Watching The Simpsons now is like watching the movie version of the Broadway show based on John Waters’ classic Hairspray. The form is the same, but the spirit just isn’t there. When the 500th episode of the show aired Sunday night, I couldn’t be bothered to care. The main problem is that the show jumped the shark more than a decade ago and, while it still manages to pop off plenty of laugh lines, it lacks the satirical heart that made it truly groundbreaking when it made its debut 23 years ago.
The Simpsons first aired when I was in the seventh grade, and like much of the country, I fell in love with the characters and embraced it with the same enthusiasm that I had shown for other, more wholesome programs like The Cosby Show. Certainly, The Simpsons felt rougher around the edges, darker, and definitely more controversial than previous sitcoms. Homer frequently leapt on Bart and choked him in rage. Marge was stupid, and Lisa misunderstood. Still, the show adhered to the sitcom form well enough to endear it to the public, but it alarmed conservatives. William Bennett scolded a rehabilitation center in Pittsburg for having a Simpsons poster on the wall. President Bush said, “We need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons,” causing Bart to crack wise on a later episode, “We’re just like the Waltons. We’re praying for an end to the Depression, too.”
A couple of years after The Simpsons first aired, I discovered that series creator Matt Groening, had been known for a weekly cartoon called Life in Hell. The strip featured the adventures of a forlorn rabbit living the life of an 80s-era loser from the Boomer generation. Someone—probably my stepfather—had a pile of Life in Hell compilations lying around and, being a teenage bookworm, I inhaled them in short order.
Life in Hell, as its title might suggest, took a dim view of existence. The cartoon portrayed the school system as a prison designed to drill any spark of individuality out of students, romance and marriage as a trap that put you on the long road to death, and death itself as a welcome relief from the tedium of living. It was clear that the Groening who wrote this comic simmered with rage at, well, everything. Reading Life in Hell pointed out the cynicism lurking right under the surface of The Simpsons, exposing it as a sharp and unflinching satire of middle American life. Marge and Homer had a loathsome marriage based on mutual inertia and stupidity. Homer is a child abuser, always set on Bart, who is destined to be a loser. The town was full of worthless people who couldn’t be bothered to lift a finger to help a neighbor. The America that Groening depicted in Life in Hell was the same America in The Simpsons, but the veneer of sitcom tranquility in the show made it more subversive. No wonder conservatives railed against it.
Then, slowly but surely, the show lost its direction. Gradually, the writing staff stopped seeing the characters as satirical darts thrown at America’s pretensions, and started to embrace The Simpsons as if they were characters on Friends, flawed but with the expectation that the audience wants them to win in the end. This particularly came out with regards to the Marge and Homer relationship. Earlier episodes, such as “Life in the Fast Lane” or “The Way We Was,” satirized the romantic view of marriage that portrays even the most dysfunctional matches as the meeting of soulmates. Over time, however, the show started to embrace the model of marriage it used to mock, giving in to audience desires to believe that Marge and Homer were made for each other.
In 2007, I plunked down $10 to see The Simpsons Movie, rationalizing that Matt Groening had a stronger hand in the screenplay than he had in the show’s recent seasons. At first, the movie worked some of the same themes that made the original show so interesting, for instance touching on the environment and anger at the blithe male privilege that lets the Homers of the world think they can simply destroy everything and everyone around them without paying a price. The family even wises up and turns on Homer. Alas, the sharpness didn’t last long and, by the end, privilege-blind Homer gets to be the hero, saving both the town and literally sweeping his wife off her feet. The message seemed to be that stupid, selfish white dudes get us into all this trouble, but in the end, they’re the only people who can save us. It’s a long way from Groening’s early days portraying patriarchs as unfeeling monsters who only make the lives of everyone around them miserable.
Indeed, the show’s switch from puncturing paternal power to celebrating it was most clearly seen in the evolution of Ned Flanders. Flanders started off as a foil to expose Homer’s ugly soul, then as an amusing parody of conservative Christianity. When his wife dies, Flanders becomes a sympathetic character whose attempts to make a go out of raising a family without his wife are portrayed in a heroic light. Subsequently, the jokes mocking his misogynist, backwards faith lost all their teeth, reflecting an unwillingness from the show's writers to make their now-beloved characters the butt of a sharply written joke.
Speaking of the evolution of The Simpsons in the public imagination, a surprisingly defensive Matt Zoller Seitz writes in New York Magazine, “By now, the series has sunk its roots so deep into the popular imagination that we tend to forget it was once considered déclassé, maybe even dangerous.” Perhaps Matt’s right, and we just got used to The Simpsons. After all, many other shows, from Seinfeld to 30 Rock, took the edginess far beyond anything even early Simpsons episodes dared.
Still, the likelier explanation is that he show isn’t perceived as dangerous any longer because it’s not. What once was a dark critique of the nuclear family has become a celebration of it, and while the jokes may come as fast as they ever did, without the satire to lift them up, watching The Simpsons lost all its appeal.