I started watching The Simpsons about three years ago, in my mid-20s. I’d been aware of the show basically my whole life, but I’d never tried it out for myself.
I also didn’t feel any of the reverence the show usually attracts from animation fans.
I watched the first 16 seasons of The Simpsons over the course of a few months. It didn’t take long to appreciate why the Golden Age episodes are so fondly remembered. And I kind of understood why it was such a big cultural phenomenon when it first hit the scene.
I stopped at season 16 because that’s when I finally realized that I wasn’t laughing anymore. All of the same comfortable, familiar elements were still there, and for a lot of sitcoms, that would be enough.
But it wasn’t enough for me. I had stopped caring about the Simpsons family and the noticeable change in animation style had removed a lot of the charm of those very early seasons.
Ever since, I’ve tried to dip in occasionally, watching some of the new episodes. They’re pretty empty, as expected. It’s Zombie Simpsons, just like everyone says. If I rewatch anything, it’s going to be from seasons 3-12, guaranteed.
Any time I’ve heard someone talk about The Simpsons online, the same points get brought up: The show used to be good and it’s not anymore. End of story.
But for as much as everyone seems to agree on this, I haven’t seen any discussions on what could make the current iteration of The Simpsons better.
So I’m gonna try to do just that. I’ll take a very brief look at why the Golden Age Simpsons worked so well, then I’ll brainstorm some ideas that I think would revive some of that decades-old love for this show, a show that used to be filled with cutting-edge American comedy.
The Media Landscape
No one knew it back in the late 80s, but television was destined to become the last outpost for 2D animation in pop culture.
It’s been a good ten years since Disney abandoned 2D animation for their features, but we still have plenty of options on TV for animated sitcoms. The big ones are still all on Fox, of course, but there are plenty of original shows from streaming services. Some are really terrible and some have been pushing the limits of this weird little subgenre, but the big lesson here is that 2D animated comedies aimed at adult audiences are still seen as financially viable.
It’s very easy for me to forget that there was once a time when animated television was actually fringe. Prior to The Simpsons, animation was for kids, whether on TV or the big screen. Sure, the arthouse world has had a thing for experimental and disturbing animated shorts for a very long time, but that stuff didn’t cross over to mainstream audiences.
As a lot of fans already know, The Simpsons started as a sketch segment of the Tracy Ullman show. Apparently people really enjoyed those early sketches. I don’t. They’re kind of awful to me, but what I do see in those prototype versions of the Simpsons characters we all know and love is that they were definitely bold and different.
If you knew any animation majors in college, then you’re probably familiar with these kinds of animated shorts that don’t have much of a story, or a point. It’s mostly about the art and the animation. The story and the characters are secondary. That’s what the early Simpsons stuff feels like to me.
But maybe the biggest reason for the immediate success of the Simpsons idea is that kernel of satirical humor.
Animation requires a different kind of suspension of disbelief from the audience, which then allows the animated content to do whatever it wants. It can talk about mundane social interactions, [Tom Law clip] it can create a wild fictional universe, [Fantastic Planet clip] or, like The Simpsons, it can satirize aspects of daily life and shared culture that we tend not to look at too closely. [clip of sketch: nursery rhyme]
And that’s something I want to highlight while we’re talking about the very early years of The Simpsons: this show was edgy, at least for the time. [clip of Mike: Bart said “damn”]
It’s hard to really grasp that idea now because what was edgy back in 1990 isn’t edgy now, not by a longshot. But Matt Groening has a bit of a history as a provocateur. In fact, back in college, he ran this student newspaper, zine deal that would publish comics, and he proudly announced that he would publish anything, even if it seemed really outlandish or offensive. (Keep in mind that this was decades ago, when subversion still belonged to the political left, long before the alt-righters appropriated it for their own terrible purposes.)
Fun fact, one of Groening’s schoolmates was cartoonist and professor Lynda Barry, who made it her mission to make comics that even Groening would reject.
So it’s not surprising that The Simpsons had some of that flavor right from the start. When other writers got hired on for the brand new primetime show, they did a pretty great job of ramping that up a whole lot.
But satire of American culture was only one ingredient. That was the “smart” side of the show, but the Simpsons also had a lot of dumb jokes. Just dumb jokes, and I mean that in the best way.
There are so many episodes that are just comedic perfection. The timing is perfect, the storyline has heart, and, more than anything, there are just so, many, jokes, and they’re all delivered completely straight. It never feels like the show is laughing at itself. [clips from Lisa’s Rival S06E02]
Based on what I’ve heard, a lot of this had to do with how much time the writers’ room spent on the scripts. [clip from serious Jibber Jabber]
So why do we hate Zombie Simpsons so much? Is the new stuff really that bad, or are fans just upset that the show changed?
Ya know what? I’ll go watch the latest episode right now to see if that helps us find some answers.
[22 minutes later. #adfreelife #subscribeto[sponsor name here] ]
Well, alright. Ok. I’ll try not to be mean.
‘Cuz it’s not actually that bad. It’s fine, and that’s kind of the problem. There were a couple of decent jokes and a whole lot of referential humor, like, just acknowledging something from pop culture.
But I think the change in the show’s visuals is kind of representative of the larger issue. It just looks bland. It blends in with all the other digitally animated TV comedies out there. In the first few seasons, The Simpsons was still pretty creative from a visual standpoint. It was clearly hand-animated, and there were plenty of fun visual gags. Obviously the show also looked pretty rough, too, but that was part of the fun, and it’s definitely part of that makes it so enjoyable to rewatch old episodes.
And I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say the other aspects of the show have followed a similar arc. Once upon a time they were unique, but now they’re just fine. Serviceable, but not worth a second look.
It used to be special and now it’s not. [clip of Star Wars]
It used to be special and now it’s not. [clip of Batman]
It used to be special and now it’s not. [clip of Teen Titans]
That’s the overwhelming feeling when I watch modern-day Simpsons episodes. The term Zombie Simpsons is perfect because that’s what it feels like: it’s just overstayed its welcome, many times over. It has nothing left to give us.
But is that really true? Could the Simpsons be good again?
Here’s my answer: yes, it could be. And now I have to come up with some good ideas to prove my point, completely free of charge. Cool. How’s your quarantine going?
What I’ve come up with here is not a resuscitation plan. It’s not gonna bring the show back from the dead and keep it going for another 10 years. As it stands now, the show will stay on life support until it’s no longer financially viable and it will slip off slowly, and no one will care. This plan is more like all those times on Star Trek when a character is about to die and someone’s like, wake him up so I can talk to him, so they wake him up just so he can say some important lines before dying dramatically.
We’re gonna do one huge blowout of a final season, and that’s a big part of the marketing, too. Everyone needs to know that the show is ending. That way, even if they haven’t watched the show in years, or haven’t watched it at all, people will be curious right away.
Some will say, “I thought they ended that back in 2005,” but that’s ok. They don’t even know what’s coming.
This final season of The Simpsons is going to blow the zippers off audiences worldwide. It’s gonna generate buzz. More and more viewers will pile on as the episodes build up steam.
The basic idea is to hit the nostalgia thing hard. And yeah, I know, it’s not great to lean too hard on nostalgia, and it can kill creativity and make for some bad entertainment, but we’re talking about the final season of The Simpsons here. It’s perfectly possible to reference this show’s legendary history in the final episodes. It’s a great way to bring the lapsed viewers back into the fold and it could even get new viewers wondering about the old stuff they’re referencing.
Having this wealth of nostalgia and never using it is like buying some crazy supercar and just leaving it in the garage. It goes, man. Use it. You have no idea how far it can take you.
But we’re not just talking about soulless references to old episodes that everyone loves. We’re not doing clip shows, here. Instead, the final season is gonna tie up some loose ends and put these characters to rest.
And the model we’re gonna use? Well, it’s a classic of TV show finales: the time-jump episode. The most recent example I could think of is the Parks and Rec finale. But imagine that stretched over an entire season.
I also think a fun worldbuilding aspect here would be the same kind of retro-future timejump they’ve used before. Because right now, the characters haven’t aged, but they’ve still moved on to new technologies over decades, which doesn’t make a lot of sense.
So for this time jump, set it in 2020, but like what we thought 2020 would be back in the 80s. This could make for some great gags while also avoiding the painful references to modern-day pop culture they use in the show right now.
Our characters are older for the final season. Not too crazy old. It would be safe to use the same basic timejump that they had in the Lisa’s Wedding episode. Homer and Marge are gray, but they’re not so old that it’s sad. Instead, everyone’s aging just makes us sad in the nostalgic way, in the same way that we get happy-sad when we look at old photos of family members. Things aren’t necessarily worse now, but they’re different, and that can hurt in a really nice way.
[clip of Don Draper Carousel nostalgia]
And aside from the larger plot points that address elements of old episodes and character traits, this final season should also have just a boatload of Easter Eggs for hardcore fans. Tons of tiny details that make you feel smart when you notice them. Just another way to remind fans how much they love the old stuff.
So those are the broad strokes. Now let’s talk about some more specific aspects.
For the final season, I want the show to look the way it used to. In an ideal world, it would be 100% hand-animated, on actual paper. But that’s not how animated TV is done anymore, and it’s rarely done in the US at all, so I would even be fine with just using some cheap filter that makes the footage look like it’s from the 90s.
That also means cranking up the brightness and the saturation. I love how vibrant the colors are in the early seasons. It’s still a show for grownups a lot of the time, but Springfield felt fun and inviting. It’s a comedy, for Pete’s sake.
If at all possible, I want some creative visuals, maybe even some fun little sequences like the ones for Sleepy Homer or the Land of Chocolate. [clips of sleepy homer, land of chocolate]
Outside of that, I just want the visuals to be creative. We know The Simpsons has made a crazy amount of money, so how ‘bout putting some of that money back into the show. Maybe Matt Groening could sell off the Tuscan villa I’m sure he has and pay a horde of art school kids to animated the final season right here in California. Give them some freedom. It would be a nice nod to Groening’s college days while also guaranteeing some crazy creative visuals. Who knows, maybe it would even introduce the general public to some great new animators who haven’t had a very big platform to showcase their work.
Ok, so it would definitely be a great gimmick to bring back some of the old writers. A lot of them are still alive, so it could work. But I don’t think that’s a very creative way to reinvigorate the show’s sense of humor.
It’s possible to hire younger writers who are currently working to do the job, especially if you give them free rein to rip off the style of those early seasons.
Take submissions. Can you imagine how many modern-day comedy writers would love the chance to write for The Simpsons? A ton of comedians are also fans of the old show. They know the style inside-out and they’re talented enough to recreate it.
For this final season, we want lots of jokes. So many jokes. Just pack the thing with jokes. Make it dense. We’ll still leave time for sentimental moments, but creating humor with heart was such an important part of Golden Age Simpsons that it would need to come back before the show went away for good.
The storyline for the final season is probably the trickiest part. An entire season to wrap up the show? That’s a lot of time, and there’s a lot of ground to cover.
So instead of having the kind of story we saw in the movie, where the whole town has to come together and do something, let’s head in the direction of growth.
Parks and Rec pulled this off really well in the finale, even if that last episode wasn’t actually funny, just sappy and, even more sappy.
As we revisit our favorite side characters, we see them moving on. No, they’re not all leaving or dying, but they are growing.
Maybe Barney is 3 years sober but he still comes to Mo’s because he’s restarting his music career and the acoustics in the bathroom are just killer.
Maybe Krusty could go back to being a touring stand-up. He doesn’t need the money, he’s just trying to be less of a hack.
Mr. Burns has long since retired but he still has OBEY-style posters of himself all around the power plant. Smithers runs the place and he’s out of the closet now, but it’s not made a big deal of.
And of course the Simpsons family is at the center of it all.
Lisa could run a nonprofit right in Springfield, Bart could have a family and maybe he’s comically boring now, while Milhouse is trying way too hard to be a cool bad boy. Maggie is a wild card. Her personality hasn’t been decided yet, so she could be doing just about anything. The forgotten Simpsons sibling will finally have a chance to shine.
Marge has started a somewhat successful art career and she makes more money than Homer.
If there’s any character that needs to be fixed by the final season, it’s Homer. Even if he’s not officially the show’s main character, it’s definitely felt that way for a while. When we think of The Simpsons, we think of Homer. His head could be the logo for the series.
Problem is, Homer hasn’t been funny for a very long time, at least in my eyes. Even during the Golden Age, Homer just wasn’t very likable. He’s selfish, sexist, irresponsible, and unwilling to improve. It’s possible to make such a stupid character funny, but for the most part, Homer is my least favorite part of all my favorite episodes.
I think it’s time for Homer to be redeemed. And he doesn’t even need to be the focus of the final season. He just needs to be made likable.
The episode Lisa’s Wedding kind of did this. He was still his old, stupid self, but he was genuine and thoughtful, too.
It’s time for Homer to change. Now that he’s not supporting the family, he doesn’t even really need to work anymore. He has to find purpose, while also dealing with his inevitable feelings of emasculation, because of course he would be traditional enough to think the man needs to bring home the bacon.
Maybe Bart and wife have their first kid towards the end of the season and Homer realizes that, while he was never a very good parent, he’s a great grandparent. He’s ready to take a backseat. He’s making amends, trying to be a good person, and reflecting on his past.
If we want to steal something from Mad Men, we could have Homer converse with a sentient, imagined television or donut, giving him the chance to explore some interesting things without bothering other characters.
As for themes, I think it’s pretty obvious that the show should end on the concept that family is important and that it gets you through all of life’s wacky adventures. And family can be defined loosely so that other characters who are not technically Simpsons can be included.
It’s not an original theme by any means, but it’s one of the show’s only consistent ideas. The general public has spent soooo much time with the Simpsons over the last thirty years. It’s time to cash in on all that familiarity. Let us feel the weight of all that time, those many, many hours of just being with these characters, through both funny and unfunny times.
If you really want to get artsy, you could tease a kind of cyclical thing. Maybe another family is moving into the old Simpsons home, and while these new characters are very different from the Simpson family, we can tell right away that they’re going to have their own crazy adventures.
Rather than setting up an actual spinoff show, this represents how the show’s ending would be making room for something new on television. Maybe now Fox will greenlight some other crazy animated show to continue the Animation Domination tradition.
The most important thing the final season of The Simpsons could give us is closure. So many shows die unceremonious deaths and so they don’t get to have real endings. But networks and showrunners can avoid that. They can decide to let a show end with dignity.
The Simpsons needs to move over and make room. If there’s a massive fan backlash when the show goes off the air, great, then you can go ahead and make a streaming-exclusive spinoff or something, but as we’ve seen with other Matt Greoning series like Futurama and Disenchantment, nothing has charmed the pants off the American public like the Simpsons did.
We live in a different time now, one where The Simpsons isn’t especially relevant. So why not send off the series with one last big to-do?
Marge, Lisa, Maggy, Bart, and even Homer, deserve at least that much respect.