It’s a global phenomenon and one of the longest running sitcoms of all time, but reports emerging last night suggest that The Simpsons faces the axe next spring unless the show can slash its production budget.
In order to keep the series financially viable, Fox, the US broadcaster that produces the programme, are demanding the show’s cast take a 45 per cent pay cut.
"23 seasons in, The Simpsons is as creatively vibrant as ever and beloved by millions around the world. We believe this brilliant series can and should continue, but we cannot produce future seasons under its current financial model,” said Fox in a statement on Tuesday.
“We are hopeful that we can reach an agreement with the voice cast that allows The Simpsons to go on entertaining audiences with original episodes for many years to come.”
This belief that the show could run in perpetuity is shared by its creator, Matt Groening, who said in 2006: "I honestly don't see any end in sight. I think it's possible that the show will become too financially cumbersome... but right now, the show is creatively, I think, as good or better than it's ever been… creatively there's no reason to quit."
It makes sense that Fox and Groening would insist that The Simpsons “should” continue “for many years to come”, as both parties stand to make pots of money out of the programme as long as it’s on air, but do we, the viewers, really want it to drag on any longer?
Let’s face it: The Simpsons has been going downhill for years.
If you compare early episodes – let’s say from seasons one to eight – with anything produced in the past decade, the dip in quality isn’t just surprising, it’s alarming. Wackiness has replaced wit, farce has trumped satire, and the show now limps along on the sitcom life-support of guest stars and catchphrases.
But alas, big-name guests can’t make up for lack of inspiration, which is a shame considering that the show’s writers have taken to recycling old ideas now that the well of situations has run dry.
The last series to be broadcast, season 22, featured episodes in which Bart has to nurse a sick bird back to health, Lisa worries that she won’t fulfil her academic potential, Selma marries someone unsuitable and Moe relies on Homer’s help to find a girlfriend, all of which have been the basis of episodes from years gone by. And while familiarity is important to a sitcom, too much of it breeds contempt.
Though the most irritating changes made since season nine seem to have been borne of an attempt to reach the widest possible audience, which is understandable from the network’s point of view, but an utter travesty artistically.
For instance, one of the best running gags on The Simpsons was the confusion about whether or not Mr. Burns’ assistant Waylon Smithers was gay. Sure, we were given clues, like a dream sequence in which Burns flies in through Smithers’s bedroom window, but the writers didn’t ever explicitly address the issue.
However, in an episode called Flaming Moe from season 22, Smithers is integral in turning Moe’s Tavern into a gay bar. He’s seen frequenting a place called The League of Extra Horny Gentlemen and ends up kissing Moe during the episode, broadening and coarsening an idea that was genuinely original, funny and subtle for the sake of a few cheap laughs and an easy-to-follow plotline for the audience.
Mike Scully, The Simpsons’ showrunner from seasons 9-12 and a continuing presence on the show, explained its longevity, and summed up what’s wrong with the programme nowadays, by publicly expounding his sitcom philosophy: "Lower your quality standards. Once you've done that you can go on forever."
Such an attitude is depressingly evident in the post-millennial Simpsons. When you compare rubbish like the family’s 2002 journey to a hideously stereotyped Brazil, where Homer is kidnapped and Bart is ‘eaten’ by an anaconda, with their sixth season jaunt to Australia, which satirised politics and environmental issues, the differences are striking. One is a broad, childish catalogue of crude farce and flat jokes; the other an intelligent, wry take on a number of adult issues.
Even the show’s beloved characters have mutated into caricatures. Homer Simpson’s metamorphosis from slow-witted, loveable blue-collar slob to overbearing, blithering idiot is particularly distressing.
Early episodes centred around Homer’s prosaic, middle-aged aspirations like wanting to skip church so he could sleep in on Sundays, while nowadays he’s more likely to be found bouncing around hyperactively, going off on road-trips and behaving like a Jackass-style bore.
Indeed, critic Chris Sullentrop summed up the change in the show’s tone by saying: “Episodes that once would have ended with Homer and Marge bicycling into the sunset now end with Homer blowing a tranquilizer dart into Marge's neck…it hasn't been touching in years.”
The fact of the matter is that The Simpsons is a shadow of its former self, hamstrung by its own success, going for the lowest common denominator in order to appease its declining viewership: its ratings have halved from a season twelve high of 14.7m viewers to 7.3m for season 22.
Nowadays it’s a boneheaded, juvenile parody of what was once a smart, sophisticated and funny show, and the audience is slowly but surely waking up to the truth.
So if The Simpsons does perish next spring, will it be such a big deal? Nope. In the words of Bart: don’t have a cow, man.