This week Rob Alderson ponders The Simpsons’ place as the world’s longest-running TV series and why animations seem to have such staying power. As ever you can add your thoughts using the discussion thread below…
Last week it was announced that The Simpsons had been recommissioned for its 26th –26th!! – series, a new record. Even if it is cancelled at the end of this run (which it won’t be) it will have racked up 574 episodes, comfortably the longest-running scripted show ever.
Books, theses and seminars have been dedicated to analysing why the show has been so consistently popular. Its international, intergenerational appeal can be explained by the combination of razor-sharp writing, broad-base observational comedy, slapstick and excellent animation; I feel like I know Springfield better than some towns in which I have lived, so rich is the imagination of the show’s creators.
It’s interesting to look at the top 10 long-running scripted shows currently on TV behind The Simpsons though. Animations feature in third and sixth place (South Park and Family Guy) with American Dad just outside the top 10. Elsewhere crime features heavily ( Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, CSI, NCIS and Criminal Minds) while How I Met Your Mother, Grey’s Anatomy and Supernatural make up the rest.
The parallels between cartoons and cop shows is that both provide an accessible, reassuringly unchanging context from which the writers can build, and in the case of animation the narrative possibilities are limitless, defined only by the creators‘ imaginations.
This combination of fantasy and familiarity is perhaps best exemplified in a show like The Simpsons. We know that Homer will be lovably dumb, Bart will be naughty, Lisa will be brainy and responsible etc. but more than that we know what to expect from a whole cavalcade of amazingly drawn (in both senses) characters from Mr Smithers to Ned Flanders, Comic Book Guy to that weird Hispanic sitcom-star who dresses like a bee.
These touch-points mean the writers have the freedom both to push storylines into weird and wonderful realms – knowing that our prior knowledge will provide an anchor – or they can subvert what we think we know and we can all enjoy being in on the joke.
Interestingly the show’s producers have revealed that a major character will be killed off in the next series, a big step in the context of the familiarity I am championing. It will be interesting to see how this affects the world’s love affair with The Simpsons.