Mmmmmm... pop culture

By Geoff Nixon

© The Silhouette, March 4, 2004.

Midway through its 15th season, The Simpsons remains as popular as ever: increased sales in its DVD collections, more Emmys added to its already formidable collection, and substantial TV ratings ensure that the show will retain its legendary status. Creatively, the Simpsons remains a coveted project for many of the world's top celebrities, including Tony Blair, Sir Ian McKellen, and Simon Cowell, who all appeared in the 15th season, with many more celebrities on the extensive cameo waiting list ready to jump aboard. This past holiday season the show even spawned a bevy of new products aimed at fans of all ages: it was as if Krusty the Klown himself were signing the cheques to license anything he could get his hands on.

For all of the show's accolades, however, many things have changed throughout the 300-plus episodes. Bart and Lisa no longer act like children, despite not having aged or changed their clothes. Moe has tried his hand at being a pervert, an animal smuggler, a restaurateur, a nightclub owner/operator, and, well, whatever next week's show might add to his misfortunes. Maude Flanders has died. And strangest of all, Homer Simpson isn't "dumb" anymore; he's simply a spastic idiot. For some reason, all these changes mean that the greatest animated satire ever produced has become no-so-great.

Historically, the show's carefully assembled mix of sly pop culture references, social satire, and whimsy has become synonymous with comedy in the '90s. It boasted an enormously talented cast of soon-to-be top-talent actors and writers including Spinal Tap's Harry Shearer, late night ringmaster Conan O'Brien, the versatile character actor Hank Azaria, as well as the late, great SNL-alumnus Phil Hartman. Despite a six-month production time, the show's overwhelming talent kept things fresh, and unpredictable.

The Simpsons was so popular it was frequently used as a lead-in to many programs, especially when the network hoped to hook audiences on new shows. Say what you will about King of the Hill, Futurama, The Critic, or the recently in-vogue Family Guy, but you cannot deny the anchoring power of The Simpsons. Even traditional live-action sitcoms were launched this way: That 70s Show, Malcolm in the Middle, and Titus being the last three to come to mind. In the words of a slightly cynical TA currently in his seventh year at Mac: "That lineup got me through a lot of Sunday nights over the years." Without ignoring the talent that went into these particular efforts, it would be foolhardy to suggest they had been anything less than "influenced" by The Simpsons.

Stylistically, The Simpsons has always been rich with ideas. From its debut, the dysfunctional family of Evergreen Terrace had more ideological and emotional depth than its tripe-filled sitcom contemporaries, such as Full House, or Family Matters. And the writing was so sharp that audiences could follow a killer barb about the fallacies of the public education available at Seymour Skinner's Springfield Elementary as easily as they could a tender moment between Homer, Marge, and their family. And somehow The Simpsons did all this without ever seeming sappy. Recall the time when Homer jumped the Springfield Gorge to teach Bart a lesson in obedience: the image of his bloodied body puts away any claim that "cloying" was ever in the writers' vocabulary.

At least, that's how it used to be.

To zero in on The Simpsons' specific comic strengths is to notice its fast pace, tight scripting, and cerebral sense of humour. Working on a number of levels, The Simpsons has always been equally willing to reference respected academics like Henry Kissinger as frequently as they poked fun at frivolous television efforts like Richard Dean Anderson's MacGuyver. Carl Matheson of the University of Manitoba recognizes The Simpsons as the pioneer of "quotationalism," the practice of referencing contemporary culture: "The Simpsons manages to convey a great deal of extra information extremely economically... the density of allusion is perhaps what sets [it] apart from any show that has preceded it."

It goes without saying that without the groundbreaking blink-and-you-miss irreverence of The Simpsons, there would be no Peter Griffin of Family Guy. Similarly, it's no coincidence that former writers of the show have gone on to do projects such as Late Night With Conan O'Brien, and Family Guy, with equal comedic vigor and imaginative premises.

In establishing such a sought-after comedic consistency, it is not surprising that so many have emulated The Simpsons. Beyond its imitators and outright copycats (Frankie Muniz's big break was entirely from this origin, for sure), many of the show's fans have become obsessed with exploring its secrets. Numerous academic (or at least "serious") papers and websites have been created by educated, eager fans wanting to deconstruction and analyze their favourite show, and to offer their diverse opinions on which episode is best, or the subtle comic techniques employed in never directly mentioning Waylon Smithers' obvious sexual preference. As a result, the show has been dissected and discussed exhaustively for most of its existence, and has become a seemingly permanent fixture in our discourse of popular culture.

Unfortunately, in recent seasons it has become increasingly apparent that the show has passed its creative peak. Some fans have gone so far as to suggest that The Simpsons has been reaching for plot ideas and clever references for years. Some episodes in the last two or three years have included obscure allusions to the cast of Hee-Haw, and wash-ups like Sherman Helmsley (for everyone born after the '70s, this was the old guy dancing in Nelly's "Batter Up" video). These seemingly random interjections are hardly the stuff of nostalgia for people under the age of 45, and even then would only be mentioned in jest on Rick Mercer's It Seems Like Yesterday. Similarly, the plots have become very disjoint, with elements of some episodes seemingly parachuted into the narrative simply to form some kind of order and continuity. This was very effective for a show like Family Guy, but as we all know, Lenny and Carl were never meant to exist in the same world as Glen Quagmire or The Evil Monkey. For anyone who watched the recent Simpsons' episodes where Marge pumped up and became "the man of the house," or the 2003 Halloween episode where the Grim Reaper died and stayed over at the Simpsons', the similarities to Family Guy are at the very least surprising. Ironically, it seems that The Simpsons is now being influenced and regularly outdone by the very shows that were most heavily influenced by its previous work.

Without a doubt, The Simpsons has been one of the most influential comedic institutions of recent popular culture, and has managed to satirized any concept, no matter how touchy: abortion, breast cancer, even the lingering effects of the Vietnam War on American culture. For this fearlessness in their writing, and their expertly articulated viewpoints on contemporary life, The Simpsons can never be faulted. And despite occasional lapses of creativity, it continues to retain a strong following. There's even a feature film version finally in the works, set to begin production soon. It'll be interesting to see how the show translates onto film, although, in the words of a close friend, "any time a show hits the big screen, it jumps the shark."

That's why I won't be standing in line to see it. Sure, I'm interested, but I'm also the guy who'll refuse to watch Family Guy when it returns. Not because it'll be bad, exactly, but I'm too ticked off about how good it used to be.

Search The Simpsons Archive:    Search Help

[ FAQs, Guides & Lists | Upcoming Episodes | Episode Guide | Capsules | Miscellaneous | Web Links | News | About | Home ]

Last updated on March 27, 2005 by