In one of my other posts I lionized The Jeffersons as an unsung american institution by virtue of its long run and steady afterlife in reruns. It may sound contradictory, but I have the opposite feeling about The Simpsons. In fact, it seems the show has become synonymous with the notion of something hanging around beyond its sell-by date, and yet still too popular to euthanize, despite the pleas of so many ex-fans.
There are other shows that lasted a very long time. Gunsmoke ran for 20 years. Bonanza for 14, leading Michael Landon straight into Little House on the Prairie. But The Simpsons puts all of these to shame as it heads into its 28th season.
A key difference between these is that Gunsmoke and Bonanza were westerns and The Simpsons is inextricably tied to the present tense. The older the Simpsons rerun, the more dated the pop-culture references. Here’s one with NSync.
Note that the irrelevance of The Simpsons is different from the phenomenon of Jumping The Shark. That’s not to say The Simpsons hasn’t had Jump the Shark moments, but the format of the show is different from something like Happy Days. Even though Happy Days was a very 70s-like vision of the 50s and early 60s, it was not as directly intertwined with contemporary cultural trends as The Simpsons.
The only other show that is like the Simpsons is South Park, but because SP is a cable show and has an edgier style, it feels more contemporary than The Simpsons, which at its start felt like a modern take on The Flintstones. The Simpsons is continuing to riff on the same nuclear family in suburbia that got its start in the 1950s long after it’s been torn to shreds with the institution of marriage, stay at home motherhood, middle-class home-ownership, and active community involvement.
Part of the problem with The Simpsons in 2016 is that the characters are frozen in time. A show like The Big Bang Theory, now 10 years old, slowly evolved its characters. While one can argue that this bled the humor from them as they became domesticated, it at least provides another layer of progress while following along, shedding old character jokes (like Raj not being able to talk to girls) and inventing new ones (like how Sheldon and Amy navigate their post-coital relationship). The Simpsons, on the other hand, must contend with ever new ways to execute the opening Couch gag, new ways to pound the point home that Homer is dumb, or that Bart is rebellious, or that Mr. Burns is old and heartless.
While there is some comfort that comes from watching these old icons go through the motions once more, and the timelessness of it being animated, where the voices don’t seem to age, there does come a point of ultimate absurdity in spinning the same record again and again. The Jeffersons ran for about a decade, vs. The Simpsons going on its 28th year.
While The Simpsons may be able to earn new fans, it’s difficult for someone like myself who first experienced it as a kid to remain as engaged with the same vigor all these years later. For instance, I still love Led Zeppelin, but I don’t listen to the music much anymore, just because I’ve heard it all (including bootlegs) too many times. Any episode of the Simpsons, despite being new, can’t escape the prison of its own tropes. So it is akin to hearing the same basic tune played over and over again, without a break. The Jeffersons has at least had time to rest and fade into the past and settle as a relic.
You also know that attempts to insert game-changers will never stick, like Marge divorcing Homer. It’s far too late to mess with the Simpsons formula. So there’s no true unpredictability.
There’s a famous interview with John Lennon about the breakup with the Beatles where he talks about how after playing with Paul McCartney for so long he began to predict Paul’s every move, how he would sing, what he would play. The Simpsons is very much like that.
Perhaps I’m more sentimental about The Jeffersons because it was never seen as “important” to the history of pop culture as The Simpsons. It just plugged away, doing its thing quietly, week after week, while The Simpsons were hauling in one A-list celebrity cameo after another.
The best way to think of The Simpsons is through one of The Simpson’s own episodes, where they wind up in Branson, MO, the place where washed-up entertainers go to finish up their careers long after they’ve been forgotten by most.
Remember the stars, you loved yesterday?
Where did they go? Did they all pass away?
Was it drugs or a car crush,
or a face lift gone wrong?
No they’re right here in Branson
and they’re singing, this song!
My name is Charo, I shake my maracas.
Remember me foo, I was BA Baracus.
We’re the performers you thought were dead,
like Bonnie Franklin * and Adrian Zmed.
Branson’s the place we can always be found.
They took NICK at Night and made it a town.
You can call me Ray or you can call me Jay.
Just don’t call me washed up, I do three shows a day.
Charlie Callas doesn’t sleep in the ground.
Yes I’m still alive an I’m making my sound.
vup hi vup hala voop voop.
So sit back, relax, and watch our review!
In Soviet Union, review watches you!
- This song’s own lyrics are outdated, as Bonnie Franklin herself died a few years ago.