Test Pilot #4: The Simpsons
Debut date: December 17, 1989
Series legacy: Not just the most influential animated comedy or most influential comedy, but the most influential television series of the 20th century, set a brand-new bar for animation, comedy and television as a whole, and continues to be important today, in its 22nd(!) season on the air.
Welcome to the newest regular feature here at TV Surveillance, the fantastically titled, Test Pilot. In this bi-weekly feature, I will be joined by a rotating batch of guest writers in an analysis of, you guessed it, television pilots. In this space, we’re hoping to analyze pilot episodes in a number of ways in hopes of discussing its historical, cultural and industrial context. To get a well-rounded opinion, this feature will include two perspectives from individuals who have just watched the pilot, one coming from a writer with full knowledge of the series following the pilot develops, the other coming from a writer who is not as familiar with the series. I’m hoping that this can be a fun way to add some less time-sensitive material to the site, but also expand coverage back through history of the medium.
The first batch of Test Pilot files were chosen because of their importance to today’s television landscape. The medium has expanded in a lot of ways over the past 15-20 years, and to get this series of posts going, we are going to tackle four series that are perhaps most important to what we see on television today — and perhaps what we’ll see in the future. If successful, we’ll eventually move on to failed pilots, groups of posts based on genre, etc. It’s not as exciting to only look at the high-quality stuff, so hopefully we’ll get to some interesting failures in the future.
Last go-around, I called Law & Order the most influential broadcast network series of the last 25 years. While it might have the most impact and influence based on what series followed it on the production line, I think it is very difficult to argue against The Simpsons as the most influential and important television series to hit the airwaves in the last 25 years and perhaps of all-time. Thus, it’s only fitting that we close out the first quadrant of Test Pilot entries with the FOX comedy.
Today, my co-conspirator is Myc Wiatrowski, who is a member of my cohort here in the Bowling Green State Department of Popular Culture. Myc is admittedly older than me (28 vs. 22), so his earliest experiences with The Simpsons are perhaps more fully formed than mine, and because he seemed as knowledgeable about the series as anyone I know, he makes the perfect person to take the “veterans” reign on this one.*
*I swear that when we move into the next quadrant, which I’m planning now, I will be on the other side of this discussion. I hope it doesn’t look foolish that the person with a television blog is the one unfamiliar with all these great classics.
So up first, check out Myc’s take on the pilot episode, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”:
With over 20 years of broadcast history, more than 460 episodes, a feature-length film, and more merchandise than any sane person would consider reasonable The Simpsons have become a cultural landmark in American television. But when we look closely at the behemoth that would become the staple of Fox Broadcasting’s Sunday lineup we find more humble origins.
On April 19th, 1987 the world was first introduced to the Simpson family in a one-minute sketch on The Tracy Ullman Show. That first sketch, titled “Good Night,” would be the only one of forty-eight animated shorts to appear on Ullman’s variety series, giving the world its first look at the now infamous family and paving the way for what would become the longest-running scripted primetime series in American television history.
But before they could reach historic heights Fox Broadcasting would need to take what many would consider a huge risk. In 1989 several production companies began developing the early Ullman Simpson sketches into a half-hour primetime series for the upstart network. On December 17th of that same year the first full-length episode of The Simpsons launched to wide critical acclaim. The rest, as they say, is history.
History, however, is a fickle thing. The Simpsons were and are not a culturally static text. After becoming a television sensation the program didn’t just become some nebulous artifact existing in the zeitgeist, successful and never-changing.
Yet, the premiere episode, a Christmas special titled “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” did lay a strong framework for the stylistic and narrative foundations of the series. By scrutinizing the elements of this episode it is possible to examine the text both as a cultural phenomena as well as an infrastructure over which a great deal of change in the focus and representation of The Simpsons over the past 21 years has taken place.
Narratively the plot of the premiere episode is fairly straightforward and sticks to the tried-and-true formula of the sitcom genre. For the purposes of this post I’ll suggest that the sitcom formula usually conforms to a four-step process: (1) Introduction of a problem; (2) Complication and confusion; (3) Resolution; and (4) Moral lesson. “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” easily conforms to this basic syntagmatic structure.
As a Christmas special the episode is unsurprisingly set during the holiday season. Early in the episode we are introduced to the two elements that will create the basis of the narrative conflict. Bart expresses his desire for a tattoo as a Christmas gift and Marge and Homer discuss the Christmas fund which they have kept in a hidden place for the entire year.
When Marge takes the kids shopping Bart sneaks away in an effort to get his secret Christmas tattoo. Predictably, Marge barges in, interrupting the process. She takes Bart to a laser removal clinic where she is forced to spend the family’s Christmas nest egg getting the tattoo removed (1). The episode complicates this problem by simultaneously having Homer learn that his expected Christmas bonus from the power plant has been cut (2).
In an effort to relieve the financial situation and still provide a satisfying holiday for his family Homer secretly takes a part-time job as a mall Santa (2). This secret doesn’t last long however as Bart, on a dare, rips off Homer’s fake-Santa-beard. Touched by his father’s selfless sacrifice, the younger Simpson agrees not to tell the rest of the family. Eventually Homer receives his Santa-paycheck, but is dismayed to see that after a variety of deductions is only for thirteen dollars, further complicating the narrative structure (2). True to form, the Simpson men decide to risk the little they have at the dog track in an effort to save the family’s Christmas.
When at the track, Homer decides to bet on a last-second entrant named Santa’s Little Helper, which he believes to be an omen (2). Interestingly, it is at this point that Bart makes a meta-commentary suggesting that television has taught him that the underdog who believes in what is right always overcome the odds and win out in the end because of hard work and love. This adds a moment of poignant comedy to their eventual loss, as their dog does not win. Coming in last Santa’s Little Helper is owner abandoned by his owner and quickly taken in by Homer and Bart (3).
When they return home, Homer plans to tell the family about his misfortune, but they confuse the dog far a family gift and the problem is resolved (3) ending with a Merry Christmas for the family. The audience is shown that Bart was, in fact, right in his meta-commentary and that familial love and dedicated effort is in fact rewarded (4). Structurally this episode conforms to the conventions of the sitcom genre.
I must admit that I still watch The Simpsons regularly (and have since I was seven years old). In preparing for this essay I dug out my season one DVDs and re-watched this episode for the first time in years. While I expected the genre conventions to be more noticeable in an early episode than a more recent one, I was surprised to notice how intensely character-driven and Homer-centric the plot of this episode was. “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” is not only comedic and timely, elements easily recognizable in most any episode of The Simpsons, but it is also very touching. Homer’s love for his family is clearly evident and his sacrifice, dismay joy and relief are easily interpretable by the audience.
It has become obvious that the early seasons follow the sitcom format more closely than more contemporary seasons; season one in particular follows closely the conventions of the sitcom. But what is also apparent throughout the first season is that the series provides a great deal of narrative agency to most of the family members. This wasn’t to last as the program soon became a vehicle for Bart Simpson largely depriving the other family members of significant story time. “Bart-mania” swept the nation (and the world) in a multi-billion dollar craze.
Though the series development, while quickly shifting focus largely onto Bart, it still remained largely a character-driven sitcom with occasional deviations. Compared to seasons two through four the premiere episode is in many ways more traditionally formulaic and emotive, but largely representative of the early-years of broadcast. Still, there remained little room in the premiere episode for the audience to be “doing the Bartman” (and please, for the love of God, don’t tell me I’m the only one who remembers “The Bartman”…).
As the seasons progressed the sentimentality of the series steadily declined, moving away from aspects of the traditional sitcom as seen in the premiere into more of, well, a “cartoonish” style. By season five we find not the Homer of “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” but a more buffoonish, cartoony, yet still affectionate father-figure that begins to usurp Bart’s place as the driving force within the plots for a majority of the episodes (for example, season five’s “The Last Temptation of Homer”).
By season eight the series had largely deviated from a character-driven sitcom to a cartoon focused on the wacky antics of the Simpson family, particularly Homer (like season eight’s “You Only Move Twice”).
Even though the series has largely strayed from the syntagmatic structures laid out in the pilot episode, there remain important paradigmatic elements that have remained throughout the more than 460 episodes. These elements, and the popularity garnered by the early seasons, allowed the show-runners and writers to become more irreverent and place the Simpson family in increasingly zany situations.
However, to imply that The Simpsons has entirely lost its emotional grounding would be doing the program a great disservice. The family structure developed in “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” is the single most static (and arguably important) element in the series. This aspect of the program is the true narrative and stylistic element that has made The Simpsons a cultural icon.
They are the quintessential working-class, financially troubled American family who are willing to sacrifice individual pleasures for one another. While the overarching narratives may have, in recent years, become a platform for controversial issues, pop culture references, and self-referential humor it all is couched in the structure of that “typical American Family.”
In some respects the Simpsons are a more realistic depiction of the American family than other famous television families ever were (such as the ever so perfect Huxtables on The Cosby Show). The Simpsons have money problems. The Simpsons watch TV. Let me say that again. They watch TV!! They may not be perfect in manners or custom, and they do not necessarily conform to our broad notion of social mores. But they do love one another.
Through all of their permutations in more than 20 years, that is what we recognize most. Perhaps it is the representation of a troubled yet loving family that we are drawn to. Perhaps that is the explanation for their longevity and success. From “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” to last Sunday’s “MoneyBART,” The Simpsons has provided the world with 22 seasons of madcap family values. I say here’s to 22 more.
And now, a take from me, an individual fully familiar with the series, but not on the scale of fan like Myc:
Since Myc covered the episode and its relationship to the series so well, I guess I’ll discuss more personal (and thus perhaps frivolous) anecdotes that came to me while watching “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.” The most interesting and compelling thing about watching the episode is that if you put a gun to my head and said, “Have you seen the pilot episode of The Simpsons?” my answer would be “No.” I was fairly confident and actually very excited that I have not seen this episode.
Imagine my surprise then, that once the episode got started, I recognized every gag, knew most of the episode’s premise and was fully aware of where things were going.
And because I liked the episode so much, I went on and watched a few more from season one, including the first episode to actually be produced, but ultimately delayed due to animation problems, “Some Enchanted Evening.” Guess what? Same kind of thing happened, though not to the same exact degree or regularity that came with viewing the pilot episode.
Therefore, I think that almost subconscious awareness of episodes from 1989, literally a time when I was one year old, proves just how influential and important The Simpsons is as a series. With Law & Order, we don’t remember specific episodes because they’re all, in the end, basically the same thing. And that’s kind of the point, I guess. But with this series, I can somehow remember the best bits from the pilot episode even though I was 100 percent confident I had never actually seen it beforehand. And perhaps more impressively, I wasn’t offended or bored with the fact that I already somehow knew these things as if the series was so stale and conventional at this point that it somehow retroactively made the first season predictable. Instead, I found myself really charmed by the fact that The Simpsons has permeated into pop culture so much that even a general non-fan like myself, someone who grew basically not watching the series after age six or seven, still knows and respects elements of the original run of episodes.
Therein lies the crux of the current discussion about The Simpsons as a valuable cultural artifact.
When it began back in 1989, the world was both ready and not ready for an irreverent animated family that changed how the supposed traditional family sitcom could work on American television. On one hand, the series was a great response to the family values-powered Reagan and Bush Sr. eras, periods in which conservatism expanded its reach down to television where many sitcoms emphasized hugs and lessons over just about anything else (Family Ties, Growing Pains, etc.). This was a time period where the young people who grew up in the ’80s era of conservative values were ready to rebel and post-modernists were interested in tearing down everything in sight.
The Simpsons came along and served as a great response to all of that. It spun the traditional television family set-up on its head while still keeping true to the conventions as Myc points out above, but included the right mix of cynicism and heart that I’d argue hadn’t really been seen up until that point. It was risqué, challenging, intelligent and full of references in ways that might have been done previously on an individual level, but not pulled all together into one recipe. Bart’s anti-hero, rebellious nature was a major draw to the young men disenfranchised by the glossy ’80s, Lisa’s intelligent feminism a major draw to the young woman in a similar situation.
But on the other hand, that era of conservatism wasn’t quite over during The Simpsons’ initial run of episodes. There was plenty of outrage, as various schools disallowed its students to wear Bart t-shirts, conservatives derided his lack of punishment within the context of the series and Barbara Bush called the series “the dumbest thing [she] had ever seen” while her husband President George H.W. Bush famously wanted Americans to be more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons. This was a time of great transition for the United States, a time when more risqué content was being allowed on television, fights over the language in music, particularly hip-hop were being waged and the lines between those who were ready to embrace those changes and those who were not were fairly obvious.
This is not to suggest that The Simpsons and The Simpsons alone was the sole catalyst for the over-analytical, hyper-critical and perhaps even substantially subversive early ’90s reaching middle America, but along with things like MTV, FOX and hip-hop, popular culture was certainly getting “edgier” and the citizens were seemingly more responsive to it.*
*It’s important to not forget the importance of The Simpsons to FOX as a network. It now exists as the most successful broadcast network, but when the series debuted in 1989, FOX was only three years old. Without the overwhelming success of The Simpsons, I’m not sure FOX would have survived, and am definitely sure it wouldn’t have risen to power in the way it did. Of course, it’s also crucial to note that if it weren’t for FOX’s middling status in 1989, the series would have never made the airwaves anyway.
But that was then, and well, this is now.
Throughout most of the ’90s, The Simpsons existed as a primary driver of popular culture discussion. The references continued to be both broad and specific as the series tackled everything from religion to race to whatever else you could think of. If The Simpsons didn’t tackle it, it didn’t really matter. The Linguistic Data Consortium is on record with saying that the series has bypassed both the Bible and Shakespeare as the source of most references, allusions and catchphrases in this culture — and it’s wildly popular overseas as well. It’s couch gags, characters and Treehouse of Horror episodes are major staples of 20th and 21st century popular culture, there’s no way around it. Screw the Kennedy’s, the Simpsons are America’s most recognized family.
But just like with Law & Order — and really to a larger extent since it was more beloved in the first place — the love for The Simpsons has declined dramatically in recent years. Most “true” fans suggest that somewhere between the eighth and tenth seasons, the quality dropped off and it’s really never looked back aside from the occasional great moment or episode. The decries of “That’s still on?!” and “Just kill it already!” abound in comments sections all over the web. It has supposedly been surpassed in quality by other animated series like South Park and Family Guy and purportedly has lots its ability to be critical in the same biting ways it could back then.
And of course, a lot of that resentment comes with the industrial factors that have turned The Simpsons into such a cash cow, not just here in the United States, but abroad as well. From countless video games, t-shirts, mugs, calendars, comic books, board games, license plates and god knows how much else, The Simpsons is a truly multi-billion dollar brand. It’s a studio’s dream. A 2003 report noted that over 500 companies around the world have the license to use the series’ characters and imagery as part of their branding.
Combining the increased monetization of the series as a brand and the supposed declining quality is an obvious recipe for destruction. At this point, it is old hat to hate on The Simpsons, particularly for trolls on the internet who came of age in an era where it was already supposedly “declining” and brighter, shinier toys were there to play with like the downright horrendous Family Guy. Meanwhile, older viewers might still be watching out of habit or hope that things will finally turn around.
But lost among all of that hyperbole and bluster are two important things. First of all, is The Simpsons‘ influence. When I was planning this whole feature with a few people I trust, I noted that I need a comedy to go along with the three dramas we highlighted previously and nearly everyone noted that I had to start with Seinfeld or even Arrested Development. And even as someone who likes both of those series more than I do The Simpsons, I knew that was a ridiculous proposition because even if their respective creators don’t/won’t admit it, those two series existed in some ways because of what The Simpsons did early in its run.
There is absolutely no comedy that has come on the air after this series that doesn’t take at least one element from it. Apart from the post-Simpsons animation boom that is now a big part of the television industry, series like Malcolm in the Middle, The Office, Spaced, Arrested Development, 30 Rock, Community, Scrubs, Curb Your Enthusiasm — I could go on forever, they all owe something or borrow from The Simpsons.
With the series being around so long, the hate was bound to come, but it’s most troubling to see the general disrespect I see people give The Simpsons. I know it’s been on for 22 seasons and I get that it might not be as funny as it was in season two, but recognize two things: A.) You probably weren’t even alive in season two or haven’t even seen those episodes, anonymous internet hater and B.) That doesn’t stop it from being super-influential.
And secondly, the criticisms often fail to acknowledge that The Simpsons still has their fastball. It might not be throwing a constant 100 mph heater right down the middle, but it can still strike someone out regularly with an 89 mph pitch that moves all around the plate. The general opinion of “The Simpsons Movie” was high and I’ve heard from countless sources both in and outside of the critical community that the last few seasons, particularly last season, have been pretty damn great.
Which of course, brings us to last Sunday’s episode and that wonderfully done couch gag that had the interwebs buzzing on Monday morning. Check it out:
If you can honestly tell me right now that this is a flaccid series that can’t run with its younger counterparts, then, well, you’re wrong. This is only one example of how The Simpsons still brings it.
So if I can circle back to my statement about The Simpsons‘ value as a cultural artifact as a way to close this long-winded analysis, it is fully apparent to me that the only thing really hurting the series’ overall value in the minds of its viewers is that it’s been around so damn long. Sure, it’s not going to be as good as the halcyon early ’90s, but that doesn’t mean it sucks. And when you consider the influences it’s had not just on television but on our culture as a whole, it makes total sense that a person born just one year before it’s premiere would be able to somehow, through some odd bit of collective intelligence, remember the events of the pilot episode. Some might consider that a bad thing because The Simpsons has over-stayed its welcome and stretched itself way too thin. I disagree fully.
Conclusions on legacy: Somehow disrespected by a younger generation of popular culture consumer, The Simpsons is still one of the most important and influential television and pop culture texts of all-time and hasn’t jumped the shark or nuked the fridge as much as some might think.