Like so many of the gags on the more recent episodes of “The Simpsons,” the TV show’s voice cast and its home network, Fox, are repeating themselves. The Daily Beast is reporting that the two sides have once again started to attack each other with a level of gusto normally reserved for the main characters of the Krusty-lu Studios cartoon “Itchy & Scratchy” - endlessly aiming more powerful weapons directly at each other’s wallets until Itchy (the Mouse; Fox) eventually wins. This metaphor is even more apt when one considers that Itchy & Scratchy themselves have never been as fun for the audience as they are for the writers.
“The Simpsons” as both an ongoing network animated sitcom and a brand institution continues to grow and, with the series entering its 23rd season (let me repeat: its 23rd season), has gotten more and more expensive to produce. This, in spite of the billions made in licensing over the past 23 years (again, 23 years). Fox, in their ever present wisdom, wants the main voice cast to take a 45% pay cut (from $8 million annually, for 22 weeks’ work, to approximately $4 million). Naturally, the cast scoffed, offering instead to take a 30% pay cut, which is partially recouped from a back-end deal similar to what creator Matt Groening and executive producer James L. Brooks have for all that ancillary “Simpsons” merchandise (like DVDs, toys, video games, and choice feminine hygiene products - if Marge’s hair turns blue, you’re pregnant!). Again, naturally, Fox scoffed right back, insisting that if the cast members don’t accept their 45% cut, the network will simply cancel the longest running sitcom (animated or not) in Television History.
Once upon a time, this news would have made me drop to my knees and scream MENDOZAAAAAA!!! at the top of my lungs. First and foremost, it would be stupid for Fox to just flat-out cancel a definitive non-failure that is “The Simpsons,” right? While the show is almost universally considered not as good as it once was, and the ratings aren’t quite what they used to be, it is still the foundation to Fox’s Sunday night animation block with a very loyal (and much larger than, say, any of NBC’s Thursday night comedies) audience. On top of all that, the top-notch cast that the show was downright lucky to have at its inception is one of the biggest reasons for the show’s initial and continued success. The strength of the performers carrying the load is especially true now that no one really expects any more “classic” episodes to emerge from that writers’ room. It’s only fair that after 22 seasons (and before that 20, 15, 10, etc.) the actors are compensated fairly for helping to fill Rupert Murdoch’s undoubtedly Montgomery Burns-sized vault of gold coins.
But this was all before “The Simpsons” started making more money in syndication than first-run episodes, and if Fox does decide to cancel it, they’ll be able to draft a new syndication deal that will certainly make them (and Groening and Brooks, who do not, how you say, have much of anything to do with the show anymore) even richer - possibly as rich as Nazis.* At this point, “The Simpsons” is like “I Love Lucy” or “Seinfeld,” in that it will likely be playing on some channel somewhere at any given time on any given day (maybe even its own). Containing over 500 episodes, you could watch it every single day for nearly two years before circling all the way back around to season one. It’s a veritable money printing machine that needs no new fuel (or content) to continue printing money.
“The Simpsons” will be around forever. And that is radass.
But that is also, basically, why canceling “The Simpsons” is a real possibility that shouldn’t be zealously condemned out of a nostalgic nobility, or even current affection. Hell, canceling “The Simpsons” may be a blessing at this point. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not siding with Fox in this dysfunctional family, as I absolutely adore the voice cast and believe, while clearly not suffering in the slightest, they have not been compensated fairly for their contribution to the show’s continuous, billion-dollar success. The best case scenario would be for Fox to agree to some sort of back-end deal with the cast for two more years and then let the show come to an organic conclusion at the end of season 25. It’s a good round number, and nothing to haw-haw at, especially when most shows don’t even get 25 episodes. Dan Castellaneta, Hank Azaria, Julie Kavner, Yeardley Smith, Nancy Cartwright, and Harry Shearer (that’s right, six people give voice to the entire town’s population) more than deserve a cut of that sweet, sweet “sell-out” cash.
But, they don’t need it. And the world doesn’t really need any more new episodes of “The Simpsons.” It hasn’t for a while, really. Beyond becoming stale with jokes and storylines that feed on past iterations like a dead-eyed ouroborus, 22 years of an average of 22 episodes per year, approximating 175 hours worth of television, is more than enough content. It was more than enough 10 years ago, too, though the movie was pretty great.
Granted, I’m among one of the first generations who fell in love with Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie, and the rest, so I’m obviously partial to the episodes that I grew up with. (Also, they’re just better written, individually and as a whole, than the series’ second half.) But, there are at least two generations who have come after the early days of feuding with “The Cosby Show” and dancing to “The Bartman,” and they probably have their own preferred 5-10 year block of episodes that they consider to be the best. They probably think (wrongly) that the first five seasons are the Worst. Seasons. Ever.
But none of that really matters, because “The Simpsons” is and always will be one of the best television shows of all time. Even as its achievements become the norm, it will leave dinosaur-sized footprints on the TV medium landscape. The end of this era simply means we’re at the beginning of a legend. “The Simpsons” will never go away. What Matt Groening created for “The Tracy Ullman” show became the pop culture touchstone for multiple generations all over the world. It’s something that no TV show ever was before, and possibly never will be again (though, “Doctor Who” certainly could, and has its own historical achievements to celebrate). “The Simpsons” paved the way for so many shows that came after it — the first quarter of the series all but created a new language of storytelling in a 50 year old medium — and not just its animated brethren. Shows like “Parks & Recreation” and “Community” probably couldn’t even exist, in their current form, without “The Simpsons” doing it first.
Still, all good things must come to an end. It’s simply the way of things, how we make sense of the world so that we can go on and make something even better the next time. Let’s be honest, that time for “The Simpsons” came a while ago.
So, cancel “The Simpsons,” Fox. I dare you.
It would certainly be a ballsy move to treat the show that made you one of the Big 4 networks, when there were only the Big 3 previously, like it was “Quintuplets” or “The PJs” or something. But I wouldn’t cry about it, not like I once might, and I’m sure a lot of people out there feel that putting these Old Yellers out of their misery is now just the humane thing to do. Even if you still enjoy the show, do you really still love it?
Better yet, Fox should let the longest running sitcom of all time (animated or otherwise, it bared repeating) come to an agreed-upon ending that won’t piss everybody off (fans and talent alike). Rupert and his minions could then just sit back and count their Benjamins while absent-mindedly broadcasting ever more singing competitions and funding the GOP propaganda machine. It’s certainly easier and cheaper than stumbling on another landmark, groundbreaking, watershed sitcom that stands the test of time.
* That is not Godwin’s Law, that’s a reference, you schoww-dair heads!