Published on March 6th, 2015 | by Craig Silliphant2
The Simpsons Doesn’t Suck Now
We get tired of hearing people say, “The Simpsons sucks now.” It may not reach its former glory, but calling the show ‘bad’ is idiocy.
If I hear one more person say that we’re eyeball deep in an era where The Simpsons sucks, I’m gonna plotz. Unfortunately, it’s been cool to bash Matt Groening’s animated family comedy for a while now. There was even a National Post article where they tried to oh-so-cleverly posit that the show had been bad longer than it had been good. At the risk of not being cool, I have to stand up and say nuts to all that. The Simpsons may not quite be what it once was (and we’ll unpack that idea in a moment), but it’s still damn good, and it’s never, ever been a ‘bad’ show.
I was in grade nine when The Simpsons first aired, sitting too close to the TV in my friend Jim’s basement, where we often hung out as teens, watching music videos and talking about girls. We loved the show from the first episode. We hadn’t really seen anything like it before, unless you count the primal version from The Tracey Ullman Show. It wasn’t too long before Simpsons fever took over the world, fueled by Bartmania, which even inspired George and Barbara Bush to criticize the show’s supposed lack of family values. Bill Cosby complained that Bart was a bad role model for children because he was, “angry, confused, and frustrated.” What he didn’t realize was that this was the attraction to these characters; they weren’t spit polished TV stereotypes. While they may have been yellow, three-fingered ‘toons, they were more like real people than most of the characters in the history of television. And as a side note, the irony of Bill Cosby commenting on bad role models is pretty delicious in today’s context.
After a few seasons, the show really hit its stride, changing the way we thought about not only animation and comedy, but the possibilities of storytelling in general. It was one of the smartest shows on TV, the opposite of lowest common denominator sitcoms. I remember trying to convince people in the 90s that the show was smart, to have them look at me like I was crazy for saying a cartoon could have brains and emotional depth. But most people recognize now that The Simpsons did have those things in spades; it was a silly, animated show that could be funny, heartfelt, and satirically razor sharp. It also grew the language of television visuals and raised audience intelligence to its own level rather than having to pander, bursting with clever in jokes and references to culture both popular and obscure. At times, it broke the idea that an episode has to always return to status quo at the end of an episode. It coined terms, created slang, and changed the way that a generation spoke to each other, arguably replacing The Bible and Shakespeare as the greatest modern source of idioms and anecdotes. Doh is even in the dictionary now.
Now before you get your hose in a knot, relax — I’m not saying that today’s Simpsons is right on par with some of the most classic episodes. Has the show varied in quality over the years? You bet. So does anything that lasts over a quarter of a century. In fact, once we got to around season seven, we’d look back and cringe at how rudimentary those once beloved early episodes were. And there are some lesser episodes in those trail-blazing seasons we see through rose-coloured glasses. To be fair to detractors, the show did hit a bit of a slump from around seasons 10 to 15, but it never had a moment where it jumped the shark and became ‘no good.’ Those seasons have rightly been criticized for becoming more about gags than character, getting zanier and less human. But I would put forth that from about season 16 on (so, for the last 10 years) the show has been growing in quality again, favouring the more character-driven stories that made the show relatable.
To call it ‘bad’ denotes that you’ve had some sort of head injury, or, more likely, you’re talking shit. Most people I encounter saying that the show sucks are hard-pressed to describe an episode from the last 10 years. “I stopped watching it years ago,” they say. Um…if you don’t watch it, then how do you know it sucks? You’re also saying that one of the greatest shows that has ever graced the boob tube is on par with mind-numbing, culture-eroding rubbish like Two and a Half Men or The Big Bang Theory (which I’ve seen described as, “a show about smart people for dumb people”). There’s no accounting for taste and we’re all welcome to enjoy what we like, but in my book, even the very worst episode of The Simpsons is light years ahead of lowest common denominator schlock like The Big Bang Theory. That’s ‘bad’ TV. (Whoops, we just lost The Big Bang Theory fans. Oh well).
“But it’s just that same family, doing the same things they’ve always done,” the haters whine. Is it? Hasn’t it grown? Isn’t it an anthology series about a place called Springfield, a town that stands in for Anywhere, USA? A place filled with people and situations that mirror our lives, a microcosm for our own world? As long as there is a world spinning, where The Bachelor serves to distract us from things like Ferguson, things that matter, there is a need for The Simpsons to be there to satirize it all. To write stories that sneak in smart bombs of morality and parody that have the power to make statements and maybe even change a few minds now and again.
The show is still clever, funny, and they’re still taking chances (like the Don Hertzfeldt couch gag, which may have been one of the most brilliantly bonkers couch gags they’ve ever done). Hell, to see a downright exceptional recent installment, look no further than the Lego episode. Has The Simpsons risen back up to the dizzying heights of some of those classic episodes? Of course not. The thing is — it can’t. At least without some sort of drastic change. As shows like South Park and Family Guy have pointed out, if you have an idea, The Simpsons have already done it. The show can never break the ground that it once broke all over again; to paraphrase the song (as Sideshow Bob once sang) we’ve become accustomed to its face. To young audiences, a movie like Top Gun seems like a very formulaic action film today, but at the time of its release, it was pretty groundbreaking for its genre. It created many of those tropes and clichés that came later. It’s hard to see things again for the first time, and moreso for an institution like The Simpsons that has gone on so long.
The Simpsons has never truly given us cause to jump all over it and proclaim it lame and dead, the way people in the Internet age seem prone to doing with little provocation (to be fair, they do that about everything). All it did was provide us with over two decades of funny, thought-provoking television that raised the standards of entertainment a bit. To turn our backs on that and start calling the program ‘bad,’ even in regards to the slump years, seems wildly inappropriate. The show may not be the all encompassing cultural zeitgeist leader it once was, but The Simpsons is still a perfectly cromulent show that will hopefully continue to embiggen our funnybones, our lives, and our perceptions of the world for a long time to come.