Perhaps the greatest ‘what if’ when it comes to TV animation
is what would the industry be like today if The Simpsons had only managed to
last one season on the air. For all that has come after this pioneering series,
if it were not the instant hit that it was, the industry as we know it would
have been very different.
Looking back at that first season now is akin to viewing a
show from a different era. The animation is loose, the colors are wild, and the
characters have an oddly gruesome appearance that isn’t helped by their tangy,
yellow skin. If you’ve seen the original, rejected footage from the Babysitter
Bandit episode, you’ll know that the show was off to a very, very rocky start
with success being far from assured.
The show had more than bad animation going against it
though. It was the first animated series on American primetime in almost 15
years, and came nearly 20 years after the Flintstones first appeared on ABC.
The original order was also only for 13-episodes; a sure sign that FOX was
merely testing the waters.
So what if Simpsons had actually embodied developer Sam
Simon’s mantra of ‘thirteen and out’? The very one that he infused the writer’s
room with because he believed that one half-season was all they were going to
get? Let’s assume that the Simpsons was broadcast and utterly failed to
convince anyone that it was worth renewing. What would recent animation history
look like instead?
For starters, everything animated that has followed the
Simpsons on broadcast TV would just flat-out not exist. Futurama, Family Guy,
King of the Hill, and any other series that FOX has broadcast would have never
been created. Ditto for the other, more obscure series broadcast on other
networks such as Clerks and Family Dog that would have never seen the light of
day if not for The Simpsons.
Interestingly enough, the kids networks would probably still
look pretty similar. The success of those shows stems from the original
Nicktoons and have largely followed the same format for the past 25 years.
Where The Simpsons has had an influence is the breadth of the stories
and style of comedy. Without that show, animated TV might have remained as
either pure slapstick pure comedy, or have slid backwards into blatantly toyetic shows.
More curiously is what would have become of cable cartoons.
South Park, Clone High, Beavis and Butthead, and The Boondocks were all
broadcast on cable channels with a decidedly different audience than the kids
or broadcast networks. While the influence of the Simpsons on these shows is
obvious, would they also fail to exist if it had not come before?
It’s a tough call, but there is a good chance that they
would in some shape or form, and with not nearly the popularity that they
actually have. Cable toons might have been restricted to odd networks and hours
of the day, and probbaly would have acquired niche audiences at best.
The area where there is real uncertainty is the internet.
The Simpsons is famous for being one of the very first TV shows to be discussed
on, and embraced by the internet. Discussion among usenet
groups and fan sites helped drive a lot of initial discussion of the series
that was not present to the same extent in the real world.
The ease with which fans were able to find and connect with
each other was done in ways that presaged the success of other animated shows
such as My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Had the Simpsons failed, it is
unlikely that another animated show would have fulfilled that role on the
internet for many more years (South Park debuted in 1997.)
Considering developments in the last 10 years, the current
growth of web animation can be traced to a beginning that owes little if
anything to The Simpsons. The short-form animated videos that have proliferated
on sites like YouTube represent a radical shift from the script-driven,
family-based comedy of Springfield’s residents. The removal of certain barriers
by the internet has pushed the limit of what works and can be successful in
regards to animated content. All the while The Simpsons receives the odd
acknowledgment or reference, but all in all, it’s been left behind by the new
Would web animation have gotten started sooner in a vacuum
of intelligent, humurous animated shows? Possibly, but the appetite for such
shows among views, and the zeal with which creators would be willing to provide
it would not exist. If anything, the success of the Simpsons proved that you
could have an animated, funny, and successful show; and be profitable all at
the same time!
It could be said that The Simpsons‘ ability to leave a
legacy has declined in recent times, but to consider that the animated world of
today would still be the same is to decry the series’ very rich influence on
just about every animated show that has appeared after 1990. Had the show
failed, it would have been consigned to history as a footnote detailing a
doomed attempt to emulate The Flintstones. Animated shows would still be around
today, but the vast array of shows we currently enjoy would not, and our lives
as a whole would be the worse for it.