March 21 will mark a tragic milestone in popular culture. On that day the 700th episode of the The Simpsons is due to air in the US. The world, it is fair to say, is not counting down the minutes. If anything the world is more likely to avert its gaze as what was once the greatest comedy in the history of TV plods ever deeper into its eternal twilight. And now comes news The Simpsons has been renewed for a further two seasons (at least), taking it up to 2023.
Moaning about how bad The Simpsons has become has been a popular pursuit as far back as the late Nineties. It is one of those ongoing declines that threatens to spiral into perpetuity – the cartoon equivalent of Oasis’s post-Be Here Now album run or George Lucas’s prequel Star Wars movies.
What’s strange is that everyone appears to be in on the (non) joke about its obsolescence apart from the people who make The Simpsons. The jig was already long up when The Simpsons movie came out and Homer delivered that ridiculous Spider-Pig song. And that was 14 years ago – a 12 year old who went to see it with their parents would now be 26. For their entire adult lives, The Simpsons has been near unwatchable.
Homer’s odyssey is now in its 32nd season. This makes it the longest-running prime time US show in history (it eclipsed Gunsmoke three years ago). And yet series by series the adventures of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie have become less funny, more desperate – and simultaneously more formulaic and an ever greater rejection of the original Simpsons spirit. And nobody at Fox has the courage to end its suffering.
Instead, The Simpsons is consistently coming up with new ways to betray its legacy. Homer has morphed from relatable every-lunk – a tragedy in whom we could all see reflections of ourselves – into an American Idiot on steroids. The same arc can be traced with Bart (from lovable scamp to Lost Boy sociopath refusing to grow up) and Lisa (from endearingly precocious to laser-guided annoying).
The Simpsons still just about turns a profit for Fox (and provides new content for Disney +, which holds streaming rights). Alas, audiences have long since fled. Season 12 drew a US viewership of 15 million. Last year, it was a paltry 3.5 million. Enough to justify its continuation if one sets aside the moral imperative to finally put it out of its misery.
It isn’t true to say that The Simpsons no longer engages with the zeitgeist. Every so often it rises up from obscurity and grabs a headline or two. Unfortunately these moments in the sun tend to be connected to its history of racial insensitivity.
In 2018, the conversation was around the Indian character Apu, voiced by Hank Azaria in a stereotypical fashion that in the UK went out of style in the Seventies. The Simpsons’s initial response to the criticism was to go full “Boomer”, with series creator Matt Groening taking aim at a “culture where people love to pretend they’re offended”.
Astonishingly, his intervention failed to quieten detractors. And so Azaria, who has played the Kwik-E-Mart proprietor since 1989, stepped away. This was followed by the recent announcement that Harry Shearer is no longer to voice African-American Dr Hibbert (modelled on Bill Cosby’s Cosby Show character – a reference that now feels more ancient than the Rosetta Stone). The role will instead go to Family Guy’s Kevin Michael Richardson (who is African-American).
“Times change,” Groening told the BBC in February in an interview that suggested he hadn't quite processed why people found Apu – full name Apu Nahasapeemapetilon – offensive. “But I actually didn’t have a problem with the way we were doing it. All of our actors play dozens of characters each, it was never designed to exclude anyone.”
At its peak nothing could touch The Simpsons. Homer at the Bat, Marge v the Monorail, Homer Goes To College – these are some of the funniest moments ever aired on prime time. But those classic episodes are now going on 30 years old. In real life, Bart would today be in his 40s and Homer and Marge long since retired. And the magic of those early seasons has proved impossible to sustain, as new generations of writers joined the production and brought with them a comedic sensibility ever further removed from the delicious mix of sarcasm and sincerity that initially fuelled the show.
Students of comedy have spent hours explaining why The Simpsons stopped being funny (there are a multitude of videos delving into the subject on YouTube). But the ultimate facts are that we used to all laugh at The Simpsons but now, when we remember it at all, it is with a sense of despair and even pity.
The hope can only be that, after the present two-series extension, Fox dohs! the right thing and lets it gracefully ascend to the big TV screening room in the sky. Homer, Marge and the kids have been trapped in purgatory far too long.