End d'oh an era
They are one of the world's favourite families, but is it time for Homer and co to retire as the series marks episode 500? Declan Cashin is on the case
It might have long ago hit its creative peak and lost a lot of its shine in the eyes of hardcore fans, but 'The Simpsons' will next month reach a huge milestone when it marks its 500th episode after 23 years on the air.
It's a remarkable achievement for any TV show, but this upcoming landmark can't gloss over the most pressing question when it comes to this animated series: does anyone still care?
And, furthermore, should 'The Simpsons' now be quietly snuffed out so as to preserve its place in the pantheon of all-time great TV series? It doesn't look as if that will be happening just yet, if the numbers are anything to go by.
In the US, where it broadcasts on the largely uncompetitive Sunday night, 'The Simpsons' can still draw in between 10-12 million viewers every week.
Those figures are much bigger than those of critically adored but low-rated recent hits such as 'Mad Men' and '30 Rock' combined.
Last year, reports suggested that 'The Simpsons' might be cancelled owing to the high production cost. But a new deal was hammered out extending the show for at least two more series, with the main voice cast accepting a 30pc reduction in pay in return for a share of merchandising and syndication profits.
Keep in mind that a 30pc pay-cut doesn't exactly mean the same thing to actors Dan Castellaneta (Homer, Grampa et al), Julie Kavner (Marge), Nancy Cartwright (Bart), Yeardley Smith (Lisa) and Harry Shearer (Moe, Mr Burns, Smithers, Principal Skinner and more) as it does to you and me.
The central cast was already said to be earning $8m (€6.2m) each per series, and when it comes to the proposed profit-sharing, the show's broadcaster, Fox, is believed to have struck a new worldwide syndication deal (selling the show as re-runs) that could fetch a reported $750m.
That's on top of the some $2bn the show has already raked in for Rupert Murdoch's station in its lifetime. So it's not so much a case of 'D'oh!' as 'dough'.
But, in many ways, this strikes at the heart of the problem with 'The Simpsons'.
It's a business, a global brand, like Starbucks or McDonald's, and, truth be told, the show has about as much flavour to it these days as the products from those two conglomerates.
The real 'Simpsons' aficionados -- in whose company I proudly count myself, having watched the show ever since access became available through the astoundingly extravagant (for the early 1990s) outlet of satellite television -- know that the show has been weak for a lot longer than it has been strong.
After its debut in December 1989, 'The Simpsons' had a rough first two seasons in which it established its look, tone and characters. But it was in the show's third series that it really came into its own, with classic episodes such as 'Mr Lisa Goes to Washington', 'Flaming Moes' and 'Radio Bart'.
The show then had seven years of unparalleled greatness, cutting a swathe through American pop culture, and refining -- nay, creating -- the language of TV for the 1990s by deftly tackling political and social satire, slapstick humour and often poignant emotion.
It inspired parodies of everything from movies to other TV shows, and often all in the one episode.
The game-changer in 'The Simpsons' early days was making dad Homer the real star of the show. Bart sold lunchboxes and T-shirts, but Homer provided the comedy gold -- the catchphrases and the quotable lines obsessively memorised by fans.
On the eve of the millennium in 1999, 'Time' magazine named 'The Simpsons' the greatest TV show of the 20th century, just as the show was starting its decline.
A new creative team of producers and writers took over, dramatically changing the show's sense of, and approach to, humour.
This was coupled with the kind of natural diminishing returns that zap the creative mojo of any long-running show, but the fall-off in the quality of 'The Simpsons' was particularly dismaying because of the unsustainable heights it had hitherto reached.
Suddenly, the plots seemed tired and implausible even by the standards of animated comedy.
The Simpsons family would find themselves travelling abroad for some inane reason, beloved characters seemed to have personality transplants, and Homer went from bumbling idiot to mentally incapacitated sociopath.
Worse still, entire episodes only seemed to exist in order to cater to the huge roster of celebrities willing to take part in the show.
Even today, 'The Simpsons' can still pull in guest stars like no other show on TV.
Its current 23rd season has already featured one-episode spots by Kiefer Sutherland, Gordon Ramsay and Joan Rivers, while in upcoming shows, Lady Gaga will do a cameo as a friend of Lisa's, while Michael Cera will appear as the eldest Simpson daughter's latest love interest.
Elsewhere, 'Breaking Bad' and 'Drive' star Bryan Cranston will play a spy in a Hollywood movie, Armie Hammer ('The Social Network' and 'J Edgar') does vocal duties in a parodic episode entitled 'The D'oh-cial Network', and Jeremy Irons will star as a friend of loser barman Moe.
To be fair, after a near-decade of dud series, 'The Simpsons' salvaged its latter-day reputation with the 2007 movie, and indeed since then the show itself has improved -- though even at its best now, it will never match those glory days of the mid-1990s.
So now would seem to be the appropriate time to do the kind thing, and put the yellow-skinned clan into retirement at the end of the current deal in 2014.
Thanks to the endless re-runs on RTE, Channel 4 and Sky, older and newer fans can still catch random reminders of the show's creative high points, which, hopefully, are enough to offset any negative connotations that the later series bring with them.
But do yourself a favour, if you haven't already, and hunt down seasons three to nine on DVD, for those series should be remembered as this once-great show's lasting legacy rather than just for its lucrative longevity today.