If you’ve been anywhere near the Internet in the last few days, you’ve probably heard of the Great Simpsons Cropping Scandal. When FXX, in its supreme beneficence, brought the world a 12-day marathon of #EverySimpsonsEver, it seemed like nothing could possib-lie go wrong. But lo, though the network gives, it also takes away. More specifically, it has taken away about 25 percent of every frame of the show’s first 19 seasons. By airing episodes originally created for standard definition 4:3 screens by zooming and cropping them into wider and higher-definition 16:9 frames (rather than presenting them with bars down each side of the screen), FXX committed what many media obsessives consider a cardinal sin: They altered the original content.
To some Simpsons purists, this change has been nothing short of “blasphemous.” The Huffington Post claimed that FXX was “Ruining the Simpsons Marathon.” The Verge called the network’s decision “inexplicable,” while ScreenCrush called it “wrong-headed,” a “hack job,” and nothing short of a “horror.” Gizmodo, more bluntly, claimed that the episodes “look like ass.” Indiewire, at least demonstrating a sense of humor, pleaded, “Won’t someone think of the children?”
But here’s the thing: The atrocities that crop-gate doomsayers have warned about have been vastly exaggerated.
For example, we were warned that this:
Would look like this:
But when this scene finally aired Tuesday morning, it actually looked like this:
Even seeing that this joke (in as much as it is one) was preserved, some would still call that last image a travesty. As New York magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz summed up his views on Twitter, “altering a film or show’s compositions for any reason, at any time, is vandalism.”
If The Simpsons was Lawrence of Arabia, I might agree. But The Simpsons is now and has always been a TV show, its content intimately linked with its method of production, with jokes and stories negotiated at all points between the creators and networks, with the understanding that the show would be continually cut and altered to fit demands in syndication.
And, though some may dismiss the desires of the masses, studies have found that the vast majority of viewers prefer widescreen content. Call me a philistine, but sometimes I agree: I found myself genuinely excited to see what 25 years of The Simpsons looked liked optimized for 2014. FXX may have felt the same way. For a new network making a huge wager on the power of a legacy property to bolster its currently thin slate of programming, the decision to zoom and crop rather than pillarbox makes even the oldest episodes of the series visually consistent with the rest of network’s shows. Even if the network might have preferred to air the episodes in their original format, they must have known that they would receive even more complaints if they showed them with black bars down each side of the screen.
At the end of the day, FXX did not ruin The Simpsons. It aired one cut of one network’s version of a show that has seen many versions in many places. (Fans will have yet more options in the coming weeks: On FX’s own upcoming “Simpsons World” app, fans will be able to watch older episodes in original 4:3.) And I, for one, welcome our new widescreen Simpsons overlords.
As for the purists, they would do well to listen to the wisdom of Bart Simpson: Don’t have a cow, man.