A UBC professor on The Simpsons’ lasting legacy
A quarter of a century ago – on December 17, 1989 – the first episode of an animated series called The Simpsons aired.
Today, it is the longest-running sitcom ever. Toph Marshall, a professor in UBC’s Dept. of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies, speaks about the show’s longevity in the face of a morphing industry – and explains how The Simpsons is indirectly responsible for Fox News.
What is the secret behind the staying power of The Simpsons?
There are a lot of secrets. I think they work really hard at it. They’ve hired good writers over the years, and the original casting was genius. The show has also been lucky in that it’s been able to keep its core cast for so long.
They also write consistent characters, even though it’s a very episodic show. It’s possible to build up narrative histories, and watch how characters develop over time.
They’ve also retired some characters when voice actors died. That shows that they’re trying to see the characters as something that is embodied – not something that’s abstract and can be replaced.
How has The Simpsons changed primetime attitudes towards animated shows?
Today, any TV watcher flipping around in the evening has the opportunity to see animation, which wasn’t the case when I was growing up.
There has been primetime animation before — starting with The Flintstones — but The Simpsons has been a constant for this generation. I think even the biggest fans of Family Guy or other shows recognize that The Simpsons cleared the ground.
Part of its success is also measured in terms of spinout effects. I think we wouldn’t have Fox as a network if it hadn’t bought The Simpsons early. It was their first hit, so consequently The Simpsons is indirectly responsible for Fox News.
AMC as the Walking Dead channel is doing the same thing. Nowadays there are so many more channels and so many more avenues to access culture – you can download shows, you can stream them, you can buy them on DVD or iTunes.
The stranglehold of the big networks has been reduced. But in the early ‘90s, Fox was really launching something that I think no one expected to succeed. But The Simpsons allowed that.
Do you feel its quality has been maintained?
If you ask people when Saturday Night Live was its best, it was always when they were 17. Before then, it was great; since then, it’s only been downhill.
It’s the same with The Simpsons. If you’re 15 years old now, you don’t see the diminishment of quality. You might not even like some of the early seasons, where the animation is of lesser quality, there are fewer guest appearances, etc.
Objectively, it’s probably not diminished at all. But it’s going for different markets, and it’s trying to maintain some sort of primacy in an increasingly pluralized viewing medium.
What else stands out about the series?
When I approach television, I ask: where’s the money going, and how is that changing the experience of the viewer?
With network TV, I’m still the product that’s being sold. The Simpsons is only there to get me to watch the ads.
I prefer media where I can buy the DVDs, or where I can give money to the people actually producing the show, so that I’m the economic agent and not the product that’s being sold.
And that, for me, is the big change that television’s undergone in the past 10 or 12 years. Network shows are still negotiating that.
The Simpsons is surviving on both sides of that transition. It worked great as a network serial primetime show. It’s also charging more for its seasons than most of the shows that I buy DVDs for. So its longevity and its success comes from people who know how to market, and who were able to adapt within the changing televisual world.