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30 Years of The Simpsons: The Legacy of TV's most famous family


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Tracey Ullman, appearing on The Graham Norton Show a few weeks ago, was surprisingly modest about the fact that it is her we have to thank for giving the world The Simpsons.

"I breast fed the little people," she cackled, before explaining that the cartoon family had been created to serve as filler between her sketches in The Tracey Ullman Show, which aired in America in the late 1980s.

Ullman’s show has long since ended but The Simpsons are still around, having become one of the most successful television series of all time. Some 600 episodes have been produced, while this year producers Fox have renewed the series for its 29th and 30th seasons. This spring marks three decades since the original clips popped up between Ullman’s sketches.

The success of The Simpsons lies in its focus on that most recognisable of concepts: The family. There is a father and mother, happily married but not without their problems, the eldest son, an often undervalued sister, and a baby who came along, unexpectedly, a few years later. This, however, is where the normality ends.

The head of this ‘nuclear’ family is an employee at a power plant which deals with the same kind of energy, while his wife has gravity-defying blue hair, which is somehow accepted by audiences along with the bright yellow skin. Furthermore, The Simpson family, like the rest of the inhabitants in their home town of Springfield, are afflicted with a case of Peter Pan syndrome: nobody ever grows up. The show has seen six US presidents, yet Maggie is still sucking on pacifiers.

Creator Matt Groening (who deserves more credit than Ullman), wrote the original sketches with a focus on the obnoxious Bart - an anagram of ‘brat’ - but wisely switched the focus to Homer by the time of the show’s own pilot. Homer’s outburst of exasperation - 'D'oh!' – is one of the countless tropes which has been made legendary through an array of mediums, from theme parks to action figures and video games. Ullman said it was when she travelled to Italy and discovered a Simpsons bath set that she knew she had been breastfeeding something special.

Like all creative geniuses, Groening wrote what he knew; his father was called Homer, his mother Margaret (neé Wiggum). He had sisters called Lisa and Maggie and an aunt Selma. Near his home in Portland, Oregon was a town called Springfield, though one of the show’s many running gags is that the fictional city is difficult to place, being, according to Ned Flanders "somewhere between Ohio, Nevada, Maine and Kentucky." Yet Springfield, though hard to locate, is big enough to house a vast array of secondary and tertiary characters, most of them voiced by just a handful of stars; Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Hank Azaria, and Harry Shearer. Yeardley Smith is the sole exception, voicing just the one character, Lisa.

A classic episode would open with a great ‘couch gag’, to be followed by a sophisticated plot, featuring a guest star who was not there for the sake of their own fame, but because they added something to the story. Throughout, there would be more cultural references than is possible to pick up on in one viewing, while at the end, either a particularly sick gag or a memorable song would see in the closing credits. My favourite episode is the eighth season’s ‘Homer’s Enemy,’ in which the luckless Frank Grimes begins work at the power plant and endures a slow and ultimately fatal collision with Homer. Everybody has their own favourite.

Words such as 'iconic' are often employed in discussions of this show (is it no coincidence that Lisa's hair resembles the crown of the Statue of Liberty, another concept indivisibly associated with America?) The sheer number of episodes produced guarantees it the honour of the first binge-watchable show in history, quite an achievement considering it came long before Netflix or even the internet. Indeed, as well as being a cultural icon, The Simpsons is also an invaluable introduction to the greatest movies, television shows and celebrities, ever to have existed - all of which the show has either parodied or, in the case of the latter, had on as guest stars.

A show of this magnitude has inevitably attracted critics. In the same year as Venezuela outlawed it as being ‘unsuitable for children,’ several Russian Pentecostal churches demanded that The Simpsons (along with South Park and other subversive Western cartoons) be removed from television on the grounds that they were ‘propaganda of various vices’. The former conservative President George H.W. Bush took a dim view of it, even criticising it in his speech to the 1992 Republican National Convention. The offended producers quickly re-wrote an upcoming episode attacking him, while in a later series he was portrayed as a latter-day Frank Grimes, impotently furious at Homer’s idiocy. The show had combined the traditional image of a family and the seemingly innocuous medium of a cartoon and had transformed it into something bold and unforgettably radical.

Inevitably as time has run on, The Simpsons is now discussed knowingly as 'not as good as it used to be.' Fans date the show's slide from greatness to mediocrity around the tenth season, nearly seventeen years ago (many other shows would be lucky to run even this long). Having long exhausted all conceivable plot points and character issues, writers instead relied on the novelty of the guest stars and other gimmicks to feed the insatiable demand of their fans and producers’ greed. America is the only country in the world which could give us The Simpsons, but it is also the one that will not allow it a dignified end. The franchise is still too lucrative for the broadcasting bigwigs to do the kindest thing, and prescribe the cure for Peter Pan Syndrome and allow the characters to grow up and move out of Springfield.

Yet even if it lives to sixty and is watched by only a handful of devotees, the show need not worry about its place in history. It has introduced a generation to the joys and cruelties of the world, mainly through witty lines (“alcohol - the cause of and solution to all of life's problems”), uplifting its many viewers while never letting it be forgotten that, at the end of the day, we're all yellow under the skin.

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