Questioning the 21st season of The Simpsons
By Chris Giblin
The Simpsons has become a staple of American television and is as much a part of recognized Sunday tradition as church or NFL football. Airing in the 8:00 time slot on Fox Sunday nights since 1989, it has aired 427 episodes as of Nov. 30, making it the longest-running sitcom and the longest-running American animated series. After so much time, it becomes difficult to keep things fresh in any series. Today, the new episodes of the show often come under scrutiny for using familiar storylines or overly ridiculous situations, and other times it is simply accused of not being funny anymore. Is it time to cancel The Simpsons?
The show has done things no other sitcom has even tried. It has established a multifaceted environment for the Simpson family, as the characters interact with the people and places of their highly dysfunctional, backward hometown of Springfield. They also interact with a cast of literally hundreds, all of whom have their own names, distinct personalities and at times, elaborate back-stories.
Multiple pop culture references can be identified in any given episode as well, entertaining casual viewers who may not understand the character-based humor built into the plotlines. The show ideally packs a high density of jokes into each show, which gives it a “something-for-everybody” quality. It also gives the show a high re-watch value that has attracted one of the most numerous and diehard fan bases of any show on the air.
What has kept The Simpsons popular long after its initial cult popularity fueled by catch phrases like “D’oh!” and “Ay Carumba!” has been mostly due to solid writing. However, as the show progresses through its 20th season, the current writing team is comprised of a completely different group of people, with very few significant contributions being made from the original or earlier writers. Classic writers such as Jon Vitti, George Meyer, and John Swartzwelder have not written episodes since the early part of the decade, and several fans point to this as a reason for the show’s declining quality.
“The shows in its 20th season now and it hasn’t been good since the 12th or so,”
said avid fan Stewart Way, who frequently contributes to discussions about the
show on the fan site nohomers.net. “That means almost half the show is garbage
now. The new writers aren’t being influenced by the good ones who were there at
the start, so the episodes are worse. They can’t appreciate the show for what
it once was.”
Critic and fan episode ratings give support to this sentiment. In a 2003 survey in honor of The Simpsons‘ 300th episode, fans came up with a “Top 10 Episodes” list, while the writers made a “Top 15 List.” The most recent episode from the fans’ list was “Homer’s Phobia” from 1997. The writers chose “Behind the Laughter” from 2000.
Within the fan base, there is a clear division between those who enjoy only older episodes and those who like the series as a whole, according to Adam Wolf, owner and maintainer of Simpsons fan sites lardlad.com and simpsonschannel.com.
“There are two types of fans,” he said. “There are those that love the first ten seasons and are of the opinion that the following ten are not worth watching. They have been watching the show since it began in 1989. Then there’s the others, who are the age now that those growing up watching the show were. They are less likely to notice the decline in quality and find the show as enjoyable as ever.”
However, there are certain exceptions to Wolf’s generalization. Fans like Way cannot be defined by either of these groups. He was born after the show premiered, yet he believes the first ten seasons to be far better than the last ten. Simply put, there is no clearly defined Simpsons fan.
In many ways, the show has become a mere caricature of itself, maintaining the necessary, familiar elements and following a recognizable process, just without the same entertainment quality of the old days. In 2003, Slate writer Chris Sullentrop compared the state of The Simpsons to Pete Rose in the later days of his career: “There’s still greatness there, and you get to see a home run now and then, but mostly it’s a halo of reflected glory.”
It’s true. Quality jokes have become increasingly sporadic in recent years and episode plotlines don’t offer the substance and social commentary they once had. While episodes once opened up debate on issues such as gun control and citizenship, storylines in this season involve crossword puzzles and prank phone calls. The Simpsons just doesn’t pack as much punch as it used to.
Regardless of speculation about the show’s declining quality, the thing that has kept The Simpsons on the air all these years is their consistently good ratings. Despite a relatively steady drop in viewers over the course of the show’s history, which had an average 13.4 million viewers per episode in the first season compared to 7.7 million in the 19th season, the show has remained economically viable after all these years, at least for the most part.
On the other hand, costs have added up over the years in production, even as ratings have declined. Months of negotiations were necessary to come up with the show’s current contract, which only included this year.
Huge increases in voice actor rates are fetching $400,000 per episode for main cast members, as opposed to the $30,000 they made in the past, when the show was more popular. The Simpsons now costs about $5 million per episode to produce, and it is quite possible the show has become too financially cumbersome for Fox executives to support, as the show’s one-year contract is up at the end of this season. Adam Wolf hopes they renew that contract:
“I think as long as the show is attracting the amount of viewers it is currently, there is still a core fan base out there to enjoy it. Even if we don’t all think it’s funny anymore, the kids today appreciate it so if the show wants to keep going, it should.”
This seems to be the current attitude of the people who produce The Simpsons, although there will, of course, always be a faction of fans who believe continuing the show only progresses it into an already-begun downward spiral. Either way, the state of the Simpson family can be summed up nicely by The Simpsons‘ Troy McClure: “Who knows what adventures they’ll have between now and the time the show becomes unprofitable?”
Chris Giblin is a sophomore TV-R major. E-mail him at email@example.com.