For years, I was one of those nerds who’d seen every episode of The Simpsons–many of them multiple times. Not having been allowed to watch it when I was small (though I’m not sure we even got Fox for most of my childhood, living in a town with one big communal satellite dish that filled up with snow in the winter), it was one of my great joys as a teenager. And it was always on. Reruns just about every day. I learned every catchphrase.
The Simpsons is now in its twenty-fourth season. Though Fox has threatened to cancel it based on its “current financial model” (they want the cast to take pay cuts), my theory stands that it will run until one of its core cast members quits or dies (my money’s on Harry Shearer–sorry, man.) Even though the show has recently relied heavily on parody (“The D’oh-cial Network”), pop cultural snark (Homer wants to be a hipster; Homer becomes obsessed with “VillageVille”), and recycled plot lines (the fate of Springfield Elementary rests on a Simpson’s test scores), its ratings remain high enough to charge $286,131 for 30 seconds of ad time, making it the sixth most expensive American TV series to sponsor.
Until a few months ago, I was a willing part of these high ratings. I tried to ignore the way the writers stretched the kids’ ages to fit their plot lines (Bart’s relationship with Mary Spuckler, Lisa’s Hemingway-esque romance)–they’d done it before. I didn’t mind the movie, and I voted online as to whether Ned and Edna should get together (I thought they should). For whatever reason, I just couldn’t let go. My husband still can’t. Even as I write this, he’s trying to convince me to watch the latest episode on Hulu. But then, between our current lack of cable/satellite and a few lackluster episodes, the connection broke. I stopped caring about The Simpsons.
Many shows go on past their heyday. In the nineties, it seemed like every expired show took its cast to Disney World in one of its dying seasons (Roseanne, Step by Step, Boy Meets World). In 2009, Scrubs sort of spun itself off with a ninth season called Scrubs: Med School, in which a new but very similar cast of characters experienced all the same dilemmas as the original cast. The American version of The Office ignored the loss of its central character for two seasons (they’ve promised they’re quitting this year). With all of these shows, I feel like I could pinpoint the moment when they failed, even though I often kept right on watching (I might be the only one in the world who feels this way, but I can’t resist James Spader). With The Simpsons, I don’t know if I can see so clearly. Was it the movie? Season nine? The death of Phil Hartman? I can’t say. I honestly can’t tell you if the show is getting worse or just different–today’s Homer is not the same character who shivered outside his kids’ tree house while hearing his daughter recite Edgar Allen Poe–and yet, no matter how much it changes, it saddens me to think of it coming to an end. Even if my attention is divided, my husband will inevitably get me in the room for the next episode.
I am twenty-eight years old. The Simpsons has been on as long as I can remember. It’s probably older than some of our Barkers. If the children had aged, Bart would be in his mid-thirties and Maggie might be in grad school. Grandpa would probably be dead, Santa’s Little Helper put down long ago. But the show’s world is in stasis: It’s like it’s always been there. It paved the way for shows like Futurama, Family Guy, and Bob’s Burgers: the whole animation-for-grown-ups phenomenon. At this point, no matter how zany it gets, I really don’t want it to end. I want the whole cast to live forever and keep voicing those voices and for Bart to find some reason to say, “Cowabunga!” again. But if it does have to end, I hope it finds a way to bow out gracefully, and not because of executive interference, but because Matt Groening thinks it’s time. As of 2006, he said he didn’t see any end in sight, but he’ll see it eventually. When he does, it won’t just be a series finale; it will be a cultural turning point. He better write one hell of an episode.