This week, as the US plunges itself into further chaos and rancour, I will have my own reckoning. I will confront an ominous shadow that has long hung over me, and in so doing will seek to embiggen my spirit. This week, I will be watching … new episodes of The Simpsons.
I say “new”, but really I am talking about everything after Season 15, when I finally gave up on the show. In general, The Simpsons can be split into four epochs: The Beginning (Seasons 1-3), where the family look like they have been drawn by the elderly Spanish woman who “fixed” the Jesus fresco; The Golden Age (Seasons 4-8), where every episode is perfection; The Descent (Seasons 9-14) when the show loses its way with shark-jumping plotlines (Principal Skinner is actually a fraud who stole an army colleague’s identity); and finally, the darkest era: The New Simpsons (Season 15 onwards), where most fans reach their limit of mediocrity and turn back to the warm embrace of reruns from season 4.
All long-running shows will go stale, but most will finish after two or three years once they have hit that point. Let’s say Season 15 is the moment The Simpsons went stale (although arguably it happened long before) – that was 17 years ago. The 32nd season started airing last week; there have been 371 new episodes since the beginning of Season 15. It will not die, marching onwards relentlessly like a Treehouse of Horror III zombie, softly d’ohing and imploring the audience to eat its shorts.
Well this week, I will eat those shorts, by watching three episodes from each season from season 15 onwards. In doing so, I plan to answer the ultimate question: is The Simpsons still cromulent in the 21st century?
I start with season 15, and The Simpsons’ trip to London (where special guest star Tony Blair attempted to distract everyone from the war in Iraq by turning up in a jetpack and delivering a half-joke about the white cliffs of Dover). The show is immediately weird in a way that I can’t put my finger on: it is like watching home movies but someone has slightly switched around the furniture, or replaced your family with clones who are 25% taller.
The storylines are familiar yet frantic: one episode starts with Maggie trapped in a bathroom, but then that’s immediately dropped in favour of the revelation that Santa’s Little Helper has sired puppies (again), which is then itself immediately dropped in favour of the revelation that Krusty the Clown isn’t actually Jewish and needs to have a Barmitzvah. Why? New Simpsons does not care for “why”. Nothing has to make sense any more; all it has to do is last 22 minutes, have three spaces for adverts, and possibly star some kind of guest who will be problematic by 2020 (step forward JK Rowling).
By the end of The President Wore Pearls, a deeply confusing musical episode where Lisa becomes school president while ripping off several songs from Evita, I have become a paranoid curmudgeon, hissing at the screen: “My Lisa would never sell out her fellow students for the chance to sing Don’t Cry For Me Argentina from the back of the schoolbus. GIVE ME BACK MY LISA!”
I have been banned from watching The Simpsons in the main TV room any more. Now I am watching on my phone in the spare room. Fair enough.
In season 17, I start to recognise some of the plots from classic Simpsons. Homer’s mother returns and is then immediately chased away again by Mr Burns; Selma wants a family; after a thoughtless act by her husband, Marge is tempted to have an affair with another man, etc. The recurring storylines give the show a nightmarish quality: the family seem totally oblivious to the fact that they are repeating these storylines, that these setups have happened before and will happen again.
What’s more, the show needs to have a twist to these storylines to make them just different enough from the old episodes: like Homer wants to win back Lisa’s love, so he inexplicably dresses up like a salamander and runs for mayor; or Marge is tempted into an affair with another man ... but the man is obsessed with manatees (why? Because season 17, that’s why). That only adds to the sense of unease: there are more logical solutions to the problems The Simpsons get themselves into, but they can’t be used because classic Simpsons already did it. There’s a giant Stampy in the room and none of the characters can see it or address it.
I can feel myself becoming bitter and grumpier. I am aware that it is pretty pathetic to begrudge the writers for reusing some old concepts after 350 episodes. But then, to quote Principal Skinner, I’m a small man in some ways. A small, petty man.
OK, how old is Bart? He is supposed to be 10, but I just watched an episode where he gets a driving licence (yes, yes: a rehash of season 7’s Bart on the Road) and drives to Utah in an attempt to marry his pregnant 15-year-old girlfriend. I don’t want to go full Helen “won’t someone please think of the children” Lovejoy, but if Bart is 10, this is disgusting and I want someone to wipe it from my brain.
Except, of course, Bart isn’t really 10. He’s a 10-year-old who has been 10 for 18 years, so really he’s 28. And driving to Utah and marrying a pregnant 15-year-old at 28 is … probably just as disgusting, but for a very different reason.
So when was Bart born? In season 1 he would have been born in 1979 – so he’s a Generation Xer – but, as the show goes on, that year moves later and later, and by season 10 he’s technically born in 1989, the year the first episode of The Simpsons aired. By season 18, he would have been born in 1997, making this Bart part of Generation Z. Feel free to send me sarcastic Simpson quotes mocking my pedantry (“Why would a man whose Twitter bio claims he writes for the Guardian spend all of his time watching a children’s cartoon show?”), but there is a point here: in a show that deals with conflict between generations, what does it mean if our characters keep switching generations?
A 10-year-old in 1990 will be fundamentally different to a 10-year-old in 2008, or 2020, so the question is: which is the real Bart? Can these multiple Barts really all exist at the same time? How can one person live multiple childhoods in multiple eras and not be driven mad? WHO ARE YOU, BART?
I have been banished to the kitchen to watch the rest of these episodes. Again, can’t really complain.
New Simpsons is still The Simpsons, and that means occasionally, out of nowhere, the show can be exhilaratingly good. I watch Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind from Season 19 and it is almost like a return to the Golden Age: a high-concept premise (Homer has to piece together what happened over the last 24 hours when he wakes up with no memory and his family gone), with a good mix of genuine warmth and very silly gags. It is like watching a 40-year-old champion tennis player, well past their prime, suddenly turn on the old magic and make shots like they are 23 again. I can feel my bitterness subside; maybe I was wrong to say that The Simpsons should have stopped 15 years ago. Maybe I was just peer-pressured into hating it by my friends who made fun of me for sticking by it while they moved on to South Park and Family Guy. Maybe this show is still good.
I watch that episode where the show tries to answer the accusations of racist stereotyping of Apu by literally having Lisa turn to the camera and say: “What can you do?” I was wrong, this show is not still good.
During a (completely fine) season 24 episode where Marge wants to have another baby, I suddenly feel an overwhelming sense of horror at her plight. She is constantly trying to improve Homer, to make Bart grow up, to connect with Lisa, but she is always rebuffed: Homer is too stubborn, Bart too mischievous, Lisa too intelligent. Any moment she is able to get through to them is fleeting: when the credits roll and the Gracie woman shushes the other people at the cinema, you know that next week everyone will have reset to their old roles and Marge will be left alone, isolated and unhappy, tearing her hair out about Bart’s pranks as if she hasn’t been spending the last 24 years of her life doing the same thing.
I spend the rest of the day imagining what her life would have been if she had run off with the manatee guy from season 17. I think she would have been happy.
Just found out from a season 24 episode that Carl is actually Icelandic. Sure. Fine. Whatever.
The writer and philosopher Tom Whyman, who has written extensively on The Simpsons, made the point that the show doesn’t exist in a specific time; because none of the children age, time cannot truly pass, so they are all trapped in an ambiguous and general “present”. This works fine for the first 10 seasons, but as the show goes deeper into the violence and discord of the 21st century, it struggles to remain relevant. The Simpsons froze time for so long that it shattered entirely, leaving its characters stranded, unable to authentically relate to its audience, so instead they cling desperately to an old world that no longer exists, just repeating the same things they have always done, having the same wacky adventures because that’s all they know how to do.
In that sense, I realise as I reach the summit of season 30 with more than 50 episodes of New Simpsons under my belt, the show is a truer reflection of our world under lockdown right now than it ever has been. I am New Simpsons, you are New Simpsons, we are all New Simpsons: trapped in the same routine every day, having the same furious arguments that we’ve had for years previously; still harbouring the same Marge-like hope for a moment of progress and feeling that same sense of cynical disappointment when it doesn’t come to pass; still trying to hold on to a pre-Covid world that we know is dead. At this moment, we are all Lisa, turning to the camera and sighing. What can you do? What can you do?