Disney Owning 'The Simpsons' Is Going To Get Weird

When Disney acquired 20th Century Fox, and among its many assets the rights to The Simpsons, most people had one of two reactions. Either you said, "Cool, it will be even easier to stream The Simpsons now," or if you're the type of person to use the word "cromulent" in everyday conversation, you said, "Dear god, what did they do to the aspect ratio? Rest assured that I was on the internet within minutes, registering my disgust throughout the world."

Outside of the cultural blandness created by Disney's black hole swallowing up everything, the change in ownership probably doesn't mean much in the short term. Yes, The Simpsons used to mock Disney with clockwork regularity, and yes, it has a far bleaker view of American culture than Disney's soothing "Turn off your brain and enjoy these adorable animals" approach. But The Simpsons settled into unchallenging middle age long ago. Compared to shows like Rick And Morty, it looks downright quaint.

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So you can still watch the old episodes, and you can still ignore the new ones. There will be minor changes, as Hank Azaria is no longer voicing Apu (it's unclear whether they're hiring a new actor or retiring the character), and anyone who dares to mention the Michael Jackson episode will likely be killed in their sleep. But the weird question of the day is: What happens when the show ends?

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Because its current incarnation will have to end eventually, thanks to the ceaseless march of time, if nothing else. The show's oldest star, Julie Kavner, will turn 70 this year, and they've already lost multiple secondary characters to the deaths of actors. The show was already a loss leader for Fox, and for Disney, the value isn't in "We'll have episode 17 of Season 36, 'Bart Gets Yet Another Suspension Because He's Trapped In The Fourth Grade For A Restless Eternity.'" It's in having the classic episodes to keep people subscribed to Disney+ over the long haul. It's their Friends, their Office, the show they want to capture in amber to be watched forever. It's, ugh, "bingeable."

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Whatever you might think of those shows, "Watch this wacky group of friends / office workers" is a timeless concept. There are rumors of a Friends reunion special and an Office reboot (remember, it's already a remake of a British show). If those succeed, Disney might one day look at their roster of aging and deceased Simpsons actors and decide to just reboot it as well. There's already been new talk of a Simpsons spinoff.

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If that sounds inconceivable, look at everything Disney has already remade and is continuing to remake. On the film side, indifferent audiences will nonetheless give billions to remakes of everything from Mulan (finally, a chance to see Mulan without any of the songs everyone remembers the original for) to Three Men And A Baby. Will the innate hilarity of men being forced to, holy shit, look after a baby play as well in 2020 as it did in 1987? Disney couldn't care less, as long as they benefit from the brand recognition.

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And while Disney's television slate has gotten less attention than their tepid but profitable movie remakes, they really, really love TV spinoffs and reboots, Disney+ is getting -- deep breath now -- a Monsters Inc. series, a Muppets reboot, a Chip N' Dale reboot, another shot at Escape To Witch Mountain, a series about the Mighty Ducks, a Willow series, a Lizzie McGuire revival, an Ice Age series, a Sandlot series, a 101 Dalmatian series, a True Lies series for some reason, a fucking Turner And Hooch series, a "reimagining" of High School Musical, a series about the lives of Disney villains, piles of Marvel spinoffs, an Obi-Wan Kenobi series, a Clone Wars revival, and even a game show called Star Wars: Jedi Temple Challenge. Oh, and they're rebooting Oswald The Lucky Rabbit, who was last popular in the '20s (oof, now we have to clarify that it was the 1920s).

Hey, gotta scoop up that lucrative 95-110 demographic.Walt Disney PicturesHey, gotta scoop up that lucrative 95-110 demographic.

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Disney has always been willing to employ franchise necromancy, regardless of the original's quality, and Disney+ is putting that strategy into overdrive. The company that thinks the world somehow needs more Turner And Hooch and the return of a cartoon character who saw his heyday during the Great Depression won't hesitate to try something with The Simpsons the moment it looks like doing so might be profitable.

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Disney content works because it's aggressively non-topical. Their old shows might be informed by the technology and casting decisions of their day, but "This show is full of white people in JNCO jeans making jokes on their wall-mounted telephones" is different from comedies chasing trends or dramas inspired by recent events. When DuckTales was rebooted in 2017, they only had to update the look and feel of the show before they sent the characters on new adventures. The heroes already fit into the archetypes of adventure serials; they just had to give everyone a smartphone and write modern jokes.

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Which is saying something in a world that has <i>changed its tune</i> on the super wealthy since the Reagan years.Walt Disney PicturesWhich is saying something in a world that has changed its tune on the super wealthy since the Reagan years.

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The Simpsons is a commentary on American culture, but it lacks South Park's hyper-topical riffs on the news or Family Guy's obsession with the 1980s. It has no shortage of jokes that only adults are going to get, but some kid watching in 1992 didn't need to, say, know who Norman Mailer was to get the gag that a giant Itchy & Scratchy novelization was a silly idea. And then there are the characters -- the dumb but well-meaning dad, the troublemaking son, the daughter who's the alienated conscience of the show, and so on. With a few tweaks, you can slot those roles into anything. The Simpsons has already transcended its era through GIFs and memes. Who cares if the animation style changes?

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None of this is to imply that we're predicting the announcement of a Simpsons reboot tomorrow, but given how Disney treats literally every other property that's even remotely marketable, they'll eventually have to do something about the show's steadfast refusal to stop aging alongside the rest of us. Which is weird, because however dull The Simpsons looks today, it succeeded by having an edge to its jokes and a point to its commentary, and Disney might turn it into another revenue stream for an all-consuming empire that thrives on not having much to say at all. Anyway, enjoy Disney's official "The Best Disney References in The Simpsons" video, which excises the violent or surreal punchlines and all of the references to Disney being a greedy, thieving, all-around evil corporation.

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Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.

For more, check out Why Homer Simpsons Might Be God - After Hours:


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