Another year, another contract dispute. All the Simpsons cancellation rumors got me thinking about brushing up my Simpsons history, so I checked out a book, The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History. Like an Apocryphal Bible, I dive in to read what I haven't read before.
Now it turns out the show has been renewed for two more seasons - what to do? Well, there is something amiss - a mystery! I'll solve it! Why do people complain so much about the decline in quality of the show? My only clue will be John Ortved's book.
Fact: The show's creator, Matt Groening, isn't quite as (or, to put it dangerously, never was) involved in the day-to-day output of the show's production. In fact, according to the book, he's much more involved in the cottage industry of Simpsons merchandising and stamping his signature on it. The book makes no mention of Bongo comics, the company he owns which has published Simpsons (and Futurama) comics and is currently approaching its 20th year in business. Next to Image comics, it is one of the few, true success stories of the comic book marketplace in the 1990's.
Fact: The job of showrunner (the top banana among the writers who serves as chief wrangler) has been held by Al Jean for nearly a decade, the longest time served in the show's history. In the past, showrunners served an average of two years. Mike Scully (who ran the show before Jean), served for four. Although it is a cartoon, The Simpsons is a show where the writers are the driver and engine, and the book hints that during Jean's tenure the quality of the scripts have softened the show's edge and the spontaneity has been lost. In the past, the show had a small, but talented circle of writers working in a single room. Today, the show has many writers working out of two conference rooms (between the lines, Ortved is hinting that the episodes now have a watered-down, written-by-committee feel that may be the real cause of what's happening).
Fact: The upstart competition is outpacing the forerunners. Ortved is no fan of Family Guy, but he admits the show's popularity (and that of creator Seth MacFaarlane) are echos of The Simpsons glory days in the early 90's.
Conclusion: My conclusion is something that Ortved neglected to mention and is staring him right in the face. The Simpsons are no longer a gimmick. When the show premiered, people ooh and aah'd the return of the prime-time animated sitcom. When the show became popular in the early years, they had a merchandising feast and wow'd over that. When the show became a launchpad for a number of writers who went on to have successfull careers launching their own shows, the show became established. When the show spawned imitators, upstarts, rip-offs and parodies, the show became a class act. When Celebrities began appearing on the show (and never stopped), it became trendy to people in the mainstream media and no longer required persuasion to watch it. When the movie came out, people wondered what took so damn long.
We're waiting for something new to talk about - a new gimmick concern to lump the show under. I believe that a show's lifespan has its own rite of passage, and when it runs as long as the Simpsons, people begin to look at it as if it achieved Godhood - to cancel it would be unthinkable. Really? Are we really bored with the show, or is the show bored with its audience? That is the question...the question that has not been asked...the question that might bring the end of all things... yellow... ;)
By the way, I did enjoy the book, especially the profiles of Groening, Sam Simon, George Meyer and John Swartzwelder, whose books are hard to find (aren't hard-to-find books the kind that should be available in public libraries?). That is the question...the question that has not been asked...the question that might bring the end of all things...
I am curious (yellow)! ;)