It’s one of the most iconic television series of all time, and with its 30th season currently airing, The Simpsons shows no sign of slowing down.
But boy, do many of the show’s fans wish it did.
After first airing in 1989, The Simpsons quickly became a pop-culture phenomenon. It was irreverent, it was relatable, it was controversial, and it lampooned the kind of unbearably wholesome family sitcoms that had reigned supreme throughout the decade. The show highlighted real issues in a way none of its predecessors had, while delivering consistent, hilarious satire of a society that refused to acknowledge its faults.
Simpsons-mania would run high for six years, before a climactic descent into mediocrity by the end of season 10. Still, the show persisted, growing steadily worse as it slipped from the TV zeitgeist.
In his mini-documentary The Fall of The Simpsons: How it Happened, Youtuber Super Eyepatch Wolf reveals how and why The Simpsons declined, and mutated over the years into the very thing it had set out to make fun of. At the same time, he breaks down the underlying structure and individual perspective of the show’s creators to show what made it great in the first place. For while the show’s genius might be attributed solely to Matt Groening, it was the combined effort and perspectives of the three series creators and the dozen writers who worked on each episode that defined its brilliance.
One particular point that sets the early seasons apart is the way the jokes were layered. Each beat needed to be perfect, because not only was The Simpsons more subtle in its presentation of humour, but the show never used a laugh track to trigger a reaction from the audience. Even for incredible comedy writers like Conan O’Brien and and Josh Weinstein, getting it right the first time was nearly impossible. The team would work for 11 hours each day on a single episode, often writing up to 40 drafts before considering one complete.
Of course, it would have been easier for the team to go for more overt jokes, using spectacle or bizarre situations to trigger laughs. Thanks to co-creator Sam Simon, that was never going to fly. He framed the internal logic of the world, and ensured the comedy was always grounded in the personalities and motivations of characters. That’s what made Homer funny, even while he was throttling Bart, and why so many viewers’ favourite characters are bit-players. Each moment had a reason for existing beyond an easy laugh. Compare that the show of today, filled as it is with ludicrous scenarios and celebrity cameos, and it’s easy to see why less and less people are tuning in.
Underneath it all was heart, a value promoted by producer James L. Brooks. Early Simpsons was thematic. Each episode had something to say without shoving its meaning into the audience’s face. In this way, the counter-culture, almost anarchistic comedy was balanced with a sincerity that made it ideal entertainment for such a diverse audience.
These three elements combined to make The Simpsons some of the greatest television ever produced, but then, in season eight, things started to change. Outlandish episodes – such as one in which Homer becomes a professional boxer – deviated so sharply from the show’s winning formula that they felt like poor parody.
Wolf points to the season nine episode The Principal and the Pauper as the moment the show changed irrevocably. In the episode, Principal Skinner is revealed to be an imposter who switched identities with a comrade who went MIA in the Vietnam War. It was absurd. The reveal annihilated almost ten years of character development for what ultimately felt like a cheap joke. And the episode had no heart, because it had no meaning, nor impact on the world of The Simpsons.
His dismantling of the corruption that was rotting away what audiences loved about The Simpsons goes deeper in the mini-doc, so be sure to watch it in full, but it is in this moment that Wolf succinctly identifies what went wrong with the show.
For excellence to exist, it needs a reason to exist. At the start, The Simpsons had that. It had one creator who reveled in rebellious satire, another who valued comedy grounded in character, and another who wanted to remind audiences that we laugh because we care. All three were backed by writers who understood this, and put in the effort to combine these elements each and every time.
Over the years, that changed. Simon left. Brooks and Groening fought publicly while each shifted attention to new shows. But most importantly, nobody remained to remind the team what The Simpsons was meant to be about.
We can apply these lessons to our own work, whatever it may be. Things will change. Collaborators will come and go. New priorities will pop up. But if we remain loyal to what is most important, excellence is attainable.