I recently stumbled across an article about The Simpsons. My first thought was, “Holy shit. The Simpsons is still around? It hasn’t been good since, like, season 14.”
Funnily enough, the article addressed this criticism directly. Yeardley Smith (the voice of Lisa Simpson) responded to it thusly: “Fuck you.” This was followed up by Nancy Cartwright (voice of Bart) stating, bizarrely, “It’s still culturally relevant!”
The Simpsons premiered in December of 1989, and in 2022, it will enter its 34th season, making it the longest running show in television history.
For the first decade of its airtime, it was a satirical masterpiece. But at this point in time, it’s absolutely unwatchable.
As the person to whom Yeardley Smith’s “fuck you” was directed, I would like to respond.
To discuss why The Simpsons is no longer culturally relevant, we first need to examine what made it so popular in the first place.
Among the major things that The Simpsons had going for it was its counter-cultural take on sitcoms. In the 1980s and early 1990s, most sitcoms were saccharine, feel-good junk food for the brain. Full House, Family Matters, The Cosby Show… all of these sitcoms were so polished that they were contrived and bland. Jokes were simple, with single punchlines that were bolstered by a laugh track; the sets were artificial; the plots were inconsequential. The Simpsons flipped the script on all of that. The jokes were complex, the world-building was massive, and although “golden era” Simpsons had 30-minute, everything-back-to-normal-at-the-end plotlines, it also satirized the sanitation of the classic sitcom by having a dysfunctional family that fought, worried about money, and (in Homer’s case) almost never learned their lesson.
Another way in which it was counter-cultural was in its mockery of celebrities; while other sitcoms leaned on cameos to boost ratings, The Simpsons ruthlessly mocked celebrities, politicians, and its own network, earning it an refreshingly irreverent reputation.
But by its second decade it became a self-parody, falling into the very tropes it had originally meant to mock. Its jokes became pat, its celebrity cameos worshipful, its plotlines tired. It had started out as a fresh take on the saccharine sitcoms of its time but later devolved into the very thing it was mocking in the first place.
It’s also worth pointing out that The Simpsons existed during the height of network television. The opening sequence literally crescendos with the titular family gathering on the couch, in front of their TV. Now that cable is being replaced by streaming, the entire concept of sitting down at a predetermined time each week to watch a show is outdated.
There are plenty of takes on how and why The Simpsons “got bad,” including a turnover of its writers and a failure to age with its audience. But I don’t necessarily think we can say it “got bad” so much as it stagnated. And because of its popularity, it didn’t need to really do much to remain fresh.
There was some nostalgia associated with it, after all. It was something that you watched when nothing else was on, but that you no longer looked forward to or thought about much. That was certainly how I felt as I continued to watch The Simpsons through high school. Growing up with The Simpsons during its golden era, I was willing to forgive its fading luster because of its comforting familiarity.
But as the show continued to lurch forward, its staleness became more and more noticeable. With over 700 episodes, the plots had to become increasingly exaggerated to avoid repetition, so instead of simple ideas like “Lisa’s science fair project” we started getting “The Simpsons go on safari.” Needless to say, these kinds of plots were a lot less relatable.
This is not to say that golden era Simpsons didn’t have the occasional surreal plotline. In season five, for example, Bart gets an elephant. But the episode was less about the elephant and more about Homer trying to figure out how to handle his son’s exotic pet. The evergreen theme of Homer’s money woes were a major part of this episode.
Speaking of relatability and money woes, though, not in the least issue with The Simpsons is the fact that they live in a single-income household with three kids but own their four-bedroom house on a fenced-in lot with two cars in the garage, and Homer didn’t even get a college degree until season five.
When the show started, it felt edgy and fresh because it subverted traditional sitcom tropes, but it remained relevant. If you were in your thirties in 1989, home ownership on a single income didn’t seem too crazy.
But now you have these characters from the late ‘80s walking through life with tablets, bemoaning their WiFi connections, and the animation is eerily crisp even though they’re all still yellow. When new characters are introduced, the new characters are wearing complex outfits that don’t mesh with Homer’s blue-pants-and-white-t-shirt design at all. The nuclear family doesn’t fit into their own world anymore, and you can’t not notice that.
Currently the show feels like it’s ruining its own legacy. I loved The Simpsons as a kid (as did every other ’80s kid who got to experience Bart-mania in the ’90s), but at this point, I just want to pull the plug.
Now, it’s easy to criticize, but I like my criticism to be constructive. So let’s ask ourselves: could we reboot The Simpsons and try to make it relevant once more? I propose that we could. People like The Simpsons and, if its major failing is a lack of relevance, then perhaps the solution is to reboot it every 10 years with the same world and the same characters, but to alter it so that it’s returning to a modern commentary.
If we aged up the characters and plopped them into the 21st century, what would that look like? For that, we need to consider who the characters were, and who they are now, and how to make them appealing to adult Millennials. Here’s my pitch:
Who He Was: Homer was, in the golden era, written as a simple doofus. Now he’s largely considered a jerkass. To be clear, Homer was always a bit of a jerkass; it was just that his toxic behavior was pardoned in the ‘90s because it was a different time. Homer’s occasional gestures of love were apparently enough to redeem his violent rages, selfish motivations, and endangerment of his family. But that doesn’t fly in this day and age.
Who He Could Be: I propose that an aged-up Homer would act as sort of a Goofus to Marge’s Gallant, a man past his prime who is coping with the actual consequences of his poor life decisions. Divorced from Marge, retired, and living on disability due to all the radiation that he was exposed to at the power plant, the show could once again zoom in on the day-to-day minutiae of Homer’s life: buying groceries and being confused by a chip reader, trading his tools for M&Ms, that sort of thing.
The Pilot: As a retiree, a lot of plots would center on Homer either struggling with upkeeping the house, getting into petty arguments with the people around him, and offering his grown children (bad) advice. My pitch for the reboot pilot would involve the city threatening to fine Homer if he doesn’t fix the roof of his house, and Homer insisting on fixing it himself to save money (with disastrous consequences).
Sample Scene No One Asked Me To Write:
Homer: Maggie, would you mind driving me to the hardware store?
Maggie: Dad, you’re not still trying to fix the roof, are you?
Homer: No, I’m trying to fix this sander. [pregnant pause] So I can fix the roof.
Maggie: Dad, just call someone! You’re going to hurt yourself.
Homer: I’m way ahead of you, sweetie! [holds up his hands to reveal it’s tangled in the sander]
Homer: Can we stop by the ER on the way to the hardware store?
Who He Was: Early, golden-era Bart was a clown and a troublemaker, but has devolved into a bully. Always a fan favorite, like Homer, Bart’s character’s actions are no longer amusing but instead wincingly problematic.
Who He Could Be: As with Homer, I think the solution is to lean in to his dickishness. An aged-up Bart would be a past-his-prime washed-up celebrity streamer, an “influencer” who, famous in his 20s, is now coasting on his own success and has little to offer. His role in the modern world would be to act as an entitled, stereotyped Millennial. (Go look up a picture of Jake Paul and tell me he doesn’t look like an aged-up, real-life version of Bart Simpson.) This would also allow The Simpsons to make a ton of jokes at their own expense, and return to some of Bart’s old hijinks with the self-awareness that Bart is no longer the darling of the show.
The Pilot: Bart’s plots would allow the show to have any zaniness it desired. As a B-list celebrity, Bart would be offered product deals, reality show appearances, cameos, trips, et cetera. I like the idea of him sponsoring a clearly addictive energy drink, one that Lisa frowns upon for being high in sugar, palm oil, and asbestos.
Sample Scene No One Asked Me To Write:
Bart: I can’t watch Tyler this weekend. I’m going to Brazil. I’m a guest judge on O Discurso.
Lisa: I didn’t ask you to watch–
Bart [interrupting]: Yeah it’s basically like The Voice. But it’s in Brazil. That’s why I’ve been brushing up on my Spanish.
Lisa: They speak Portuguese in Brazil.
Bart: ¡Ay, caramba!
Who She Was: Often acting as the “voice of reason,” Lisa tends to be considered the least likable of the characters because of her wet-blanket preachiness. The family’s gifted genius daughter, Lisa’s plotlines tended to focus on social issues like recycling and vegetarianism. In later seasons, her tendency to take the moral high ground was often poked fun at.
Who She Could Be: A foil for Bart, I feel that Lisa should act as the disaffected Millennial. With her growth, the show could explore gray areas and moral quandaries. Adult Lisa would recognize the complexities of these issues and struggle in her world to do the right thing while finding it very difficult. When workshopping this reboot with friends, we spent the most time on Lisa, who we concluded was one of the most interesting characters to explore. We envision her as a public defense lawyer, someone who went to college and settled comfortably in the middle class. As gifted and talented as she was, she’s worked twice as hard to fall into the kind of Springfield mediocrity that Homer and Marge had. She’s married with one kid; her husband, Jackson, is a square NPR dweeb who wears suspenders and a bowtie. Their child, Tyler, is about 4 or 5. Lisa was destined for greatness but now lives the most average of lives, giving her an inescapable sense of ennui.
The Pilot: Lisa buys a very large jar of nut butter on sale from a warehouse-type store and discovers everyone around her judges her for it because it contains palm oil. Worse, she has no use for the nut butter; Tyler’s kindergarten doesn’t allow kids to bring in nuts due to allergies. She tries to return it but can’t because it’s been opened. She spends the episode struggling to get through the giant tub of almond butter.
Sample Scene No One Asked Me To Write:
Lisa, despairing: How was I supposed to know McNulty’s Nut Butter Spread wasn’t ethically made? There’s a picture of a leaf on the label! A leaf!
Jackson: Well, it does have a lot of palm oil in it. But those orangutans aren’t getting any dead-er, right?
Lisa: [groans and buries her head into her arms]
Tyler [eating a large spoonful]: Owangutan.
Jackson [looking at the tub]: If it makes you feel any better it says they don’t use slave labor to produce this product.
Lisa: perking up: Well, that’s good!
Jackson: Yeah, says they just train all the orangutans whose habitats they destroyed and send them to work in the factories, instead!
Lisa: [annoyed grunt à la Marge]
Who She Was: Poor Marge was something of a doormat character who was underutilized and underdeveloped. But we caught glimpses of her joie de vivre in tiny snippets. Marge was almost always successful when she tried on a new career, yet her role as “housewife and homemaker” was typically restored in the end. I’m not the only person who sees Marge as being an overlooked and lonely character who deserves more.
Who She Could Be: For this modern era, I would love to see a divorced Marge who, unshackled from Homer, grows to be wildly successful and follows her dreams as an artist. It would be nice to see Marge explore her role in the world once her children are grown and her oaf of a husband is out of the picture. Seeing her bloom as a capable empty-nester would be a great foil for Homer’s general lack of adaptability and ambition. For added juiciness, I suggest we marry her to Flanders, and have her act as his manic pixie dreamgirl. I’d like her and Homer to have an amicable split but, let’s face it, Marge deserves a lot more than Homer. After the kids are grown, there’s no reason I can see for the two of them to remain together; Homer has always held Marge back and I’d like to see Marge driving plots (with Flanders acting as her voice of reason, as she once did for Homer).
The Pilot: Marge is working on a self-portrait and needs a very specific shade of blue paint from the local art store. They claim to be out, but when Marge checks the website, she sees it as “in stock.” What follows is Marge’s increasingly crazy attempts to convince the apathetic store clerks to get her paint from the back, including bribing them, breaking in, getting hired there herself, et cetera. In the end, she finally gets the paint and reveals her portrait, which features herself wearing a headscarf and no blue hair visible at all. When asked, she explains she couldn’t paint on the scarf until she painted on the hair, first.
Sample Scene No One Asked Me To Write:
Marge [entering the store with Lisa]: Hi there!
Apathetic Clerk #1: We still don’t have the paint, Mrs. F.
Marge: Paint?! Who said anything about paint? I was just in the neighborhood and I thought I’d drop off some freshly baked cookies!
Apathetic Clerk #2: …What kind of cookies?
Marge: Almond butter.
Apathetic Clerk #1: Oh, bummer. I’m allergic to nuts.
Apathetic Clerk #2: You know palm oil is like, really bad for orangutans, right?
Lisa throws up her hands and begins pacing, muttering: Stupid orangutans… worst arboreal great ape…
Apathetic Clerk: Uh technically they’re the only arboreal ape.
Who She Was: Maggie was the baby.
Who She Could Be: Maggie was never much of a character, per se, which makes her a perfect blank slate to center the new show around. I think Maggie would do well as a perky, bushy-tailed, can-do character (like Leslie Knope of Parks and Rec), an optimistic go-getter who helps nerf the perhaps more realistic but depressing realities of Lisa’s disillusionment and Bart’s nihilism. For Millennials, Bart and Lisa are where it’s at; for Gen Z, it’s Maggie. A recent graduate, Maggie lives at home with Homer, and she works an entry-level job at the power plant. The power plant is the only thing holding Springfield together and it’s clearly on its last legs. Maggie has ambitions to become the Big Boss but she’s got to work her way up to it; in the meantime, she’s a capable technician who spends her free time with her retired parents and her grown siblings, exploring and contemplating the world around her.
I didn’t come up with a plotline or scene for Maggie, preferring to leave it open-ended, although I like to think that she solves Lisa’s nut butter problem by taking the tub off her hands. She leaves it on the counter, where Homer uses it as a cement to re-shingle the roof, which gets the city off his back but also leads to a mice infestation that has to be dealt with later in the season.
When Yeardly Smith said, “Fuck you,” Nancy Cartwright added, “What are you doing?”
My answer is, I’m proposing something new.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not under any sort of false impression that my ideas are anywhere nearly as amusing as the original Simpsons was. There’s no guarantee that rebooting the Simpsons would be as commercially successful as the original version, but at least it’s making an effort, which is more than the show is currently doing. It may still be making money, but it’s not culturally relevant.
Except maybe when used for memes.