Matt Groening is fond of recalling how fans of The Simpsons have complained about a decline in the series’ quality from the moment it moved off The Tracey Ullman Show.
That was 1989.
Even Entertainment Weekly, when it compiled its list of the “Top 25” Simpsons episodes in 2003, chose only one episode from this century, with the bulk of its selections centered around Seasons 4, 5, and 6. Recent comments by TV showrunners, and in the media, suggest that scripted series peak in their third seasons. The belief is audiences, and critics, have gotten over their honeymoon with the novelty of a narrative world and grow tired, lashing back at once-fascinating stories. Even on television, familiarity breeds contempt.
What to make then, of a show on the air for 25 seasons, that, despite all reports to the contrary, maintained a consistent level of quality like The Simpsons?
A quarter-century after its inception, The Simpsons is still one of the best comedies on television and FXX is betting big on the show. In November Deadline reported the network spent $750 million to acquire the cable syndication rights and on August 21, they will launch the first-ever Simpsons marathon, broadcasting every episode in order, with a break at 400 to show the movie (otherwise Episode 401’s couch gag would be incomprehensible).
As much as Netflix has been touted for bringing about the age of the binge watch, TV marathons were one of cable’s earliest innovations. Invented by MTV creators Alan Goodman and Fred Seibert during their tenure at Nick at Night, the station would often broadcast continuous episodes of a single show, sometimes showing the same episode multiple times per day.
But this Simpsons marathon is no New Year’s Day, Twilight Zone, SyFy affair, or even the MDA Show of Strength Telethon. There are 552 episodes of The Simpsons. The marathon will last until September 1, almost 12 full days.
Even in the age of the Binge Watch, it’s more than all but the most hardcore fans could endure without catheterization. Barring commercial breaks (or sleep) it would theoretically take about seven days to watch the entire series, which means FXX’s record-setting marathon will include about four or five full days worth of commercials.
And the end-of-summer marathon is only the beginning for the syndicated Simpsons. FXX announced eight-hour themed mini-marathons of the series will broadcast on Sundays leading up to new episodes on Fox. The mini-thons will be thematically organized to complement the new episode.
Of course, one of the lingering questions is which Simpsons will be shown? The original, full length episodes, or the trimmed-down, syndicated versions appearing on Fox affiliates since the ’90s? Not only are episodes sped up to accommodate a shortened syndication run time, but the switch to a widescreen aspect ratio in Season 21 meant recent episode rebroadcasts cut out significant portions of the frame. With more than a minute cut out of the reruns, syndicated episodes often drop entire relevant-to-the-plot scenes and B stories. For example, in “Marge vs. The Monorail,” often considered the best episode of all time, an extended scene with Leonard Nimoy is cut in which the actor explains the mechanics of doors on the USS Enterprise. The syndicated version of Season 20 episode “Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words” trims a full 1 minute and 24 seconds that wrap up Homer’s side business of breaking up Springfieldian couples (after finding out he has a knack for it when helping Edna Krabapple dump Principal Skinner).
After the marathon concludes, fans of the show will be able to access Simpsons World, an online archive of every episode. Available for Android, Apple, and a host of other devices, the service allows fans whose cable providers have a deal with the FX networks to create customized playlists; view an expansive array of trivia, facts, and references; and, most importantly, search and share clips. Hulu currently offers a selection of clips from the most recent seasons and a smattering of the earlier ones, but the gaps are considerable. Except in pirated form, none of the Tracey Ullman Show shorts are available on the web.
The current lack of available Simpsons clips online is distressing. It has often been said the show has an appropriate quote for every occasion, and an inability to access those online has significantly hampered the level of Internet discourse. Not a single political cycle goes by without some major candidate employing the tricks outlined in the series. (Remember John Kerry being accused of flip-flopping on Iraq in 2004? Sideshow Bob threw that rotten tomato at Diamond Joe Quimby in Season 6’s “Sideshow Bob Roberts,” originally broadcast October 9, 1994.)
Critics and fans may say the missing seasons are no great loss. But those critics and fans are quick to praise the shows that spin off, or draw heavily, from those middle years’ talent pool. Both The Office and Parks and Recreation owe a great deal to the Mike Scully years at The Simpsons, with Scully frequently appearing as an irate townsperson in several Leslie Knope-helmed town forums. Dan Greaney, who penned 15 episodes for the series from Season 7 through 25, wrote the lyrics to the fictitious Kazakhstani anthem sung by Sacha Baron Cohen in the movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Matt Warburton, who joined The Simpsons in Season 13, is now a writer and executive producer on The Mindy Project. Bill Oakley, from whom Scully inherited showrunning responsibilities for Seasons 6-8 along with writing partner Josh Weinstein, is a consulting producer on Portlandia. Don Payne, whose work on The Simpsons started in Season 14, went on to write the scripts for both Thor and Thor: The Dark World.
Not to mention that the later seasons featured the return of the very writers and directors, whose departures at the end of Season 3 were taken as one of the first signs of the show’s irreversible decline, specifically Al Jean.
For the last decade, Jean has been the public facing voice of The Simpsons. 99 percent of stories about the show quote the accomplished writer/producer, whose other credits include The Critic, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and ALF. Ironically, his return to the series coincides with what many see as the series straying from its roots, but it was Jean who steered the show back toward reality starting in Season 13. The Scully years, hilarious though they are, included outlandish plots like Homer Simpson fighting a pack of “murderous trolls” posing as horse racing jockeys, or, in the final Scully-produced episode, discovering the corpse of Waylon Smithers’ father when the town quarry is drained with the help of Burly Paper Towels. The return of Al Jean coincided with more-realistic storylines, such as Homer smoking marijuana and choreographing the Super Bowl Hafltime Show or Marge reconnecting with her favorite carnival ride, the carousel horse she nicknamed “Mr. Funnygoodfeeling.”
Part of the perceived decline in quality comes from the critics showing their age. Most reviews of the The Simpsons quote from episodes well within the Entertainment Weekly-approved “golden age.” Some of the recent press has included long-retired catch phrases like “Cowabunga,” “Whoa! Mama!” and “Don’t Have a Cow, Man.”
It’s a shame, because revisiting The Simpsons’ middle years will also give audiences a chance to reacquaint themselves with the show’s most prolific writer, the elusive John Swartzwelder. With 59 episodes credited to his name, Swartzwelder’s reclusiveness led many fans to question his very existence, theorizing the name was a pseudonym shared by the writing team. In the commentary for one episode, the staff phoned the mysterious writer, but the person who answered the phone refuses to confirm or deny whether he was the John Swartzwelder.
His last episode for the series aired in Season 15, but the episodes credited to him, especially in the middle years, are some of the best and most gag-filled: Season 12’s “Simpson Safari,” in which the local supermarket’s bag boys go on strike, Season 9’s “The Cartridge Family,” where Homer buys a gun, and Season 14’s “Mr. Spritz Goes to Washington,” a thorough takedown of the American political system featuring Krusty the Clown’s election to the U.S. Senate (with some help from Fox News). Since leaving the show, Swartzwelder has self-published comedy books. The short titles, including The Exploding Detective, Double Wonderful, and The Time Machine Did It, are revered in comedy, and literary, circles for their unmatchable levels of hilarious absurdity.
However, 25 years on the air have also revealed some glaring problems with the show. The average run-time of episodes has declined from a high of 24 minutes to just under 22, there has yet to be an entire episode devoted to Hans Moleman, and John Waters has yet to return as a guest star (although he does provide commentary on the Season 8 episode “Homer’s Phobia,” in which the acclaimed director appears).
But the most glaring flaw is the decline in female directors. While The Simpsons generally featured only one or two episodes written or directed by women per season, there hasn’t been a female-directed episode of the show since Nancy Kruse’s “MoneyBART” in Season 22.
It is the middle seasons where women directed or wrote some of the most memorable episodes: Season 8’s “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield,” directed by Susie Deiter and written by Jennifer Crittenden, Season 11’s “Last Tap Dance in Springfield,” directed by Nancy Kruse and written by Julie Thacker, and Season 25’s “Luca$,” written by Carolyn Omine. The lack of female representation in the directing and writing of the show is at odds with the series itself, which features some of the most diverse women on television in its cast. From the precursor to Lean-In feminism, Lindsey Naegle (voiced by Tress MacNeille), to the unapologetic sexuality of the recently departed Edna Krabappel (voiced by the late Marcia Wallace), The Simpsons has never shied away from representing women in all their human glory. And that’s just the ancillary characters.
By far, the best and most touching moments of The Simpsons have come from its two most dynamic characters, Marge and Lisa Simpson. Starting with the first season’s “Life on Fast Lane” and the second season’s “Lisa’s Substitute” all the way through to the 23rd season finale “Lisa Goes Gaga,” The Simpsons have thoughtfully commented on a range issues central to modern feminism. Despite being the lowest-rated episode of the series on IMDB.com, the Gaga episode is one of the best in years, its low ranking more likely the result of its rater’s gender. A recent study of IMDB reviews found the community skews heavily male, where “the research... suggests that, for IMDb (re)viewers at least, women continue to be anomalous” with the site “discursively constructed as a male space where male voices and systems of value dominate.”
2014 is also noticeable for being the first year in 20 that The Simpsons did not receive an Emmy nomination, proving once and for all an Emmy is an award so pointless that, like Homer Simpson’s Grammy Award for Outstanding Soul, Spoken Word, or Barbershop, it isn’t even fit for the trash.
It is up to viewers to decide for themselves how the newer episodes of The Simpsons fare compared to the “classics,” and the FXX marathon is the perfect chance. While ratings for the show have declined from a high of 20 million viewers per episode during the golden age, the breakneck pacing and depth of comedy means the cartoon family shines brightest when watched, re-watched, and re-re-watched. Even the most diehard fans didn’t learn the whole Mr. Plow song the first time they saw the fourth-season episode.
And the marathon is only the beginning. The Simpsons will amp things up in September when those close to the show say another major character will permanently die (current speculation indicates it may be Krusty the Clown, although other candidates include: “Grandpa” Abe Simpson, Groundskeeper Willie, Barney Gumble, Sideshow Mel, and Krusty’s father, Rabbi Krustofski). In addition, there will be crossover episodes with the other top dog of Fox’s animated comedy lineup, Family Guy, and Matt Groening’s other animated classic, Futurama (aka The Show So Nice, They Cancelled It Thrice).
As of October, The Simpsons is only renewed through its 26th season. Creators Matt Groening and James L. Brooks say they see no reason to end the series, but they do foresee a day when it becomes too difficult to make. While the 21st season made it the longest-running scripted series on American television, The Simpsons trails Gunsmoke in terms of total episodes. To match that series’ 635 episodes, Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie would have to hang on until Season 29. If anything, it’s too few.