I know I’ve told this story before, but in the wake of FOX ordering two more seasons of “The Simpsons” – which will bring the show through its 24th and 25th seasons, continuing its stretch as the longest-running primetime scripted show in American TV history(*) – it’s worth repeating again:
(*) Though that renewal will “only” put the series at 559 episodes, leaving it 76 episodes short of “Gunsmoke,” which didn’t last as long but made more episodes per season.
Shortly before the fourth season of “The Wire” debuted, I wound up at a dinner with a few HBO publicists, David Simon, Ed Burns and the four young actors who played that season’s central characters. At one point, we got to talking about the kinds of shows the boys liked to watch, and one of them mentioned “The Simpsons.” I nodded and said that I was a big fan as well, and that I wasn’t much older than they were at that moment when the show debuted. And I will never forget the reaction of Maestro Harrell (Randy), who did a double take and asked, in sincere disbelief, “‘The Simpsons’ hasn’t always been on?”
That was back when the show was starting only its 18th season. Now we’re in the 23rd, and heading for at least a 24th & 25th. Not only is there an entire generation that’s never known life without Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie, but that generation now has kids who haven’t known life without them, either.
Not long after I started covering TV professionally (way back at the start of season 8, with Albert Brooks as Hank Scorpio in “You Only Move Twice”), the meme began that “‘The Simpsons’ hasn’t been good since…,” with opinions varying on exactly when the show should have allegedly ended to preserve its legacy. And I’ve always thought that was silly.
Is the show as fresh as it was in season 2? Of course not. Is it as funny as it was in season 4? Nope. Have there been dark periods? Absolutely. Has it repeated every story it’s ever told at least three times? Practically. But here’s the thing: “The Simpsons” is still capable of being funny, and moving, and of making me and many other people happy that it still exists and is still producing new episodes. I thought last season was pretty darned strong all-around, and when I wrote a few weeks ago that it was arguably the show’s best season in many years, a number of readers piped in to say that they liked it, too, but would make that argument for season 20, or…
It’s comforting to me knowing that there are still new stories involving the citizens of Springfield. They may not be as brilliant as “Marge vs. the Monorail” or “Homer the Heretic,” but the new episodes’ existence also doesn’t somehow invalidate the greatness of the good old days. Even periods when I’ve strongly disliked the show (what some fans refer to as the Jerkass Homer Era) never made me retroactively dislike earlier seasons. Ted Williams and Stan Musial hung around baseball forever, but they were still capable of putting together good-to-great years in their final seasons (Teddy Ballgame famously homered in his last at-bat at Fenway, in a year where he hit 29 home runs and batted .316; Stan the Man hit .330 in his next-to-last season). These last few seasons have given me episodes like “Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind,” “Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words,” and even this season’s premiere, which wrung a lot of laughs out of Homer befriending a Jack Bauer-esque former killer played by Kiefer Sutherland. (We also got “The Simpsons Movie,” which came out in 2007 and was a reminder of just how vibrant those characters remained after all these years.) And for those who just wish the show would end already, there’s always been the very simple option of not watching anymore.
Over the last few days, as contract negotiations with the cast started to go public, a few news reports leaked suggesting the show was more valuable to NewsCorp dead than alive – that if FOX canceled it, contract language in the original syndication agreements that kept the company from selling the show to cable stations would no longer be valid, and that another fortune could be made either selling episodes to cable or starting up an all-“Simpsons” cable channel. That may have just been gamesmanship to get the actors to blink and accept a significant pay cut, or it could be a sign that this really is the final renewal. (In the press release, Homer is quoted as saying, “Woo hoo! I outlasted Andy Rooney!”)
There was a time in my life before “The Simpsons” existed, and there’s eventually going to be a time when I – and all the people born years after the show debuted – will no longer have new episodes to enjoy. But I’m in no hurry to see the end. “The Simpsons” has been a pretty splendid fact of life for nearly a quarter century now.
What does everybody else think? Do you think this renewal should be the last one? Are you a purist who insists the show should’ve ended 10 years ago or more? (And, if so, when? Be prepared with a specific stopping point, and then be prepared for others to respond with lists of episodes that wouldn’t exist under that circumstance. Just sayin’.)
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org