D’OH! The Simpsons’s not over yet

The 500th episode, starring Julian Assange, proved the cartoon is no longer edgy but still kinda funny.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

It seems like it was only last week The Simpsons celebrated its twentieth birthday. In fact, that landmark event took place in 2009, when the cartoon also became America’s longest-running primetime TV series. Many had thought the end was near after the 2007 release of The Simpsons: The Movie, yet here we are in 2012 and the show has reached its 500th episode. A quarter of a century has passed since the yellow family first appeared in crudely drawn shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show.

The achievement seems all the more striking when you consider the profound limitations of the show, revolving around the same, now entirely ubiquitous, small set of characters. It is still remarkable to ponder the cultural impact it has had: even the dismissive slang term ‘meh’ was popularised through The Simpsons. Now, when the likes of Family Guy and South Park still surprise you by their continued existence, it’s hard to recall that the notion of a cartoon aimed at a smart, adult audience was once a novel one. The cultural references in the earlier Simpsons seasons were impressively intelligent, ranging from throwaway gags about forgotten celebrities to visual puns on Escher and even a full-blown homage to Edgar Allan Poe.

Of course, for some time it has been claimed that it is only the memory of those early episodes which keep The Simpsons going. Even ardent fans don’t contest the popular view that the series peaked within its first decade. You will likely see the 500th episode, featuring a cameo from Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, far fewer times than the oft-repeated earlier ones. It even signed off with the only half-joking message, ‘Thanks for 500 shows. All we ask is that you go out and get some fresh air before logging on to the internet and saying how much this sucked.’

Even debates about The Simpsons feel old hat these days. In the early Nineties a small magazine called The Modern Review caused a considerable stir amongst London’s culterati with its essay ‘Barthes on Bart’. It tried to attach the latest trendy theory amongst academics to a genuinely popular phenomenon. But in 2010, when a parent complained that his local school was teaching The Simpsons in English class, it was met with eye-rolling. ‘What kind of illiterate morons can object to their children being taught The Simpsons?’ tweeted posh comedian Stephen Fry. ‘One despairs…’

Then again, Modern Review founder Julie Burchill did once describe Fry as ‘a stupid person’s idea of a clever person’. As it turned out, the parent in question – Joseph Reynolds – was objecting to The Simpsons being taught to teenagers instead of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As writer Ciaran Guilfoyle observed at the time, the adventures of Homer and company are funny precisely because nothing is learned or changed by the events they depict: repetition is central to the show’s appeal, and its greatness lies in how its unusually richly drawn layers encourage the viewer to return. The greatness of Shakespeare, meanwhile, lies in how richly drawn the character development is. That there are lessons to be learned and wisdom imparted, even if not readily apparent, is what encourages repeat viewings. The difference is that you need an education to access the Bard.

It was a point that the idealistic know-it-all Lisa Simpson, the archetype of liberal values of education for its own sake, could perhaps understand more readily. Yet the whole affair was a reminder of why The Simpsons is losing its edge: it has stayed the same as the world has changed. Beginning as a popular outlet for intelligent liberals seemingly disenfranchised from the mainstream after the culture wars, it redefined the cultural landscape while many of its values became ensconced not only in the presidency of Obama, but George W Bush, too. It is testament to the forethought of the show’s creator Matt Groening that, in sensing the world was changing and not necessarily for the better, he launched the equally brilliant Futurama back in 1999.

That the 500th episode featured as its guest star Assange, the crusading warrior for truth who really should have had the forethought to quit before he alienated his liberal fanbase, seemed somehow symbolic. It was also an indication that there is enough self-knowing humour left in The Simpsons yet to merit its continued existence. It’s far from the cutting edge, but it has earned its place in the mainstream. Happy birthday!

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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Topics Culture


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