“Stop him! He’s suppposed to die!”

Published on June 27th, 2011

Alex breaks down how people think about The Simpsons in 2011.

A weird thing has happened with the cultural perception of The Simpsons, specifically in the last decade or so. Everybody seems to still hold this show with a type of reverence reserved for few cultural products, but these same people only use this reverence as a preface for, “…but the show totally sucks now. They should just stop making it.” The Simpsons has been a transcendent, highly influential, and remarkably funny television show throughout its run, but since its best days are long behind it, most people feel like it should probably just end.

In the past week, I have watched an episode of The Simpsons with two separate groups of friends, and inevitably the conversation lead to somebody talking at length about how embarrassing The Simpsons is now. I would imagine this was what it was like to watch NBC at 11:30 on a Saturday night in the early 1980s, as the  The Simpsons has essentially become Saturday Night Live. While The Simpsons does not appear to have ever reached the lows SNL has, the way The Simpsons is now discussed is strikingly similar to how SNL has been discussed pretty much since Lorne Michaels left the show for the first time in 1980. Everybody whoever worked for the show, as well as fans that have been alive for the show’s entire run, discuss the program as if it were an institution, one that changed television forever. And in each case, that person is correct. Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons are arguably the two most influential comedy shows since SNL came on the air, and the only others that even come close are Seinfeld and maybe Friends. Like SNL, The Simpsons became a cultural phenomenon soon after premiering, has influenced both its genre and media in general, and now is rarely discussed other than when people guess how long the show will be on the air. Other than its die-hard fans, most people who speak about these shows do so only to debate when it will be cancelled, like some twisted death pool of an old friend who moved away. And that is unfortunate.

Maybe these influential shows should have each gone off the air a long time ago, gone the way the late-night talk show should now. Maybe they’re outdated, have outstayed their welcome. I will always defend Saturday Night Live’s existence, but if it went off the air tomorrow I can’t say that I would be particularly upset. That would actually be a good thing for the way culture perceives the show, and the same could be said for The Simpsons. These are two shows that are beloved by the media, and the amount of retrospectives we will get when they eventually do draw to a close will change the way they are perceived almost instantly; most people will forget the bad stuff. We have seen this with the way people speak about SNL’s early years, and how some make it sound like the scripts for early sketches were perfect divine tablets, carried down from a mountaintop to be performed by flawless comedic Messiahs. This is obviously false. Sketch comedy is notoriously hit and miss, and the early years of Saturday Night Live were never immune to this. Similarly, The Simpsons did not start particularly well, as anybody who ever watched those haphazardly-drawn first couple of seasons can attest to. And like the cultural memory of those first years changed as time passed, the cancellation of both shows will similarly help how each is remembered. The opening line of a conversation about The Simpsons or SNL after cancellation will become, “yeah, I know it wasn’t always great, but…” and then this person will list all of the great things the show in question did do. Ending each show will essentially flip the conversation about it; we’ll start saying the bad stuff first, and then monologue about the good stuff.

I’m not arguing for people to stop bashing The Simpsons, nor am I arguing the same for SNL. Don’t like a bad show for what it accomplished in the past. I just don’t see why anybody is surprised that either show still exists, or even more so, why it “totally sucks now.” Any show that runs 20-plus seasons is going to have some down years; that The Simpsons was so good for so long is remarkable. But these shows still exist because while they don’t matter to a lot of us anymore, they matter to somebody, and most importantly, they matter to television. The medium itself has few of its institutions left; even All My Children is going off the air in September. As everything in television is changing, these shows are the few things that are staying the same, and the medium wants to hold onto them as long as possible. While that might be an outdated method of thought, they’ll eventually let go. And when they’re gone, you might miss them, because you’ll finally remember them fondly.

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