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