For the past twelve years, and more specifically for the past twelve days (fourteen at time of publishing), my day-to-day existence has been shaped and dominated by The Simpsons. While other pop culture obsessions have enriched my life in incredibly meaningful ways, very few have ingrained themselves into my existence and perception of the world the way that the residents of Evergreen Terrace have. My sense of humor, for better or worse, is clearly lifted from the show, several of my closest friendships have been built upon and further strengthened by the ability to quote obscure lines from The Simpsons at each other. Whenever I reach to grab something—anything—I involuntarily mouth the non-word “yoink” as so many in the town of Springfield have before me. You could say I’m a bit of a fan, is what I’m saying. And I’m not alone.
Like many Americans with basic cable, I’m just getting re-acclimated to the harsh rays of the sun following the end of FXX’s 12 day, 227 hour marathon airing of every episode of the show and the 2007 feature film, the longest TV marathon ever aired. And while the quality of many of the episodes aired during the last several days of the marathon are up for debate, that’s for another article. With 25 years under its ever widening belt and the promise of more to come, the question that’s been on my mind recently is this:
How will we remember The Simpsons?
More specifically, in what way will we remember it? As a relatively young medium, television hasn’t had any sitcoms, animated or otherwise, that have run as long as The Simpsons. First airing in ’89, the show has seen numerous shifts in culture, the fall of the Soviet Union, two US conflicts in the Middle East, five presidents in the White House with all intent of seeing its sixth, and the birth, death, and nostalgia-born half-life of 90s culture and cultural signifiers. While sketch comedy shows like Saturday Night Live have seen longer air time than The Simpsons, no show has done so with the same cast for the entire run, continuing (with some, er, adjustments) the same narrative. By virtue of airing for longer than several of us Rooster Illusion writers have been alive, the show defies era and decade, which makes it stand out in a genre nearly universally defined by era and decade.
With rare exception, sitcoms tend to be remembered as products of the era in which they were produced, capturing the societal and political zeitgeist of the time they aired. After a certain point, it seems that sitcoms cease to exist objectively in people’s minds in favor of nostalgia. I Love Lucy, indisputably one of the best and funniest sitcoms ever aired, is still primarily thought of today within the framework of the 50s and post-war pop culture. Even The Flintstones, former king of prime time animation longevity, is recalled with shades of 60s nostalgia, playing almost exclusively on throwback channels like Boomerang (pun only partially intended) with other Hanna-Barbera cartoons. M*A*S*H, despite its period setting, remains firmly within the territory of 70s and 80s pop culture. So where does that leave a show that has been capturing—with varying degrees of success—the society and cultural zeitgeist of the nation for a quarter of a century? Does a show as paradoxically static and malleable as The Simpsons conform to the same trends of nostalgia and categorization as an I Love Lucy or a Flintstones?
Amongst many fans, segmentation already takes place, as longtime watchers and lapsed viewers argue when the end of the show’s golden age occurred, building around the shows early years a nostalgia and reverence that perhaps isn’t so different from the decade-centric nostalgia that fans of classic television have enshrined around their favorite shows. But even this segmentation is incomplete. Fans who came to the show later in the show’s run or were simply too young to catch the first several seasons may have different ideas as to when the Elysian-age of Springfield truly faded. As new seasons enter syndication and heavy rotation, a new generation can get a different impression of the show than those who grew up having the episodes of the 90s and early 2000s play each night on Fox at 6 and 7 on weekdays (with Malcolm in the Middle or King of the Hill sandwiched between, for some reason). The show has been on long enough that it is entirely possible for the first generation of fans to have a child who now watches and has their own, personal relationship to the show. Will The Simpsons be a show defined by specific eras, or will it be taken as a whole; as one massive, culture satirizing and culture defining megalith?
Obviously, trying to gauge the legacy of a show that is still airing new episodes (including the dreaded upcoming Family Guy crossover that I’ll be reviewing later this month) is pretty difficult, especially when the staff shows no interest in stopping any time soon. But as the show breaks away from its network restraints to essentially air forever on FXX and the show’s producers contemplate what the end of the show would look like on Twitter, it’s not terribly hard to imagine that there is an end in sight. And as we (or just me, I guess) look to the show’s end, the question becomes—to use the language of Springfield’s founder/ treacherous pirate Jebediah Springfield— not whether the show has embiggened our culture, but how it will continue to embiggen it in the future.
How do you think The Simpsons will be remembered, reader? I’m curious to hear what other fans (and non-fans) think the lasting legacy of the show will be.