At some point, a show stops being a show and becomes a utility: gas, electricity, water, The Simpsons. That’s not my line; it’s cribbed from a quote about 60 Minutes by its creator, the late Don Hewitt. But it seems appropriate to recycle a point about one long-running program in an article about another when it’s as self-consciously self-cannibalizing as The Simpsons. Matt Groening’s indestructible cartoon sitcom has run 23 seasons and will air its 500th episode on February 19. It hasn’t been a major cultural force in a decade or more, unless you count 2007’s splendid The Simpsons Movie, but it’s still the lingua franca of pop-culture junkies, quoted in as many contexts as the Holy Bible and Star Wars, neither of which includes lines as funny as “Me fail English? That’s unpossible!” I haven’t seen the 500th installment yet because it wasn’t done when I wrote this piece, and that’s probably for the best; pin a thesis to any single chapter and the kaleidoscopic parade of The Simpsons will stomp it flat. Early in the show’s run we rated episodes. Now we rate seasons. In seven years, we’ll be rating decades.
Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie Simpson appeared in short segments of Fox’s The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987 and got their own series roughly two years later. By now, the series has sunk its roots so deep into the popular imagination that we tend to forget it was once considered déclassé, maybe even dangerous. Twenty years ago, Evangelists and politicians denounced The Simpsons as a televised toxin that weakened parental authority and coarsened the culture. Oblivious to the love that Homer, Marge, and the kids showed for one another, they blasted the clan as a disgusting, dysfunctional unit that was unfit to anchor a prime-time cartoon. During his 1992 reelection campaign, President George H. W. Bush even pledged to help U.S. families be “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”
You can read the rest of Matt’s article here at New York Magazine.
Matt Zoller Seitz is publisher of Press Play and TV critic for New York Magazine.