The moment I realized the true costs of a Simpsons-free life was the moment after my friend Josh proclaimed his excitement for this week’s FXX 522-episode Simpsons marathon and this autumn’s launch of the all-Simpsons-everything app.
“Meh,” I responded. “I’ve never seen the show.”
At first, he didn’t believe me. Then he got a strange look on his face.
“You said ‘meh’!” he said accusingly. “Do you even know that that word comes from The Simpsons?”
I did not. The word is so important to my millennial lexicon that a search of my Gchat history displays “1-20 of many,” yet by age 30 I had never seen a moment of the show that popularized it.
Other friends reacted with similar disbelief. It wasn’t just that they had thought it all but impossible to have not accidentally seen an episode of the longest-running scripted program in American television history. It was that, in the words of another friend, The Simpsons created our generation. The Simpsons debuted in 1989, which means millennials have been watching it since elementary school. For years after Bart interrupted a school Christmas concert by singing “Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg,” in the very first episode, we parroted the song on the playground. I just didn’t understand why.
Of course, the same transgressive quality that made the show’s early years so seductive to my classmates is exactly the quality that got it banned in my childhood home. Bart cursed, didn’t do his homework, mouthed off, and went on the occasional low-level crime spree. Worse yet, he was never punished for any of it. Like George H.W. Bush—who, in 1992, said families should be “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons”—my liberal yet religious parents preferred we stick to more family-friendly fare.
I didn’t start controlling my own TV-watching until after The Simpsons had become less relevant and, most of my friends agree, less good. Before the “meh” conversation, I had never considered my involuntary abstention a character defect. After it, I decided I had to catch up. In anticipation of FXX’s every-episode-ever 12-day marathon, which begins Thursday, I decided to stage my own Simpsons marathon: as many episodes as I could cram in my face in two weeks.
My friends insisted I shouldn’t start at the beginning. I should have listened. Binge-watching the first eight episodes one night after work, I became convinced the entire enterprise was a mistake. Though I knew The Simpsons wasn’t a serial, the lack of basic logical consistency drove me crazy. (In the first episode, Homer and Marge can’t afford to buy any Christmas presents for the family. In the second, they spring for a private box at the opera.) More importantly, the show rarely made me laugh. Halfway through the fourth episode, I was bored enough to start swiping through Twitter and Tinder. Halfway through the fifth, I fell asleep.
Still, there were hints of why The Simpsons had become so important to seemingly everyone I know. I started to fully enjoy myself at the end of “Homer’s Night Out,” the 10th episode, in which Homer stages a public apology after being caught on camera dancing with a stripper. Watching television’s most infamous buffoon delivering an impassioned feminist speech about how “women are not mere objects with curves that make us crazy” felt progressive without becoming treacly. And hearing Smithers tell an envious Mr. Burns that Homer is successful with women because “he’s a love machine, sir” made me laugh-choke on my whiskey. I texted Josh: “I think I get The Simpsons!”