Depending on where you draw the line, The Simpsons stopped being especially relevant in the larger American pop-culture sometime around the turn of the century (plus or minus 2007, when The Simpsons Movie hit theaters and reminded everybody why they fell in love with the series to begin with). Most people attribute turnovers in the writing staff, the shifting nature of televisual consumption and distribution that followed the rise of internet ubiquity and the increasing compartmentalization of fandoms following the 1990s, when all-encompassing “water cooler” shows were less important of a cultural touchstone owing to the fact that everybody wasn’t restricted to watching the same few shows circulating around the major networks. I’ve even seen some people much, much younger than myself attribute the death or departure of certain characters and voices that had been mainstays of the series since their inception as the cutoff for when they stopped caring about it (sometimes being when they went and killed off Maud Flanders, other times being when Mrs. Krabappel actress Marcia Wallace tragically died shortly before her 71st birthday).
While many of these were factors in the fractured influence and popularity of The Simpsons, and each took a little more spring out of its step as the years went on, I think that the actual reason for this eventually fandom falloff is a lot simpler than most people are willing to cop to. The Simpsons’ fall came gradually in waves: essentially, a “death by one thousand cuts” scenario whereby iterative generations of young fans stopped watching and caring about the series around the time that they went off to college and watching scheduled cable programming by and large became difficult and inconvenient. I, for one, watched the series more-or-less religiously until the movie came out, coinciding with my own collegial transition and had only rarely been able to catch the odd episode here and there when I was home on vacation or popped in one of the series DVDs that I’d managed to squirrel away with me during the move.
And that’s pretty much how my viewing of the station remained after I graduated, save for annually marathoning all of the Halloween episodes each October. It wasn’t until the Apu controversy that began with last year’s footnote documentary The Problem with Apu and The Simpsons’ now infamously bad response to the film that I even thought of the series to any serious degree at all in the preceding decade. I honestly didn’t even realize that Hulu, a service that I love and subscribe to, streams the episodes of the current season more-or-less as they premiere on TV.
With all of that in mind, I decided to revisit The Simpsons to see how, or even if, it held up relative to its own storied and unimpeachable past. I plowed through the current season – including the infuriating No Good Read Goes Unpunished (in which the aforementioned response to The Problem with Apu was shoehorned in), the record-breaking Forgive & Regret (which finally surpassed Gunsmoke’s run as the longest-running scripted television series) and my much-beloved Treehouse of Horror instalments – and was actually really happy with what I found there.
The Simpsons actually does hold up in its current form, no matter what its innumerable detractors try to say otherwise. Although the humor has admittedly changed over the years and subsequent generations of writers that have entered and exited the series, not to mention its own burgeoning weight as THE go-to animated series for well over three decades now, the episodes now are nearly as good as they ever have been and there are a few genuine gems gone unappreciated in the mix. Despite a brief dip away from straight-up horror for a few years, the Treehouse of Horror episodes have proven to be a consistent highlight of Network TV since their inception. The aforementioned Forgive & Regret struck the same bitter-sweet notes that have always been a hallmark of the best episodes of Futurama. Even that damnedable No Good Read Goes Unpunished episode featured a remarkably strong A-plot (Apu response aside) up there with the best of the franchise and a really fun B-plot that got a surprising lot of material out of Bart reading an Chinese old book. Other episodes were filled with loving updates of past episodes such as Lisa Gets the Blues, smart sendups of popular genres such as The Serfsons and surprisingly strong character development such as Haw-Haw Land.
Granted, it isn’t quite AS funny as it was in its heyday, but it’s still in the same ballpark, which is more than can be said of series that have gone on for even a fraction of its length. And yes, new episodes are overly reliant on older episode for context and continuity while at the same time ignoring major plot points from other “classic” episodes (such as was the case with Grampy Can You Hear Me, which seemingly forget the fact that we aren’t actually following the original Seymour Skinner). But the fact remains that the series is not only still funny, appears to still be more consistently funny than many of its present-day and less-bagged-on competition (such as Family Guy).
If you haven’t watched the series in a while and have access to a TV set, give it a whirl. You might be pleasantly surprised with how genuinely funny the series still is to this day.