It’s easy to take a television show like The Simpsons for granted. It’s been a part of the mainstream consciousness for just about a quarter century. The network constantly plays reruns and everyday people unknowingly use its idioms. Comic books, figurines, board games, t-shirts, video games, a major motion picture, kitchenware, and other countless merchandise have forever branded The Simpsons an institution. Whether or not you’re a fan, you have to admit that The Simpsons is woven into the social fabric of our culture.
The Simpsons is a show that puts a funhouse mirror up to our “bought-and-paid-for” culture. Sometimes we don’t want to be held accountable for our actions like Homer, so we efface our destructive tendencies in a cold beer. We burp too loudly and sometimes are not in control of how many doughnuts we eat. These characters are honestly flawed people presented through the prime artistic medium for allowing people to laugh at themselves.
But what can be said about The Simpsons that hasn’t been said before by fans, critics, its creators, and even philosophers? Over the past few years, watching the show has become commonplace. And I say this not because it’s a hackneyed experience. The Simpsons has altered my view of reality, as has being in a relationship with someone who is completely fanatical about the show. I wasn’t able to laugh at The Simpsons growing up in the same way that I do now.
I felt as strongly about my education as Lisa Simpson. I thought achievement meant pleasing your parents and behaving impeccably. And wouldn’t you know it, I found myself alone and woesome, with an instrument to wail on. That’s what I got out of The Simpsons from a distance; there was a reasonably good character in this maniac family that I could relate to. That was the beginning of a developing awareness that “the answers to life’s problems aren’t at the bottom of a bottle, they’re on TV!”
I like to think about the kind of girl Lisa would be if she was now in her thirties, as if TV Land could be held to the same passing of time as we experience. She would be unashamed of her past and would give her family as much credit as criticism. She’d be the type of unabashed feminist who demands that people be thoughtful and respectful.
Since I’ve seen almost the entire series, I can never choose only one of the five hundred episodes as my favorite, but whenever someone who isn’t familiar with The Simpsons asks me which episode they should start with, I always tell them to watch all of Season Six – especially “The PTA Disbands” episode, which is a gem. It has everything a good episode should have: witty, rapid-fire jokes and a bold critique of contemporary American society (in this case the sorry state of our public school system and the poor treatment of our teachers). And it showcases most of the citizens of Springfield without feeling forced. It also includes some of my favorite lines of the series, such as “They’re trying to learn for free!”; “There’s very little meat in these gym mats”; and “In this house we obey the laws of thermal dynamics!”
After Season Ten, the show took a sharp turn for the worse, with its ridiculous plot lines that revolved around Homer’s stupidity, boring jokes, and poor animation (and the animation was never that great to begin with!). All of the characters kind of became lousy caricatures of themselves. But between Seasons Eleven and Nineteen, there’s about thirty episodes that I think are as good as any of the classic episodes. Season Twenty is the best since Season Nine, and it almost has the same spectacularly introspective quality as older seasons.
I especially can’t help but love the new episodes that include the everyday life of Marge. She’s the glue that holds my favorite TV family together – and much like many women in our society, she’s totally unappreciated not just by fans of the show, but also often by her own family. Some of the funniest lines in the entire series come from her mouth: “I brought you a tuna sandwich. They say it’s brain food. I guess because there’s so much dolphin in it, and you know how smart they are.” And “I’ve been so bored since we moved here I found myself drinking a glass a wine everyday. I know doctors say you should drink a glass and a half but I just can’t drink that much.”
The number of creative, collaborative minds it takes to create a single episode of The Simpsons always amazes me. Over three hundred people have their input in each episode – and that’s since the show converted to digital animation. Earlier seasons are created by layering paintings, which give the landscape and characters a saturated, textured appearance. Cell painting eventually became a dying art form as there were less skilled artists to manually paint each scene. To depict “simple people” requires so many artistic talents and resources; it’s astonishing to think of how many people have been involved in the creation of the show over the past twenty-three years. In Season Twenty-Two, a couch gag inspired by Banksy showed just how many people are “exploited” by the repetitive process of cell painting. The creators of The Simpsons never fail to reflect on the effect a large scale operation has on our culture.
In the 500th episode, every couch gag made it into the opening. The citizens of Springfield finally throw the Simpsons out of town, which lends credence to the recent rumors of The Simpsons being cancelled after Season Twenty-Five. Maybe the Fox network has had enough of The Simpsons. Stay tuned to find out.