For the Love of the Simpsons
Why are ‘The Simpsons’ just as popular now as they ever have been since their first TV appearance in 1987? Perhaps even more so. But crucially, in a world where the majority of the planet has almost instant access to any form of entertainment, from the wholesome to the macabre, why has this simple family based sitcom maintained and possibly increased its popularity in the face of relentless competition from the Internet and Digital TV? Why?
Is it because the shows creators employ state of the art animation? Categorically no, the people behind the show are actually proud of their ‘imperfectly hand-drawn doodles’. So much so that while they acknowledge the excellence of contemporary computer animated shows and films they believe their creation’s imperfections are endearing flaws indicative of the care and attention that only comes from hand-drawn animation. The weekly global viewing figures of 60 million people would prove them right! So then surely it must be the comedy writing team behind the animations that keep the show flying high? Partially.
At the peak of their powers the dialogue created for the yellow-skinned folk of Springfield has been nothing short of genius. Biting satire, sizzling social commentary and side-splitting slapstick all delivered with digital watch timing. However, at times, the humour in the show would have been momentarily surpassed by other prime-time stalwarts such as Friends and Seinfeld. And indeed at times the show can even seem dated when compared to the razor-edged wit of South Park and Family Guy. But still The Simpsons remain both the industry reference and benchmark of TV comedy, animated or not. Why? In truth there is no one answer short of a heady mix of serendipity and synergy.
When you add the unique ‘imperfectly endearing’ animation style to some of the funniest and sharpest writing ever broadcast you already have the makings of Alec Guinness…I mean Genuine Class, sorry I was never as good as Lisa at that anagram game. However there are other reasons too.
Arrival on our Screens
In the same way that Oasis arrived onto the music scene at just the right time, when people were craving something new and fresh, so to did The Simpsons arrive onto our TV sets just as we were about to switch off because the standard template of the television sitcom had become stale. Animation had reached an impasse and more importantly the most popular characters were impossible to relate to. Prehistoric families and talking cats based on Sergeant Bilko can only divert the attention for so long. Also the ‘live-action’ sitcom had practically reached saturation point. Every channel had endless episodes of nameless shows with laughter tracks and a sickeningly trite and happy ending, complete with a climatic and nauseatingly wholesome message to accompany the fade-out theme tune.
Suddenly the clouds parted (literally) and the yellow glow of hope came not from Irelands missing person, the Sun, but from two simple words flying into our sitting rooms, ‘The Simpsons’.
It’s the Theme Tune that does it…
Whatever the reasons behind their sustained success and popularity, all the analysis and theorising stops the moment one hears that theme tune. Whatever kind of day you’ve had or whoever you’re with, the chances are you will feel centred and at ease wherever you are in the world once the opening credits roll. You know for the next 22 minutes at least you are with friends. Not the Central Perk frequenting type mind you, though a side-swiping parody of the group of New Yorkers is not out of the question! But perhaps the safety and security one feels from seeing everyone from Homer to Comic Book Guy do their thing is key to the shows longevity. After so long on the air the audience no longer thinks of these people are animations, they are characters, ‘real’ people. You know how they are going to react to any given situation. Even though they have not aged in 20 years you have grown with them as they have overcome obstacles, made a stand and always found themselves back at the same point at which they started that particular episode….of their lives.
That’s the key, whatever happens during the show you know these people, you identify with them, can relate to them and moreover you know by the time the credits roll everything is going to be okay. When you add quick fire jokes and slapstick humour into the mix you pretty much have the best half hour of anyone’s day.
The emotional and comedic (not to mention physical) heavyweight of the show is of course Homer and is probably the ideal example of how the show has won the world over and continues to do so. Widely acknowledged as the greatest TV personality of all time, his appeal is as broad as the Atlantic but occasionally there are moments of incredible depth and genius. In my opinion the greatest example of how all the shows different aspects come together to form perfection is not a moment of wonderfully timed comedy.
For me the greatest achievement of the shows creators and writers is to have majority of the civilized world empathise completely with a badly drawn eternally 38 year old balding American man. For all his countless social faux pas’ and moments of comedic genius, the one moment when Homer beautifully illustrates his global appeal and realism is at the very end of an episode when he is reunited with his estranged outlaw mother voiced by Glenn Close. As his mother must leave him behind or face serious jail time she wishes her loving son a fond farewell and drives away in a van with her hippy compatriots. Homer begins to wave and continues to sadly do so long after the van and his mother have disappeared over the horizon. Then with the addition of soft melancholic wind music they scene switches to a wide shot of Homer sitting quietly on the bonnet of his car staring upwards at a starry sky as a shooting star flies over head. No words are spoken and even the credits whizzing by cannot deflate the sense of empathy one feels for the lonely clown. Anyone who has had their rib tickled and side’s split by Homer Simpson’s antics over the years cannot help but feel for him as he is once again separated from his loving mother. That’s the shows genius.
20 Years of Entertainment
Through the 20 years of goofs gaffes and jokes galore the creators have given us realistic and well rounded characters that are not bound by real-time or real life boundaries. As we have laughed and cringed with them over the years we have unknowingly fallen in love with the Simpson family and their supporting cast of hundreds. True they are cultural icons for the modern age on a global scale but far more importantly than that; they are part of our everyday lives as much as our friends and family are.
Solace in Simplicity
Whatever is going on in our lives we know it will always be safe and fun to swing by 742 Evergreen Terrace. Where no matter what happens, who’s fighting with who or what the emergency is, we will go through it with them and in approximately 22 and a half minutes later we will be back where we started, ready for the next adventure.
If only real life was as simple, fun and safe.