Most of us remember “The Simpsons” for its cultural impact on our childhoods, but rarely do we remember the nuances of the show itself. We remember the countless guest stars, the seemingly endless number of episodes and the character archetypes the show has come to define, but I doubt most of us distinctly remember the first couple of seasons that launched the show into the status of a classic animated sitcom.
While it has become a cliche to say that their older stuff was better, people who grew up watching the show seem to agree with this statement. To attribute this purely to a ’90s nostalgic charm, however, discredits the genius writing and brilliant examination of cultural themes that the show provided during its early run. The show had some great comedic moments (though much more subtle compared to current animated sitcoms), and the complex characterizations mixed with provocative social commentary pushed the bounds for comedy in television.
Take, for instance, episode 22 of season two, titled “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge.” For those trying to remember the episode, it is the one where Marge eliminates violence from “Itchy & Scratchy,” the show’s overtly gory cartoon-within-a-cartoon. I’ll spare the details, but the episode’s climax hits a brilliant introspection of television as an art. After Marge eliminates violence from “Itchy & Scratchy,” the mob of concerned parents that initially helped Marge shifts their focus to eliminating Michelangelo’s “David” from their local museum due to the content of nudity. She objects to this censorship, which reveals the hypocrisy of her movement, and eventually, “Itchy & Scratchy” regains its violent roots. But the question still remains: What exactly qualifies as “art,” and does it deserve to be treated differently from “entertainment”?
The show’s exploration of these contemporary themes as neither black nor white issues mixed with its meta-commentary of its own use of cartoon violence is why the show was revolutionary when it aired and remains revolutionary today. It transcended the physical humor most animated shows became fixated on and instead built its own universe that paralleled our own with a unique type of humor filled with satire and parody. Ultimately, “The Simpsons” was at its finest when it could integrate both witty one-liners and social commentary. While we can analyze the power of unions, the strength of community and the malevolence of greed in the episode “Last Exit to Springfield,” I’m sure many of us remember Homer’s stream of consciousness yelling “DENTAL PLAN! Lisa needs braces.”
After around season 10, the show had a steady decline in quality. As a person who grew up watching the show every day when it was syndicated at 6 p.m., I can attest to the fact that the show eventually lost its charm. I’m sure most people who used to watch the show regularly will agree. I attribute this to the change in the landscape of sitcoms, where the more eccentric, progressive shows that followed the success of “The Simpsons,” like Family Guy, left the writers of “The Simpsons” stuck in terms of the direction they wanted to take the show. Unfortunately, the direction they took was one that favored quick laughs over the development of a universe of which we were accustomed. The characters became parodies of themselves in a world completely detached from our own.
With all that said, for those of us that grew up with “The Simpsons,” the sense of nostalgia we have of its greatness, should be overshadowed by its actual quality. It propelled a generation that did what we wanted and not what was forced upon us, a generation that questioned authority and what was given to us, a generation that always strives to unique and independent no matter how dysfunctional.
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