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The Simpsons

American animated sitcom created by Matt Groening for the Fox Broadcasting Company

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A Strong Show for So Long... But Not Strong Forever

  • Jul 17, 2009
  • by
Writing a review of The Simpsons is hard.  The show has been so successful that it is practically it's own genre on television.  It has become one of the most culturally significant shows of all time (the only show I can think of that may be more so is Seinfeld).  It has spawned several catchphrases and was one of the strongest and wittiest shows of all time.  Yet there is one thing that has always been very tough to deal with concerning The Simpsons.  It is a show that began as a fantastic show.  It's been running for over twenty years.  As is often the case with most shows, the longer it goes the more likely it is to decline.  Each new season of The Simpsons for quite a while hasn't been much better than the previous seasons. 

But what makes it harder is that whether or not the show is declining in quality has a lot of division among fans.  And it seems to be strengthened by when you came to the series as a whole.  For me, I began watching the show on December 17, 1989.  I was three years old.  That's a little young to start watching what was often branded as an "Adult Show."  But my parents were always watching with me.  I'd be lying if I said they never kicked me out of the room whenever something they felt was inappropriate came on in the show.  So while I wasn't there for those short's on Tracey Ullman, I was there when it became a full fledged show and have been there ever since.  For almost twenty years, I've sat around and enjoyed The Simpsons.  It is a show that I literally grew up with.  To see the show now is actually somehwat depressing.  So I warn now that this review is heavily biased, but I will try to explain myself as best as I can.

The reason it's so hard to review The Simpsons is because they have as many memorable episodes from when the show was in its prime.  But they also have a great deal of episodes that just aren't that memorable anymore.  The show went from being a witty show in almost every regard to being more about unusually zany antics and characters who no longer seem to resemble the characters we first met when the show began.  It's hard to point out just when the show became a shadow of it's former self.  But for me it was probably around the year 2000 when the show seemed to start dwindling.  In spite of that, it was still tolerable and still funny at times.  But the further down the line we get from then, the more we see a show that feels a lot less like The Simpsons.  A lot of the witty banter is gone in favor of short one liners and gags that seem more like they were ripped straight ouf of Family Guy (or some other show) than something from The Simpsons. 

So let's start with the show in it's prime and just why it was so good and become a cultural phenomenon.  The Simpsons was a show that wasn't shy to take things to levels we couldn't dream of a cartoon doing in the early 90's.  The Simpsons broke a barrier, and demolished a stereotype in America.  One that from time to time still rears it's ugly head.  You see, there was a time when people believed cartoons were only for kids.  Despite shows like South Park, King of the Hill and Family Guy... there are still people who believe that cartoons are for children.  The Simpsons was one of the first cartoons to show that they can be adult entertainment without actually being for kids.  It tackled political issues head on (instead of being some kind of metaphor) and wasn't afraid to do things such as tackle other mature subject matter like sex, violence, etc.  In short, The Simpsons really wasn't a show for kids.  Watching classic episodes of The Simpsons it can seem laughable that it caused so much controversy, especially when Family Guy and South Park are more shocking in what they do.  But do keep in mind that were it not for The Simpsons shows such as King of the Hill, South Park and Family Guy probably wouldn't exist (as the creators of these shows admitted themselves--The Simpsons inspired them).  But it didn't do it in such an immature and sneaky kind of way. 

The characters were part of what made The Simpsons come alive.  They were all likable in their own way.  You had Homer, who is something of an oaf and not very smart, but he is still a man who believes in doing what is right and what is best for his family.  In certain episodes whenever Homer is faced with tough decisions, his family is almost always first.  They are always who he considers.  In the episode where Homer gets a new job and they move out of Springfield, he works for a man named Hank Scorpio.  He has a lot of success in this regard and he's never been happier.  But when he sees that his family is miserable in their new home and tell him they want to go back to Springfield... Homer sacrifices all of that for his family.  He gives up his own happiness.  While Homer isn't very smart, he is still a character who is admirable in his own way.  He often provides some of the best comedic fodder for the show. 

Then, of course, there's Marge.  Who may very well be one of the most virtuous characters on the show.  She is often always doing what is right and doing it in moderation.  Without Marge, Homer is truly just an oaf.  But Marge is there to make sure that Homer can conquer anything.  And she will do anything for her kids, even though she may nag.  She is perhaps one of the most unpopular characters, however.  Not only that, but she also happens to get the fewest amount of episodes that center around her.

Then there are the kids.  Bart--America's Badboy.  (but again, watching older episodes some may wonder if he's really all that bad when compared to say... Eric Cartman).  Bart is mostly just a brat.  A child who enjoys being himself and doing what he feels like.  He's not over-the-top in his badboy antics and in fact even has a heart.  If there's one thing that separates Bart Simpson and Eric Cartman, it may be that Bart Simpson is actually a human being where as Eric Cartman is pure evil.

Lisa, on the other hand, is perhaps the character most can relate to.  She's the little intellectual that manages to unearth all sorts of mysterious things.  With an IQ of 156, Lisa is the smartest person in Springfield (she even gets to join MENSA).  She may be a child but she does have the brains.  A lot of the shows intellectual babble comes from Homer and Lisa primarily.  The epsidoes which focused on these two characters were often some of the best.  Homer because of his idioacy, and Lisa because of her intelligence.  Together the witty humor comes alive better than most people care to admit.  Homer may be an idiot, but DOES believe his little girl is the greatest, and he is always willing to help her.  

Lastly there's Maggie.  The baby.  Who doesn't talk.  Or anything like that.  Yet it may be strange to know that she does get more episodes about her than Marge (no kidding).  Even though Maggie isn't always the character in the forefront of that particular episode.

So you have the family, but then you have a cast of hundreds.  The Simpsons may very well have the largest cast of any show.  Characters that don't always appear or even take center stage.  But they are all unique with their own distinct personalities.  When an episode isn't about a Simpson's member, it is often about one of these supporting characters that get them involved somehow.  Of all the Supporting characters, Mr. Burns may be the closest they have to an adversary, as he's been behind many of the show's best moments (for Bart, of course, it's Sideshow Bob).  But you also have other favorites that are often featured.  Krusty the Clown, Ned Flanders, Reverend Lovejoy, Principal Skinner and even other extended family members such Patty and Selma and Abe Simpson.

All of this makes up the town of Springfield, where the show takes place (and where people are still arguing over which State it's in... it shares a border with: Nevada, Ohio, Maine and Kentucky).  It's a fictional town, but it's one that has come alive in TV land. 

Each episode centers usually on one of the family members.  Often the older episodes focused on the immediate family and often talked about Family issues.  Despite being a satire, The Simpsons was often filled with lots of messages that were kind of nice.  Whenever characters did something, they were often justified through means that weren't always comedic.  The genius of the show was so broad that even when it was something a little zany or over the top (such as Homer hiring the mob to get Marge's prezel business off the ground) it was often still believable and didn't come off as unusually strange at all.  The show has also spawned so many different kinds of phrases.  That word "craptacular" was popularized by The Simpsons.  You know when people say, "Meh..." to express how they don't really care about something?  Popularized by The Simpsons.  Whenever ever someone says "Best/Worst. _________ Ever!" ...Popularized by The Simpsons.  The word "D'oh" has been added to the dictionary.  The pop culture references and gags are numerous in amount but often fit into the episode as a whole.  The show has gotten a hold of several guest stars, some of whom were major legends.  People like Rodney Dangerfield, Drew Barrymore, Elizabeth Taylor (sort of...), Stephen King, Michael Jackson, Dustin Hoffman etc. 

Despite all the craziness, each episode used to have its own message and own type of story that came together really well.  Some of the best episodes are some of the most story driven.  Take the episode "Lisa's Substitute" where Lisa has a crush on her substitute teacher, but also struggles with dealing the fact that her own father is a baffoon.  The episode is hilarious while being heartfelt and touching at the same time.  The Episode "Lisa's Substitue" probably best shows what strengths the show once had.  The show not only has the plot of Lisa, but there's a subplot with Bart running for class president of his fourth grade class.  Within this episode we see how each character can add to the show in their own way.  In particular, Homer and Lisa. 

The Simpsons 219

For an episode where we see that Bart can be thoughtful, there's an episode where's Lisa's idol, "Bleeding Gum's Murphey" dies and Bart is there to help her get his memory out there.  He decides on doing this instead of buying a giant POG.  His reason?  "You were the only one who believed me."  It's heartfelt and cute.  But I won't post that episode.  

But there are several other episodes that do so.  The famous "Who Shot Mr. Burns" two part special is another example of how the show can be comedic while being serious and able to provide us with story.  That is to say The Simpsons actually has focus from one episode to another.  And it's about the characters as much as its about the comedic gags.  There are pop culture gags thrown in every episode.  And yet the show works in such a way that we can laugh at them even if we don't particularly know the reference (something Family Guy has yet to master).  

In the first two seasons, the show was completely down to earth.  It was almost like watching a family sitcom that was animated.  Seasons 3-7 were when the show started to get a little more surreal and even a bit zany, but it never seemed to think it was something it clearly wasn't.  In fact seasons 3-7 have some of the best episodes.  Including ones such as "Rosebud" (my personal favorite episode where Mr. Burns wants his bear Bobo back), "Last Exit to Springfield" (where Mr. Burns thinks Homer is a smart union king pen and Homer doesn't realize his stupidity is actually defeating burs), "Homer at the Bat" (where the Nuclear Power Plant Softball team is off to win the championship) among with other memorable episodes.  And yet it manages to be funny, touching and heartfelt.  All at the same time.  

This clever and fun writing was not to last.

After being around for over ten years, The Simpsons did start to slip.  The biggest slip came when their characters began to change all together.  Homer has always been something of an oaf, but in the newer episodes he is unreasonably stupid.  In an Episode where The Simpson family went to London, I watched as Homer rejected fish and said it was because he wasn't a "vegetarian."  Homer doesn't know that fish isn't a vegetable?  The man who as a vicious appitite and was a FOOD critic, and who at one point relied on veggies and rice cakes to get to his ideal 239 weight.  THIS guy doesn't know that Fish isn't a vegetable?  Homer is not that unreasonably dumb.  And every season he gets dumber and dumber and dumber.  So much so that it's not so much funny as it is sad.  Another drastic change in his character is that he's become so self-centered and self-absorbed.  He went from a man willing to do anything for his kids and family to basically throwing them under the bus to meet his own ends.  There are times when that loving man does come out, but it's often in an unusual way that makes little sense. 

Other characters have also changed a lot.  Bart used to be a boy with remorse.  He now seems to think that everything... everywhere is a joke of some sort.  He's no longer a brat for the sake of attention or anything like that.  Now he's just annoying in his prank-by-prank manner.  Bart was always a prankster but he didn't come off as a three year old in the process.  And in the midst of this, the show can never seem to keep Bart's personality consistent.  One moment he's a ten year old kid, the next he seems like a two year old.

Lisa may have had the worst attention provided.  The Simpsons was almost always a politcal show.  But it was a show that gave credence where it was due.  It wasn't always so one-sided.  For example, in the episode where Sideshow Bob runs for mayor it more or less made fun of the entire political process.  Even when Lisa was right, there was often someone to challenge her or be reasonable in explaining why they're own views weren't so wrong.  Through this The Simpsons was able to teach a level of tolerance while never demonizing anyone.  In one episode Homer beat up former President George H.W. Bush, but made up for it by making it nothing political... he just didn't like Bush telling him how to raise his child.  It sidestepped getting into a huge political debate by turning it into something about individual family values.  In return the show poked fun at Bill Clinton several times (such as one episode hinting at Bill having a secret porno stash) and stayed away from criticizing George W. Bush much at all. 

Yet, as the show has progressed, Lisa has become more of a Know-It-All than usual.  One who is almost never challenged.  And when an opposition does come up they're ususally unreasonably stupid in their approach to... well... everything.  Instead of having a reasonable debate on the show like it used to, it's become more jaded and one-sided.  Instead of showing that both political parties have their own strengths and weaknesses, it's become a show in which Lisa is now a political hand puppet who seems to be highly experienced in letting people know how stupid they are.  One of Lisa's BIGGEST character traits was that she was open minded enough to listen to opposition.  There were even times when the show left us with Lisa being--dare I say--wrong.  Or when her skepticism was proven to be just that--skepticism.  In some cases the show left us with a middle ground--especially when they themselves didn't actually "know" the answer.  The point is that the show had balance and representation of both sides of a debae.  That aspect of the show has faded more and more with each new episode.

Then there's the humor.  Before it relied on a lot of witty dialog.  Now it seems to rely on a lot of zany antics.  Somtimes it's funny.  But there is such a thing as getting a little too zany.  For shows like Family Guy these over-the-top zany antics are fine.  But for The Simpsons?  Not nearly as much.  Especially because the show went so long without relying on so many of these antics.  The Simpsons suddenly got reduced to a show which is throwing stuff to a wall and seeing if it sticks.  But a lot of it isn't that funny anymore.  The heart and sometimes even emotional responses the show was able to garner... it can't do anymore.  We can't sympathize with these characters anymore because most episodes have no real focus (and when there IS focus it most certainly is NOT on the characters).  We used to want to go along with Lisa's fight in a particular episode... not so much.  We used to empathize with the characters.  Not so much.  The show used to actually be ABOUT the characters... again, not so much.  And the change was so gradual that by the time it really hit home that our show was reduced to this... the damage was done and solidified.  There's a show which already provides over the top zany antics to push its comedy: Family Guy.  And Family Guy is good at what it does.  The Simpsons, however, wasn't a show which began as being about those zany antics--this wasn't where the humor the show was focused.  Matt Groening used to joke that people were able to ignore the bad animation of the show because of its good dialog.  The Simpsons was a character driven and sometimes emotionally driven show.  This was why it worked so well in the first place. 

It's also the portion of the show that gets abandoned more and more with each upcoming season.  If you came to the show recently, this isn't something bothersome.  But you're also missing out on what made the show so incredibly influential and popular in the first place.  These aspects that truly made The Simpsons one of the smartest shows on television have faded over time, and it seems to get worse with each season.  Some of it's banter shows up every now and then, but the episodes are few and far between.  And even worse is that not many of them are memorable.

But it's hard to give it such a low rating when it's become such a culturally significant show.  Despite that the newer episodes (as well as episodes of the past eight years or so) aren't that good or memorable, the classic episodes will probably immortalize The Simpsons.  Even with disliking the newer episodes, it's still fun to enjoy what the older classic episodes of the 90's gave us.  For that the show deserves a lot of credit. 

When most shows run out of steam, they often have a series finale.  It seems like The Simpsons will be never ending.  And perhaps there are some who really love the new episodes a lot.  It's part of the reasons there's that divide between Simpson fans.  Some enjoy the more over the top zany antics.  Unfortunately, this was not what the Simpson's was known for, nor are these episodes going to solidify the show the way the classic episodes have.

What did you think of this review?

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August 21, 2009
Excellent review - I totally agree.. The Stonecutters was one of my favorite episodes, but nothing's stood out in the last decade. It's like two completely different shows!
August 22, 2009
Yeah, it really is like two different shows.  From these over the top zany antics to a bunch of forgettable dialog and satire.  I'm actually surprised this review was met with as much admiration as it is.  Almost everyone I talk to seems to love all the newer episodes.  And in my mind the show hasn't been memorable for nearly a decade.
July 17, 2009
Wow! What a review! I totally agree with you with the quality of the Simpsons writing dwindling. The Simpsons is no longer on my DVR roster of shows, and I'm slightly sad about that ... but when I do watch the newer seasons, it seems like I'm watching a Simpsons parody of itself and I find myself only half-watching them. But I am so reluctant to let the latter seasons taint how I view the Simpsons in its entirety. The Conan O'Brien era was primo.... You bring up the Simpsons ripping off Family Guy. FG's comical style: with its' non-sequiturs, asides that are totally random -- really speeds up the plot since instead of developing a story, they're taking screen time to talk about some unicorn that's tap dancing on William Shatner's head ... for five minutes... Not that I'm knocking Family Guy -- it has its strong points, mostly in challenging traditional comic conventions. But for the Simpsons to mimic FG's comic style, it has deviated from their strong story development and their own distinctive style. Hank Scorpio -- classic! When Homer was looking for sugar for his coffee, Hank Scorpio pulled sugar out of his pocket. What?What!What? Who keeps loose sugar in their pocket? But the thing is, you can kinda imagine some kooky person doing that. The Simpsons humor is based in reality whereas FG humor is so outrageously disconnected from reality. South Park may have influenced them as well. Why are projectiles constantly landing in Homer's head/eyeball? Like pick-axes and such. Gross! I only watch South Park here and there when I'm accidentally exposed to it, and I'm appalled at the kind of things they get away with. Disgusting! But in a sense, comedy is about pushing the boundaries. So in that regard, you have to respect Matt & Trey for that. You're reminding of me of SO MANY great points in Simpsons episodes -- and I just want to comment on every one of them. But this response would be so so long, so ... I'll just end it right here.
July 18, 2009
When you brought up how the show is a self-parody of itself, that actually did make me think.  Like how the show sometimes seems to be running out of ideas and gags. They used to be about spoofing pop culture... but now that they've BECOME that pop culture... where exactly do you go with that?
July 17, 2009
This is an unbelievable review. Great insight into the show. I watched it in the nineties but stopped, so I cannot comment on its downhill slide. I enjoyed so much about it and you do it justice by pointing out so many of the qualities that make it special. I was always impressed with the huge cast of characters whose development would span several years. Also, thanks for reminding me about the George Bush episode. My favorite part of that is when Ford moves in next door and wants to eat nachos with Homer...
More The Simpsons reviews
Quick Tip by . August 15, 2013
posted in Pass The Remote!
This show is dead. It needs to go. I don't care how good the first eight seasons were anymore. The Simpsons has aired FAR more bad episodes than good ones now, and it's time Matt Groening just euthanized the fucking thing and put it out of its misery, and bring us back from the delusion that it's still any good.
Quick Tip by . July 19, 2010
The show has been so successful that it is practically it's own genre on television. It has become one of the most culturally significant shows of all time. It has spawned several catchphrases and was one of the strongest and wittiest shows of all time. Yet there is one thing that has always been very tough to deal with concerning The Simpsons... the unavoidable series decline.
Quick Tip by . July 19, 2010
posted in Awesomeness
Groundbreaking cartoon comedy for Fox that is still running after 20 years. Has had many hits and misses but it's early 1 thru 8 seasons are classic. Third and fourth seasons are the best.
Quick Tip by . September 04, 2009
I remember when this show came on board....innovative, creative....different at that to watch!
Quick Tip by . September 04, 2009
I pretty much grew up on this show. Mom used to not want me to watch it due to "bad influences" even though she watched it herself!
review by . December 09, 2008
I've been watching the Simpsons since I can remember anything at all. I was born in '85, and I know the show has been an independent program since what, '89? So I guess it's just about right that some of my earliest memories involve the Simpsons (others include the spinning wheel from The Price is Right).     For many years, each new season was better than the last. Episode plots grew more complex, and social commentary abounded in each episode. But I don't know. Sometime while …
About the reviewer
Sean A. Rhodes ()
Ranked #7
I'm a more analytical person. I believe that the purpose of the review is not for me to give you my opinion but for me to give you an analysis and help you decide if you want to get it. If you reading … more
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