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If you ask many people what their favourite animated series is, some will say South Park, others will say Family Guy, but for most who grew up in the 90s, the answer will undoubtedly be The Simpsons. A concept that first debuted as animated shorts on The Tracy Ullman Show in 1987, The Simpsons has become the most recognisable television family in history, as well as one of the longest running TV shows ever. You don't get to that point by being mediocre, though; you get there by being innovative and truly remarkable in every way, and that's absolutely what The Simpsons was; I place emphasis on the was.
You see, the thing that set The Simpsons apart from every other animated show both past and present is that it was not just funny, it was shocking, and had a hell of a lot of heart. This is what a large chunk of similar animated comedy shows miss these days. While they all may be filled with their own brand of humour, very few of them can be considered to have true 'heart' with the stories they tell. If you don't have heart, then you simply run the risk of people losing interest in your show, the comedy, and the stories being told.
Let's look at a bit of history and one of my personal favourite Simpsons episodes, "Bart Gets an F". In this episode, Bart runs the risk of failing the end of year exams and could potentially be forced to repeat the fourth grade. He fails the final test, even after studying harder than he's ever studied before, but in his frustration and disappointment, Bart breaks down into tears in front of his teacher Mrs. Krabapple. This was a moment I think many fans could on some level connect with the character. How many people can truly say they could relate to the plight of a cartoon? But that moment of sadness in Bart's life is one probably all of us have experienced at some point. The episode doesn't end on a sad note, though; Bart enters an effortless rant against his own inabilities and displays acquired knowledge that earns him an improved grade, thus getting him a pass for the year. The joy, the relief, the adulation at this success has, I have no doubt, many fans almost filling up as they feel that emotion with Bart.
What other show could you say was able to achieve that kind of connection between real life and animated characters? That was an awesome moment and one of my favourites, so it saddened me when the show entered a sharp decline in heart, comedy, and just overall quality. While some have differing opinions about when this decline truly began, I would argue this started around season 9 when the season itself contained some absolute gems, such as "Trash of the Titans" and "Lisa's Sax," but also some absolute travesties, such as "The Principle and the Pauper" and "Das Bus." This signalled a struggle with the show to keep things consistent comedically, but in that struggle, they lost what often made the comedy so great, and that was that you felt like you could root for the characters to succeed or for the story to come to a satisfying conclusion. Sometimes, though, that was simply not present. "The Principle and the Pauper" is an episode even the show has made fun of in later episodes and it was one I hated. There seemed to be no ultimate consequence or desire to see this so-called imposter succeed in winning back his family, friends, and career, but he did anyway. And while it was a joke in the episode itself, the fact that Skinner got his identity back at the end of the episode, I just found myself thinking what the point of it all was. After season 9, The Simpsons continued its decline in all-the-more depressing ways as each episode just became more and more embarrassing.
Most people have that elderly relative who gets a laugh with a joke, then goes on to repeat the joke over and over again hoping to make people laugh just as much, but eventually, you get so bored, you find yourself just laughing out of pity, and eventually just giving up entirely. That's what The Simpsons has become, and it's a damn shame. I still occasionally delve back into some of my favourite old episodes and laugh just as hard now as I did the first time I watched them probably 20 years ago. That's the power of the early Simpsons, and my hope is that they manage to capture that magic once more before they finally decide to kill off the show for good