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!”
I finished the first season in two days. Then, after “Simpson and Delilah,” the second episode of the second season, my appetite became ravenous and my pace became frantic. Though the closing speech in “Homer’s Night Out” and the first appearance of the tortured genius/criminal Sideshow Bob had made me start to recognize the show’s brilliance, “Simpson and Delilah” was the first full episode I could call a favorite.
In the episode, Homer commits insurance fraud to acquire Dimoxinil, a “miracle breakthrough” to cure baldness. The treatment works, Homer grows bushy chestnut locks (cleverly redrawn into a new coif in every scene), and people immediately begin taking him more seriously. He gets a promotion. He gets a suave secretary named Karl (voiced, hilariously, by Harvey Fierstein). Everything is coming up Homer until Bart spills the Dimoxinil and Homer is bald once again.
The most transgressive moment in the episode comes when, after taking the fall for Homer, Karl kisses his former boss on the lips on the way out the door—three months before L.A. Law staged the first nonanimated gay kiss on American TV. But Karl isn’t a gay caricature; he’s the man Homer wants to be. And while Homer’s newfound good fortune makes for a smart twist on the ways women are treated differently based on their looks, the episode is so funny that it never tips over into soapbox territory.
I’ve now watched 68 episodes of The Simpsons in 14 days, an absurd and wholly unhealthy pace. During the height of my mania, I saw Simpsons parallels everywhere in my life. My neighborhood bartender, a jovial guy with a great sense of humor, began to remind me of crotchety, mean-spirited Moe.* Every grating noise conjured that horrible sucking sound of Maggie’s pacifier. One night, I even woke up trembling from a stress dream that rendered elements of my actual professional life in Simpsons-style animations. If my psyche couldn’t handle five episodes a day, I pray for the bro (it’ll definitely be a bro) who watches all 522 consecutively.
My 68 episodes only take me about a third of the way into Season 4, which many critics pinpoint as the start of the show’s golden era. (My current favorite episode is Season 2’s “Lisa’s Substitute,” in which Bart’s sister develops an intellectual crush on Mr. Bergstrom, a handsome substitute teacher who becomes the first to recognize Lisa’s brilliance.) What has most surprised me about The Simpsons thus far is that it’s so wholesome. Verboten in my house for glorifying misbehavior, the show actually values honesty, family, and even religion. When Bart vandalizes a statue in the center of Springfield, he confesses to the whole town and is immediately forgiven. Even Homer is more than just a buffoon—he regularly agonizes over whether he’s a good father. Some episodes even feel cheesily warm-hearted, in the same vein as my favorite childhood show, Full House. If I had watched The Simpsons as a kid, I think some small part of me would have idolized Bart, but I would have remained a Lisa.
That’s not to say that the humor doesn’t have an edge. In the third episode, Homer walks to a local bridge to commit suicide. In the 12th, Krusty the Clown is framed for armed robbery by his sidekick. A baby boomer colleague once told me, pejoratively, that he believes millennials are born fluent in sarcasm and dark humor. Now I realize he’s wrong: That shared language is a product of nurture, not nature—and much of the nurturing was done by the Simpson family. My own love for biting one-liners was inspired by countless friends—but I realize now that before I’d seen a moment of the show, my own personality had been shaped by it.
Now that I’m finally watching, my friends keep asking not whether I like the show, but whether I am obsessed with it—whether I’ll keep devouring episodes when I don’t have a deadline to meet. And I do plan to keep watching, though I’ll almost certainly stop when the decline in quality begins (reportedly in Season 9). In fact, though it will surely enrage the purists in my life, I may work my way through a greatest hits list instead of watching every episode. It takes nothing away from The Simpsons’ genius to say that not all of the 522 episodes are home runs. And one of the downsides of binge-watching a show 20 years after it aired is that the C-plus episodes feel especially dated when removed from their context. Season 4’s “Bart’s Dog Gets an ‘F’ ” references The Cosby Show, Predator, ET, and early ’90s Air Jordan mania. I only know any of that because I checked Wikipedia on my phone.
The Hall of Famers, though, stand out even to a newbie. In the most recent episode I watched, “Mr. Plow,” Homer achieves professional success and community renown by founding a plowing business during a blizzard. As a now-seasoned veteran of the show, I knew his good fortune wouldn’t last, but I didn’t know how it would end. When God, angered by Homer’s taunts, sends a heat wave, I chuckled. When, in the closing scene, Marge asks Homer to wear his Mr. Plow uniform to bed and he performs a sexy dance wearing nothing but his jacket and underwear, I howled. I texted Josh that the episode had been one of my favorites. He responded immediately: “Meh. Just wait till Marge vs. the Monorail.”
That one airs on FXX on Friday at 9 p.m. ET. Honestly, though, I may not be able to wait that long.
Correction, Aug. 21, 2014: This article misspelled the name of Springfield's bartender. It's Moe, not Mo. Moe Szyslak doesn't deserve that kind of shabby treatment [lie-detector buzz]. (Return.)