There is a general consensus among viewers of the later episodes of The Simpsons: it simply is not as good a show as it once was. It is a point that is very difficult to argue against, that even if the animation has become crisper and the voice cast is just as dedicated as ever, the writing, pacing and focus of the show has suffered somewhat.
But does this mean that The Simpsons can still be seen as a good show? How many sub-par seasons can a show have before it negates the quality of its first years?
But when did it all start to go downhill? Some believe the twelfth season (the Party Posses episode New Kids on the Blecch is often considered the starting point) or thirteenth (Gump Roast), while some go as early as the seventh. The twelfth season definitely has some excellent episodes like A Tale of Two Springfields and Skinner’s Sense of Snow, but I can see where people are coming from. Either way. that makes more "bad" seasons than "good" ones. We're not off to a good start.
First, I guess we have to take into account what people think constitutes “good” Simpsons. A mix of satire, humour and heart (or any of the above, if they're done great alone), is pretty much all you need.
The Simpsons has always been a show that, at its core, is a laid-back, funny satire of what it means to both be American and a citizen of the modern world. It created a world around that where the everyday problems we encounter could be made fun of and taken to silly extremes because the citizens of Springfield are just cartoon caricatures of all us. Some of the highest rated episodes of the show have been ones which directly look at our lives, and the strongest social issues at the time, taking a directly neutral stance and showing both sides of the argument. Episodes like Last Exit to Springfield, Homer’s Phobia, Duffless, Lisa the Vegetarian, among countless others do just that. And we see this in some of the better episodes of the recent series. The episode Holidays of Future Passed shows us a look at the Simpsons family in a way we hadn’t seen often, or not explored in such a strong way – how the family is when they’re all older: for example Bart and Lisa can talk as adult equals instead of as childish siblings. It’s a refreshing take on the family dynamic that added a bit of light onto an otherwise dull season.
It is moments like that that are missing. Recently, there was a gimmicky LEGO episode that should have, by all reason, been terrible. But because it had a strong underlying piece of psychology behind it – Homer having to realise that Lisa will grow up – the silly LEGO theme didn’t matter. The fact that everyone groaned and rolled their eyes at the thought of a LEGO episode is not a strong sign for the show, but it is one it has slowly earned over the last few years. For example, a few years ago, Homer tried committing suicide over receiving some bad news. In a few seconds, he grabs a rope, makes a noose, ties it to a tree and tries to hang himself in front of his children before the tree gives away under his weight and ha ha ha he’s so fat. Compare that to Homer’s Odyssey from season 1, where Homer thinks he might not be such a good father and thinks his death would benefit the family more. It’s a long, emotional piece that deals with a part of Homer’s psyche that has been with him as long as the show has been around (the pilot episode has him taking a job as a mall Santa to pay for the family’s Christmas), so to have the suicide joke in that later episode seems insensitive at best to the stuff the show had done before.
It's still visually silly, and not as crazy serious as I'm making out, but still
But maybe I’m taking it all a bit too seriously. The show isn’t just about that sort of stuff. Otherwise we wouldn’t have great Sideshow Bob episodes or “The Simpson go to…” episodes. Fun and great writing for the sake of fun and great writing. And maybe that’s the problem. It still does a lot of mirrors on modern life, sure, but some of the fun of the show has gone. The writing accommodates for in-jokes and celebrity stars more than it does for the sake of enjoyment and entertainment now. Some critics say that the show should be seen as what it is, by itself instead of comparing it to older episodes, but some of the weaknesses it shows now come from that: relying on callbacks and previously established classic characters to get laughs or evoke emotions.
These are definitely flaws, and a lot of them need to be fixed if the show is to survive in public favour, but, at least in my personal opinion, it has never really become bad (even some of the worst episodes have some laughs in them). The show has lost some of its edge, which is normal considering its vast age, and some of the writing is stale or desperately trying to be something else, but at worst it’s tolerable, and at best it shows a glimmer of what it used to be. Maybe we have had thirteen-odd seasons that have not been up to the standard of the show before, but this may be because the show at its most fresh and innovative, was something so provoking, enjoyable, funny and heartfelt. Even the worst episodes cannot take that away from it.
If anything, the show can certainly become great again – the flexibility of the characters and the entirety of Springfield means that they should be malleable enough to adapt and criticise new aspects modern life, which is constantly changing around us. Somewhere, the show may have gotten too stuck in its own in-jokes and side characters, but it can certainly make an incredible comeback. It needs a refocus, and try to make itself a show based off of its own merits, and not one that relies so heavily on previous knowledge of the characters, maybe, and at the end of the day, reflects who we are into itself.