The Rise and Fall of the Simpsons

The Simpsons is the most influential show in modern television history. Coming at a time before the interweb tubes became a global pronography distributon matrix, the Simpsons competed only with a few cable channels for TV watchers. First Lady Barbara Bush called it “the stupidest thing she had ever seen,”  and amusingly, many said that Fox had hit rock bottom.

The show debuted to the best rating in Fox Network history.

It didn’t take longer than a single season for the Simpsons to become a top rated show in all demographics. An emboldened Fox put up against the legendary Cosby Show on a Sunday timeslot, and Simpsons merchandise started appearing everywhere. The early episodes would feature some of the best talents in comedy and animation. Brad Bird, Conan O’Brien, and John Swartzwelder made episodes so quotable dental plan, that they still get dental plan today. Lisa needs braces.

Simpsons RatingsBut it was not to last. After nine excellent seasons (the first season normally gets a pass) the quality started to dip. Many claim that the second episodes of the ninth season: The Principal and the Pauper, was a harbinger of trouble ahead. Even mentioning the episodes is taboo in the Simpsons writing room. Others point to the Boy band episode “New Kids on the BLECH” as the point where the creators first felt comfortable releasing a joke free episode.


Swartzwelder being depicted as mentally ill in “Hurricane Neddy”



Whatever the “last best episode” is for you, the consensuses of the all-knowing internet is that the ninth season was a Berlin Wall quality for the show. By the time the Regina monologues episode airhed in season fifteen, marginally sane John Swartzwelder could no longer be persuaded to even interact with the Simpsons crew. Swartzwelder, the shows most prolific writer, would appear only in reference form on the show: an inside joke for the makers themselves.


The question is why. Why did such a great show lose its luster? By understanding why the show is no longer great we can hopefully understand what made it great in the first place.




This trope is so well known it is now in common use amongst TV writers. The process of “Flanderization” refers to the slow but pernicious changes visited upon Homer’s hapless neighbor Ned Flanders. At first, Ned was just a goody two shoes neighbor whose kind nature and slight religiosity made him an easy mark for Homers crapulence. Over time, Flanders became a religious fanatic who speaks in tongues and assures his children that he would rather “put rocks in their pockets and walk them out to sea” than let them be raised by a gay relative.

Of course, Flanders is not alone. Homer becomes  increasingly oafish and selfish to the point where the audience no longer desires, much less invests in, the continuation of his marriage to marge. Lisa is no longer on her earnest journey of discovery, but rather seems to actually know-it-all, making her a foil of the political and practical ignorance of the shows other characters.

Even Maggie, characterized by her silence, is now totally mute. Now that the sit-com elements have been discarded, no family dynamic is deemed necessary.

Mike Scully

Scully started as the writer of several classic episodes such as “Lisa on Ice.”  and ‘Lisa’s Rival.” He explained these episodes as reliving the horrors of his childhood, and that may be the best hint as to why they were good episodes. After decades of Simpsons and South Park episodes, viewers have learned that the best episodes are about the shared experiences of childhood. seeing innocence challenged, and the power of that innocence triumph over cynicism has been the theme of the most memorable episode of both series. The lowest points for both shows were when they wallowed in this cynicism themselves; populating their episodes with trendy celebrities and hurtful, ugly humor.

It would be cruel to lay the Flanderization of Homer at Scully’s feet alone. The character did not improve later, and in fact, other writers became concerned after they made him still self-sympathetic (the writers claim the angriest letters come right after an episode where Homer is mean to Lisa).

When Mike became showrunner, he infamously dumbed down the show. Disappointed his own kids didn’t find the show funny, he scrubbed much of the satire and replaced it with Homer acting like a buffoon.  No matter what the cause, he oversaw the transformation of Homer from lovable simpleton to the “Jerkass” Homer of post season 10 episodes.


However you feel about Seth MacFarlene’s takeover of animated comedy, his juxtapositional style, or general vulgarity, no one can deny that his form of comedy is not what you sign up for when you watch the Simpsons. After years of criticism and outright accusations of theft by Simpsons staff, they began emulating his style.  Cut aways and non-sequiturs are now commonplace. Lazy reference to pop culture icons have replaced real gags.


Celebrity Fetish


When you have Simon Cowell judging babies as the premise of an episode, it’s time to look in the mirror and ask yourself what you’re doing with your show.  It’s too easy to blame the cultural celebrity obsession for the endless parade of walk-ons, cameos, and guest appearances, but those appearances began t substitute for story. The ego’s of the talent competed with the determination of each scene’s humor and appropriateness.  The best celebrity appearances were the ones where the star were not even billed. Michael Jackson and Dustin Hoffman contributed their talents as central to the plot.



After so may episodes, keeping the show fresh and finding new ways for the main characters to interact will inevitably become a challenge. This is a challenge for TV writers of all stripes, and it’s hard to say if the writers of the show could have done a better job. The decision to keep all characters locked in at the same age resulted in the Simpson siblings being involved in ever more adult situations.  Self referential humor was also unavoidable, and not even necessarily undesirable. Loyal viewers deserve to be rewarded, but too often these moments served as filler.


Ren and Stimpy creator John K, a competitor in the first “cartoon wars” shows no hard feelings by giving us his interpretation of the Simpsons family.


Symptomatic of the shows creative bankruptcy is the stark difference between the shows intro couch gags and the lackluster material to follow. Guest cartoonists, not yet bled dry, give tantalizing peaks at what the Simpsons could do if the shows decision makers were willing to take chances.


Ultimately, it’s not the low joke density or reliance on bottom shelf pop culture that spelled mediocrity for the Simpsons: it’s the shows increasing inability to make an emotional connection with the audience. It’s as if all the emotional resonance the Simpsons was supposed to have bled into the oft canceled Futurama. The resulting imbalance in the Groening universe made the one show absurd and the other feel manipulative. Jim Brooks and Matt Groening had a vision of show about family that, by coincidence, took the form of an animated show. In this clip Conan O’Brian talks about how he came into the show wanting to be a joke machine, until he saw that this would have a heart, and to his mind, that is what made the show special.

As The Simpsons fades obviously yet unimaginably into obscurity, the tragedy of the process is somehow diminished by an agonized pace. Robotic chickens will mine our childhoods and coin those memories into gold. Macfarlane’s manifest disinterest in his own work will not stop the continuation of his madcap, soulless shows. The great temptation is to think that “has been” is “could be again”.

We must protect our feelings. The best we dare hope for is a new show with new writers that will write in an old way. The current courseness will fade, as it faded in the 70’s into the newly nieve 1980’s. George Meyer, perhaps the most respected of the Simpsons writers, put it this way: “I thought sincerity and individuality were going to be the next wave of comedy. Obviously I underestimated cynicism’s appeal.”


Good Things

  • United a troubled country
  • Subversive satire cathartic
  • Best. Show. Ever.

Bad Things

  • Touched our heart, Nothing gives it that right
  • Nobody better lay a finger on sell out Marketing
  • It couldn't Last

The Breakdown

First nine seasons. The Golden age of classic episodes.
Seasons 10 through 14. Losing ground.
Season 15. Good season. Al Jean rescues a season.
Seasons 16 to 20, The Dark Ages
Season 20 to present day. I have to admit it's getting better.