Twas the night before Christmas when all thro’ the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse (“A Visit From St. Nicholas”, Clement Clarke Moore) – but down at the greyhound racetrack a desperate father clad in a Santa Claus costume was trying to save a Christmas on the verge of collapsing. With his son in tow, they pinned all hope on a 99-1 last minute entry called Santa’s Little Helper. The father bet all of his pitiful earnings from working as a mall Santa in a last bid attempt to gather enough money to buy presents for his family. The dog comes in last. In the car park outside, when things cannot get any worse, this father and son witness the dog being disowned by its trainer and decide to adopt it. Christmas is saved, the family is happy and The Simpsons has never since been out of our lives.
On December 17th 1989, episode one of The Simpsons aired on Fox. Twenty-five years later, it is still with us, for better or for worse, having become a cultural touchstone and entertainment juggernaut. The list of accolades is seemingly endless, but the crowning achievements are perhaps the ones that require no statistics or percentages. The Simpsons is now the longest running American scripted primetime television series. Not just animation, not just sitcom, but in all of television. A staggering 27th season is in production at the time of writing. As a brand, The Simpsons is a phenomenal achievement of unwavering ability. The popularity of the show exploded almost immediately and merchandise was churned out accordingly. In 1990, “Do The Bartman” topped the music charts in numerous countries. The brand proved its worth again in 2007 when The Simpsons Movie grossed over $527m worldwide. It’s easy to see why Fox is so keen to continue with a show that has been, and continues to be, so profitable.
This comes with an artistic crux, though. The Simpsons is a TV show, it is created and honed and put forward for public consumption. At the very least, a story of note needs to be told every week and the conundrum is that the longer a TV show endures, the weaker the stories must eventually become. And yet, even here, The Simpsons is, yet again, a world apart. From the aforementioned first episode until the culmination of season 9, The Simpsons was one of, if not the, best television shows there has ever been. This was not just a cartoon, it was a universe brimful of deep, relatable and hilarious characters. Springfield was as real a town as any of our own. The story telling was satirical, emotive and rooted deeply in the lives of the public who tuned in religiously. It seemed that every 22 minute weekly offering was a triumph over mediocrity. But, of course, the quality waned. The fact that it was sustained for 9 seasons is a grand achievement on its own, to even fathom sustaining an original show for 27 seasons (and counting) is impossible. Indeed, those nine seasons are presumably the good grace that has kept it alive until this point.
It seems too easy to pin all of the blame on the advancing years thinning out the show’s originality, even though it is factor. Perhaps more important are the social changes that occurred in that time. The first generation of young people who grew up with the show had a markedly different childhood to those who followed them in the onset of the 21st century. This second wave were raised with technology at their fingertips, the internet available at every opportunity and the subsequent loss of intrigue and innocence that can come with it. They are harder to impress, harder to shock. The Simpsons slide coincided with these changes in the audience, and those at the helm took the decision to alter their angle. With younger attention spans diminishing, and with competition like Family Guy rising in popularity, the characters became a little colder, less palatable. Homer changed from bungling but well meaning oaf into a loud, cretinous moron. Bart’s pranks and jests lost their spiky innocence and became simply spiteful. The standard of the stories slackened, and the themes therein veered away from the lives of the people in Springfield and became outlandish, bombastic and things just became inconceivable. The roots became rotten, and the tree couldn’t be saved.
Unlike other shows that knew when to pull the plug, The Simpsons was just allowed to run and run. Nothing can possibly taint the golden era of the show, those first nine seasons, but the 25th anniversary is more of a murmur than thunderous applause. New stories about The Simpsons seem to invoke more of a warm glow of nostalgia rather than a clamour for the current production. Looking back isn’t always conducive to being productive, but in this case it seems wholly relevant to appreciate The Simpsons for what it used to be – a cultural phenomenon. It would be pointless to offer up a top five episode list here, there are just too many to choose from. Instead, here are five episodes that exemplify the finer elements that used to make The Simpsons what it once was.
The advancement in animation on The Simpsons is apparent over a very short time. From the crude drawings at the very beginning to the style that became the norm, it never seemed particularly revolutionary on a technical side to an untrained eye. But, every now and then, the writers would take a huge leap and throw out something truly unique. The episode “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer” is a pinnacle of this riskier style. Homer’s hallucinatory encounter with a Space Coyote spirit guide (voiced by Johnny Cash, no less) having eaten some Guatemalan insanity peppers is a trip into beautifully depicted surrealism and the psychedelic courtesy of some bold, uncompromising artwork. Upon awakening, the trip sends Homer into a what-does-it-all-mean life crisis that only Marge can haul him out of. Did I mention Johnny Cash as a Space Coyote?
Before guest stars were crow-barred into episodes without any rhyme or reason, The Simpsons could introduce fleeting characters that would help define the show. They didn’t always need the crutch of being voiced by a huge superstar to make this so, either. The prime example comes in “You Only Move Twice” where Hank Scorpio is introduced as Homer’s new boss and super-villain head of Globex Corporation. In his short introduction to The Simpsons universe, Scorpio shows himself to be a philanthropic, generous boss who doesn’t believe in walls, knows some great hammock places, and who didn’t even give you his coat. On the other hand, we see him delivering a video threat to the United Nations, destroying the Queensboro Bridge, seizing the east coast of America and, finally, at the episode’s denouement, buying and then gifting the Denver Broncos to a nonplussed Homer. Quite the introduction. All of this was voiced by Albert Brooks. Certainly a worthy name for some, but by no means as glitzy as others. And yet, the episode itself, and the legend of Hank Scorpio, stand far taller than the majority of the more fawned over guest star appearances.
Faultless storytelling was perhaps the bedrock of the golden age of the show, and possibly the most sublime story in that period was “Marge Vs. The Monorail.” It starts with the now famous Flintstones parody opening with Homer proclaiming ‘he’s about to hit a chestnut tree.’ Having fined Mr. Burns $3m for dumping nuclear waste in a park, Springfield is at loss for how to spend its sudden windfall. Marge’s suggestion of fixing Main Street is spectacularly shot down by Lyle Lanley, a sleazy monorail salesperson voiced by the vital talent of Phil Hartman, with one of the show’s stand out song and dance numbers. The story itself is a straight forward one of investment gone wrong (something that Springfield is rather good at, according to the final scene), but it is the sheer wealth of jokes and one liners along the way that make the episode so memorable. It is truly an outstanding feat in comedy writing. The sign that a creative force is at its zenith is when the remarkable is made to look effortless, and that is exactly what “Marge Vs The Monorail” is.
Parody is a difficult skill to master, but The Simpsons continually spoofed anything and everything to great effect. This is best witnessed in the episode “Cape Feare.” The 1991 remake of Cape Fear was still fresh in the mind when the episode first aired, but it parodies a host of other horror and suspense movies along the way, such as Psycho,Friday the 13th Part III and A Nightmare On Elm Street. In the hands of such skilled writers, these familiar ideas were cast into something that felt entirely new. Perhaps most importantly of all, though, is Sideshow Bob’s brilliant turn. He is never again this blunt or bloody: he wants to kill Bart Simpson, plain and simple. This in turn sets up two of the episode’s finest moments, namely Homer bursting in Bart’s room brandishing a knife to offer him some brownies, before returning seconds later wielding his new chainsaw and hockey mask. Add in Sideshow Bob stepping on nine consecutive rakes, Homer completely unable to fathom his new identity as Homer Thompson, and Bart’s last request to have Sideshow Bob “sing the entire score of the H.M.S. Pinafore”, this episode easily sits in the lofty reaches ofThe Simpsons cannon.
Two more of the more prevalent themes in The Simpsons that went in differing directions after the golden era are flashback episodes and a genuine feeling of warm-heartedness. “Lisa’s First Word” from season 4 is the perfect depiction of this. There have been numerous flashback episodes since with very mixed results, and very rarely has an episode ended on such a heart melting note. The flashback offers all the fun of seeing familiar characters in a different setting without compromising standards. We see the family purchase their home with money raised from selling Grampa’s home on the promise that he won’t be put in a care home, the moment of introduction to the Flanders family and the infamous TV tray, and Bart’s first viewings of Krusty and Itchy and Scratchy. Picking up on his son’s new love for this TV clown, Homer makes a horrendous attempt at a clown shaped bed, drawing the petrified reaction of “can’t sleep, clown will eat me.” It all ends on a wonderful note, though, as Homer, fed up of Bart and Lisa’s fighting, takes Maggie upstairs to put her to bed. He hopes that Maggie never says a word because “the sooner kids talk, the sooner they talk back.” After Homer has left the room, Maggie removes her dummy and utters the word “daddy.” The moment is so gloriously real, and illustrates just why The Simpsons rose to such a place of prominence. When the family centred episodes were exhausted and other characters had run their course, a decline was inevitable if continuation was called for. Cancellation still isn’t in sight, and as the episode count and the number of killed off characters gets higher, the only hope is that another movie offering as good as the first might cause another wave of reflection and nostalgia. When the past was this good, who needs the present?