Hiya Everybody!… The other week I read an article about a man who had watched every Simpsons episode and mapped out his ratings onto a graph along with some labels to explain. Sol Harris, the man behind the study, watched every episode, gave it a rating out of 10, worked out the rating average for each season and plotted this on a graph …
I was fascinated by this study so asked Sol, via Twitter, if I could send him questions and he happily agreed. Reading his answers definitely made me think about my opinion on the Simpsons, which I may do a post about, so here are the questions and answers …
What was your reasoning for starting this investigation? A childhood fan investigating why the quality decreased? Just bored for a month?
My partner kept putting classic episodes on and we ended up watching seasons 3-8, just because. We normally have some sort of comedy re-watch on the go and she just kept putting on The Simpsons for a while. Anyway, on this particular re-watch, I realised how long it had been since I’d seen seasons 1 and 2. I never really cared for them as a child because they’re more subtle and generally slower than what followed. I’d say the first two seasons aren’t particularly great for kids, which is ironic to say that it’s those seasons that were marketed as “The Bart Show”. Anyway, I also didn’t really like King of the Hill as a child, but I love it now, so I was fairly confident that I’d really appreciate the old episodes on a re-watch. I already owned what I saw as “the golden years” on DVD (3-8), but felt like it was worth buying 1 and 2 to re-visit them. Anyway, once we got through those early seasons, we just kept going. About halfway through, I ordered some newer seasons so that we could keep going. For the record, I love seasons 1-12, even if I think 3-8 are better than the others. I also hadn’t seen those early “bad seasons” in probably over a decade, so it was really interesting to revisit them. My memory was that the show just suddenly turned to crap in season 13, but on the re-watch, I realised it was much more of a steady decline. Season 13 is still, I feel, the definitive season when the show turns bad, but it’s not god-awful like some of the stuff that followed; it’s just sort of mediocre. It’s the point where the show stops being good. Realising I’d given 13 and 14 a bit of an unfair rap all these years, I just kept going and going. It was only by about season 17 that the show gets REALLY bad – and to anyone who doesn’t keep up with the show, I promise you that it’s managed to get worse than whenever you stopped watching. That’s the amazing thing about this show. You constantly feel like they’ve hit rock bottom and then, next season, they do something like having The Simpsons visit Kang and Kodos’ home planet in a canon episode.
Were you a fan that watched modern episodes before starting your research?
Like most sensible people, I initially stopped watching the show when I stopped enjoying it, which, as I say, was about season 13. However, say what you will about Al Jean, but he’s a master of drumming up hype for gimmicky episodes. Every year, I’d hear about a film that had been parodied in a Treehouse of Horror or Bender from Futurama making a cameo or something big happening like Patty coming out of the closet and I’d feel the need to check in. Eventually (I think this was in about 2011), I’d missed so many of these gimmicky episodes (and I was genuinely worried that there might be some good episodes hidden in there that I was missing out on), that I went back and just blitzed through everything from season 13 onwards. I’ve been keeping up with the show out of morbid curiosity ever since (and, honestly, I’d say it was worth it purely to have seen “Holidays of Future Passed”, which is a truly wonderful modern episode, even if it’s a complete and utter blip).
Were there any episodes in the modern seasons that surprised you in a good way? Some underated episodes?
“Holidays of Future Passed” is the only post-season-13 episode that I’d say is truly great and up to par with the good years. Despite some flaws, it’s genuinely funny and has a surprisingly emotionally grounded plot, to say that it’s set in the future – not to mention that the future setting allows you to forgive any of its wackiness. Other than that, I enjoy: “Treehouse of Horror XII” (Feels on par with season 12, which might be because it was a holdover episode from that production season – but other season 13 episodes were too and they’re devoid of solid laughs. I think the non-canon settings go a long way for allowing you to forgive the show’s increasingly cartoony antics). “Treehouse of Horror XIII” (Same as above) “Future-Drama” (I’d actually rank this one above “Bart to the Future”, which was part of when the show was still good. Once again, I think the future setting lets it get away with things that would be too much of a bother to work in normal episodes). “Don’t Fear the Roofer” (I have absolutely no idea why, but I feel like this episode more or less works). “Thank God, It’s Doomsday” (The bulk of the episode is set inside Homer’s dream, so once again, I expect it’s getting by on being non-canon). “Simpsorama” (I’m an abolutely huge fan of The Simpsons, but I’m an even bigger fan of Futurama. I was incredibly excited to see them return in this episode, safe in the knowledge that it was non-canon as far as Futurama was concerned, so it could impact The Simpsons’ legacy, which had already been ruined. Despite some nerdy greivances, this episode’s only real flaw is that it’s FAR too short to adequately do the story any justice. It really needed to be a two-parter, simply to allow the characters time to process what they were witnessing in a believable manner. Regardless, the end result was a hell of a lot better than 99% of what the show had given us in the last decade and, hell, it was even a little bit better than some of Futurama’s worst episodes, so there you go.
One thing that really bothers me is that they inexplicably made “The Great Phatsby”, an hour-long episode, the following season (the first two-parter since “Who Shot Mr. Burns?”) and nothing about the plot required a 45 minute runtime. It was just the same old nonsense about Mr. Burns losing his fortune that we’ve seen 10+ times already again and it felt like it only existed to rub salt in the wounds of everyone who wanted “Simpsorama” to be longer.
Also, bizarrely, the first segment of “Treehouse of Horror XXVI” isn’t half bad. It’s called “Wanted: Dead, Then Alive” and, in it, Sideshow Bob finally kills Bart. For whatever reason, they produced a solid piece of work here and it’s a shame that the rest of the episode is as bad as the newer episodes tend to be.
Did you have any accompaniments to this long investigation? Lots of food? A partner? Some pets?
Like I said, I watched them all with my partner and we generally put them on as something to watch with dinner, so there was usually a food accompaniment, too.
Did the investigation get boring? Was there a moment when it started to get boring as the episodes declined in quality?
It really did become a slog in season 28. The show has been really bad for a while, but that season is REALLY, REALLY, REALLY bad. And I don’t think it’s down to me just being sick of the show at that point in the re-watch because when you average out the episode scores on IMDb, they tell the same story.
What do you think is the main reason for the decline in Simpsons quality? Do you think the quality could be saved?
The big thing I always point to is Futurama. I get the impression that Matt Groening used to operate as something of a quality control on the show. He certainly put his foot down and stopped a few awful things happening in both that show and Futurama. He’s always been pretty open about how he basically stopped caring about the show when he went off to make Futurama. I think he stopped being as active in the show’s day-to-day development, which made a big difference. In addition to that, he took some of the show’s finest writers with him. David X. Cohen and Ken Keeler are the two most obvious, but they aren’t the only ones. I think some other writers just left because the other guys were going to Futurama and it seemed like an end-point for the show in a lot of ways. Also Phil Hartman died very tragically at roughly this point (he was originally set to voice Zapp Brannigan in Futurama, as it happens), and that definitely didn’t help anything. For whatever reason, Mike Scully was the first showrunner that was allowed to do more than two terms on the show, which was definitely a huge mistake. They’d always previously spoken about how running the show was like the Presidency and no one should do more than 2 terms. I think this rule was an absolutely HUGE reason as to why the show evolved and maintained its quality for as long as it did. Mike Scully’s seasons 9 and 10 were definitely a step down from 8, but they weren’t awful. 11 and 12 were felt tired and lazy by comparison. My best guess is that people had noticed the definite decline in quality through those Scully years and brought back Al Jean (who co-ran the show in seasons 3 and 4) to try and course-correct, but without the likes of Mike Reiss and Matt Groening reigning him in, it just devolved into wackier, cartoonier nonsense. Those earlier bad seasons are still packed with good jokes, there’s just so many bad jokes that the episodes leave a bad taste in your mouth. Once Al Jean failed to fix it, I honestly think they just stopped caring about what they were doing. I think the quality of the movie was a huge bump up from seasons 18 and 19 surrounding it (and most people who disagree with that are people who haven’t actually watched anything past season 10). Why? Because it was the movie, so they actually tried. “Holidays of Future Passed” was brilliant. Why? Because it was written to serve as a potential finale to the show in case a voice-actor dispute taking place at the time couldn’t be worked out. As a result, they clearly put a LOT of time and effort into getting it right. In other words, they actually tried.
…Even “Simpsorama” is a clear case of them trying. Among other things, David X. Cohen was brought in to brush up the script to try to esure that it did the show justice. Why? Because Matt Groening still cares about Futurama, so they tried. As for whether or not the show could be saved. Absolutely it could. It won’t ever happen, but it could be done. Whilst Al Jean is the series showrunner at this point, Matt Selman serves as showrunner on a handful of individual episodes each year and his episodes are consistently a hell of a lot better than the average Al Jean episode. He seems to value making the show a little bit more grounded and consistent with the rules of its universe more than Al Jean. If Al Jean ever steps down, Matt Selman will be the guy to take over from him and I can guarantee that the show will improve, even if it isn’t enough to make the show good. But I truly think that the right showrunner could turn the series around. It might not get up to the standards of the classic years, but it could definitely be turned into a great sitcom once more. If I was ever given the chance to take over, I’d probably open the new season on the final moments of the most recent episode, then the camera would pull back to reveal Frink watching it on some sort inter-dimensional viewing machine. “That’s enough of this badly written, parallel universe” he’d say. Then we’d meet up with Homer returning home to his family after giving that man those sponge-baths on a train in “Simpsons Tall Tales”. From that point onwards, things would be severely more grounded. Jokes that ruin the world of the show or involve people acting out of character would be cut altogether, even if it meant that the show wasn’t as fast-paced. King of the Hill wasn’t a gag every 30 seconds but it was wonderful because there was real heart to it. I’d explore character pairings that we haven’t seen much of yet. Have Marge and Bart ever gone on a proper adventure together with just the two of them? What about Grampa and Lisa? I’d stop the writing of episodes purely to accommodate guest-stars. I’d stop guest stars who can’t act from even being allowed in the show. I’d probably put one of those unproduced scripts (like the “Prince” episode) into production. Instead of superhero parodies or a riff on a news item, the “Treehouse of Horror” would do The Evil Dead, The Thing and The Wicker Man. You get the point.
What was your least favourite (lowest rated) episode? What about the highest?
My favourite episode is “You Only Move Twice”. It’s a fan-favourite, so there’s not much to say about it. Everyone already knows that it’s great. My least favourite is “The Musk Who Fell to Earth” for a number of reasons. It’s written entirely to accommodate a guest-star and not in a way that dares to poke fun of him. To make matters worse, Musk is not an actor and his performance is absolutely awful. They try to lampshade it at one point by calling his voice lifeless but that doesn’t excuse it. Worse, though, it simply isn’t funny. In fact, most of the jokes are cringe-inducing and half of the character actions don’t even make sense. At the end, people duck from a sniper shooting at them and then Homer gets up and starts walking around in order to convey his point to someone else in the room, with no regard for the sniper whatsoever. It’s this sort of thing that the new episodes do constantly and this one is particularly bad for it.
How do modern Simpsons episodes, in your opinion, rate up with other modern cartoons like Family Guy etc?
You’d have to find a really bad show (something like Bordertown or Full English or Allen Gregory) to even come close to getting episodes as bad as modern Simpsons. Most shows get cancelled before they go bad and others get cancelled once they go bad-when-compared-to-the-earlier-seasons. It’s very rare for a show to go truly awful in the way that The Simpsons has. For my money, Rick and Morty is the best bit of animation on television these days and it’s almost up there with classic Simpsons. The Venture Brothers is excellent. South Park is having something like a third wind at the moment. American Dad! seems to have found its feet on its new network, this past season. BoJack Horseman, F is for Family and Archer are all good. Even Family Guy is still good for a cheap laugh (which is more than can be said for The Simpsons). Honestly, I can’t wait to see what Matt Groening has in store for us with his upcoming third animated show that he’s putting together at Netflix. My money is on something built around music, but we’ll have to wait and see.
Thank you very much Sol for answering the questions. He also does a Podcast and this is how he described it …
“It’s called Diminishing Returns and, in it, myself and two friends discuss a film and then pitch our own ideas for what the sequel should be.
All three of us work in the film industry in one form or another so we’ve got a vague idea of what we’re talking about!”
An episode of the podcast went out TODAY so go and check it out!
To go check it out, go to …dimreturns.com
You can also find them at …
Thank you for reading today’s post. What do you think of the Simpsons and it’s quality throughout the years? Tell me down below and Happy Tapping!3