Al­most three decades af­ter its premiere, ‘The Simp­sons’ still matters

Business Standard - - WORLD - BRIAN TALLERICO

For the past three decades, there has been one con­stant in Amer­ica’s com­edy land­scape: The Simp­sons. With that an­i­mated sit­com now ap­proach­ing the start of its 30th sea­son, on Septem­ber 30, it’s a good time to re­flect on how The Simp­sons has evolved dur­ing its un­par­al­leled run, and how each era in that evo­lu­tion has re­flected — or failed to re­flect — the state of com­edy, and of the cul­ture, as a whole.

Nei­ther The Simp­son­snor history has stood still since the show de­buted in 1989. The first fam­ily of Spring­field has wit­nessed five Amer­i­can pres­i­dents, the dawn of the in­ter­net age, the end of the Cold War, at least two pro­longed con­flicts in the Mid­dle East, ter­ror­ist at­tacks, nat­u­ral dis­as­ters and more. And while Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Mag­gie have stayed the same age, what the world finds funny has changed — in no small part be­cause of those char­ac­ters’ in­flu­ence. Al­most thirty years af­ter its premiere, The Simp­sons still matters.

Here is a bro­ken down the history of “The Simp­sons” into six dis­tinct eras, based on the ways its hu­mor has changed over the years. We’ve also rec­om­mended the episodes that best rep­re­sent each era.

The warm-up: The shorts Char­ac­ters on The Simp­sons first found their voices (and early sense of hu­mor) in shorts that ac­com­pa­nied Fox’s The Tracey Ull­man Show from 1987 to 1989. The cre­ator of The Simp­sons, Matt Groening, orig­i­nally planned to adapt his pop­u­lar “Life is Hell” comic strip into bumpers for the show, but balked upon dis­cov­er­ing he would have to give up the rights to his cre­ation. Thus the Simp­son fam­ily was born.

It all started on April 19, 1987, with “Good Night” — 47 more shorts were cre­ated over the next two years. They’re clearly per­sonal — Groening named and mod­eled the char­ac­ters af­ter his own fam­ily — and re­mark­ably crude. As Groening told the BBC, he sub­mit­ted hand-drawn sketches to his an­i­ma­tion team and was stunned when they just traced over what he gave them.

How­ever, even in “Good Night,” you can see the roots of the Simp­sons’ quirky sub­ver­sion of the mod­ern Amer­i­can TV fam­ily. We watch as Homer and Marge try to put their kids to bed, but in­stead of com­fort­ing the kids, they trau­ma­tize them; all three chil­dren wind up shiv­er­ing in Marge and Homer’s bed. That idea that a wellmean­ing ac­tion can go hor­ri­bly awry be­came a foun­da­tion of “Simp­sons” hu­mour.

The foun­da­tion: Sea­sons 1-2 The first two sea­sons of The Simp­sons es­tab­lished much about what peo­ple still know and love about the show. View­ers above a cer­tain age will re­mem­ber when a skate­board­ing Bart cov­ered every type of mer­chan­dise imag­in­able, and this bril­liant Sea­son 2 episode plays with that iconog­ra­phy. It also sub­verted the TV com­edy con­ven­tions of its time — when this episode de­buted, Fam­ily Matters, Full House, The Cosby Show and Empty Nest were Top 15 pro­grammes. Is it any won­der that some groups saw a back-talk­ing child and a beer-drink­ing father as a threat?

But The Simp­sons wouldn’t have worked if it were merely thumb­ing its nose at the Huxta­bles. It worked be­cause, in many ways, the Simp­sons were more re­lat­able — they didn’t hide their flaws. We could all re­mem­ber want­ing to do some­thing dan­ger­ous, and par­ents could un­der­stand Homer’s con­flict be­tween not want­ing Bart to die ... and also think­ing that his plan to jump Spring­field Gorge on his skate­board sounded pretty cool. The phys­i­cal hu­mor of Homer’s ex­tended plum­met down the gorge only so­lid­i­fied this episode as one of the se­ries’s best.

The prime: Sea­sons 3-8

You could make the case that there was no bet­ter pro­gram in the ’90s than The Simp­sons, and its best sea­sons are among the finest of any show in any era. Se­in­feld is fre­quently cred­ited for re­defin­ing the sit­com but, in these sea­sons, The Simp­son­swas just as trans­for­ma­tive. No longer was edge-push­ing hu­mor rel­e­gated to ex­plic­itly “adult” shows like Mar­ried ... With Chil­dren. The Simp­sons proved it could be in­cor­po­rated into the fam­ily dy­namic in a way that made it fun­nier, smarter and even more truth­ful.

While there may be laugh-out­loud fun­nier episodes from this era, few get at the themes that de­fine the best of The Simp­sons while also il­lus­trat­ing the ge­nius of its writ­ers bet­ter than Last Exit to Spring­field. What other show could ref­er­ence Last Exit to Brook­lyn, Yel­low Sub­ma­rine, The God­fa­ther Part II, Ci­ti­zen Kane and The Grinch Who Stole Christ­mas in a way that doesn’t feel forced or, as with so many of the show’s im­i­ta­tors, gra­tu­itous. Roseanne got a lot of at­ten­tion in the ’90s for rep­re­sent­ing mid­dle-class Amer­ica, but Homer’s fight here to keep his union’s den­tal plan is as cleareyed as any­thing that se­ries did. And like many of the best episodes, “Last Exit to Spring­field” ends on a mov­ing note with­out feel­ing ma­nip­u­la­tive: Lisa wields a gui­tar in protest, singing, “They have the plant, but we have the power,” and we’re re­minded of how of­ten Homer strives for the bet­ter­ment of his kids. This is as good as The Simp­sons, or tele­vi­sion re­ally, gets.

The Simp­sons is cred­ited with re­defin­ing tele­vi­sion con­tent in the 1990s

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