Every time I have a conversation about The Simpsons, be it with fellow critics or just casual TV fans, nine times out of ten I will hear a variation of the same phrase: “That show hasn’t been good in years.” That’s usually followed with lamentations over the series’ perpetual decline in quality and reminiscing over the good old days of the show’s peak. Oddly, when I ask these people when they last watched new episodes, they almost always say over a decade ago, at the very least. I don’t blame anyone if they did drop the show at some point during its exceptionally long run, but I have to stand up for the show in its current state. With close to three decades of episodes under its belt, following a solid nine years as The Greatest Television Show Ever, The Simpsons has done something truly unexpected and become great again.
The problem with setting the gold standard for an entire medium is that you will immediately be judged against it for your entire life. The Simpsons is home to some of the most influential work on modern television, with some of the funniest jokes ever written, that any self-respecting internet fiend can quote verbatim to this day. To watch a classic episode like Last Exit to Springfield or Cape Feare is to watch impeccably constructed storytelling executed by some of the masters of the field. Conan O’Brien is wildly famous and beloved for his talk show work, but there’s a reason his obituary will bring up Marge Vs. The Monorail. It’s easy to overlook how damn good the show was in those days, and too often I hear claims that bad seasons of the show undo the greatness of the peak seasons. That’s just daft. It’s true that there were some dark times, where the show felt strained and painfully unfunny, but now, as the show gets ready for its 28th season, it’s been through something of a renaissance.
A lot of this improvement in quality can be placed at the feet of executive producer Matt Selman, who has anchored the show in some basic rules that have helped define it after several seasons of tedious buffoonery. Chuck Jones talked of comedy as disciplines, with set rules that grounded the situations and made them funnier. For Selman, that has meant reminding the audience that Bart, Lisa, and Maggie are actually children. They sass and outsmart their parents, but they’re still just a trio of under 10s prone to immaturity and youthful follies. Bart fights, Lisa gets scared, and Maggie… Well, she occasionally has adventures with possums, but it’s rooted in something specific to childhood. In the episode Halloween of Horror, one of my favourite episodes of the show full stop, Lisa becomes petrified by a very detailed Halloween party, even as she reasons with herself that it’s all artificial. It’s a moment of candid realism for the show: Lisa may be the smartest 8 year old girl ever, but she’s still an 8-year-old girl. Homer is no longer as inept as he once was, but the loveable doofus routine is applied more effectively, and even Marge gets a few more chances to let loose from her straight-woman routine. Outside of the core family, the series’ vast ensemble has room to breathe, with some of the funniest recent episodes focusing on bit-part players like Kirk Van Houten, and they’ve made some much needed updates to elements like LGBTQ content, as Smithers has become an openly gay character rather than a closeted joke.
After so many years on the air, The Simpsons now has a level of freedom so few shows will ever achieve, and they’ve chosen to use it in unique ways. The show’s format remains the same but now there’s more experimentation with style. Guest animators, cult figures from the medium, have created their own couch gags, which range from the vibrant to the disturbing. Where else on network TV could you see Sylvain Chomet, Bill Plympton, and Don Hertzfeldt given 90 seconds to do whatever they want with some of the most iconic characters on TV? The show also has greater opportunities to be stranger and darker, such as season 21’s The Squirt and the Whale, which features one hell of an emotional twist.
As always, the pop culture homages are on point. Few shows have taken such a detailed and savvy intertextual approach to the history of film, TV, and celebrity. How many people saw the show’s parody of Cape Fear before the film itself, and how many understood the sheer layers of homaging a remake of a film based on a novel? The show still casts its show wide with its references, taking on everything from LGBT history to rap music, with sharpness and exceptional specificity (like the gag on young adult novels and the book packaging industry transformed into a heist story in the episode The Book Job, guest starring Neil Gaiman). Now that the show is fully animated in the modern style, the potential for sight gags and intricate details is even greater, and they exploit it to its full potential. Just check out the spectrum of costumes in this musical number from Halloween of Horror (featuring a musical parody by Alf Clausen, surely the most under-appreciated man working in television today).
Most importantly, The Simpsons is back to being consistently funny. It will never reach the stratospheric peaks of those golden years, but neither will anything else in television. What we have now, in this age of Peak TV and hashtag-content, is a delightfully sturdy show that still entertains and surprises. The chances are that The Simpsons will be with us for many more years to come, so if you haven’t checked in on it for a while, why not give it a go?