To alleviate some of the stress from the final days of the semester, I’d been watching some of my old DVDs of “The Simpsons,” completely oblivious to the fact that last week marked the 30th anniversary of the show. I had completely forgotten. I’ve hardly watched or paid attention to the show in years. I’ll admit to being one of those people who thinks the show’s best years are far behind it.
Despite the show’s esteemed legacy and massive popularity, there are people I’ve talked to – people I know, friends of mine – who either haven’t seen the show, don’t feel the desire to watch it, or simply just don’t like it. They can’t dig the show’s aesthetic or humor. Fair enough. I’m sure there are people, too, who only associate “The Simpsons” with the inferior quality of its late-period era, which is unfortunate.
I used to begrudge the show’s decline in quality, wondering what had happened to it, blaming different show runners and writers, bemoaning the shift in tone and style, etc. But I recognized it’s incredibly difficult for a sitcom – animated or otherwise – to sustain a consistently high quality for several years, let alone decades. Whenever I’d catch a stray episode here and there, I’d find myself laughing at one thing or another. Still, it wasn’t the same.
In revisiting the show’s “Golden Era” (which runs roughly between seasons two through nine), I’m reminded of why it’ll probably stand as my favorite television comedy. Forgive me for waxing nostalgic here; the occasion calls for it.
It’d be hard to nail down a definitive list of the best episodes, and I don’t have the space to do that here. But, if I had to pick a couple of potential “top five” episodes, one would be the absurdly brilliant “Homer at the Bat,” another, probably the sublime “Marge vs. The Monorail” and the masterful “Cape Feare.” These three episodes would be a good barometer for the uninitiated to gauge whether the show’s humor took.
The humor of the show also manifested itself in smaller ways; the writers cramming as many jokes as they could into each episode, best exemplified by the blink-and-you-miss-it background stuff. Two of my favorites being: a sign for Springfield Christian School: “We Put the Fun in Fundamentalist Dogma” and underneath the sign for a store called Monstromart: “Where Shopping is a Baffling Ordeal.”
The sharp, biting satire of “The Simpsons” encompassed just about every facet and institution of American culture and society from television, the news media, and the entertainment industry, to the police and education system, down to religion and politics – nothing and nobody was spared. But the show, at its best, was able to combine clever pop culture references (both high and low), absurdist humor and acerbic wit, with real emotion and genuine pathos and did so for at least seven straight seasons, by my count. That’s no small feat.
I do think “The Simpsons” has lost a bit of its heart in these late-period seasons. After over 600 episodes, the show’s diminished status is an undeniable part of its legacy. Nevertheless, I think the quality of the show’s Golden Era is so strong that it outweighs the badness demonstrated by those later seasons.
To paraphrase Lionel Hutz, I don’t use the word “greatest” very often, but, “The Simpsons” is the greatest television show in American history.