This article was written on October 15 2011.
After much huffing and puffing, Fox has decided to extend the life support of The Simpsons for another two seasons. The ins and outs of the voice stars’ new salary deal has yet to be revealed, but it’s rumoured they took a 30% pay cut, less than the 45% Fox demanded.
The idea of Fox threatening to pull the plug on the long running series would have been unthinkable not too long ago. But after 23 seasons, time is running out for the yellow-skinned family. The Simpsons is still a money-spinner, but ratings have been falling, and Fox were finding it hard to meet- or perhaps justify- the astronomical wage bills of the principal cast and writers. Yet, they lost courage at the last minute. The Simpsons lives another day.
And not for the first time I find myself disagreeing with Rupert Murdoch. Axing The Simpsonswould have been the kindest thing for it. It has become almost like an elderly uncle at the wedding who doesn’t quite realise that the more he dances the Macarena, the more everyone else cringes.
Macarena being the operative song- it’s very much a 90s show. Every time I see Homer pull out a mobile phone or make a joke about Apple or the internet, it strikes a jarring note. The Simpsonswas an amazing show in its day- but the day stopped, at the very latest, in 1997.
The Simpsons was the daddy of what they call ‘adult animation’; cartoons not meant for kids.South Park, Family Guy and the other Matt Groening vehicle, Futurama, are just some of the grown-up cartoons that have been phenomenally successful since The Simpsons.
The Simpsons originally had an air of warmth about them. The episode where Maggie speaks her first word, for example, is the definition of warm and fuzzy- it’s also very funny. As the programme progressed, humour became more important, the family dynamic less so, until we have the quite frankly horrible character Homer is today; a man-child who doesn’t give a damn about anyone other than himself.
Compare with Family Guy. Both shows have a similar dynamic; a lazy, greedy father; a long-suffering intelligent wife; three kids. But The Simpsons was always grounded more in reality; two of Family Guy’s best characters are an urbane talking dog and homicidal, sexually confused one-year old. Family Guy does surreal extremely well- their best cutaways feature things like wild ambulances, the Cookie Monster in rehab and even Benjamin Disraeli. Because there is such an emphasis on pushing-the-boundaries comedy, there is less on character.
The audience can deal with Peter Griffin being a jerk- he’s never been a nice guy, and you don’t watch Family Guy for sentimentality, you watch it for laughs. In its golden years, The Simpsonshad laughs and heart in spades, but once it began to decline, the more Homer became like Peter Griffin. The difference was that Family Guy was funny and fresh in the early 00s. The Simpsons, meanwhile, tacked on ridiculous celebrity cameos, vaguely topical commentary (how will Homer cope with the digital age?!) and reduced every character to one –line catchphrases.
The best TV programmes are the ones that went out at the top- Fawlty Towers is just one example- leaving their audience members wanting more. The Simpsons, however, simply won’t quit, no matter how much once-loyal fans want them to.