Ay caramba!

Once con­sid­ered crude and sub­ver­sive, The Simp­sons are a cul­tural touch­stone about to be­gin its 26th sea­son by killing off a ma­jor character

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Scott Collins

CON­SER­VA­TIVES branded it an as­sault on fam­ily val­ues. The na­tion’s drug czar warned re­cov­er­ing ad­dicts not to watch it. Schools barred cloth­ing fea­tur­ing its images. But when pre­mières its 26th sea­son Sun­day, TV’s long­est-run­ning prime­time se­ries will have the last laugh. Fox’s an­i­mated com­edy about a mid­dle-class clan headed by a lov­ably dim-wit­ted pa­tri­arch named Homer has grown into one of Amer­ica’s defin­ing cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions. It’s also be­come a com­mer­cial be­he­moth worth more than $12 bil­lion, with a boom­ing mer­chan­dise line sell­ing ev­ery­thing from branded Lego sets to fash­ion ac­ces­sories to toy cars. Beyond the num­bers, The Simp­sons also changed en­ter­tain­ment, hurl­ing pop-cul­tural savvy and know­ing irony into prime time and open­ing an­i­ma­tion — for­merly a Satur­day-morn­ing TV ghetto for kids — as a play­ground for adults as well. Ex­pres­sions such as “’D’oh!” and “Woo-hoo!” en­tered the lex­i­con. And the se­ries launched a wave of suc­ces­sors, in­clud­ing Fam­ily Guy, South Park and Car­toon Net­work’s smash Adult Swim fran­chise. “His­tor­i­cally, an­i­ma­tion had been pretty much aimed at chil­dren,” said Matt Groen­ing, the show’s cre­ator. “No­body quite knew how to han­dle a car­toon that was aimed at adults.” Sud­denly, “fam­ily en­ter­tain­ment didn’t have to have jokes for the youngest mem­ber of the fam­ily,” he added. “There were jokes that adults would get.” Many of the younger adults now sought by ad­ver­tis­ers weren’t even born when the se­ries pre­miѐred in 1989. The show has man­aged to thrive even amid ac­cu­sa­tions of cre­ative de­cline and ebbing num­bers for net­work TV over­all. When The Simp­sons de­buted, Fox was a scrappy fourth net­work, and barely half of U.S. house­holds had ac­cess to cable TV. In 2013, 83 per cent of Amer­i­can house­holds were pay­ing for mul­ti­chan­nel TV through a pay ser­vice, ac­cord­ing to the Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Assn. Prime time, a ter­ri­tory Groen­ing & Co. once had to them­selves, is now chock-a-block with an­i­mated of­fer­ings from Rick and Morty to Bob’s Burg­ers. The Simp­sons has also sur­vived sev­eral testy salary dis­putes for the ac­tors who voice Homer, wife Marge, dis­obe­di­ent and sar­cas­tic son Bart, smart, veg­e­tar­ian daugh­ter Lisa and (the mostly silent) in­fant Mag­gie, as well as the other sev­eral hun­dred char­ac­ters who live in fic­tional Spring­field. Those per­form­ers were mak­ing more than $400,000 per episode, or more than $10 mil­lion per year, be­fore an es­ti­mated 30 per cent cut­back in 2011. That longevity was hardly fore­see­able when The Simp­sons pre­miered on Dec. 17, 1989. The char­ac­ters were cre­ated by Groen­ing, a Los An­ge­les-based car­toon­ist then best known for an absurdist comic strip called Life in Hell, which ap­peared in al­ter­na­tive pa­pers across the na­tion and be­came a hit among col­lege stu­dents. Key to its ap­peal was rein­vent­ing the car­toon for­mat with a so­phis­ti­cated sense of ab­surd com­edy, some­thing that would later be cru­cial to The Simp­sons. James L. Brooks, the TV pro­ducer who was a guid­ing force be­hind The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Hell. cul­ture, The Simp­sons is among the ex­cep­tions. Com­edy writ­ers no­ticed the im­pact The Simp­sons was hav­ing. One of them was a young standup comic, Seth MacFar­lane, who went on to cre­ate Fam­ily Guy, which prof­itably ex­panded on The Simp­sons for­mula. To­gether, both shows an­chor Fox’s lu­cra­tive Sun­day-night an­i­ma­tion lineup. The ques­tion now is how long Fox will keep Spring­field and its most fa­mous fam­ily alive. Some crit­ics have charged that the show’s glory days are long past, that in re­cent years pro­duc­ers have traded away a fo­cus on character de­vel­op­ment and sharp satire to load up in­stead on silly gags and celebrity guest stars. Rat­ings have steadily de­clined, from 27.8 mil­lion in Sea­son 1 to 13.5 mil­lion in Sea­son 10, 6.9 mil­lion in Sea­son 20 and down to 5.7 mil­lion in the last year’s Sea­son 25. That ero­sion isn’t un­com­mon, how­ever, in broad­cast TV. The writ­ers have cho­sen to kick off the land­mark 26th sea­son with the death of a well-known character. Al Jean, the writer-pro­ducer who has su­per­vised day-to-day pro­duc­tion of The Simp­sons for years, prom­ises the character will stay dead. “We try to come up with new an­gles on fa­mil­iar top­ics and tell jokes that we haven’t told be­fore,” Groen­ing said, ad­mit­ting: “It’s hard after 552 episodes of a fam­ily that never ages to keep those sur­prises com­ing.” On the other hand, “I still don’t see an end to the show,” he added. “Ev­ery year, it seems like we got another chance to keep go­ing.”


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