The Simpsons numbers over 700 episodes and counting. The show has birthed a thousand memes on social media, is said to have predicted the Donald Trump Presidency, but remains a family comedy at heart, turning this tried and true formula into an ongoing commentary on American life and culture.
The Simpsons is more legend than mere animated television show at this point. A bedrock facet of American culture more so than a weekly program people watch on Sunday night. So pervasive, you don’t need to have actually seen an episode to know what it’s about, who the characters are, or some of their more famous phrases. Type “D’oh!” in an email or text message, and everyone knows what you mean. “Cowabunga,” “eat my shorts,” “excellent” complete with the stress on the “x,” are all firmly a part of the cultural lexicon. Search “simpsons predictions” on Google and there is a cottage content industry, videos and articles, devoted to “Everything The Simpsons Has Predicted in 2022 and Beyond,” to use Esquire’s phrasing in an article from July 15, 2021. These “predictions” include everything from the Donald Trump Presidency by escalator to Sir Richard Branson floating in space on his own rocket. In addition to predictions, The Simpsons is the source of a near endless variety of memes on social media, another topic covered by Esquire as recently as last year. As they put it, “Sometimes you’re Homer, sometimes you’re Bart, sometimes you’re Lisa.” You might also be the Police Chief’s mentally challenged son, Ralph, the Grandpa screaming at the world, even the uptight, sexually frustrated school principal or the arrogant, insecure news anchorman, Kent Brockman, or anyone else from the ensemble cast.
All told, there’s nothing else quite like it in American life that combines thirty years of programming, vast cultural influence, and endless commentary on almost every variety of situation. This achievement is even more remarkable for a concept that debuted in 1987 merely as animated shorts on the Tracey Ullman Show. It would be two years before the first official, full-length episode aired on December 17, 1989, launching a series that now counts more than 700 episodes in its 33rd season. Consider how different the world was back then: The internet was not yet in peoples’ homes, no one had heard of Google or Facebook, cell phones were in their infancy. There were no text messages, DMs, Zoom Meetings, or Skype chats, much less social media influencers. George Bush, Sr. was President. His son and future President hadn’t yet started his own political career. Future President Barack Obama had just started Harvard Law School. The youngest members of Generation X like myself were still in middle school. Millennials were young children or even in diapers. Gen-Z wasn’t even born yet. Somehow, however, the creators Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, and Sam Simon, combined with a talented writing and vocal team, managed to create something that would survive and prosper through all the radical changes since, from 9-11 to Donald Trump, even an insurrection to use the parlance of the media.
The show hasn’t ever truly been a ratings juggernaut either. At its peak, it garnered up to 15 million viewers, enough to rank around number 30 in the most popular shows on TV, but still nothing on the level of an American Idol, much less a Super Bowl. Most seasons, however, were in the eight to nine million range, placing it in the top 60 or so. Today, it performs respectfully with some two to four million per episode. It has also always been something of a critical darling, popular in the upper echelons of culture and comedy. Time Magazine named it the best television program of the 20th century, likely not believing it would continue onward for another 22 years. The A.V. Club went even further, saying it was “television’s crowning achievement regardless of format.” In addition, the show has its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and has nabbed 34 Primetime Emmy Awards, 34 Annie Awards, and 2 Peabody Awards, all respectable achievements in their own right, especially for what is essentially a family sitcom first and foremost.
The formula itself wasn’t exactly original even way back when The Simpsons debuted. A comedy centered on the trials and tribulations of raising children in the “modern” world of suburbia has been a tried and true set up ever since Leave it to Beaver premiered on October 4, 1957. The ground was reasonably well tread in the 1980’s alone with Michael J. Fox in Family Ties (1982), Kirk Cameron in Growing Pains (1985), and Fox’s own popular Married with Children following in 1987. The comparison with Married with Children in particular is hard to miss as both shows feature less than perfect families, usually broke or facing some other calamity, each character with their own dysfunction. The Simpsons picked up those themes and animated them. Thus, Homer is a borderline alcoholic, overweight and irresponsible. Bart is a troublemaker from the first time we see him in the opening credits, he is forced to write a phrase over and over again on the blackboard, leading one to imagine a near endless series of incidents at school. Marge and Lisa are generally depicted as the more straight-laced members of the family, but each has gotten into their own share of trouble over the years. Even the infant, Maggie, shot Mr. Burns in a story arc that culminated on September 17, 1995 back when Bill Clinton was still President and the average person first started sending emails.
For over three decades now, these primary traits and their relationship as a family have served as the unshakable foundation of the entire series, making what is at times bizarre and fantastical, for example Bill Clinton actually being an alien and declaring he is our overlord, seem incredibly real and believable. Amid the whimsy and chaos, there is real truth and warmth to how Homer and Marge fight to keep their love alive while raising three young children. They’ve both been tempted over the years, even come close to straying, often in comedic and borderline ridiculous ways. Marge almost had a dalliance with the singer, Tom Jones. Once, she feared Homer was cheating on her and hired a private investigator to be sure, only to learn he was having a secret liaison in a hotel room with a leg of lamb complete with a disturbingly funny shower scene, binge eating instead of visiting a mistress. Marge was far from relieved, however, almost as upset with Homer’s love of food as another woman, the keeping of a secret somehow more important than the content of it. Similarly, almost everyone can relate to Homer’s inability to understand his far more intelligent, creative, and progressive daughter, or control his wayward son, so very much like his father yet also very different. The large number of episodes has also allowed them to develop an extensive ensemble cast of Springfield locals and minor celebrities, everyone from the town drunk to the ruthless rich man. The show delights in constantly stirring the pot, mixing different combinations of characters together in different situations, and seeing what happens. The results are always funny, often ridiculous, and sometimes even poignant.
It works far more often than not because the characters themselves are sharply defined and familiar, easy to relate to people in your own family, town, or job, even if the situations themselves are often ludicrous and over the top. In that regard, The Simpsons delights in taking full advantage of the animated format, spinning wild, fantastical, impossible scenarios. Not confined to fixed sets, locations, props, or even reality itself, the show creates whatever it needs at the moment, then quickly moves onto the next. The town of Springfield itself contains almost everything imaginable, changing from a small sleepy place where everyone knows everyone else to a burgeoning metropolis as the episodes demand. There’s a nuclear power plant, a stadium, a prison, endless suburban streets, a seedy downtown, slums, docks seemingly on the ocean, television studios, and more. Springfield has also served as the setting for almost every conceivable event. It’s the primary location for big budget comic book movies, complete with an Arnold Schwarzenegger inspired character, to schmaltzy Hallmark Christmas films. There are town fairs, elections, soccer matches, baseball games, riots, school recitals, parades, concerts, the complete panoply of American life, almost like everything you’ve ever done or will do is in one spot.
Animation also frees the creators from the constraints of a traditional budget, whatever the team imagines can be shown on screen. There are surreal dream sequences, action scenes, earthquakes, fires, and floods, even an asteroid strike and a zombie apocalypse. The animated format offers another unique opportunity, making it fundamentally different from all the other family comedies that came before or since. In the universe of the show, the town doesn’t change and the characters don’t age. Maggie is drawn exactly the same today as she was when she shot Mr. Burns in 1995, excluding some quality updates to support the high definition revolution. The characters have kept the same design and voice for some 30 years after a few tweaks from the earliest seasons, turning the show into something of a time capsule. Whatever episode you watch, from whatever era, the faces and places are the same, as if they were an endless series of memories from your own elementary school years, everyone you have ever known locked in time, placed in every conceivable situation. In less skilled hands, this might ell have become a flaw, a fundamental limitation that would make the show far too repetitive to justify over three decades of episodes.
Instead, the creative team has turned this into a strength by upending the traditional paradigm: The characters don’t change, but the times do. Each episode is set in the present, making the show an ongoing commentary of the life and times of the country and the world as much as it is a family drama. Hence, the real subject of The Simpsons America itself, and the unchanging nature of the characters and the setting turns the adventures of the Simpson family in Springfield into an ongoing commentary of our life and times. What changes is us, our culture, our pre-occupations, our technology, even our social mores, and these changes, large and small, are reflected back as we watch. The show isn’t overtly political, but follows the old adage that politics is downstream of culture, and therefore has never been afraid to satirize anything and everything, calling out culture while refusing to submit to it. The characters serve as a fixed perspective from which to view current events, as if a trusted friend from childhood who never grew up was sharing their honest opinion with you on the latest news and cultural developments, never feeling the need to pull any punches or hide their true beliefs. This works especially well because the show features a diversity of perspectives. There are more conservative characters in a variety of guises, like Homer and Mr. Burns, offset by more progressive characters like Lisa. Their fundamental positions and beliefs never change as they comment on recent events and ever-changing trends, and comment they certainly do, tackling everything from climate change to woke culture.
There are no sacred cows in the world of The Simpsons and never have been, a theme repeatedly conceptualized in hundreds of memorable quotes pithy, engaging, and timeless. On woke culture, Principal Seymour Skinner declares, “I don’t have any opinions anymore. All I know is that no one is better than anyone else, and everyone is the best at everything.” On socialism, Lisa imagines the realm of Equalia, “A land where everybody’s equal but we’re in charge.” On democracy itself, Mr. Burns declares “This anonymous band of slack-jawed troglodytes has cost me the election. And yet, if I were to have them killed, I would be the one going to jail. That’s democracy for you.” On crime and policing, Chief Wiggum believes, “I’d rather let a thousand guilty men go free than chase after them.” On justice in general, Marge observes, “You know the courts might not work anymore, but as long as everyone is videotaping everyone else justice will be done!” On love, romance, and corporatism, Lisa tells her mother, “Mom, romance is dead. It was acquired by Hallmark and Disney in a hostile takeover, homogenized, and sold off piece by piece.” On the now controversial Christopher Columbus, “I’m proud of you, Mom. You’re like Christopher Columbus. You discovered something millions of people knew about before you.” On religion and Christianity, Ned Flanders notes, “Well I can’t say for sure, but as a Christian, I assume the worst” and “I’ve done everything the Bible says – even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!” He also blesses “the grocer for this wonderful meat, the middleman who jacked up the price, and let’s not forget the humane but determined boys at the slaughterhouse.” And perhaps my favorite, Homer upon learning that beer is banned in Springfield, “To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”
There are dozens more, like “abortions for some, little American flags for others.” Pick an episode, any episode over the course of 33 seasons and chances are there will be a memorable, witty line, perfectly encapsulating some aspect of popular culture. In one from this season, Homer takes the family to a water park he loved as a teenager, “Riot Rivers,” obviously inspired by New Jersey’s own Action Park, otherwise known as Lawsuit Park for a history of dangerous rides, death, injury, and other mayhem in the 1980s, so legendary there have been documentaries made about it. When they arrive, however, “Riot Rivers’” has now become “Quiet Rivers.” The dangerous rides are all gone, replaced with tame, safe spaces and baby pools. Homer is shocked to learn that the lifeguards are sober, and decides to take his kids to an older, abandoned portion of the park. They seek out a water slide known as the Devil’s Tower, which accounted for 90% of the hospitalizations back in the day. It’s a chance to “punch death in the face” as Homer puts it. Lisa and Bart are terrified at first, but ultimately take the plunge after the stairs collapse and there’s now way down. As a result, they learn that looking death in the eye is exhilarating until they discover they’ve been infected with a bacteria. Further hijinks ensue when they must take a steroid regimen to recover.
Sadly, I confess to not watching the show much in recent years. My heyday was the mid to late 90’s, during my college days and shortly thereafter. I almost forgot about it for a time, knowing it still was on, wondering if it could still be any good, but not really paying any attention. Then, I caught some recent episodes with my wife, who’d never really seen it. Little did we imagine how life in America remained on full display, refreshingly honest and fearless, incredibly vibrant and fresh after over thirty years on television. The show has not succumbed to the need to create a safe space. There are no Quiet Rivers here. It’s remarkable when you stop to consider it. There has never been anything else quite like it and, who knows, maybe there will be thirty more years ahead.