Unlike many other popular shows of the ’90s, The Simpsons had no laughing track; there was no need for it. In fact, it repeatedly lampooned the use of laughing tracks in comedy. The classic Simpsons episodes were so densely packed with diverse humour, both subtle and overt, that the audience never needed a cue to laugh. It also challenged the stereotypical on-screen representation of the average American family in sit-coms. While there are of course exceptions, television sit-com families were usually middle-class, wealthy, and mild-mannered. The Simpsons shattered the status quo and became one of the most loved, innovative and critically acclaimed series on television.
The comical and often relatable nature of The Simpsons was grounded in realism rather than idealism. For example, rather than having a perfect sibling relationship. Bart and Lisa often fought, argued and schemed against one another. However, they also showed genuine affection and love for one another – ‘Bart’ was Lisa’s first word when she was a baby. While Lisa was a highly intelligent feminist, Bart was a troublemaker. The character of Bart became controversial in the show’s heyday- he was badly behaved, rebellious and he showed contempt for authority. He was ‘the boy you love to hate’- which resulted in many angry parents protesting that the show glamorised bad behaviour. The show’s writers became accustomed to receiving hundreds of complaint letters each week. Notably, former president George H.W. Bush infamously said that families should be “more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons.” The writers however seemed to wear controversy and criticism as badges of honour and continued to be unrelenting in its satire.
The Simpsons was ruthless in its criticisms of 90s society and popular culture. It shed a light on the division between the rich and the poor- the millionaire Nuclear power plant owner Mr Burns was an archetypal antagonist, whose working-class employees were referred to as ‘blue-collar slobs.’ It also provided political commentary; Springfield Elementary School was critically underfunded and couldn’t afford up-to-date textbooks and basic supplies. Springfield’s prison was overcrowded with a ‘revolving door’ system. It also, very explicitly, criticised celebrity culture. Award ceremonies were corrupt and celebrities could commit crimes without facing punishment- stating ‘this is America. We don’t send our celebrities to jail.’ Acclaimed film director Woody Allen, whose reputation was tarnished in 2014 when he was publicly accused of child molestation and rape, was described jokingly in a 1995 episode as a ‘neurotic nerd who likes to sleep with little girls.’ Fox News and media mogul Rupert Murdoch were repeatedly mocked and discredited, even though The Simpsons was broadcast on their sister network, Fox Entertainment. Amazingly, Fox tried to sue the makers of the show, only to be reminded that they would be suing themselves.
The Simpsons was also capable of genuine emotion. The series expertly balanced biting comedy with heart-warming and moving moments. It is clear that, despite his overt flaws, Homer loves his family more than anything. When Homer is fired from his job in season one, he attempts to commit suicide after deciding his family would be better off without him. In season three, Homer works two jobs so that Lisa can have the pony she’s always dreamed of owning. In an especially highly acclaimed episode, titled Mother Simpson, Homer becomes reunited with his estranged mother, only to be separated again at the end of the episode. The episode’s ending is quite possibly the show’s most emotional scene, and showrunners Josh Weinstein and Bill Oakley claim it is one of their favourite episodes. The audience watch as the usually upbeat and facetious Homer sits on the hood of his car in silence after watching his mother disappear from his life. Instead of driving back to his family, he stays there all night, watching the night sky in silence. This simple yet devastating moment is regarded by many as one of the saddest moments in television. The reason why this unassuming, minute-long scene is so soul-crushing is because, for the past seven seasons, Homer had been established as a comic relief character, the butt of jokes, always with something funny to say. The audience have therefore never seen him in such an upsetting scenario before. It also heavily plays on the audience’s emotions as it explores the unparalleled bond between mother and child. The scene is also a testament to the strength of the show’s score, as the music perfectly captured the atmosphere of the moment. It’s a clear reminder of how the show could perfectly balance humour and emotion, and another reason why the show’s early seasons were so admired.
So what led to the show’s downfall? During the show’s golden years, approximately twelve writers would work tirelessly on a single episode, and each episode was subject to multiple re-writes. This maintained a level of scrutiny and consistent quality and ensured that none of the gags seemed lazy or repetitive. There were also fifteen of the show’s original writers working during the show’s highest acclaim, which was up to season seven. By season eight, only five of these writers remained and by season twelve there were only three. The Simpsons’ original creators had moved on to new projects. These series of events marked the show’s decline in quality, comedic value and viewership- households tuning into the show dropped from 13.4 million during season one to 4.8 million by season twenty-eight. Of course, the amount of people watching a show doesn’t necessarily reflect its quality- however, its IMDB ratings show that the 34 highest-rated episodes are all episodes prior to season eight.
By season twelve, characterisations had changed massively. Homer went from a flawed yet likeable working-class family man to a selfish, unfunny caricature of his former self. His flaws- laziness, gluttony and low intelligence- are heightened and over-emphasised, making him more irritating than funny. Moe went from a maniacal bartender and right-wing parody to a pathetic figure, desperate to find a girlfriend. Alcoholic Barney Gumble became tee-total, thus stripping his character of humour and any distinguishable features. While episode plots usually focused around the Simpson family, the minor characters like Groundskeeper Willy, whose sole purpose was comic relief, were given major storylines which were uninteresting and unnecessary.
It is disappointingly obvious that the latest seasons of The Simpsons disregard what made the original series so ground-breaking and successful in the first place. After the show’s decline in quality, its critique of pop culture became celebrity worship, cramming in as many guest appearances into the show as possible. Also- most crucially- it’s simply not funny anymore. The densely-packed comedy and diverse range of gags- black humour, surrealism, slapstick for example- have deteriorated into to forced one-liners. Laugh-out-loud moments are now awkward silences. The show has also resorted to the same tactics it used to parody, like killing-off major characters for effect- most notably, Ned Flanders’ wife Maude in season eleven. Many fans even question whether the show should have been cancelled years ago, when the show first showed signs of declining quality. With the show recently confirmed for its 30th season, the show is clearly still a cash cow for Fox, and it is looking unlikely that the show will be cancelled in the near future.