Who turned The Simpsons into a cartoon?

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Feb. 12 2003 7:16 PM

The Simpsons

Who turned America's best TV show into a cartoon?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

At some point during its 14-year run, The Simpsons turned into one of the best sitcoms on television—and that's not a compliment. At one time, to call The Simpsons the best show on Fox would have been a vast understatement; to say it was the best sitcom on television would have been inadequate; and to describe it as the greatest TV show in history would (and still does) minimize its importance by limiting its cultural impact to the small screen. Who knows when it happened—maybe it was when Homer visited the leprechaun jockeys in Season 11, or when he was raped by a panda in Season 12—but for several years, watching The Simpsons chase Ozzie & Harriet's record for the longest-running sitcom has been like watching the late-career Pete Rose: There's still greatness there, and you get to see a home run now and then, but mostly it's a halo of reflected glory.

The hype surrounding this Sunday's 300thSimpsons episode (actually the 302nd because Fox isn't counting two holiday "specials") has underscored the show's decline. To celebrate the milestone, Entertainment Weekly picked the top 25 episodes in Simpsons history: Twenty-four of them come from 1997 or before, meaning that only one comes from the past five seasons (which, not coincidentally, is the time period from which EW selected its "Worst Episode Ever"). Similarly, USA Today published a top-10 list written by the fan who runs the best Simpsons site on the Web. He picked nine shows from 1993 and before, and the other was from 1997. The newspaper also asked Simpsons staff members to select their 15 favorite moments and episodes, and only one person (Al Jean, the show's executive producer) chose something that happened within the past five years. Even as fans, critics, and staff members rejoice in the show's amazing longevity, they all agree: The past five or six seasons just haven't been up to snuff.

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Who's to blame for this state of events? Some of the die-hard fans who populate the news group alt.tv.simpsons have settled on a "lone gunman" theory—that one man single-handedly brought down TV's Camelot. One problem: They don't agree on who's hiding in the book depository. Many fans finger Mike Scully, who served as executive producer for Seasons 9 through 12 (generally considered the show's nadir). Others target writer Ian Maxtone-Graham. Scully and Maxtone-Graham, both of whom joined the show after it had already been on the air for several seasons, are cited as evidence that The Simpsons lost touch with what made it popular in the beginning—Matt Groening's and James L. Brooks' conception of an animated TV family that was more realistic than the live-action Huxtables and Keatons and Seavers who populated 1980s television. Unlike other TV families, for example, the Simpsons would go to church, have money problems, and watch television.

But under Scully's tenure, The Simpsons became, well, a cartoon. In A.O. Scott's Slate "Assessment" of Matt Groening, he wrote that Groening is "committed to using cartoons as a way of addressing reality." But in recent years, The Simpsons has become an inversion of this. The show now uses reality as a way of addressing itself, a cartoon. This past Sunday's episode featured funny references to Spongebob Squarepants, the WNBA, Ken Burns, Tony Soprano, and Fox programming, but the Simpsons themselves, and the rest of the Springfield populace, have become empty vessels for one-liners and sight gags, just like the characters who inhabit other sitcoms. (Think Chandler Bing.)

The Simpsons no longer marks the elevation of the sitcom formula to its highest form. These days it's closer to It's Garry Shandling's Show—a very good, self-conscious parody of a sitcom (and itself). Episodes that once would have ended with Homer and Marge bicycling into the sunset (perhaps while Bart gagged in the background) now end with Homer blowing a tranquilizer dart into Marge's neck. The show's still funny, but it hasn't been touching in years. Writer Mike Reiss admitted as much to the New York Times Magazine, conceding that "much of the humanity has leached out of the show over the years. … It hurts to watch it, even if I helped do it."

But can you blame one person for it? It would be nice to finger Maxtone-Graham, who gave a jaw-dropping interview to London's Independent in 1998. In it, he admitted to hardly ever watching The Simpsons before he joined the staff in 1995, to brazenly flouting Groening's rules for the show (including saying he "loved" an episode that Groening had his name removed from), and to open disdain for fans, saying, "Go figure! That's why they're on the Internet and we're writing the show." But just because Maxtone-Graham is a jerk (or at the very least, shows colossally bad judgment in front of an interviewer) doesn't mean he's a bad writer. On top of that, a show like The Simpsons is the product of so many creative individuals that it's difficult to blame one person—even Scully, the onetime executive producer—for anything.

So, instead, there are a few conspiracy theories for the show's not-quite demise. Perhaps the problem is too many cooks, as staff legend George Meyer implied to MSNBC.com: "We have more writers now," Meyer said. "In the early days, I think, more of the show, more of the episode was already in the first draft of the script. Now there's more room-writing that goes on, and so I think there's been a kind of homogenization of the scripts. … Certainly, the shows are more jokey than they used to be. But I think they also lack the individual flavor that they had in the early years." Another theory lays the blame on the show's many celebrity guest stars, which have made the show resemble those old Scooby Doo episodes where Sandy Duncan, or Tim Conway and Don Knotts, would show up just for the heck of it. Still others think the problem is the show's brain drain: Long-absent individuals include creators Groening and Brooks, actor Phil Hartman, and writers Al Jean and Mike Reiss (who both left briefly to do The Critic), Greg Daniels (still doing King of the Hill), and Conan O'Brien (who has been linked to the show's decline so many times that Groening once called the theory "one of the most annoying nut posts" on the Internet).

But maybe no one, not even a group of people, can be held responsible. Simpsons determinists lay the blame on unstoppable, abstract forces like time. The show's writers and producers often subscribe to this line when they publicly abase themselves for not living up to the show's high standards. Maxtone-Graham told the Independent, "I think we should pack it in soon and I think we will—we're running out of ideas," and Meyer admitted to MSNBC.com, "We're starting to see some glimmers of the end. … It's certainly getting harder to come up with stories, no question."

An incredible anxiety of influence hovers over Simpsons writers, who realize that they are judged not by the standards of network television, but by the standards of their own show's golden age. By the end of his tenure as executive producer, Scully was making nervous statements to the press like, "Basically, my goal is just not to wreck the show" and, "Yeah, we don't want to be the guys that, you know, sank the ship." Maybe The Simpsons is killing The Simpsons by setting expectations too high. After all, even while you're wincing or groaning at a particularly lame gag, you're hoping that the show will stay on the air longer than Gunsmoke. It's hard to imagine television without The Simpsons. If it sticks around for another 300 episodes, maybe, someday, the wound of the past few seasons will be remembered like the one Maggie administered to Mr. Burns: an accident, and not a fatal one.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.