It all began with a Christmas special 30 years ago this month. Chris Wasser pays tribute to The Simpsons.
Television changed on December 17, 1989. That was the day when the suits at the Fox network carved out a half-hour space in their coveted Sunday evening schedule for a new kind of family-orientated sitcom.
That was the day when 13.4m households in America first tuned in to The Simpsons.
The first episode — a busy, yuletide special, entitled, ‘Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire’ — kick-started a nationwide, pop-culture fever, the likes of which was practically unheard of for an animated series.
Of course, as Simpsons enthusiasts will note, even before it made its groundbreaking debut, America’s new favourite family had already put the work in. Since 1987, Matt Groening’s crudely drawn, yet undeniably charming send-up of middle-class American life, had been an acclaimed staple of The Tracey Ullman Show.
The story goes that when Groening was first called into the offices of renowned producer, James L Brooks (the creative gatekeeper on Ullman’s weekly variety programme), he began to panic.
Brooks had been a fan of Groening’s underground comic strip, ‘Life in Hell’, about an anxious, alienated, anthropomorphic rabbit, named Binky.
He wanted to introduce a series of satirical, animated skits into Ullman’s show, and he believed Groening, or Binky, would make the perfect fit.
Groening began to get cold feet — and, worried about what might happen to his beloved rabbit were he to end up in the wrong hands, our boy decided to come up with a new idea on the spot.
That the most famous family in television history was speedily devised within a matter of minutes by a worrisome, 33-year-old cartoonist in a network office lobby is almost too good to be true.
But that’s how Groening tells it, and his awkward sketches of a dysfunctional suburban tribe, loosely inspired by his own, went down a storm.
‘The Simpsons shorts’ — a rough yet loveable sequence of animated bursts, depicting life inside America’s most hazardous household — ran for three seasons, concluding in May 1989.
That was when Groening, with help from Brooks and producer Sam Simon, began to think bigger, developing these shorts and its characters (pea-brain patriarch Homer; his sensible wife Marge, and their three troublesome children Bart, Lisa, and Maggie) into a fully formed situational comedy that could compete with — but behaved nothing like — the Cosbys, the Keatons, and every other wholesome, prime-time clan on US television. The rest is history.
We are, of course, dealing with a cartoon family, whose values, virtues, and vernacular are all but woven into the pop-culture landscape. Thirty years after that unforgettable Christmas opener, The Simpsons is the longest-running American sitcom in history.
We’ve had 671 episodes (with more still to come). We’ve had a box-office devouring film (2007’s The Simpsons Movie). We’ve had theme park rides, video games, and more Simpsons paraphernalia than we know what to do with (FYI the 1990 album The Simpsons Sing the Blues is an absolute classic). We could go on.
But perhaps the biggest talking point in The Simpsons’ long and eventful history is not one that involves any particular character or storyline. Today, when most of us think of The Simpsons, we tend not to focus on the dazzling cliff-hangers (the Who Shot Mr Burns debacle), the game-changing specials (when the real Michael Jackson voiced a fake Michael Jackson), or the wibbly-wobbly timeline (seriously, Bart and Lisa should be middle-aged by now).
Instead, the biggest talking point in Simpsons history is the commonly held belief that Groening’s show just isn’t what it used to be.
Somewhere along the way, The Simpsons lost its footing. It lost its genius. It lost its heart, too. It may have held on to its superb, handsomely rewarded voice cast — from the brilliant Dan Castellaneta (Homer) to the wonderful Nancy Cartwright (Bart) — but a change in the creative department, somewhere around the mid-90s, when the show parted ways with some of its most talented team-members, including Brad Bird and Conan O’Brien, led to a drastic shift in tone from which The Simpsons has never recovered.
Often copied but never equalled (think King of the Hill or Family Guy), The Simpsons carved out a hell of a niche for itself, in turn inviting others to join the animated sitcom revolution of the ’90s. I loved it.
Millions of others loved it. It kept on going and going, getting bigger and bigger. But its popularity would come at a price.
Hardcore fans will tell you that the ‘golden years’ came to an end, in season nine, when Principal Skinner was revealed to be a fraud in the god-awful, ‘The Principal and the Pauper’.
I’d argue that things started to curdle when Homer got a job as Kim Basinger’s assistant in season ten.
Whatever the case, after a decade or so at the top, Groening took his eye off the ball. If you switch on The Simpsons in 2019, you’re more likely to encounter absurd, celebrity-driven specials and surreal, action-orientated escapades than a smart, grounded, witty, and razor-sharp depiction of small-town family life in middle America.
Homer (once the beating heart of this show, and a loveable,caring, and relatable doofus) has become just another annoying sitcom moron.
Bart has become a royal pain in the ass. The popculture references, cameos, and parodies are relentless. The one-liners and sight gags are spectacularly lazy. It’s barely recognisable, and it’s genuinely upsetting to watch.
The Simpsons famously predicted the Trump Presidency and the Disney takeover of 20th Century Fox, but it never dared to imagine that it might one day become the butt of its own joke. Now it’s out of touch, out of bounds and out of ideas. Still, it continues to make headlines.
Groening’s show has a new home now on Disney Plus. There are whispers of another movie. And then there’s the infamous 2017 controversy involving the long-problematic depiction of the show’s Indian immigrant shopkeeper, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon (voiced by Hank Azaria, a white actor).
Spurred on by the release of comedian Hari Kondabolu’s witty and insightful documentary The Problem with Apu, what we witnessed here was an articulate examination of racial stereotyping in mainstream entertainment.
True, The Simpsons addressed the issue in 2018 — but it did so by having Lisa literally explain political correctness to its audience; a spectacular misstep that proved, once and for all, that one of the greatest television shows of all time had unfortunately misplaced another of its vital organs: Its brain.