Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Simpsons Turn 400

Tomorrow night Fox will air the 399th and 400th episodes of The Simpsons. To give you an idea of the magnitude of this milestone, only five other American scripted shows outside of soap operas and serials have ever reached the 400 episode mark (Gunsmoke, Lassie, the syndicated series Death Valley Days, The Adventures of Ozzy and Harriet, and Bonanza). Currently, only one other series is even close to 400 episodes, the original Law and Order (which hit the 393 mark this season). The Simpsons was already the longest running American animated series of all time and the longest running American sitcom.

The Simpsons originated when producer James L. Brooks approached Matt Groening about doing a series of animated shorts for The Tracy Ullman Show. Initially, they had wanted to adapt his comic strip Life in Hell for the shorts, but Groening not particularly wanting to sign away his life's work instead created rough sketches of a family for the pitch. The Simpsons made their debut on The Tracey Ullman Show in shorts aired before and after commercial breaks, on April 29, 1987 (which is another milestone the Simpson family reached this year--they turned 20). The original shorts were very crude and the Simpsons only vaguely resembled the characters they are now. Indeed, in some respects they looked very scary. As The Tracy Ullman Show progressed, however, the animation became more sophisticated and the Simpsons started to resemble themselves as we now know them. By the second season The Simpsons shorts had become popular enough that the Simpsons were now given credit in the opening titles of The Tracey Ullman Show. By 1989 The Simpsons shorts had become so popular that Fox decided to spin them off into their own show. The Simpsons debuted on December 17, 1989.

By 1990 The Simpsons had become an outright phenomenon. The Simpsons merchandise was flying off the shelves that year, with everything from action figures to t-shirts. At that time much of the attention was focused on Bart, who was then the most popular character on the show. Of course, this would change as time passed. Eventually Homer would out pace Bart in popularity, and the series would expand its focus from the family to the community of Springfield itself.

Amazingly, given the animated series that have come in its wake (South Park, The Family Guy), The Simpsons stirred up some controversy in its early days. Parent's groups and media watchdogs felt Bart was a poor role model for children. George Bush, then President at the time, even made the comment, "We're going to keep trying to strengthen the American family. To make them more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons." His wife, Barbara Bush, said that The Simpsons was "the dumbest thing I've ever seen on television." The Simpsons T-shirts were banned from some schools. The controversy would eventually fade, but what the show's critics failed to realise was that, as dysfunctional as the Simpsons could be, in many respects they were one of the most ideal portrayals of a family on television. For all their faults, the Simpsons do love each other, to the point of sacrificing their own happiness for their others. Indeed, in my opinion the relationship between Bart and Lisa is one of the sweetest portrayals of a brother and sister's relationship ever on television. Quite simply, The Simpsons was not Married...with Children.

At the time I must confess that I did not think The Simpsons would last. While I loved the show, I believe that it had two things going against it. The first was that in 1990 it was shaping up into a fad show, and sadly fad shows do not last. At four seasons The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had a long life for a fad show. Most fad shows don't even make it that long. The Sixties series Batman only lasted two and a half seasons. Twin Peaks had a briefer lifespan; it survived only a little over a year. It seems that once the fad burns itself out and people lose interest, a fad show is history. The second thing is that it is an animated series. Prior to The Simpsons, The Flintstones were the longest running primetime animated show, at six seasons. Most primtetime animated series didn't last nearly as long. The Jetsons, arguably one of the most popular animated series of all time, only lasted one season in primetime. So did the more serious Johnny Quest. Some didn't even make it that long. Where's Huddles ran only for ten episodes during the summer of 1971. It was not picked up for the 1971-1972 season. Between being what appeared to me was a fad show at the time and an animated series at that, I thought at most The Simpsons had three seasons of life in it, no matter how brilliant it was.

Fortunately, I was wrong. The Simpsons has not only lasted 18 seasons, but it has remained huge in syndicated reruns over the years. On July 27 of this year, they will finally hit the big screen in The Simpsons Movie. The show has changed a good deal over the years. I do think that it lost its way somewhere around season 12 and I have not regularly watched it since. Sadly, I do think it is one of those shows that has outlived its welcome. But in its prime The Simpsons was easily one of the most brilliant shows on television, capable of satire and parody no live action series had ever dared. Even having gone downhill from what it was, The Simpsons still ranks as one of the greatest shows of all time.

Indeed, perhaps there is no greater testament to The Simpsons than its impact on culture. While the word "D'oh!" existed before The Simpsons, it was that show which made it so popular that the Oxford New English Dictionary had to give it an entry. Naturally, the show had a huge impact on television. Since the Sixties animated series had been rare in primetime. This was understandable given the failure of so many primetime animated series in the Sixties. But The Simpsons showed that animated shows could be successful in primetime, thus paving the way for Futurama, King of the Hill, and a number of other primetime animated shows. The Simpsons even had an impact on live action shows. Ricky Gervais has admitted that The Simpsons was an influence on the original, British show The Office.

It is difficult to tell how much longer The Simpsons will last. The show has dropped from its peak in the Nineties, but it still attracts more people aged 18 to 49 than any other in its time slot, the age bracket Madison Avenue desires the most. It is quite possible it could become the longest running show of all time. Regardless, it has already made more marks in television history than most TV shows.


d. chedwick bryant said...

Great Post! I'm glad that D'oh is now a "real" word --people have been using it for soooo long now!

Sheila West said...

I have never hated The Simpsons, just never bothered with it much. I do like every episode I have ever seen though (which hasn;t been many--maybe a dozen at most). Of the few I have seen, they are alwasy fun and witty. Always have a biting social commentary to make.