used to be generally repentant of his screw-ups, but in later years he moved towards just being a jerk and being proud of it, same with Bart. Marge and Lisa used to be the sane ones, but they not only started rolling over and letting Homer and Bart get away with their shenanigans, they even started joining in.

    Another part of why I haven’t watched the show for years is that as time went on, the episodes went from having coherent plots to being little more than long strings of jokes.

    I will give you props for mentioning the celebrity cameos, because those have always been pointless and annoying to me and they just seemed to get more and more frequent as time went on.

    At the latest, I feel that the Simpsons should’ve ended after Season 8.

  • Jake, thanks for a really thoughtful comment. I do agree with you that this is all subjective (though 450 means enough people still find it subjectively good), but that number doesn’t mean that shows like Arrested Development are somehow not as powerful or innovative. I also agree that there’s been a slight change in some characters (but that was true between season 1 and season 4, for example). It would be very odd if we had basically been watching Season one characters, plots, pacing, etc. all these years).
    Again, thanks for posting!

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