Last week the news broke that “The Simpsons” has been renewed for two more seasons making it the longest-running primetime scripted series of all time. Originally airing in 1989, it recently finished off its 31st season and will run through to (at least) 2023 reaching its 34th.
With such a long running show, it’s easy to see the impact it’s made on culture. Online you can barely move for Simpsons memes and references whether it’s Bart hitting Homer over the head with a chair, Marge describing how she thinks potato are neat or the insistence that the Simpsons can predict the future. Outside of the internet, you would be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t recognise the yellow family. It still holds prime spots on Channel 4 and Sky One on weekday evenings and the subreddit r/TheSimpsons has over 360,000 members. “The Simpsons” has been referenced on all walks of television, from fellow cartoons like “South Park” to shows further afield like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and even cross overs with “Futurama”, “Family Guy”, “Bob’s Burgers” and Lego. It’s had guest voices from the likes of Michael Jackson, Paul and Linda McCartney, Leonard Nimoy and Tony Blair. “The Simpsons” is a theme park ride, a UK number 1 single (Do The Bartman in 1991), introduce 7 new words into the dictionary and a cultural phenomenon.
With a show that’s had so much impact you would think people would be overjoyed that it’s continuing into its 34th year. But the release of the news wasn’t met with joy by many. A quick scroll of any Simpsons dedicated social media spaces will tell you many believe it should’ve bowed out at it’s height many years ago. Looking at the Simpsons IMDb scores of the years there is a quick and steady decline from around season 11 onwards, going from its peak season average of just under 8.5 in season 6 to an average of around 6 in Season 30 and AVClub’s reviews dwindled at the bottom of a B grade for Season 31.
But the Simpsons has long been aware of this view. A clip show episode from 2002 ended with the song “They’ll Never Stop The Simpsons” a parody of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel. It features a few potential future plot lines which at the time seemed so far out or boring that they’d never resort to using them. Yet, 19 years later, all of the potential storylines have played out. Furthermore, the Simpsons frequently includes meta jokes showing its aware of itself, making jokes about how it’s “been on TV forever” and Bart acknowledging his repetitions of jokes. Not only are they self-aware but they revel in it.
So with an audience growing weary and a show that seems aware its best years are behind it, why is it still going? Could it just be the ultimate cash cow, wanting to be able to push Simpsons merchandise until the end of time, without it falling into irrelevance? Could it be providing Matt Groening a consistent stream of income to allow him to explore other creative projects like “Disenchantment” and (the dearly missed) “Futurama”? Could it be that they just can’t work out how to end it and are sure however they do it is going to let someone, somewhere down? Or could it just be that it’s 23 minutes where you can pop on the telly, turn off your brain and enjoy a bit of light humour that doesn’t reflect too aggressively on what’s happening today. With the ever increasing, ever more frightening news we see every day, sometimes it’s just nice to sit down and watch a programme that at its heart is about a family, where you always know that by the end of the episode everything is going to be fine.
It may no longer contain the heart of the earlier seasons where characters are more three dimensional, as now it often seems many of them were reduced to their most marketable characteristic (I’m looking at you, Homer). Yet it still brings joy and a sense of comfort and nostalgia to many people, including myself. Maybe I won’t feel the need to watch every episode of each new season as it comes out but I’ll still be glad they’re there if I want them, and I know it’d feel weird to know that there wouldn’t be anymore. In the older episodes it’s easy to see yourself and your family reflected by the Simpsons. By gaining this sentimentality and this realistic slice of family life, it means many people want to see the Simpsons continue. They’re invested in the characteristics and relationships and it’s hard to see that end whether you enjoy what it’s become or not.
The Simpsons cannot run forever, the oldest members of the principle cast are in the 70s and personally I can’t see the show continuing without any of them. But until whenever the Simpsons is brought to an end, as long as you can rely on it for a couple of cheap gags and a commentary on American life, long may the yellow flag fly.