Parody of Stephen King’s It in episode five, Season 34

How the internet killed The Simpsons

Nicholas Clairmont has avidly viewed more than 750 episodes of the comedy about the residents of Springfield — but won’t be watching any more

This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Virtually any die-hard Simpsons fan will tell you he or she does not watch The Simpsons and hasn’t for years. For my sins (OK, out of sheer obsessive completism), I am not amongst them.

I started watching when I was young enough that my parents weren’t sure they should let me, every weeknight at 6:30. This was before you could get any episode of anything at a click. I remember being excited when the box sets of DVDs started being slowly released one season at a time, so I could be sure I really had seen every episode.

At some point, I went to the Museum of Television and Radio in New York to go to the archives to catch the old shorts that had premiered on The Tracey Ullman Show. No Simpsons content would go unconsumed. And it still doesn’t. That’s how I ended up watching the most recently aired complete season of the show, Season 34.

Opinion amongst critics and fans alike has more or less coalesced around the golden age being seasons 4 through 8. Things were OK for a few seasons more, spotty after that, and unwatchable thereafter. I think this is limited. There were occasional great episodes in the mid-teen seasons. By the twenty-somethings, there was still a great joke here and there. Every single season, including the 35th one currently in the middle of its run, keeps up the tradition of hilarious signs that pop up on stores in the background for us obsessive weirdos to spot and enjoy.

It cannot be stressed enough, however, how much Season 34 sucks. The first episode sees Homer joining an online conspiracy group to find a missing zoo animal. At the heart of the episode is a profoundly ham-handed attempt to “understand” QAnon-like internet-organised conspiracy groups using cliches from MSNBC, worse than if the show had just said that people believe this stuff because they are stupid and bad at heart. Another episode has Marge getting an internet-enabled exercise bike like a Peloton and developing a crush on the instructor.

Episode 7 sees Duffman trying to reconnect with a long-lost adult daughter, only to learn that he should not use the phrase “as the father of a daughter”. (He apparently didn’t read Slate or Jezebel in 2017, the brute.) In Episode 8, Moe toasts “unprocessed trauma”.

Episode 9 features a vision of Lisa’s romantic future with her early-seasons crush Nelson, but she’s torn because she’s in a love triangle with a San Francisco tech billionaire founder-type guy trying to woo her back with apps and drones. Episode 12 sees the Simpsons become YouTube content creators who vlog their way into the drama of the story.

In Episode 14, Carl declares he is “confused about my racial identity” in a story that serves as a weird look at whether it is bad to be friends with people of different races. Ugly stereotypes abound, Marge says, “Let’s explore your unacknowledged privilege” and the African-American historian “Skip” Gates is called in.

Episode 19 sees Marge and Lisa start a charity only to see that the nonprofit industrial complex really just exists to help rich people cheat on taxes, which is true, but tax accounting exemptions do not make for great comedy. At the end, like a bad undergraduate thesis, Mr Burns suggests that the government and not lots of “micro-bureaucracies” should handle do-goodery.

Matt Groening

In Episode 20, if you didn’t already get the problem, it will smack you in the face. A Covid-like infestation (of caterpillars) strikes Springfield, and the residents are locked down. Worse, the Simpsons lose the password to their streaming account. “We’re trapped inside with each other, with nothing to stream!” This is now The Simpsons’s social critique in the age of smart tech and social networking as understood by urban professional class college graduates, and it’s dumb.

There is not a single joke in it as good as newsman Kent Brockman reading an election result in Season 6 and adding, “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Democracy simply doesn’t work.” Or as politically provocative as that in Season 4 when Bart and Lisa submit to the “Itchy and Scratchy” TV show scripts that they have written in Grampa Simpson’s name and ask him, “Didn’t you wonder why you were getting cheques for doing absolutely nothing?” to which Grampa responds, “I figured it was because the Democrats were in power again.”

It’s not that the show is now exolling the virtues of one ideology or another so much as that its ideological constraints seem to keep it from having just weird and creative fun (you know, comedy).

To understand what went wrong requires some Simpsons history. The show concluded Season 34 with its 750th episode, making it not only the longest-running cartoon or sitcom but also the longest-running scripted prime-time television show of any kind by a long way. (For comparison, if the show had premiered when Hitler named himself Führer, the current season would be airing against the moon landing.)

Of course, somebody is still tuning in, even if ratings show it’s around one tenth of the 20 million Americans who watched in the heyday — which is still pretty good, considering how streaming and the proliferation of choice has affected overall TV viewership numbers. These days, even a television event as culturally weighty as the Game of Thrones finale could only manage an audience comparable to any early season Simpsons episode premiere.

There is simply no appointment, discuss-at-the-watercooler television any more, even if The Simpsons still earns enough viewer attention to economically justify its renewal. The show currently has a contract through to Season 36, set to begin airing in autumn of 2024.

Still, these numbers miss the point: nobody discusses The Simpsons any more, even by the diminished standards of TV today, and it doesn’t actually matter. In a meaningful way, it is not the same show, except nominally, as the one that once caused “Bartmania” in the early 90s, resulting in so much junk merch that it led to, well, jokes on The Simpsons. The Simpsons has lost its cultural relevance, and it did so in a specific way and for a specific reason that cannot be chalked up to changes in how television is distributed. To understand how requires understanding The Simpsons as a cultural artefact.

According to the apocryphal lore, The Simpsons became yellow because cartoonist Matt Groening didn’t have skin-coloured pencils when rushing into a pitch meeting, though he later said he chose yellow because he wanted them to be eye-catching. In fact, Groening submitted his sketches in pen, and Hungarian designer Gyorgyi Peluce chose the hue. Groening named the family after his own, except for Bart, whose name he anagramised from “brat”.

He modelled the town of Springfield after his own childhood in Portland, Oregon — the Groenings lived on Evergreen Terrace — although he made it an intentionally bland everyplace. A hit from the start, The Simpsons nonetheless took several years to find something like its stable form. When the show started in April 1987 as a short, filling a segment of The Tracey Ullman Show, it was a cerebral, punny newspaper comic in video form.

Matt Groening at the beginning of The Simpsons journey

Homer, voiced already by Dan Castellaneta, sounded very different, and he was not a buffoon (the best Simpsons writer, John Swartzwelder, told the New Yorker in 2021 that “if you write him as a dog you’ll never go wrong”) so much as a vexatious dad who was as likely to struggle to communicate a smart thought as he was to fall down a flight of stairs. (“What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind.”)

Early Homer was a completely different character, whose main catchphrase wasn’t “D’oh” (which was given to Castellaneta in the script as just “confused grunt”) but rather “Let’s all go out for some frosty chocolate milkshakes!” And he wasn’t the star, Bart was.

Over those first few years, when The Simpsons became a hit, the voices evolved, the characters multiplied, and Homer became the centre of the show. By Season 4, it already looked silly that the balloon added to the 1990 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was a 67-foot-high inflatable Bart bobbing down Central Park West.

And, relatedly, something else happened. The show deepened. It connected with people not just as something in the genre of Beavis and Butthead, an edgy indulgence that the cool (and/or irresponsible) parents let their kids watch, but instead as something with a heart. I once saw Simpsons writer Mike Reiss (the basis for Lisa’s crush Mr. Bergstrom in the Season 2 episode “Lisa’s Substitute”) give a talk in the Noughties, and he half-ironically described his horror at hearing a clergyman call the show the most Christian thing on television.

Hadn’t, after all, this show spent years making fun of religion, for instance with Reverend Lovejoy giving a long and boring sermon about the virtues of constancy (“sweet constancy”)? Didn’t Homer scream “save me Jeebus” when trying to get help from above, and didn’t Krusty and Apu show their own cynical relationships to other faiths in Springfield? Surely, surely.

But whilst the Simpsons are not the Cleavers (the all-American family from Leave it to Beaver), there is a late 20th-century version of what a sane, non-Jerry Falwell-type person might understand as family values enacted in the early seasons of the show, one that is deeper than any vision of model 1950s American family perfection. It is deeper because rather than being aspirational, it is relatable.

 It wasn’t about life as a little boy, as Groening initially rendered it, but about a mythic yet recognisable version of family and town life

After transcending its initial Bartmania-era form, The Simpsons had become a show for everyone. A show set in an unspecified but particular place with characters who learn and grow but never grow up; built on childhood nostalgia for the decades between the Sixties and the dot-com boom; based around the underlying sweetness of a man who deserves, and frequently needs, forgiveness from a wife who is both too good for him and not as compelling as he; a cartoon for adults, for kids — here was a show everybody could see themselves in. It had no one main character, but rather every Simpson could serve as its protagonist and then, increasingly, the whole of Springfield could too. It wasn’t about life as a little boy, as Groening initially rendered it, but about a mythic yet recognisable version of family and town life.

The key feature of this family and town is that its members and inhabitants stick together; they have to interact with one another, no matter how mismatched they may seem. Bart and Lisa are polar opposites, the class clown and the apple-polisher. Homer and Marge are an odd pair, his compulsion for chaos and her yearning for order each causing no end of suffering to the other. The sitcom form requires that, at the end of the 22 minutes of an episode, everything must have been restored to the way it was at the start of the episode, compelling the characters to find a way to live together and make it work — assuming there is just enough basic good will between them to make that at all possible. This is what makes the drama of The Simpsons relatable to the predicament of life.

Or, rather, this is what made it relatable. Something has undermined that purpose and relevance. That something first showed itself in Season 20, Episode 7, “MyPods and Broomsticks”, which first aired in November 2008. That’s when The Simpsons let the internet in. There had been earlier depictions of the internet of course, such as when Homer founded his own dot-com company only to have his hardware set-up wrecked by a guest-starring Bill Gates in Season 9’s “Das Bus”.

But that Season 20 episode is when the writers started regularly keeping up with the trends of the social internet, which we see in the debut of a “Mapple” product by “Steve Mobbs”, the “MyPod”.

Mapple became a running gag in the show and by Season 34 The Simpsons was about people living in an online world. Our internet and theirs interacted, such as when, in 2020, a small minority of people managed to hector the showrunners into announcing that “Moving forward, The Simpsons will no longer have white actors voice non-white characters”.

Similarly, a minor contretemps erupted recently about an episode in Season 35 that suggested to some fans that Homer would no longer strangle Bart, because of sensitivities about (cartoon) child abuse — though the producers said he still may.

Neither of these things matters in themselves, though I am a big enough fan to have genuine feelings about Apu and even stronger ones about voice actor Hank Azaria. These changes will neither establish justice nor herald an artistic apocalypse.

But they have been much argued about because they are symbols of something harder to put into words, something that does really matter: our relatable universals have been dissolved and slurried and poured into siloed fandoms that are created by life on social media, a life that promised infinite variety and personal expression but in fact delivers tasteless mush.

If you showed episodes of The Simpsons from 1993, Season 4, to somebody in 2023, they would understand them and laugh because they speak to universal human issues. But if you could have shown the 2023 episodes to a viewer even in 2013, they wouldn’t understand what was going on. Somehow soon-to-be obsolete tech gadgetry and momentarily fashionable bad ideas about social justice at the schools that feed The Simpsons writers’ room came to dominate the town that, previously, everyone in the world could relate to.

And that’s a shame. A show about family and decency in a particular nowhere could not survive when everyone became able to live (culturally speaking) inside abstract digital fandoms and affinity groups. A show for everyone lost its purpose when each person could choose to commune only with other people who already share interests and agree on stuff.

If each Springfielder and each Simpson were separated, there would be no show — no chemistry. And the audience, which is living lives separated in that way, thus cannot relate any more to the world of the old Simpsons. So the writers are using their inherited platform to discuss the only salient ideas they know about; contradictory and silly meme ideas about something called justice and about technology, missing the human chemistry that was the point all along. The social internet killed The Simpsons. For my part, that’s as much as I can take. After more than 750 episodes of obsessive, probably stupid fan loyalty, I won’t be finishing Season 35.

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