Is ‘The Simpsons’ Good Again? A Superfan Roundtable

Is ‘The Simpsons’ Good Again? A Superfan Roundtable

I consider myself a big fan of The Simpsons. I grew up with the show in the 1990s, and that old Konami arcade game held a special place in my heart (and allowance). I even collected the vast majority of The Simpsons’ “World of Springfield” toy line. And as an adult, I’ve had the privilege of writing numerous oral histories and other stories about the series, talking to writerscast members and even showrunners like Al Jean. Yet, like a lot of so-called Simpsons “die-hards,” I’ve only seen a third of the series — at most. 

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I don’t have a strict cutoff season; I stopped watching somewhere around Season 10 and never fully came back to explore the show any further. Instead, my preference has been to bask in the nostalgia of The Simpsons I grew up with. However, a part of me has always wanted to return, and over the past two years, I’ve been hearing more and more that “The Simpsons is good again.”

To investigate this claim, I’ve assembled a roundtable of four dedicated fans who have seen every single episode of the show — all 750 of them — to ask them if the show truly is worth watching again, what went wrong during the supposed “dark ages” and how Disney can sustain the property into the future.

To kick things off, when do you all feel the “Golden Era” of The Simpsons ended?

Travis Timmerman, philosophy professor: The best seasons were Seasons One through Nine, and I don’t think that’s a unique viewpoint. In Season 10, the direction of tone and writing started to change — jokes started to fall flat more frequently — but it was still good overall if you don’t compare it to the previous nine seasons. It just gradually declined for a long time. There was less concern about character consistency, standard story arcs and realism. It became more “cartoony.”

Andrew Fraser, IT engineer: You can follow it with the change of showrunners. A lot of episodes seemed to be about the same ideas — like Bart getting another girlfriend — we had seen before. Around the time of the movie was the nadir of that. 

Rachel Molineux, property maintenance professional: People say The Simpsons dropped off around (Season) Nine or 12, but I would argue that The Simpsons never really lost its charm. I think it’s remained impressive throughout. There are episodes, even some seasons, where it falls a bit flat, but I think it’s consistently maintained its relevance. Nostalgia is the reason why people say it fell off. The Simpsons has kept up with the times and couldn’t have stayed the same as it was in the 1990s. People are looking at it for what it was while not appreciating what it is. But there are still so many funny jokes and heartfelt moments across the entirety of the series. 

Warren Evans, Bart of Darkness on Instagram, host of Simpsons Is Greater Than… podcast and co-author of the forthcoming book Collecting The SimpsonsIt’s tricky because many Simpsons fans have bought into one of two ideas. Some people think it got bad with Season Eight, and others say they only watch Season One through 12 or Season One through 10. I sort of resent the idea of a Golden Era because it’s a lot more nuanced than that. There are waves to it. It’s also unfair because nothing has ever lasted this long. There’s nothing to compare The Simpsons to. 

Andrew, you said you can track it to the showrunners. Is there a particular showrunner who gets the blame for the decline?

Fraser: Almost exclusively, it gets pinned on Mike Scully. There was a lot more violence around that time, and character-driven shows seemed to peter out around his tenure. 

Do you think that’s unfair?

Fraser: I think it’s warranted. You can even tell that once he hands over the reins to the next showrunner, around the time of the Simpsons movie, it gets better. 

Evans: Mike Scully gets blamed for a lot of the problems, but I don’t think it’s really on him. I think it’s about where humor was at the time. People don’t think about that. Family Guy came out, and it drove all humor into this new, raunchier, edgier space. The Simpsons felt that pressure. Mike Scully wrote some of the funniest episodes of the show. He wrote my favorite episode, period, “Marge Be Not Proud.”

People also sometimes accuse co-showrunner Al Jean of “phoning it in” or whatever, but I don’t buy that. Again, it has more to do with different eras in humor and where the cultural zeitgeist was during certain times. Those things all make TV shows age in a weird way.

Are there good episodes or even seasons during those dark ages?

Fraser: It started improving around Season 23. “Holidays of Future Passed” is really good from that season, and that’s when we started to get more character-driven stories. Even throughout the weaker seasons, there are still some very good episodes. Season 13 had “Tales from the Public Domain,” which is one of my favorites. It’s always had some episodes that are worth revisiting. 

Evans: People usually cut off around Season 10, but there’s a second pocket from Season 15 until Season 17. If Seasons 13 and 14 — and even 12, which has some good episodes — never happened, people would talk about the show completely differently. Seasons 15 through 17 are so good; they got back into a rhythm. 

But later in the teens, they had to work on the movie; the show suffered a lot for that. It pulled a lot of people away. But even those are good if you take them on their own and don’t constantly compare them. They’re just different. I’m confident that when The Simpsons ends, people will revisit some of the seasons they thought they didn’t like, and they’ll actually like them. 

There is no season of The Simpsons that does not have good episodes. I will die on that hill. Even the worst season, which I think is Season 14, has some good episodes.

Should the show have ended at the end of the Golden Era?

Molineux: No! Of course not. There’s so much that it’s offered.

Fraser: I’m going to say no because I do enjoy the content that has happened since the Golden Age theoretically ended. Some of these stories you could only tell with an established cast and with these characters who exist in this world. 

Timmerman: No. It’s better to have mediocre episodes tacked onto the end that brings the overall average down than to have nothing at all. You’re going to get a few gems every season, and the show is worth it for the gems. I also think the show got only comparably bad. Yes, it was not as good as Seasons One through Nine, but had I started with those, I would have enjoyed them.

Evans: No, and I’m personally grateful that it didn’t. There is something about The Simpsons that’s more important than a lot of shows. It’s influenced everything over the past 30 years. It’ll be the touchstone for the rest of my life, and while there are ups and downs throughout the run, there are amazing episodes all throughout. I’ll take the show at its worst over not having it at all. 

Currently, is The Simpsons good again?

Fraser: The last two seasons are some of the smartest ever. A lot of episodes are even poking fun at the kind of dumb plots they would have in those weaker seasons. A lot of the backlash that they got about racial diversity over their casting and writing staff helped provide a more diverse spread of takes, and that helped it. Also, what they’ve done with some of the ideas of the show has been impressive. “Lisa the Boy Scout” is probably one of the most clever episodes ever, and it has some of the best mea culpas for some of that lazier writing that they had before. 

“Lisa the Boy Scout” is a great bait-and-switch. It begins as a regular ripped-from-the-headlines culture wars-type story that Season 25 Simpsons would have used. Lisa joins the Boy Scouts, and it looks like it will be a typical episode, but then the feed is hacked. The hackers take over the show and expose all the shit the Simpsons have been up to that you couldn’t see. It then goes into scene after scene of unusable material — like Groundskeeper Willie getting into a fight with the Sea Captain so they can have an “Arrrr” contest, and Martin revealing he’s not a fourth grader, but a 30-year-old cop with a wife and kid. Then, at the end of the episode, they come back with a typical ending that you would have guessed from a Season 25 era show. 

It’s something that could only have happened after they’d had this massive amount of content.

Timmerman: I agree with Andrew. The last two years have been significantly better on average than anything from Seasons 10 to Season 32. It’s worth noting that Matt Selman became co-showrunner with Al Jean; before that, he was just an executive producer, so it’s reasonable to think he’s responsible for the uptick in quality. The writing overall is just a lot better.

Molineux: I wouldn’t say I’ve noticed a distinctive shift. I think it’s been good throughout. It’s all subjective though. 

Evans: I agree 100 percent that The Simpsons is good again. It really starts to get good again around Season 25 or 26, so it’s been good again for almost 10 years. It’s been a steady build. A lot of people credit it to Matt Selman doing more stuff. I think he’s great. I think he’s a genius. But for a long time, people in The Simpsons community were blaming him for some of the humor they didn’t like. 

Over the past couple of years, more and more people on my feed are saying, “Shit, it’s good.” I’ve been saying that for a long time, but it’s in a really strong stride right now. 

Can you name some episodes that illustrate this?

Timmerman: I highly recommend “A Serious Flanders”; both parts are very good. I also recommend the most recent “Treehouse of Horror” and their parody of It called “Not It.” Also, “Lisa the Boy Scout,” the Lego one, “Lisa’s Belly” and “My Octopus and a Teacher.” There’s one called “The Road to Cincinnati,” which is a parody of the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby Road to movies that explores Chalmers and Skinners’ relationship in a really well done way. There’s also one called “Chief of Hearts,” where Homer and Chief Wiggum become friends.  

Evans: “Lisa the Boy Scout” is genius. The latest “Treehouse of Horror” episode for sure. That had a lot of people admitting, “Okay, it’s really funny.” They did a Westworld parody where it was Simpsons World. It was a world where people were living inside The Simpsons, and it starts in the monorail episode. It’s so, so good. 

“Bart’s in Jail!” is really good. One really great one is “Pixelated and Afraid,” where Bart and Homer get lost in the woods after a car crash and have to survive. At the end of the episode, there’s this beautiful moment where they’re sitting together looking at the sunset. It’s so sincere and so good. It blew my mind. 

Episodes like “A Serious Flanders” and “Lisa the Boyscout” break the mold of the series. Is that where the good stuff is now?

Fraser: Partly. The reason why the genre parodies work better is because they’re more willing to go whole hog with them. They know which character archetypes fit which story best, and they just have fun with that. They don’t feel the need to explain everything. We accept that we’re in “The Serfsons” world or we’re in LEGO world. You don’t need to beat us over the head with why this is happening; I’m here for the ride.

Timmerman: It’s easier to do those genre parodies to ensure the episode is both good and different enough from earlier episodes. But I wouldn’t say that’s where the good stuff is exclusively. Even in the past couple of seasons, they’ve had episodes with good character development, and new relationships were explored that we haven’t seen before. They’re well written in a way that maintained a level of heart, carried a social message and had jokes that landed. 

“Lisa’s Belly” is a good one. Lisa and Bart both take steroids, and they both gain some weight. You see how Bart is treated a little bit differently at school, and Marge comments on Lisa’s weight in a way that she thinks is innocuous, but it really resonates with Lisa. It explores the effect comments like that can have, especially on girls. That episode isn’t a genre parody, it’s just a really good episode. 

There are a lot like that, like the episode where they finally recast Bart’s teacher. You can write good episodes like that, but they’re harder to do because you need something new to say that’s different than what’s been said in the previous 34 seasons, and not having a character learn the same message over and over again. There’s good stuff in both of those places, but it’s easier to do the genre stuff well.

Evans: There’s still room for “regular” episodes, for sure. There’s a Season 31 episode called “The Way of the Dog.” It goes all the way back to Episode One; it’s about Santa’s Little Helper and the trauma he has from being a racing dog and missing his mom. It’s a very emotional episode, which still has really funny jokes. Episodes like that do come back in the later seasons; they just don’t get the headlines in the same way “Lisa the Boy Scout” does.

How do you reconcile changes to the canon — e.g., Homer being a kid in the 1990s?

Timmerman: I’m not opposed to it in principle. It can be justified by good writing and good jokes. I think they too frequently throw away a character’s backstory for a subpar episode. If it’s done well enough, I’m okay with it. 

Fraser: It’s fine. It makes sense. I’m a comics fan, and I don’t mind that the passage of time necessitates that these characters be adjusted to suit whatever decade we’re in. 

Molineux: The show has been going on for so long that there are going to be inconsistencies. But if it’s for a good story or a funny joke, I think it’s acceptable. 

Evans: That episode, “Do Pizza Bots Dream of Electric Guitars” in Season 32 is controversial because it reimagines the timeline of the show, which makes fans really mad. I’m okay with it though, because you kind of have to look at these things in a snow globe. Homer being a kid in the 1990s doesn’t mean he’s not also a kid in the 1970s. None of those episodes undo anything else. Think of them as short stories from one book. Just because they do that doesn’t mean the others didn’t happen. It’s fine, and it leads to funny jokes that appeal to people who grew up in a certain time. Just enjoy the episodes for what they are. Thirty-four seasons in, no one should expect them to stick to any sense of continuity. If you do, it’s just going to make you unhappy. I love “Do Pizza Bots Dream of Electric Guitars,” I think it did something really fun. 

How would they best sustain the series going forward — should they make another movie or produce fewer episodes each season?

Molineux: Keep doing what they’re doing. They’ve been excellent with what they’ve done. They’ve done it for three decades, I don’t see a reason why they should change it now. And yes, I’m all for another movie!

Timmerman: They should hire talented writers who are passionate about the trajectory of the series. I do think if they focused on fewer episodes, it would allow them to put more time and energy into each one — that would be a good idea. I also think they should hire consultants who are Simpsons nerds, like the four of us, to look at scripts and animatics and say what we think of it — crowdsource it a bit for quality control.

I would also like to see another movie, just to have it entice old-school writers to come back, like with the previous one. 

Evans: I don’t think they should make another movie, but if they do, wait until the show is over. A lot of people think they should do fewer episodes, and I wouldn’t mind that. While they’re in this stride, they should have that conversation about “When are we going to hang this up for good?” because I don’t want this to go on forever. If they end in this really strong space, it’ll do wonders for the show’s legacy.

What should they do when the core cast can’t do the show anymore?

Timmerman: With their blessing, I think they should use A.I. to capture the voice and performance as realistically as possible. 

Fraser: The show will continue forever in some capacity, so I think they’ll recast the roles. That’s a tangible accomplishment if the right people are involved. 

Evans: Once the cast can’t do it anymore, they’ve got to stop. Simpsons fans have been through a lot, and they still manage to love the show even if they don’t watch every episode. But the audacity to replace anyone, especially the main family, won’t be tolerated. The moment Nancy (Cartwright) or Yeardley (Smith) or Dan (Castellaneta) can’t do it anymore, they’ve got to stop. Simpsons fans won’t deal with that. People would riot in the streets.

Despite still loving the show, I personally would enjoy it if they gave it an end date. I don’t want it to get to a point where someone dies or gets sick and can’t finish it. I don’t want to hear anyone but Julie Kavner voice Marge. The day that happens, I’m not watching anymore. That will be it for me.

How would you convince a Simpsons fan like me, who checked out after the first decade, to come back?

Timmerman: I don’t know if I would encourage people to come back entirely. I have an unhealthy obsession with watching every episode and I feel like I’d miss out if I don’t see every single episode, no matter how terrible it is. What I’d recommend for an old fan is to talk to fans like us who can give you a list of episodes that we recommend. 

Evans: You have to free yourself of the chain of continuity. If there really was continuity, Bart would be in college or married with kids. Homer and Marge would be 70 or 80 years old. If you expect to live in a space where this all really connects, I feel like that ship sailed a long time ago. Let that all go. Watch the show for the characters you enjoy and the jokes. 

Once you watch an episode from Season 25 and you’re not comparing it to “Marge Be Not Proud,” you’ll enjoy it for what it is. Be glad that you still have these voice actors that you like so much. Be glad that this show that you like so much is still around because, even though people may not admit it, the moment it’s gone, they’re going to be sad, even if they haven’t watched it in 20 years. It’d be like McDonald’s closing. People will realize that The Simpsons is this cultural touchstone that a lot of people took for granted. 

If you turn on an episode and don’t like it, watch the next one. Don’t just turn it on and say, “I was right! It sucks now!” If you let your expectations destroy the thing you want to like, of course, you’re not going to like it. Go in more open-minded and judge it on its own merit. That’s what I do. There are photos of me from 1991 in a Bart sweatshirt and I’m thankful that I can still turn the TV on on FOX on a Sunday and watch a new episode of The Simpsons. It’s something I haven’t had to grow out of. That’s a special thing.

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