What on earth happened to The Simpsons?
October 19, 2009 2:58 AM   Subscribe

What happened to The Simpsons?

My family used to love The Simpsons. And I know that everyone says that, but we were nuts. My Dad was an American emigre, and I think The Simpsons helped him to connect in a small, sad way with his lost country. In the days before DVDs with HDD recorders and TiVo, he used to tape every single episode on (severely limited) NZ TV. Over time he managed to get an almost-complete collection of grimy old VHS tapes (current to the current season, at the time about 14). And I used to watch them relentlessly, over and over.

But then I grew up - and, it seemed to me, Simpsons grew down. I grew increasingly bored with the new episodes, and by season 15, I stopped watching. Now, whenever I watch a new episode - which is not often - I usually give up after a couple of minutes. The sense of humour is wrong, the characters are all wrong, the plots are gasping for air... it feels like the show's heart is gone.

When I go back and watch episodes in the vicinity of season 6, I still love it. Episodes like Homie the Clown are just, it seems to me, on a completely different level than current efforts.

How much of this feeling is really coming from the decline in show quality? And can someone explain what exactly has changed in the nature of the show? I saw a recent episode with a slick new intro, and it just felt wrong. It was like they've had to sex the show up, make everything shiny and spotless, increase the tempo to breaking point, to continue to grab people's attention as the competition between media becomes more and more vicious, and TV gets louder, faster, and gaudier.

And am I paying to much creedence to the mementoes of my childhood? Maybe my nostalgia covers up for weaker jokes in the old stuff. Maybe the new episodes are perfectly good without this inbuilt assumption of how the show should work and how the characters should act. And I'm just turning into an old codger sniffing distrustfully at the new-fangled.

Or maybe The Simpsons really has jumped the shark - maybe it's jumped it more than once.

Teach me, Askmefi!
posted by schmichael to Media & Arts (52 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
The writers ran out of new ideas long ago, and the good writers also, they were a long time ago. The show has fallen into the "this week's guest star" trap, and seems to be just coasting along. Your endurance in making it to the 15th season is impressive.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:02 AM on October 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

I think you've pretty much nailed it already. Old writers left, new ones came in, the humor became much more broad. Perhaps we're all old codgers, but you're not the only one--this opinion is pretty much universal among people I know. The consensus seems to be that it was all over by seasons 9-10.
posted by equalpants at 3:51 AM on October 19, 2009

The consensus seems to be that it was all over by seasons 9-10.

This was my feeling, too. When I saw that you (the OP) made it to season 15, I couldn't believe you'd even gotten that far. That's dedication!

However, I did want to add that at least some old Simpsons fans, including myself, thought the recent movie was actually funny and touching. (There's this part in the middle that actually made me and my friend start sniffling.) So you might try that.
posted by Nattie at 3:57 AM on October 19, 2009

Its been going for 20 years, you really expected them to maintain the same level of quality? IME most shows start to lose it if they go on for longer than 7 or 8 years.
posted by missmagenta at 4:06 AM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Well, South Park went to complete hell around its fifth season, but then made a comeback a few years later, around season nine or so, I think. (No, it's still not reliably good like the first few seasons, where every episode was a winner, but every once and awhile they still out a pretty great episode that has most of the old charm.)

So perhaps there's hope for a return to greatness.
posted by rokusan at 4:10 AM on October 19, 2009

Best answer: I started watching The Simpsons about 10 years ago, so I have no nostalgia tied to the earlier days. You're right, the earlier seasons are much better than the later ones for a number of reasons, most of which are touched upon in the commentary to the DVDs:
  • The writers have changed. When they started, most of the Simpsons writers wanted to write for the Simpsons. They were given free reign on in a television start-up of sorts, without actors or sets to tie down their vision, they got to define the modern adult animated TV show. Many of those writers got deals to do their own thing (most notably Conan O'Brien) and moved on. The new writers coming in stopped treating the Simpsons as what they wanted to do, they would just treat a stint on the show as a great addition to their resumes.
  • There's less time. Current episodes are something like 3 or 4 minutes shorter than the first two seasons were. Writers have less time to writer their scripts, there are no more writer retreats.
  • They're such a huge cash cow for Fox that it's hard for them to do anything edgy anymore.
And some that weren't:
  • The straight jacket of seasons past. When I saw Homer cast in a movie this season all I could think was, "Radioactive Man?" So many themes have been done that it's really hard to pull off something completely original.
  • They're cartoons. One of the show's greatest strengths - the characters don't have to age at all - is at the same time one of it's weaknesses. There's only so much you can do with two elementary school age kids over 400 episodes.
  • The voice actors are phoning it in. Lisa always sounds annoyed, Bart sounds more and like the woman he really is and Homer is just angry all the time.

posted by jedrek at 4:21 AM on October 19, 2009 [5 favorites]

It's not a strange phenomenon about the Simpsons -- no show can keep up the quality for so many seasons. Seinfeld declined in seasons 8 and 9; The Office declined in seasons 4 and 5, etc. With all of these, you could probably apply jedrek's observation: "So many themes have been done that it's really hard to pull off something completely original."
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:27 AM on October 19, 2009

John Swartzwelder left the show. Admittedly, the show was turning for the worse before that, but his episodes were so good. I can't help but think that he was adding to the episodes where he didn't get credit. As he ran out of steam so did the simpsons.
posted by milarepa at 4:39 AM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: 'No show can keep up the quality for so many seasons.'

I'm going to point to the original Office series as an excellent example of a series which didn't overstay its welcome. The Office took place over over 12 half-hour episodes and 2 hour-long specials. It was vanishingly short, but it is remarkable because the show finished exactly as it concluded its central dramas - Tim and Dawn got together, David acted like a decent human being. Basically, it had a story, told it - and that was that.

While The Simpsons, as a sitcom, works a little differently, I think the phenomenon of jumping the shark makes more sense in light of how The Office worked. Most good shows, like good literature, has dramatic questions at its heart. Eventually you have to resolve those questions, but its when the show continues past this point that the rot sets in. Once the character has fulfilled his or her original dramatic thrust, what does she do? Should David turn up in a turkey suit to Dawn and Tim's wedding? The writers have to invent something to fill that void, and its very difficult, and gets increasingly more difficult as time wears on, to do so without stepping on toes.

There's only so many times a character can learn a lesson before constructing a new plot necessitates the character forgetting an old lesson. And once that happens, the heart is gone, I believe.
posted by schmichael at 4:46 AM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seasons 9-10 were also when Matt Groening was starting to get Futurama underway. When your show creator starts putting his efforts somewhere else it's generally not a great sign.

Aside: I think it's interesting that you can see a lot the same style of humor in Futurama and the post-tenth-season Simpson's episodes. It just seems to work a lot better in a less-grounded setting.
posted by Benjy at 5:26 AM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I suspected things were over when I saw the 1st episode of the 9th season (City of NY vs. Homer Simpson). There was something just not right about it. However, seasons 4 through 8 are gold, every single episode.
posted by electroboy at 5:38 AM on October 19, 2009

I think the problem with the Simpsons these days is that it's inconsistent. I've watched a couple newer episodes and have been pleasantly surprised and how good they were, how much they remind me of the older days, but then some episodes are really horrible. Those are the two extremes I see--the show can either be great or awful, with no room in between to move.
posted by girlmightlive at 5:43 AM on October 19, 2009

I think it's nostalgia on your part.

There are great episodes from the last few seasons and terrible episodes from the first few. Certainly, the older seasons had more episodes with heavier emotional content, and the middle seasons had more musical numbers and clip shows, and the recent seasons have more guest stars and parodies, but I'm not sure that any of those things are objectively better than any of the others.
posted by box at 5:48 AM on October 19, 2009

The Simpsons has declined. In part, I think this is due to the formulaic nature that that the show follows now. I can't recall the source, but there was a writer or producer for the show who described how the show is now broken up into three parts. 1) The introduction - which is essentially a setup to start the plot by the end of its segment, 2) the plot conflict and 3) the resolution. As a result, it seems like the writers do whatever they want in the first part which has nothing to do with the plot but set it up. As a result, the show doesn't get underway or spend as much time to the plot, and as such, as developing the characters' reactions to the events of that conflict. By the time you feel that something has happened, its resolved and over. I don't recall having this problem back in the earlier years.

As part of the decline, I watched the Halloween Special last night. I have always loved the Halloween special, as it gave the writers an opportunity to push the silliness to the extreme. Yet, last night, the show was completely mediocre. It was a sign to me that I should stop giving the show the chances I do.

I also agree that the style of humor has changed. The show likes to inject a lot more satire/social commentary than it used to originally. While sometimes it can be clever and amusing, it doesn't manage to carry the show.
posted by Atreides at 6:04 AM on October 19, 2009

I catch the occasional recent episode and some are not funny and some are funny. The main stylistic fault I have with current era Simpsons is that they don't do sentimentality. Earlier episodes often eschewed jokes for touching moments. I haven't watched that many recent episodes but I've never seen moments like that. People who still watch regularly would know better.
posted by Kattullus at 6:16 AM on October 19, 2009

You need to keep in mind that this is entirely subjective, but I for one still like the show quite a bit for what it is. At the very least it is a nice departure from the hour and a half of Seth Macfarlane's ego that follows it.
posted by BobbyDigital at 6:21 AM on October 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

While I agree completely that the show isn't as sentimental or sweet as it once was, I can't agree that one is better than the other. What you lose in sweetness, you gain in delightful absurdity. I mean, it's a sitcom, they are all absurd. Now they are just enjoying it and being a bit more in your face about it. (I mean, Seinfeld did the same thing. It started out being "Friends With Slightly Older People" and ended up being closer to "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World." When they ran out of that, there was nowhere to go.)

In other words, don't accuse it of not being something it isn't trying to be.
posted by gjc at 6:44 AM on October 19, 2009

"But then I grew up - and, it seemed to me, Simpsons grew down. I grew increasingly bored with the new episodes..."

Don't overlook this as a reason for the show's decline in your eyes: you grew up, you got bored. Imagine that there were some unequivocal method of measuring the quality of all 400 episodes and that somehow this measurement showed absolutely no change over time. Do you think you would still love the show exactly as much as you did?
posted by rongorongo at 6:56 AM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Your question reminds me of this great comment from EatTheWeak.
posted by yeti at 6:59 AM on October 19, 2009

It's the same thing that happens when you go to the same restaurant on the same day every week. Eventually you've had everything on the menu 10 times and it just doesn't taste all that exciting any more.
posted by pmbuko at 7:13 AM on October 19, 2009

They're cartoons. One of the show's greatest strengths - the characters don't have to age at all - is at the same time one of it's weaknesses. There's only so much you can do with two elementary school age kids over 400 episodes.

I think this is really a more fundamental problem with characters in long-running comedy shows (or any show really). The same thing was starting to happen with Seinfeld by the end of its run, and if they were still churning out Seinfeld episodes today you could bet that they would be horrible.

When the Simpsons started, it had a lot in common with standard 80s family sitcoms like The Cosby Show (whereas a lot of the other early Fox shows were reactions against that formula, such as Married With Children and Get A Life). Homer was more of an everyman, and overall the show was more about telling an emotional story, usually with some kind of moral involved (Stealing cable is bad!).

As time went on, the characters became more one-dimensional as the writers started figuring out how to use them, so Homer became an insensitive dope, Lisa turned into a child prodigy, etc. Many of the original fans of the show hated this, but it happens in most comedy shows when the focus shifts from adding drama elements to just telling jokes. What saved the show at this point was that the writers spent a lot of time thinking up new characters and storylines to carry the show. So while it was still ostensibly about the same family, most of the jokes came from one-off characters and single-episode storylines.

Inevitably though, the show ended up building a lot of cruft, in that previous episodes and characters started to build up so much that there wasn't much new or original to put into new episodes. Not only have there been flashback and origin stories for all of the main characters, but even minor characters have had whole episodes devoted to them. And one-off characters that were only included for a specific joke (like Disco Stu) keep appearing in later episodes in less appropriate and funny situations.

South Park, mentioned above, solved these kinds of problems relatively early on in its run by abandoning a lot of the cruft that had built up (such as the killing Kenny bit) and starting to move in a new direction. A show needs to be consistent to be able to sustain an audience and develop its own style, but after a certain point that consistency can stifle creativity and bore fans who want something fresh and new. A reboot can revive a franchise in some of those sorts of situations, but in most cases a series will just die a slow death as the writers run out of ideas and the fans stop watching.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:16 AM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm sure I saw this on MetaFilter, but someone said that the great thing about the new shows is that they don't replace the old ones. Those ones are still just as funny and are not dated at all. There aren't many shows that provide eight years of pretty much guaranteed laughter.

And you wonder if for a few years everyone worked on the movie while the second tier jokes ended up on the show.

Sentimentality is a big difference between the movie and older shows compared to the newer shows. I wonder if James L. Brooks has decreased involvement with the day-to-day show.

I saw a recent episode with a slick new intro, and it just felt wrong.

Eh, come on. They had the same intro that was 18 years old and was not up to their current animation standards. And when they switched to HD widescreen, should they have stretched the old intro like TV in a terrible sports bar? At least it has the same theme with newer jokes.

posted by ALongDecember at 7:21 AM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can testify, from a younguns point of view, that the decline of quality is recognized from here. I grew up on The Simpsons. Every night I would stay up with my older brother and watch 2 episodes. I love everything about the show; the witty jokes catered to a smug minority, the slapstick humor everyone could enjoy, how real Springfield felt as a city and a home, the characters (you try making 100+ characters completely round!). Just everything about this show, I loved. I almost felt an entitlement to the show, like I knew what it was all about and everyone else just knew "Aye Carumba!" Yeah, I was a Simpsons snob. And yes, I felt the sharp decrease in quality around the 10th season.
posted by Taft at 7:32 AM on October 19, 2009

I've been arguing lately that the difference between the better episodes and the lesser episodes is that the better ones tend to have a linear plot. The lesser episodes tend to feel like a bunch of guys in the writers' room betting one another that they can fit in six completely unrelated ideas.
posted by sciencegeek at 7:35 AM on October 19, 2009

Some suggestions here.
posted by Bizurke at 7:36 AM on October 19, 2009

My opinion on this matter is that it started getting bad when Family Guy became popular. Suddenly the Simpsons writers decided that random punch-line episodes were better than solid plots.

That said, I think there's been some improvement since the Simpsons movie came out, and as Family Guy's popularity declines yet again. I don't watch regularly anymore, but I've been a lot less disappointed when I do than I was say, 3-4 years ago.
posted by sunshinesky at 8:13 AM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

When the jumptheshark site was still operating, I think "Homer got stupid" was the top reason for saying the Simpsons jumped the shark. I agree with that -- it's a good shorthand for the switch burnmp3s talks about from the funny-but-realistic world of the Simpsons to the stereotyped plot-bends-to-gags skit-a-thon it later became.

You can immediately spot whether or not you're in a good Simpsons era or a bad one by whether or not a character says or does something stupid that nobody in real life would do, for no reason other than to make a gag work. So when Homer mentions chihuahuas and suddenly, oops, there's a chihuahua next to him on the coffee table that has never been seen before and never will be again, you know you're in shitsville.

It's not just the Cosby element that's at play here. In the early seasons, for a lot of the time you can genuinely buy into the idea that this is an American family. Homer's an average dad, Bart's a tomboy who feels sad when he kills a mothering bird, Lisa's bright and so on. There's the possibility of empathy and real plotting. Now, the people are just pegs to drape punchlines over. Who cares if Homer is in peril? He's had a road drawbridge close on his head and was fine.

I think they should start evolving it, if they want to bring it back. Apart from Maude dying, I can't think of any major changes, and it's probably time for more. They're already tinkering at the edges of canon with this: there was a recent episode set in Homer and Marge's youth before the kids were born, and instead of the standard 1970s setup, it was in the 1990s and they were grungers.

That felt horribly wrong, but you know, it might be time for Bart's 11th birthday party. As long as they don't invite any fucking celebrities to it.
posted by fightorflight at 8:45 AM on October 19, 2009 [7 favorites]

Tolstoy's last novel marked an artistic decline. If Tolstoy can't keep it up forever, what chance does anyone else have?

An even rarer achievement than writing a classic is knowing when to stop - i.e. Harper Lee.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:46 AM on October 19, 2009

I'm going to point to the original Office series as an excellent example of a series which didn't overstay its welcome.

I will point to just about ANY British series that crosses the pond as an example of this. We have this obsession here in America where, when something is successful, you just keep doing it until it's so worn out that everyone forgets why they liked it in the first place. But the limited-run series which the BBC produces, almost none of them suffer the same fate, because they know when to say "when". (There are counter-examples of this, too. I'm well aware, but overall, I prefer the idea that a series has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Not a beginning following by an endless stretch of ever-declining quality and finally a puff of dust as it fails altogether.)

Couple that with the horrible fate of many American shows where the original 6 episodes which sold the show to the network run out, and the executives place an order for more, only with "some minor adjustments" because of focus group feedback... Tinkering with the formula just slightly, punching up that one character which is an unexpected fan favorite, developing catch phrases which substitute for actual jokes... It was a minor hobby of mine to watch a show for its first couple of seasons and try to spot the exact episode where the focus group data kicks in. With many shows it is painfully obvious if you know what to watch for.

The Simpsons really didn't have a lot of that go on for its first few years. Partially because the incredible lead time required to make an animated series doesn't allow for the kind of futzing which you can do with most sitcoms. Partially because it was such a phenomenon, out of left field for the networks, that nobody dared touch it for fear of breaking it. But all the years that have passed... It's a miracle that The Simpsons still manages to put out one or two good half-hours in a season. But that seems to be all they do anymore.
posted by hippybear at 8:50 AM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

We have this obsession here in America where, when something is successful, you just keep doing it until it's so worn out that everyone forgets why they liked it in the first place.

I wonder if the funding model for American vs. British TV is part of the issue. I recall hearing a story on NPR (Marketplace, perhaps) that said that it's far more cost effective for network to keep a mediocre show that's produced in-house on the air, than it is to take a chance on a new show. The example they gave was The World According to Jim. While no one really thinks it's a good show, enough people watch it to sell ad revenue. To replace it would mean either taking a chance on a new show, which, odds are, will fail, and have to be replaced. So there's not really a lot of motivation, when the existing shows are "good enough".
posted by electroboy at 9:12 AM on October 19, 2009

I've enjoyed quite a lot of the more recent episodes and I've been around since early on.

The proper way to find out the answer to your question is to find some people without too much previous exposure to the show who want more, give them a whole bunch of random episodes, say 4-5 per season & get them to watch & grade. Yay science...

There are enough UK series that seem to go on for ever (In Sickness & In Health + reincarnations, Only Fools & Horses, 'Ello 'Ello, Two Pints... etc.) It was John Cleese & Connie Booth with Fawlty Towers who went the two series & out route which inspired Ricky Gervais with The Office.

Peep Show is in its 6th series & is going strong & it'll be interesting to see how The Mighty Boosh fare with series 4. Shameless is one of the best UK progs of recent years & is getting ready for series 7. Showtime are trying a US version next year.

In the US it'll be interesting to see how stuff like 30 Rock goes (now season 4). It's brutal over there. Reality TV seems to rule which can help some new comedy shows with a lead in but then kill them but pushing them all over the schedule. (See Samantha Who? for a case in point. Brilliant cast but totally dicked around the schedule but ABC.)

I was wondering how Parks & Recreation could even sustain a season based on the initial storyline but it's turned out to be one of the best shows around. I could quite happily watch 50 episodes in one sitting (so it'll be cancelled at the end of the current series.)

Overall, I think we're going through a golden age of TV. Downloads / TiVo / iPlayer / 4oD giving easy access & no annoying breaks and lots of great shows in the US, Canada & the UK. The Simpsons blazed the trail for this and excuse it for wanting to sit on the front porch & watch the young 'uns once in a while.
posted by i_cola at 9:23 AM on October 19, 2009

"... totally dicked around the schedule by ABC".
posted by i_cola at 9:27 AM on October 19, 2009

I'm going to point to the original Office series as an excellent example of a series which didn't overstay its welcome. The Office took place over over 12 half-hour episodes and 2 hour-long specials. It was vanishingly short, but it is remarkable because the show finished exactly as it concluded its central dramas - Tim and Dawn got together, David acted like a decent human being. Basically, it had a story, told it - and that was that.

I would use Office as a rare example where the US version is (or at least was) ways ahead of the original British one.
posted by zeikka at 9:35 AM on October 19, 2009

'No show can keep up the quality for so many seasons.'

I'm going to point to the original Office series as an excellent example of a series which didn't overstay its welcome.

If you're interested in another example, I implore you to check out the DVD of Stella - Season One (the only season). Brilliant sitcom and not a single "dud" episode. That just wouldn't have been possible if they had stayed around for season after season.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:17 AM on October 19, 2009

It's Conan O'Brien's fault, specifically because of the Monorail episode.

Think about everything that makes late-era Simpsons bad. Pointless, gimmicky guest stars? Zaniness for zaniness's sake? A general lack of believable characters? 3 unrelated plots stitched together for no discernable reason? Awkward forays into song and dance in the hope that bombast will replace humor? Every single one of those tendencies in the Simpsons can be traced back to the success of the Monorail episode.

Now, I love that episode. It's great, and full of funny jokes and genuinely hilarious and all that, but it's a dangerous act to follow, not least because it's so very gimmicky. Once the jokes started getting tired, or the most talented people left, what you got was your average 14th season episode, which is all gimmicks and no jokes.
posted by Copronymus at 10:49 AM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I maintain that it was the abandonment of character consistency for gags, as exemplified by
Ned Flanders being incredibly flip about having premarital sex with someone. The characters no longer meant anything beyond the gags that could be hung on them.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:58 AM on October 19, 2009

Sentimentality is a big difference between the movie and older shows compared to the newer shows. I wonder if James L. Brooks has decreased involvement with the day-to-day show.

That's very much the case. One of the reasons the movie is a cut above the older fare was Brooks' heavy involvement:
"It's much more intense. We did very long record sessions and Jim [Brooks] was there to direct us. Jim was there at the very beginning when the show was airing and he directed a little bit, but for the most part it was directed by one of the writers. This time, Jim has been there along with Al and Matt to direct all of the voice sessions. It's been like working on a dramatic movie. Jim would stop the take and he'd say, 'Remember, you really want this to happen. You're really sad about this.' Whatever it is, 'Get this in your head how much you love Marge' and that kind of stuff." (Dan Castellaneta)
There was a strain of sincerity during the Brooks years that helped to ground the show. Go back to those early episodes, and you'll see that they turn on Homer's desire to be a good father and husband, Marge's social insecurities, Bart's troubles at school, Lisa's yearning for appreciation and identity.

Come along two decades later, and you find that Homer is without any kind of a superego; Bart has no actual problems at school; Lisa is content to be a mouthpiece for the writers; and Marge has little to do but murmur disapproval and pose in Playboy. The characters are now defined by what they are, rather than by who they want to become. And since they can no longer possibly surprise us, is it any wonder that they've lost much of their ability to entertain us?

Without dramatic interest, the writers can't do much more than retread jokes and try to find humor in bad taste. That's a game that The Simpsons can only lose while airing beside Family Guy, which has marginally fresher running jokes and never had any shame to begin with.
posted by Iridic at 12:10 PM on October 19, 2009 [6 favorites]

I would use Office as a rare example where the US version is (or at least was) ways ahead of the original British one.

posted by setanor at 12:20 PM on October 19, 2009

...a cut above the older newer fare...
posted by Iridic at 12:40 PM on October 19, 2009

I always felt that they just forgot how to write the characters.

Homer used to be this lovable idiot but at the core he wasn't really being malicious. Now he's just an asshole.
posted by Nyarlathotep at 12:43 PM on October 19, 2009

I'm currently going through the Simpsons, season by season, via Netflix. Contrary to what a few people above have said, there is absolutely no doubt that quality has in fact declined. I mean, it's not just a matter of your perception. On the other hand, the writing in those episodes was so incredibly sharp and funny, that in some ways you are just seeing the inevitable regression to the mean. There was just nowhere to go but down.

- AJ
posted by Alaska Jack at 1:46 PM on October 19, 2009

I don't think the show is awful... it still has some good moments here and there. I think that part of the problem is their deliberate choice not to age the characters. I mean, the kids have had like xteen first days of school and they're still in 2nd and 4th grade.
posted by IndigoRain at 2:27 PM on October 19, 2009

I agree with milarepa, John Swartzwelder left and conversely Dana Gould came on board. Dana Gould is a funny guy but he is a gag writer, so he brought a real one-off quality to the jokes and does not maintain the narrative thread. Swartzwelder can do the one-off jokes, but excels in having them serve the plot.
posted by arruns at 4:24 PM on October 19, 2009

As I see it, The Simpsons has jumped the shark. It will never be as good as it once was. All my favorite episodes aired in the eighth season, so that was the peak as far as I'm concerned. However, even though it seems to be mostly coasting, it's miles above every other show out there. A bad Simpsons episode is still superior to just about every other show. And, without a doubt, despite claims of 'animation dominations' and all that, there is no other Fox (or Comedy Central) animated show that has come close to being even half as funny and intelligent as The Simpsons. I'm no expert, though, about the writers and what goes on behind the scenes. I can't comment on particular writers coming or leaving and how that's impacted quality of storylines and amounts of laughs.

When I was in college about seven to eight years ago, my friends and I would comment on the decline in quality, but it seemed like it had improved drastically for a few years after that. The past two seasons seem to be going back downhill. I find that SNL has the same sort of wave effect. SNL will never be as good as it was in the 70s, but every few years or so everything aligns for a while and the show becomes consistently funny and relevant again. Not right now, mind, but every few years.
posted by Mael Oui at 8:39 PM on October 19, 2009

I never thought the UK Office should be compared to the longer-run US shows, because it was basically a mini-series. It's like an athlete having an outstanding week or month, taking the rest of the year off, and still being allowed to compete for MVP. It's just not the same thing.

I also don't think you can develop the same kind of emotional attachment to the characters for a series with a handful of episodes as you can with one that lasts a few years. I think that's what sets a good TV show apart from a good movie.

And yeah, most good shows that are also popular do tend to last longer than they should. But on the other hand, some shows take a couple seasons before they really get good anyway. I'd rather a show stay around past its peak than before it, because if things get bad, there'll always be the peak to remember it by, and you can dismiss whatever comes after (eg, The X-Files, as opposed to Freaks and Geeks).

Although 20 years is a bit much. I think we're even at a point where we don't expect comic strips to last decades like the older ones did, and I'm not sure who's really happy that Beetle Bailey is still around.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 2:22 AM on October 20, 2009

> because it was basically a mini-series

The UK Office ran for two full length series. Nothing 'mini-series' about it! Am I misunderstanding something?
posted by Sutekh at 7:12 PM on October 20, 2009

We must be confusing the definition of "series" and "seasons" here...

A mini-series in the US refers to something typically lasting only a few episodes. And by typical US standards where a show will last ten times as long, the 12-episode UK Office is a mini-series in comparison.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 12:02 AM on October 21, 2009

12 episodes would generally count as half a season for network television series in the US. Most full seasons consist of around 22 to 24 episodes a season.
posted by Atreides at 10:33 AM on October 21, 2009

Interestingly, this book just came out, which is a "tell-all" oral history of the writing of The Simpsons.
posted by mkultra at 8:43 AM on October 22, 2009

The UK Office ran for two full length series. Nothing 'mini-series' about it! Am I misunderstanding something?

Yes, you're right if you're British. And yes you're missing something, which is that Americans would never say a TV show "ran for two series." Wikipedia: "A short run lasting less than a year is known in North America as a season and in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland as a series."
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:08 AM on October 22, 2009

Yet, My Family has been going for ten series, most, I think, as long as the US 'season'. Although that was modelled after the US 'writer's room' production style - many series over here are written by one or two writers. A number of popular BBC and C4 sitcoms ran for several series - Birds of a Feather, Drop The Dead Donkey, Peep Show, Goodnight Sweetheart - mainly the 'family' shows (The Office was not one of these, but shown on BBC2 which isn't pitched at a prime-time audience.).

In the UK, we call UK shows series, and 'season' for US shows is just catching on. Maybe because that's what they're called on the box-set. I think the TV 'season' is based on the calendar whereas here new shows/series get shown at any particular time of the year.
posted by mippy at 12:50 PM on September 5, 2010

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