Do you believe in life after The Simpsons? Jamie Rycroft scrutinises the deep anxiety that surrounds the mythology of America’s most recognisable family
The Simpsons is close to entering its third decade of existence, and there doesn’t seem to be any sign that it will stop. An entire generation (this author included) has entered adulthood never having lived in a world where new episodes of the show are not being produced. Though most people agree that the show stopped being good in the late 90s, it has nonetheless persisted for another twenty years, with the number of poor and mediocre episodes vastly outweighing the classic ones.
Hundreds of stories have been written and animated, and the show has displayed all the telltale signs of a long-running narrative that has completely run out of ideas: repeating and recycling storylines, creating strange combinations that feel like Mad Libs (for example, Homer gets lost in a corn maze, so his dog has to save his life, so the dog joins the police, but then it bites Bart, so Marge buys the family a python…), a parasitic over-reliance on current trends in popular culture.
Those signs of narrative exhaustion began decades ago, around the point when the show controversially revealed that Seymour Skinner was actually named Armin Tamzarian. Incredibly, the show has managed to push through what should surely have been its death, and now shuffles about in an afterlife state that some people refer to as ‘Zombie Simpsons’. Tune into an episode of The Simpsons these days and you’ll see a vampiric, joyless husk that doesn’t resemble conventional storytelling. Rather, it’s a flurry of strange, fragmented micronarratives: what Sianne Ngai might call “zany” or Theodor Adorno call a “late style”. The show has done every story under the sun, so now it can’t even construct a half-hour narrative without pulling itself apart by the seams.
In the last half decade or so, the popular imagination has been oddly obsessed with the question of what will happen when The Simpsons inevitably leaves the airwaves, and with what echoes the ubiquitous, nigh-mythical figures of Homer, Bart, Marge, Lisa and Maggie will leave in our consciousness.
In recent years, The Simpsons has been at its most energised and creative not in the main text of the show, but in the paratextual ‘couch gags’ found at the end of the opening credits. There’s been a trend of guest animators creating couch gags, and for a show that has become a cultural behemoth as ubiquitous as Sport or the News, these short cartoons are often deeply odd and experimental, and seem to radiate a deep anxiety about the show’s cultural afterlife.
One of these couch gags is directed by John Kricfalusi, famously the creator of Ren and Stimpy. Kricfalusi promised that he’d never work on The Simpsons, yet here he is, replicating the show’s most famous aspects (Homer is a violent drunk, Bart plays pranks on him), but as if he’s never actually watched it and only has a vague idea what it’s about. The surreal animation is deeply unsettling, as if somewhere within this game of narrative telephone, the original soul of the show has gotten lost.
The graffiti artist Banksy famously directed a couch gag that peeled back the mask of The Simpsons and revealed what lay beneath: a juggernaut of industrial capitalism, using artistic creation as a springboard to generate cheaply, shoddily and possibly unethically produced merchandise. The message is cloying and hardly subtle (unsurprising, since Banksy is one of the most lead-footed artists on the planet), but again, there’s an interest in how the show has impacted wider culture.
A post-apocalyptic interest in the future of The Simpsons is clearest in a couch gag directed by Don Hertzfeldt, something that I’m honestly still stunned made its way onto network television. Homer finds a TV remote that can fast-forward him through time (this idea is an echo of a classic story where he time travels using a toaster), but the remote breaks, sending him untold aeons into the future, into a world where The Simpsons still exists, but has evolved into a post-human form, scrubbed of all familiarity, crawling with nightmarish imagery. Homer is now “Homar”, and can faintly remember a time when his family loved him, but now so much time has passed that they’ve become shills for merchandise which an unseen audience can rub their “flippers” on. The satirical point is not that much more nuanced than Banksy’s, but the animation style is so disquieting that the short is a mini-masterpiece, the most vividly interesting thing associated with The Simpsons for a long time.
In all of these works, there’s a nose-tweaking impulse to distort our familiarity of The Simpsons as a symbol, one that has been a cottage industry since the show’s inception: from the ‘Bad Bart’ T-Shirts trying to make a quick buck, to creepy online Simpsons videos that try to disturb the viewer, to the recent trend of ‘Simpsonwave’ music that toys with the nostalgic affectation of a millennial generation. Such a transformative impulse seems to be latent within the show itself, especially the carnivalesque Halloween episodes, where the beloved Simpson family is mutated and mutilated before our eyes. And if you are someone who, like me, found the Treehouse of Horror episodes legitimately frightening as a child, then that’s testament to how deeply engrained the imagery of the show is within our shared mythology, to such an extent that any subversion of it feels perverse.
The most sustained exploration of the question about what The Simpsons will become after its death is Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns: a Post-Electric Play. The concept is simple yet exciting: the world has ended, but the survivors tell each other stories, not from Shakespeare or the Bible, but half-remembered Simpsons episodes. The first act takes place shortly after the apocalypse, where a band of survivors entertain each other by recounting the classic episode ‘Cape Feare’. The details are mostly accurate, while occasionally garbled (interestingly, much of this section is verbatim the actors trying to re-enact this episode from memory). The second act is set seven years later, where a travelling troupe of actors re-enact ‘Cape Feare’ as a pantomime, the plot mostly intact but the visuals more distorted, the style more histrionic. The third act is set fifty years after that, where all memory of the original episodes has vanished, and The Simpsons has instead become a cross between opera and Greek tragedy, where Mr Burns is the villain and Bart the hero.
I have plenty of issues with Washburn’s play: I think a lot of it is too interested in intellectual conceits, and not dramatically engaging enough. It’s a play that’s more interesting to discuss than it is to watch. That said, there’s no denying how irresistible the central idea is, and how its very existence reflects how ‘high’ culture has come to recognise just how influential The Simpsons is, how mythical its omnipresence has become, to such an extent that the characters are universally recognisable from just a few blocks of colour, and a whole generation speak in a constructed language patched together from Simpsons quotes.
Both Hertzfeldt and Washburn animate an anxiety that other artists hint at: what will remain of The Simpsons after it is gone? Will they remain mythical figures, still spoken about like the Greek gods are today, where few people have read the few original that have survived? The fascinating conclusion these works seem to reach is that The Simpsons will persist, albeit in a mutated and perverted form, even if civilisation dies. It’s as if, to bastardise a famous thing that Fredric Jameson supposedly said about capitalism, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of The Simpsons.
What motivates our anxious interest? If it were just because the show is long-running and ubiquitous, then why doesn’t this same nervousness haunt Doctor Who, Star Trek or Scooby Doo? My guess is that it’s because The Simpsons is symbolically ridden with contradiction. What began as a subversive and confrontational work of satire, penned by a countercultural freak raised on hippie culture and Captain Beefheart records, has become the heart of mainstream culture, a hollow shell of its former self. The show that has so consistently raised its middle finger at the Fox network has ironically generated billions of dollars for Rupert Murdoch and helped him cement his media empire. And soon the Simpson family will become a part of the Disney universe. Looking at the story of The Simpsons is a sidelong glance into the culture industry, and the way that creativity is commodified and exploited when it is mass-produced.
Perhaps stories like Mr Burns: a Post-Electric Play are hopeful, in that they show The Simpsons still has something to say about society, even when it has been so thoroughly transformed by commercialism. But the overall tone seems to be one somewhere between depression and horror at the show’s immortality, the creation grown out of control like Frankenstein’s monster. In an episode aired in 2002, the show’s creators were already hyperaware that the show was past its prime, creating a song named ‘They’ll Never Stop the Simpsons’. Day after day, those words feel increasingly like a threat.