For my generation, and perhaps even the one before, there is no show that became such a cultural monolith as The Simpsons. Absolutely everyone knows about the show, almost everyone knows the characters from it and a good number of people know the ins-and-outs of the hundreds of episodes that have graced our screen.
The thing with The Simpsons though, is that our image and our cultural appreciation of it comes almost solely from the first ten/twelve years of its’ long lifespan. These were the golden, or should I say yellow, years for the show – where it managed it’s finely balanced mix of humours with relatively new stories and great character development to produce what was one of the funniest and most well-crafted TV shows gracing the airwaves.
But now the show has lazed into mediocrity, with another 13 seasons layered on top of the legendary start of the show with very little in the way of new material that touches on pop-culture in the way it originally did. Viewing figures have almost halved since the show’s heyday. The Simpsons is now but a shadow of what used to be, it’s no wonder that the almost uncountable lists of the best episodes from the series rarely feature anything past 2000 on them.
And today came the sad news that Harry Shearer, voice of Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, Smithers, Principal Skinner, Dr Hibbert, Reverend Lovejoy, Kent Brockman and many more, was leaving the show at the end of the season. A show that is built on five vocal pillars to carry forward it’s immense legacy was bound to fall at some point, but without these absolutely vital members of the support cast of Springfield, it’s tough to see how the show continues with the slightest sliver of credibility.
I’ve long since said that The Simpsons should be allowed to die with dignity. Whilst making records such as being the longest-running scripted primetime show on American TV add to the accolades of the show, the way in which The Simpsons has faded into lacklustre viewing is a complete affront to the legacy it could have had.
The original Simpsons were based around meaningful plot developments with characters that, whilst being slightly more cartoony than real people, the audience could identify with. You cared when Lisa’s sax was stolen or when Bart struggled to pass his tests – there was an underlying empathy to the show. The comedy in the show underlined these feelings, whilst drawing in little snippets and references to a myriad of different films, shows, songs etc. in a way that no other show has been able to do so well. The wide and varied cast of characters was unimaginably diverse and interesting, with so many different personalities conveyed in a way that makes them seem like old friends. The Simpsons of the 1990s, in terms of its writing, is an almost perfect representation of the culture it existed in at the time – and there’s no other show whatsoever that can compete with it.
But as was inevitable, after running for such a length of time the show began to stagnate. New showrunner Al Jean took The Simpsons in a more zany and outlandish direction in search of new pastures, but these didn’t have the nuance or the feeling that the old episodes did. The traits that made characters loveable were stretched beyond breaking point – Homer became a buffoon rather than a dad who got it wrong now and again, Marge became a nagging housewife rather than a mum who cared that bit extra. This happened too with the supporting characters, with some losing their identity all together.
And now without Harry Shearer’s excellence in bringing some of these great characters to life, the writers of the show are going to have an even harder time in trying to convince us that The Simpsons being shown to us now are the same as those episodes we watched twenty years ago. Losing a member of the main family would of course spell the end, but losing some of the people that made Springfield the place it was to many of us will hurt almost as much. Carrying on makes little sense at the moment, and doing so without some of those who put the spring in Springfield makes even less sense to me.
The Simpsons is slated to continue for two more seasons, at least, but hopefully after that the curtain will fall. While the show has long poked fun at its incredible longevity, including the song rather bluntly titled “They’ll Never Stop the Simpsons” from as long ago as 2002, surely even the writers at this point understand that they will no longer be able to capture the magic of the old episodes. The show’s network, Fox, will no doubt be concerned about the loss of one of its’ biggest programmes, but considering the phenomenal appeal that The Simpsons still has largely based off of episodes from over twenty years ago it’s hard to imagine that by putting the cow out to pasture it won’t continue to produce milk. I see no good reason to keep going with The Simpsons, and while it was a big part of the childhood of myself and millions of others, it’s time to let it end.
Al Jean, the executive producer for the show during much of the perceived downturn, once mentioned a dream scenario for the way in which the show could end; with the end of the final episode being the family arriving for the Christmas pageant which featured in the show’s very first episode, making the lives of Springfield’s family one continuous loop.
Let’s just hope that we see this fantastic ending sooner rather than later. While they’ll never stop The Simpsons as a cultural force, I hope they do to preserve its place in TV legend.