The Simpsons is one of the most beloved comedies of all time. Recipient of over 34 Emmys, it has run for over thirty years, and frequently makes the ‘Best TV Ever’ lists. However most of these lists come with a clause: ‘The Simpsons, Seasons 1-12’. Indeed, many would like to see it cancelled, due to its increasingly poor scripts, problematic characters and cultural irrelevance. This is a possibility which seems ever more distant as the series has been recommissioned for its 33rd and 34th seasons. But does modern day Simpsons really deserve the ire it gets?
A key failing is, increasingly, the storylines. What began as a grounded exploration of a regular middle-class American family, satirising sitcom tropes and conventions, has become a bloated, fantastical and strange show, trapped between genres. Neither a children’s cartoon nor adult sitcom, The Simpsons circles around deep topics such as divorce and death without tackling them head on. It is equally unable to stray from the adult comedy premise which made it a success, but no longer has the capacity to deal with its topics. Increasingly lazy plotlines have taken hold as a result. Multiple travel episodes have been produced with diminishing returns, occasionally having the characters literally travel to a country, make some poor jokes, and leave.
Other humour focuses on issues pertinent to the LA-based, middle-aged writing team, or is that of young writers whose work has been rehashed into flavourless mush through the writers room. The individuality and relatability of early Simpsons shows—where you could tell a Swartzwelder from an Oakley and Weinstein—is long gone. Other ground is retrodden in episodes that steal plotlines from nearly twenty years before, and badly. The most recent 700th episode was yet another retread of the ‘Homer and Marge have an argument and break up’ storyline, which made its first appearance in season one’s ‘Homer’s Night Out’. The Simpsons are trapped by their longevity.
These issues have been exacerbated by the show’s floating timeline. No character can ever age, meaning that ten year-old Bart is given storylines better suited to a teenager (in one episode he believes that he has gotten a girl pregnant) and eight year-old Lisa the politics of a college student. Whilst these older characteristics were part of these characters from the start, they have become all-encompassing, and in doing so, made the show less realistic.
The timeline also no longer makes sense; Principal Skinner still refers to having served in the Vietnam War, but is in his forties, meaning he would have been born at least five years after the war ended. Homer is now a teenager in the 90s, which manages to ruin the continuity of episodes broadcast ten years ago, such as ‘That 90s Show’, which updated Homer and Marge’s story to being college students in 1990s. The house Homer and Marge live in is no longer affordable for people in their social status, but the show cannot change the iconic house or their characters without straying from the formula. Such flagrant timeline abuse could be worked with if the stories were strong enough – they are not.
“The Simpsons is no longer good. At its peak, it was one of the freshest, funniest and most heartfelt shows on the box. What remains is a poorly written, tonally inconsistent, temporally ridiculous and inherently problematic programme with an excellent cast.”
These aspects have also impacted the reception of certain characters. The controversy over Apu, that began in 2017 with the release of documentary The Problem with Apu, has been badly handled by the show, who only acknowledged that there was a problem during the Black Lives Matter movement. An earlier episode had stressed on-screen that they ‘wouldn’t address’ Apu’s problematic elements, despite the willingness of actor Hank Azaria to give up the role, with many seeing the newly implemented casting changes as a meaningless gesture.
Apu, and many of the other minority characters, have also been treated poorly in recent years. Early Simpsons episodes treated Apu as more than just a stereotype, and at least made the attempt to use his character to explore the stories of American immigrants, as in the satirical gem ‘Much Apu About Nothing’, or to flesh out his reasons for working at the Kwik-E-Mart. Even if the effect was still problematic, the intention was there, on some level, to write interesting stories about the immigrant experience.
However, Apu has descended into increasingly shoddily thrown together Indian stereotypes, as have other POC characters such as Doctor Hibbert, or LGBTQ characters such as Smithers, whose homosexuality has been equated with being transgender on multiple occasions, with no real insight into these topics. The refusal to acknowledge the problematic origins of these characters, as well as the modern-day disservice to them, suggests The Simpsons is a programme whose writers no longer care, and who are unwilling to change the status quo or experiment – to the detriment of the show.
The Simpsons is no longer good. At its peak, it was one of the freshest, funniest and most heartfelt shows on the box. What remains is a poorly written, tonally inconsistent, temporally ridiculous and inherently problematic programme with an excellent cast. A season thirteen episode entitled ‘They’ll Never Stop the Simpsons’ used to be a cheeky nod to the show’s longevity. Now it seems like a threat.
Words by Issy Flower
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