I Watched All 629 Episodes of The Simpsons in a Month. Here’s What I Learned.

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The show hates Lisa.

Before I explain what I mean, let’s back up for a second.

Among fans, there exists a kind of Standard Narrative about The Simpsons, which goes like this: the show was at its best for roughly a decade, between Season 3 and Season 13 (let’s call this the Golden Age). Since then – from Season 14 to Season 29 – The Simpsons has been largely awful (let’s call this the post-Golden Age period). In fact it’s widely held that during this latter period, The Simpsons hasn’t just sucked: it’s been essentially a completely different show, which many former fans find deeply unfunny and are happy to pretend doesn’t exist. For a long time, I was one of these fans. Occasionally I’d catch a new episode, and it would make me feel uneasy, for reasons that I didn’t fully understand. In these episodes, The Simpsons looked and sounded just the same as it always had. But it didn’t make me laugh. The show seemed to be doing something that it wasn’t supposed to do.

So what was it supposed to do? And what is it trying to do now? One way of finding out is to watch the show right through – to take it as a totality, and to see what occurs to you as you do so. Over the last month, this is what I did. It wasn’t the only thing I did, by any means. I would put an episode of The Simpsons on in the background, while I was cooking, or doing boring admin work, or what have you. So I didn’t pay complete attention to every single second of every episode. But I’ve now seen pretty much the whole thing: all 629 episodes, from “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” (Season 1 episode 1), which aired December 17th, 1989, to “Frink Gets Testy” (Season 29 episode 11), which aired on January 14th, 2018. And I think I have an explanation for what happened to The Simpsons: why the post-Golden Age period feels so different to the Golden Age period, and why the show is no longer really what it once was. And I discovered something else, too: the show really hates Lisa Simpson.

But before we get to Lisa: where did it all go wrong? Every Simpsons watcher has his/her own personal nomination for The Moment When Things Began to Go Awry. Was it the scene in “Homer vs. Dignity” (Season 12 episode 5) when Homer is raped by a panda? Was it earlier on, in “Hello Gutter, Hello Fadder” (Season 11 episode 6), when Homer, in a shockingly casual sequence, attempts suicide by throwing himself off a building? Or was it earlier still, when the show slyly turned on its audience by introducing a character, Frank Grimes, who hates Homer for psychologically convincing reasons; giving that character a pointless death; and then showing us Homer sleeping through his funeral (“Homer’s Enemy,” Season 8 episode 23)? All of these moments, I submit, represent radical departures from the warm, sunny tone of classic (or Golden Age) Simpsons. But whatever the decisive turning point was, everyone more or less agrees that by its 14th season, The Simpsons was no longer the show it had once been. So what happened?

To find out, let’s look back at the Golden Age itself.

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I’d like to propose that during its Golden Age, The Simpsons wasn’t really about character or plot. The denizens of Springfield – very much including the Simpson family – were never meant to be characters in any traditional dramatic sense. They were caricatures: collections of amusing traits. In fact, during the Golden Age, the characters were often retro-engineered backward from jokes, or they were changed entirely simply in order to facilitate a gag (as when Bart says, “I am familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda”). The precision-engineered plots that defined the best Golden Age episodes (e.g. “Bart vs. Australia,” which begins with Bart & Lisa flushing bathroom products down the toilet and ends with the family being airlifted from the roof of the Australian embassy) existed not to bring about emotional catharsis but to facilitate the telling of jokes. The point of Golden Age Simpsons, in other words, was to make you laugh. This is why we all remember specific lines, and the specific inflections with which they are delivered (“I AM THE LIZARD QUEEN!”, “It’s a pornography store. I was buying pornography,” “Use a pen, Sideshow Bob”), and why we have a harder time reconstructing the plot of any given episode. At its peak, The Simpsons exhibited a kind of sunny, nerdish nihilism: it would sacrifice anything (character consistency, narrative logic, continuity) in order to be funny. Being funny was the show’s supreme value. There’s a name for this particular aesthetic: absurdism. During its Golden Age, The Simpsons was the greatest absurdist comedy ever made. Those of us who grew up loving Golden Age Simpsons didn’t love it because of the characters. We loved it because of its highly distinctive upbeat nihilism, and because of the sheer density of perfectly-delivered jokes that made up the true substance of every episode. We loved it because it was funny and that was it.

Post-Golden Age Simpsons does not understand this. Beginning somewhere around Season 14 – but most especially from Season 20 onwards – the show switches its focus, with fatal results. Put simply, The Simpsons stops trying to make you laugh and starts trying to make you care about its characters. This is why we watch the later seasons with such an uneasy feeling – and why post-Golden Age Simpsons no longer feels like the same show as Golden Age Simpsons.

So what happens, once you leave the safety of the Golden Age and press on into the later seasons? At a superficial level, you notice a few things. The animation gets more professional but less funny. The couch gags get longer and longer and duller and duller. Mr. Smithers becomes openly gay. Mrs Krabappel gets audibly older and more frail, and finally disappears altogether. Entire episodes are built around subsidiary characters (Carl; Kirk van Houten). Other subsidiary characters are paired up, in increasingly desperate permutations (one particular nadir sees Comic Book Guy dating Agnes Skinner). The number of anime references increases exponentially. In the worst episode of the entire 29-year run, Moe’s bar rag, voiced by Jeremy Irons (or, if you will, Jeremy’s Iron), tells its life story.

Eventually the show reaches the point of maximum possible distance from its Golden Age essence: in “Every Man’s Dream,” (Season 27 episode 1), Homer cheats on Marge by taking ecstasy and sleeping with a hipster pharmacist voiced by Lena Dunham. (That this turns out to be a dream within a dream doesn’t seriously affect my point: during its Golden Age The Simpsons might have tempted Homer with Mindy Simmons, but it would never in a million years have shown him waking up next to a naked girl after a drug trip, even in a dream sequence.)

There are still some good jokes, here and there. Werner Herzog as a pharmaceutical tycoon revealing that he is, in fact, Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is pretty funny. So is a visual gag in which Marge mistakes a stuffed walrus for Homer and cuddles up to it in bed (“Oh Homey, you’ve lost weight!”). But these are not the kind of jokes that made The Simpsons of the Golden Age so sublimely quotable (“Ah! They’re defending themselves somehow!”). After Season 14, the show’s whole style of humour changed. This is because it stopped being primarily a show about jokes (i.e. one that wanted to make us laugh) and started being primarily a show about characters (i.e one that wanted to tell us cathartic stories). This marks a fundamental shift in the nature of The Simpsons, and it asks us to completely change the way in which we understand the show.

And then there’s Lisa. As you venture further into the No Man’s Land of this new, story-&-character-based iteration of The Simpsons, something odd starts to happen. You start to notice how often Lisa features in the show as the victim of unjust or even meaningless punishment – that is, how often she suffers for no real reason, and how seldom her suffering is redressed in any meaningful way. The other members of the central family – Homer, Bart, Marge, even Grandpa and Maggie – are generally rewarded for their troubles with growth, or love, or with the approval of the community (no matter how many times Homer gets fired, his job is always waiting for him when he makes amends; no matter how many times Bart hurts people, his friends stick with him; etc); or they’re rewarded with a helpful amnesia, so that they never have to fundamentally repair their flaws. In this new Simpsons paradigm, almost all of the main characters find their needs met at the end of each storyline: Bart is reunited with Milhouse; Homer is reunited with Marge. As the show goes on, it becomes clearer and clearer that Lisa is the only member of the Simpson family who almost never gets what she wants and needs.

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As originally conceived, Lisa was the character who would transcend the mediocrity of Springfield and become something great. Chris Turner, in his book Planet Simpson, quotes Matt Groening on his favourite Simpsons character: “At the end of the day, I have to admit that if I have a favourite it would be Lisa. She’s the only one who will escape Springfield.” And Al Jean, the current showrunner (and the man who has presided over the post-Golden Age shift in emphasis from jokes to characters), has said of the writing staff that “The character we’re closest to is Lisa Simpson, a character who reads a lot and hopes for a better life.” According to Chris Turner, Lisa proves “that TV is fully capable of providing a loving home for a character who’s not just quick-witted but genuinely learned.”

But if this is true, then why does The Simpsons – particularly in its post-Golden age seasons – consistently punish Lisa for her gifts? Why is Lisa the only character in the show who almost never gets what she wants or needs?

I’m going to propose that the Lisa stories told by post-Golden Age Simpsons display a recurring pattern in which Lisa is punished for being smarter and more talented than the people around her, and in which she is denied any sense of healing or recompense for the punishment she’s suffered. The pattern I’m proposing has six stages. The stages in square brackets are optional, occurring only sometimes, and at differing points in the narrative; the other stages, in order, are present in almost every Lisa story that the show has told for the past two decades.

  1. Lisa is Gifted.
  2. Lisa is Punished for her Gift.
  3. Lisa Needs Help From Others to Escape her Punishment.
  4. [Lisa Tries to Share her Gift with the World.]
  5. [Lisa’s Gift is Rejected.]
  6. The Status Quo Ante is Restored; Everyone’s Pain is Healed Except for Lisa’s.

This pattern recurs with such frequency that it raises some disturbing questions about how The Simpsons represents both intellectual achievement and women. But first let’s look at some examples of what I mean when I talk about the pattern.

Take a recent episode: the Season 29 opener, “The Serfsons.” This is a parody of various fantasy franchises starring the familiar cast in mythical garb (Milhouse is a goblin, and so on). In this episode, Lisa is the only member of the family who can perform magic – she transforms a lump of lead into gold (Lisa is Gifted). For this, she is imprisoned by a guild of magicians, who try to execute her (Lisa is Punished for Her Gift). When she’s freed (Lisa Needs Help From Others to Escape her Punishment), she proposes that instead of magic, people devote themselves to a scientific approach to the world – an approach that might “end poverty” and help everyone to escape from the trap of feudalism (Lisa Tries to Share Her Gift With the World). All the other characters groan; Homer resurrects the last dragon, whose fire is the source of all magic, and Lisa’s idea for a scientific utopia is abandoned (Lisa’s Gift is Rejected) as the dragon destroys the town (The Status Quo Ante is Restored; Everyone’s Pain is Healed, Except for Lisa’s). This is just one iteration of a pattern that recurs throughout post-Golden Age Simpsons.

An early example of the pattern crops up in “Treehouse of Horror XII” (Season 13 episode 1). In this parody of the Harry Potter novels, Lisa is the best wizard in her class (Lisa is Gifted). She is targeted by Lord Montymort (Mr. Burns), who wants to absorb her abilities for himself (Lisa is Punished for Her Gift). Eventually she is rescued by Bart (Lisa Needs Help From Others to Escape her Punishment) as part of his redemption story (The Status Quo Ante is Restored; Everyone’s Pain is Healed Except for Lisa’s).

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In “I, (Annoyed Grunt)-bot” (Season 15 episode 9), Lisa’s cat, Snowball II, is run over and killed by Dr. Hibbert. Lisa gets a new cat, Snowball III, who immediately drowns in the family fishtank. Yet another new cat, Coltrane, jumps out of the window to escape Lisa’s saxophone playing (Lisa is Punished for her Gift). Lisa is devastated. In the same episode, Bart gets to fight in a Robot Wars-style TV show (Bart often thrives while Lisa suffers). When it turns out that his robot is really Homer, they enjoy a warm father-son moment. Lisa, on the other hand, finds a new cat that precisely resembles the dead Snowball II (The Status Quo Ante is Restored; Everyone’s Pain is Healed Except for Lisa’s).

In “Dial N for Nerder” (Season 19 episode 14), Lisa and Bart go to Springfield National Park, where Lisa helps Martin Prince dig for arrowheads (Lisa is Gifted). Bart, bored by the smart kids’ archaeological activities, plays a prank that causes Martin to fall from a cliff and land on a ledge below. Lisa tries to help, but accidentally pushes Martin into a ravine (Lisa is Punished for Her Gift). Lisa then endures a nightmare of guilt, until it transpires that Martin is actually alive. “I’ve learned that beneath my goody two-shoes lie some very dark socks,” Lisa says, concluding her character arc for the episode (The Status Quo Ante is Restored; Everyone’s Pain is Healed Except for Lisa’s). But we might note that the accident wasn’t Lisa’s fault: it was Bart’s. Once again the show has punished Lisa for no real reason.

In “Lisa the Drama Queen” (Season 20 episode 9), Lisa befriends Juliet, a new girl at school, and together they create a shared imaginary kingdom called Equalia (Lisa is Gifted). Marge decides that Juliet is troubled, and discourages Lisa from seeing her (Lisa is Punished for her Gift). The girls run away and are trapped by the bullies at an abandoned restaurant; they convince Kearney to help them by telling him stories about Equalia (Lisa Needs Help from Others to Escape her Punishment). While Jimbo & Dolph beat Kearney up, Lisa & Juliet escape. But Juliet rejects Lisa, and prefers to live in Equalia. At the end of the episode, Lisa reads a publisher’s letter rejecting her Equalia manuscript (Everyone’s Pain is Healed, Except for Lisa’s).

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In “The Good, the Sad and the Drugly” (Season 20 episode 17), Lisa’s research skills (Lisa is Gifted) lead her to discover that the world faces total environmental destruction in the next fifty years. She tries to warn her class, but has an emotional breakdown (Lisa is Punished for her Gift) and is put on powerful antidepressants (Lisa Needs Help from Others to Escape her Punishment). The antidepressants cause her to mistake a fan for a smiling face; she comes off the drug. Her final job in the episode is to tell a heartbroken Bart that the best way to deal with certain issues is just to forget about them; soon Bart and Milhouse are laughing as they drive a Zamboni through the school (Everyone’s Pain is Healed Except for Lisa’s).

In “Lisa Simpson, This Isn’t Your Life” (Season 22 episode 5), Lisa is given a scholarship to Cloisters Academy, a fancy school where the teacher-to-student ratio is 1:1 and where (Lisa Tries to Share her Gift with the World) Lisa is encouraged to finish her novel (“Self-published?” “Real published!”). But it turns out that Lisa is only able to go to Cloisters Academy because Marge has agreed to do the school’s laundry, staying up all night washing and ironing uniforms. Lisa tells Marge that she can’t go to the school under these circumstances and that the school is “too elitist” anyway. Marge is delighted, and hugs Lisa; over Marge’s shoulder, we see Lisa’s face, and how sad she is at the lost opportunity (Everyone’s Pain is Healed, Except for Lisa’s).

Sad Lisa

In “The Book Job” (Season 23 episode 6), Lisa discovers that her favourite fantasy novelist is a marketing gimmick cooked up by unscrupulous publishers. While Homer and Bart set about writing their own cash-in book, Lisa resolves to write a novel the authentic way – by herself. But she can’t do it (“Writing is the hardest thing ever!”). Eventually, she is so depressed that she agrees to act as a front for Homer and Bart’s group-written manuscript (Lisa Needs Help from Others). When the publishers change Bart & Homer’s story, it falls to Lisa to “switch the flash drives” and trick them into printing the original manuscript – but it turns out that Neil Gaiman has conned everyone and taken credit for The Troll Twins of Underbridge Academy. Following the pattern, the suffering inflicted on Lisa in this episode is never redeemed – she has found that writing a book is beyond her, but she hasn’t learned anything that might help her to cope with this insight. (The episode never bothers to suggest that Lisa might actually be correct to try to write a novel by herself, for reasons other than money.)

In “The Kid is All Right” (Season 25 episode 6), Lisa befriends a girl named Isabel who is as well-read and sensitive as she is (Lisa is Gifted). But Isabel turns out to be a Republican whose ideas Lisa finds appalling (Lisa is Punished for her Gift). The two girls run against each other for class president (Lisa Tries to Share her Gift with the World) but Isabel wins (Lisa’s Gift is Rejected). At the end of the episode, Lisa learns from an exit poll that it wasn’t her ideas that her schoolmates disliked; it was her. She interprets this as a victory for liberal thinking, but she remains, of course, lonely and sad (Everyone’s Pain is Healed, Except for Lisa’s). (This is one of a number of episodes in which Lisa makes a friend and is punished for it – see “Lisa the Drama Queen,” above.)

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The seeds of this pattern were sown in a large number of Golden Age episodes. As early as “‘Round Springfield” (Season 6 episode 22), Lisa is confronted with real suffering, when her hero Bleeding Gums Murphy dies. In 29 years, no other member of the Simpson family is ever asked to mourn a permanent loss in this way (in “Bart the Fink” [Season 7 episode 15], Bart is briefly led to believe that Krusty the Clown is dead; but in fact Krusty has faked his own death, and at the end of the episode Bart’s pain is healed). The only other Simpsons character who endures permanent loss is Ned Flanders – and he is healed, in Season 22 episode 22 and Season 23 episode 1, when he marries Edna Krabappel.

In “Lisa the Skeptic” (Season 9 episode 8), Lisa discovers the petrified remains of what seems to be an angel. She insists that there must be a rational explanation; the townspeople reject this suggestion, and are gulled into an apocalyptic panic. Of course, Lisa is right to be skeptical: the angel is a marketing trick thought up by the owners of a new mall. But no one ever acknowledges this. Stephen Jay Gould, whom Lisa has approached for help, does nothing to prove her right (Lisa’s Gift is Rejected). At the end of the episode, we are supposed to accept that the example of Marge’s faith has taught her daughter not to be so skeptical. But in fact Lisa’s skepticism would have saved the day – it was the correct approach, and nobody tells her this (Everyone’s Pain is Healed, Except for Lisa’s).

Looking back at Golden Age Simpsons, it’s startling how often the show presents us with images of Lisa alone, or crying, or depressed. Here are a few:

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“The Secret War of Lisa Simpson” (Season 8 episode 25)

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“Lisa’s Substitute” (Season 2 episode 19)

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“Lisa the Simpson” (Season 9 episode 17)

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“‘Round Springfield” (Season 6 episode 22)

Throughout the show’s run, episodes in which Lisa is punished for her gift tend to alternate with episodes in which Lisa is punished for no reason at all. This, too, has its roots in the Golden Age. In “Make Room for Lisa” (Season 10 episode 16), Homer permits a cellphone company to build a transmitting tower in Lisa’s bedroom. Lisa begins to suffer from stress-related stomach pains. In a sensory deprivation tank she learns to empathise with Homer. But the problem wasn’t Lisa’s inability to empathise with Homer – it was Homer’s casual cruelty to his daughter. Once again, the Status Quo Ante is Restored; Everyone’s Pain is Healed, Except for Lisa’s.

In “The Squirt and the Whale” (Season 21 episode 19), Lisa finds a beached whale, whom she names Bluella. As Lisa sleeps beside Bluella (after reading to her from Leaves of Grass), she dreams that the Marines have arrived with helicopters to return Bluella to the ocean. But it’s just a dream. When Lisa wakes up, she finds that Bluella has died in the night. The Springfield police detonate Bluella’s corpse with explosives; the townspeople scavenge her parts for products to sell. This episode fits into a pattern in post-Golden Age Simpsons whereby Lisa’s love is offered and then painfully rejected.

In “Halloween of Horror” (Season 27 episode 4), Lisa is traumatised by a disturbingly realistic Halloween fairground. She regresses to infancy, and starts hugging her childhood comfort-toy, Tailee. Later in the episode, some casual labourers whom Homer has antagonised break into 742 Evergeen Terrace; Homer, unable to help his daughter, forces her to hide with him in the attic. In the classic pattern, Lisa’s suffering arises not from flaws in her own character, but from the cruelty, incompetence, or indifference of the people around her.

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Post-Golden Age Simpsons reminds us again and again that not only does Lisa have no friends, she cannot have friends. Frequent jokes are made about the imaginary friends she is forced to invent as a lonely younger child. In “Treehouse of Horror XXVII” (Season 28 episode 4), Lisa’s imaginary friend comes to life and murders anyone to whom Lisa gets close. Throughout the show’s run, Lisa is almost always depicted eating lunch alone in the school cafeteria. I lost count of the number of throwaway scenes in which the other children at Springfield Elementary – often, but not always, represented by Sheri and Teri – reject Lisa as a friend or even as a lunch companion. “I forgot how hard school can be for a sensitive kid,” Marge says, in “Springfield Splendour” (Season 29 episode 2), in which Lisa is suffering from recurring nightmares about school. “It’s miserable,” Lisa says in a broken voice. In the same episode, when Marge makes a comic strip out of Lisa’s painful school experiences, it is sold at the Android’s Dungeon under the title Sad Girl. That’s Lisa: she is the Sad Girl, and post-Golden Age Simpsons demonstrates no interest in doing anything with the character except making her sadder. When Sad Girl is adapted as a musical, it naturally fails (Lisa’s Gift is Rejected).

Attempts by the other characters to help Lisa are generally abortive or inadequate. Lisa is the only family member of whom this is true. When Bart goes to therapy (“Yokel Chords,” Season 18 episode 14), he achieves new psychological insights that bring him healing. When Lisa goes to therapy (“Springfield Splendour”), she must do so at the community college, where students practice on patients while their teachers watch from behind a two-way mirror; Lisa’s therapy, abandoned after a couple of sessions, affords her no psychological insights or healing.

The Simpsons has several times taken its central characters into the future and imagined grown-up lives for Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. In the Golden Age episode “Lisa’s Wedding” (Season 6 episode 19), the future imagined for Lisa is rich and fulfilling: she has left Springfield to go to college, where she appears to be studying environmental science (at the library, she asks for “Ecosystem of the Marsh, by Thompson”). In post-Golden Age Simpsons, the futures imagined for Lisa are mostly awful. In “Holidays of Future Passed” (Season 23 episode 9), Lisa is unhappily married to Milhouse and has a poor relationship with her daughter Zia. She is also a successful businesswoman, despite the fact that the eight-year-old Lisa we know is consistently anti-corporate and wants a career as a jazz musician (or an environmental scientist). In “Days of Future Future” (Season 25 episode 18), Lisa is in her thirties and is again unhappily married to Milhouse. When Milhouse is bitten by a zombie and becomes a zombie himself, Lisa prefers this state of affairs, as it means she no longer has to suffer through a painful marriage. These futures feel like a betrayal of Matt Groening’s original idea of Lisa as “the one who will escape Springfield.” Post-Golden Age Simpsons is consistently unable to imagine a future in which Lisa fulfils the promise of her childhood excellence.

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So: why does Lisa suffer in such a unique way? It may have something to do with a strain of vigorous anti-intellectualism that The Simpsons has toyed with throughout its run and never entirely repudiated – a strain that grows even more pronounced in the (superficially even more meme- and reference-dense) post-Golden Age period. The anti-intellectualism of The Simpsons, early and late, is visible in several recurring characters, most obviously Professor Frink and Martin Prince (in fact, during the post-Golden Age period, Martin Prince is subtly punished by being gradually transformed from an ambitious and high-achieving nerd to nothing more than the pathetic victim of choice for bullies like Jimbo & Nelson). It’s also visible in a wide range of one-episode characters (take, for instance, Marge’s college professor in “That 90s Show” [Season 19 episode 11], a pseudo-intellectual poser who wants only to seduce his students and who is eventually beaten up by his own Dean).

The longer the show goes on, the more its structural message is a hidden endorsement of intellectual mediocrity. “Just pick a dead end and chill out till you die,” Homer advises Lisa, in “Lisa Simpson, This Isn’t Your Life.” We are, of course, meant to laugh at Homer’s laziness and stupidity. But taken as a 629-episode whole, The Simpsons in fact nominates “pick a dead end and chill out till you die” as the only approach to existence that it’s prepared to unreservedly endorse. For staying in his dead end, Homer is lavishly rewarded: with love, with friendship, with foreign travel. For trying to escape from hers, Lisa is punished again and again.

As the show’s designated intellectual, Lisa naturally bears the brunt of its subtle but insistent disparagement of the life of the mind. In “Little Girl in the Big Ten” (Season 13 episode 20), Lisa pretends to be a college student so that she can get a better education than the one available at Springfield Elementary. When her ruse is discovered, she is berated by Marge (who is suspicious of university life) and further ostracised by her schoolmates. In order to win back the approval of the community, Lisa must vandalise a chocolate cake prepared to celebrate the opening of the “Seymour Skinner parking annexe.” In other words, she must act like a stupid (or, in the show’s vocabulary, “normal”) person. Once again, the story ends with everyone’s needs being met – except Lisa’s. It also ends with the triumph of stupidity over intelligence and ambition – a message the show hammers home again and again – and again and again, from different angles.

Another reason for Lisa’s suffering is that The Simpsons endorses a deeply conservative view of the role of women in society. To be an unmarried childless woman, in The Simpsons, is to be pathetic. Look at Patti and Selma, or Edna Krabappel, or (in the later seasons) Lindsay Nagel. Happiness and normality, for the women of The Simpsons, reside in being married and having children, no matter how miserable this might make them. The other thing you can’t help but notice, watching all 629 episodes in a row, is that Marge’s disconnection from reality is essentially psychotic: as Anna Leszkiewicz points out in this New Statesman piece, Homer is an appalling husband and Marge should have left him years ago – long before (to take a random example) he framed her for a drunk-driving accident so that he could keep his licence. The view of marriage espoused by The Simpsons is one in which a woman must forgive her husband and stay with him, no matter how high the cost (in “Days of Future Future,” Marge literally commits suicide to be with Homer – she electrocutes herself so that she can live with the version of his personality that has been uploaded to a flash drive). The men of Springfield, on the other hand, are never burdened with the task of forgiving their meek, submissive wives.

This basic underlying misogyny explains why the show is incapable of imagining a future for Lisa in which she doesn’t marry Milhouse, her brother’s loser friend. It also explains why Lisa is punished for wanting to be independent (“When I get married, I’m keeping my own name!” as Lisa Lionheart would say – and while we’re on the subject, “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy” [Season 5 episode 14] is a near-perfect pattern episode: Lisa Offers Her Gift to the World, in the form of a doll that might actually encourage girls to be independent and smart, and her Gift is Rejected when the girls prefer the superficiality of a Malibu Stacy with a new hat).

The Simpsons, fundamentally, can’t accept the idea of a genuinely intelligent, self-determining woman who doesn’t shape her life around the needs of a man. This message isn’t necessarily conveyed by the plot of any particular episode (though most of the Marge-centric episodes come pretty close). Rather, it’s conveyed by all of the episodes, taken together. Sure, the men of Springfield are losers (Moe; Barney Gumble; Kirk Van Houten; Lenny & Carl; Chief Wiggum). But the show doesn’t punish the men for their faults – in fact, it often rewards them (Milhouse gets to marry Lisa). Their suffering isn’t structural; it’s superficial (i.e. it’s where the jokes come from). The suffering endured by Lisa and Marge is structural. Which means that that suffering lies somewhere near the core of what The Simpsons is saying, whether it knows it or not.

Taken as a 629-episode whole, The Simpsons leaves a strangely sour taste in the mouth. It shows us a world in which stupidity is uncontrollably rewarded and in which the life of the mind is derided, punished, and ignored; a world in which women can’t be happy without a husband – any husband; a world in which noble aspirations are generally crushed and the only fate that awaits even the best of us is mediocrity.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. This is, after all, the show that predicted President Trump – in, as it happens, one of the very few episodes in which Lisa ends up where she actually belongs.

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UPDATED: I’ve written a response to the many comments this essay has received. You can read it here.

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77 thoughts on “I Watched All 629 Episodes of The Simpsons in a Month. Here’s What I Learned.

  1. Whilst simultaneously one of the most depressing things I’m likely to read all year, this is also magnificent, and a fine explanation as to one of the reasons I’ve utterly disconnected from a show I used to be thoroughly addicted to. I literally skip the channel these days rather than watch an episode, whether I’ve seen it seven times before or not.
    But I absolutely expect the sour taste left from Lisa constantly losing is subtly toxic. Thank you for pointing this out in such excellent detail!

    Liked by 5 people

  2. One of the world’s most beloved comic strips, Peanuts, featured a central character who constantly failed (and whose ongoing, empathy-provoking mishaps was one of the core elements of the work). This kind of pathos is a common feature of the best TV and film comedy; I feel like you’ve got the wrong end of the stick in identifying this aspect of the show as misogynistic because Lisa happens to be a female character (which is not to say that the show as a whole isn’t). Like Charlie Brown, she is the emotional core of the show and the character that comes closest to playing the role of showrunner’s avatar. Strong characters don’t need to be successful.

    Liked by 4 people

    • But even Charlie Brown is healed sometimes. After all, in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” after making fun of him, everybody has a change of heart and helps him decorate his sad little tree saying, “it just needs a little love.” The show ends with the kids singing to him! Lisa is continually rejected. Where’s an episode about Lisa that ends with folks celebrating her as she is? Seriously, I haven’t watched for decades. Is there one?

      Liked by 3 people

      • Well, sure. It isn’t ‘exactly’ Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown sometimes wins–especially in television specials wherein network execs at the time were almost certainly not keen on a cartoon that might depress there audience. Charlie Brown was a ‘loveable loser’ but a TV special was ultimately a vehicle for profits driven by commercial time.

        The Simpsons by contrast still had to sell ad space but they were billed from the start as a kind of rude and crude, sarcastic comedy. Childhood torment and cutting sarcasm are a natural fit.

        Lisa is an even more tragic character. It’s not than Lisa never wins or that she never has people in her corner (the author made it a point that she people often step in on her behalf); it’s just that her wins always take place in the middle of the story arc. Part of this, and an ongoing joke throughout much of the classic Simpsons years was the return to status quo that ended every episode. As the series evolved and serialized story elements were introduced, I think there was an intentional effort to maintain Lisa as a tragic hero of sorts. If Springfield were to remain a town of systemic indifference to virtue, it could never be a place in which a smart, earnest girls could thrive.

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      • I’d just like to agree with the above. The TV specials were a very different beast to the actual comic strip, which was far more bleak. I’m always astonished by the conflation being expressed here. To use a completely different example, a film about women suffering at the hands of men is likely to be a feminist work, just as a film in which a man is constantly attacked by a two-dimensional nagging wife is likely to be a misogynistic work, just as a film about Germans suffering at the hands of Jews would be a Nazi propaganda film. So why would we interpret a show in which a smart, compassionate girl (written by people likely to identify far more with her than with the more selfish and stupid people around her) suffers at the hands of a town full of morons as misogynistic?

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      • It would be a “golden age” episode, but the one where the Simpson go on a beach vacation and Lisa befriends some older kids, pretending to be somebody she’s NOT (anti-intellectual, etc), while her new friends are unimpressed by Bart, who tries to usurp the friendship by showing off on his skateboard. (“That kids tries too hard” scoffs one of the beach kids.) Bart takes revenge on Lisa by exposing her as smart, geeky girl, to Lisa’s horror, but in the end, her friends celebrate her true self. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0701219/?ref_=ttsnd_snd_tt

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      • so many episodes. Summer of 4ft 2, Lisa’s Rival, I Love Lisa…this is the most wrongheaded reading of The Simpsons imaginable. Lisa is the writers’ avatars and if they depict a world in which her intellectualism is thwarted by dullardry, it’s not because the writers endorse that world.

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    • Not only have you beaten me to my point, you arrived at the same example. That’s fantastic! This feeling the writers have somehow abandoned or betrayed Lisa dissolves when you think of her as the show’s main character–which you absolutely can in that every single episode is either about her or the single character who represents her ultimate nemesis: Springfield itself. Whether in Simpsons Classic or the current New Coke era, the reason Lisa fails while everyone else succeeds isn’t some innate bias toward misogyny or anti-intellectualism on the part of the writers; it’s their commitment to what is ultimately her story.

      The Simpsons is and always has been a nihilistic, absurdist, sarcastic and ultimately cathartic take on American culture. Here the misogynistic, the ignorant, the selfish and the craven ultimately thrive not because the writers want to push their traits as worthy but because they are systemic. Lisa being our hero against this backdrop, her pain isn’t a flaw, it’s the feature.

      Like Charlie Brown before her, her tragedy defines the comedy.

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      • I see your point, but I disagree. The post mentions that it’s often portrayed as if it’s Lisa’s “fault” in the first place. The problem arises from her being gifted and the problem is solved by her embracing the status quo. While I see your point about the tragedy, the prevailing idea ends up being “don’t try to embrace your gifts, don’t try to break the status quo, don’t try to break through the glass ceiling”

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      • I came here to say this! The writers of the show aren’t misogynistic and anti-intellectual, Springfield is. It’s a satirical take on the kind of nation that would be so self-absorbed, idiotic, and cruel that it would elect Donald Trump President. That Lisa always suffers and is abused for her gifts and abilities isn’t a mirror of the writers’ beliefs, but a reflection on what it’s actually like to be an intellectual in the United States.

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      • I would say that one of the biggest flaws in the cultural direction of the show lies in the way it’s been sold as something other than what it is… Instead of cynical reflection, it’s been marketed as wholesome drama. Somewhere along the way it does feel like it shifted to an attempt to sell character over caricature.

        It’s almost as if… FOX won.

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      • “The post mentions that it’s often portrayed as if it’s Lisa’s “fault” in the first place.”

        IMHO that’s simply explained by bad writing. A lot of the times, and not just in The Simpsons, it seems like TV authors lose the thread of the implications of what they’re writing in a convoluted attempt at wrapping up a plot in a satisfying way in 30 minutes. It’s like some things are just forgotten or wilfully ignored not because that’s part of some message the show wants to transmit, just because it’s *easier*. You need to bring resolution to Lisa fighting with Homer over Homer doing something absolutely stupid? The easiest way is for her to forgive him, never mind how inappropriate it is and how in real life any sane person should just dump that idiot to fend for himself since all he can provide to anyone around him is trouble.

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      • “The writers of the show aren’t misogynistic and anti-intellectual, Springfield is. It’s a satirical take on the kind of nation that would be so self-absorbed, idiotic, and cruel that it would elect Donald Trump President.”

        As the saying goes, Satire requires a clarity of purpose and target lest it be mistaken for and contribute to that which it intends to criticize

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  3. Thank you for writing this piece. One one level it made for a depressing read because it shone a light on one of the reasons My Favourite Show of All Time is no longer my favourite show of all time. I wanted to focus on one thing you brought up.

    I get what you mean in regarding to the Golden Age not being about character or plot, while the absurdism that runs through these classic seasons is one reason as to why this era works so well, it’s not the only reason. I do think character has a lot to do with it. Of course, many of the supporting characters were caricatures, and hilarious ones at that (and when the writers tried to give them more substance, they became insipid: Barney lost all that was wonderful about him the moment they made him go on the wagon, Apu became a lot less interesting when he got married), but the Simpson family have always been the heart of the show, and catharsis has always played a role, right from the start. I think if every episode was like ‘Bart’s Inner Child’ or ‘Itchy and Scratchy Land’ (two of the more relentlessly wild and absurd episodes) I don’t think it would be half as beloved. Episodes like ‘Life in the Fast Lane’, ‘Old Money’, ‘Lisa’s Substitute’, ‘The Last Temptation of Homer’, etc. are vital elements to the show’s success, and they are built on emotional catharsis and end up being genuinely powerful. The balancing act between these different kinds of episodes (not to mention that the above episodes usually balanced their emotional A-stories with funnier B-stories) was what made the Golden Age so wonderful. The newer Simpsons don’t work on any level – the jokes don’t land, the characters are either worn out or changed beyond recognition, while the stories have been recycled so much and the self-awareness/self-contempt for the mechanics of the show that I’m like, just pull the plug already! I mean, 29 seasons? It’s amazing the show kept the ball rolling for as long as it did, but artistically they should have done the right thing and ended it twenty or so years ago. The new Simpsons have nothing to say or contribute. Phew. Rant over.

    So yes, to get back on track, one of the points of the Golden Age was to make us laugh. But I don’t think that was purely it. It did more than that – it also made me cry, it made me think, it made me obsessed with all of those far-reaching and wonderful references and allusions and it made me love the characters. Those wonderful, wonderful characters. This is why the Golden Age of The Simpsons is the best thing ever. Name me one thing that’s better. The Renaissance? This is better.

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  4. Great analysis. You have far more Simpsons fortitude than… possibly anyone?

    I think it’s also worth considering one additional data point: South Park debuted in 1997, and Family Guy debuted in 1999. After almost a decade to itself, the Simpsons had to contend with direct competition from two other culture-defining “family” comedies, both of which were far more mean-spirited in their execution. I think that definitely colored the show’s (d)evolution from the Golden Age, after which optimism or idealism couldn’t be expressed without being simultaneously mocked.

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  5. Pingback: Happy Valentine’s Day Links! | Gerry Canavan

  6. The show is a SATIRE. Of course it depicts everyone as stupid and the smart one failing. It’s a pessimistic view of society. But I don’t blame you for getting emotionally attached to Lisa after watching 600+ episodes of her being abused in a row.

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      • The point is, in many episodes Lisa suffers because that’s the writers’ way of saying that society makes people like Lisa suffer – not because they agree that she should. Springfield is lazy, stupid and sexist because the US are lazy, stupid and sexist, that’s the idea. But after 29 seasons it’s inevitable that the pattern grows very tired, the criticism loses all its edge, and all that remains is a show that is seemingly mean for meanness’ sake.

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  7. Brilliant writeup. I think you figured out what happened to the show.. I still watch. I’ve seen em all. And you’re right about Lisa. And I think I know why. To me, the whole show has a theme that SMART PEOPLE SUFFER in this world of cruel banality.

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  8. That was a good read. I most certainly noticed a demarcation of the show between the “Golden Age” and the “Post Golden Age” as described. The impression I got over the years was that the show – which was always intended as satire- began to take itself to seriously as a cultural institution. It was no longer just about being funny; Post Golden Age Simpsons now had an important – no, no – critical role in representing the banality of American culture in the modern age (at least according to the authors). That the show is no longer funny and hasn’t been for many years is somehow besides the point.
    Because the show has always remained true to its mission as being a satirical cartoon, I see no validity to the authors criticisms about the show being unfair to women and so forth. The pattern laid out by the author certainly repeats itself again and again but that is intended to be a reflection of society and not a depiction of how the authors believe society should be.
    Nowadays if I want laughs I tune in to Family Guy. That show makes me laugh harder than the Simpson’s ever did!

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  9. Anyone want to slot Summer Of 4’2″ into this take? Sure Bart gets redemption for the book signing stunt but surely Lisa’s pain is healed according to the pattern? Also I’m not sure about casting Frank Grimes’ story like it’s a problem. Where characters are caricatures his role to me is exposing exactly the hypocrisies in reward arcs, especially about Homer, that are described as negatives above. And like others are saying, if Lisa is a caricature can she not be the caricature of people who live those reward arcs in real life at the expense of people like Homer?

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    • I think the important distinction with Grimey though is that it’s the moment the show fully deconstructed itself – like how were you supposed to continue buying into a show which has now laid out all its awful innards and parts for all to see? It’s not a problem as such (I’d argue it’s the last “great” episode), but it’s kinda the natural “end-point” of the show where it finally eats itself and points the finger squarely at the viewer saying “you’ve been complicit in laughing at/with this monster for the last 8 years”. People bang on about ‘Principal and the Pauper’ which is only a few episodes removed from ‘Homer’s Enemy’ as the moment the show “jumped the shark” but that’s mostly because it’s a less successful version of a self-critical part of the show they’d been ramping up in episodes like ‘The Day the Violence Died’ or ‘Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie’ (both Itchy & Scratchy centric episodes, importantly) and was fully realised at ‘Homer’s Enemy’.

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      • So basically, the Simpsons could have gone out with a bang making “Homer’s Enemy” the finale, is what you’re saying, and leaving the stage with the extreme middle finger of having Homer do something so depraved, it’s impossible to make apologies for him or even find him funny any more. Not a bad idea, but of course not one that would fly for such a cash cow.

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  10. *JUST* as I was thinking ‘what do you expect…’ you get to the part about them predicting the Trump Regime & women like Lisa *FINALLY* getting their due (I have enough female cousins like Lisa to fill ‘The Cabinet’ & a Grandfather who always told one she could be POTUS someday so…)
    I *LOVE* your analysis however I am just the opposite of projectshadowlondon, I watch SIMPSONS on FX/X almost all the time! Lisa’s ‘Never give up’ attitude is what I try to instill in my cousins’ little kids (If that ‘C+’ was your best we’re proud of you but if you do better next time, you’ll know you could have this time, right?!) There are CERTAINLY some DUDS of episodes that I skip over & watch stuff on DVR during that time BUT, like you’re marathon, even the BAD episodes are better than reality TV or lie filled press conference from Twitler!

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  11. I suppose the intended reading of Lisa’s frustration and torment is that intelligence *has* to be its own reward, because it’s not likely to be rewarded in the short-term. It’s not a comforting message, but it does at least have *some* kind of merit of truth to it. While the town is not punished for rejecting Lisa’s gift, it’s usually not presented as a good thing that they did that – at least, not in the episodes I’ve seen.

    That said, like you, I basically tuned out around the time of Homer’s Enemy, which I genuinely can’t understand why anyone likes.

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    • While I remember that “Homer’s Enemy” left me feeling very uncomfortable, I talked to a friend who considers it an artistic masterpiece because of how (if I remember this correctly) it’s supposed to draw attention to the artificiality and absurdity of the Simpsons setting. Frank Grimes is supposed to be a real person who expects the world to work in a sensible way, highlighting how absurd it is for an idiot like Homer to be rewarded for his behavior.

      Whether it was successful in that, well, that’s a different story.

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  12. I’m not entirely sure about this, but… I guess it comes down to the clarity of intent that satire needs to possess. The Malibu Stacy episode, for instance, I remember having a ray of hope at the end – I think it was a single girl being happy to get the more intellectual doll? I always got the impression that Lisa was put-upon because Springfield is an idiocracy and the dumb will always resist the efforts of the wise, but I remember there always being these rays of hope showing that little by little, she can make a difference.

    That said… this format doesn’t hold true for all cases in which Lisa has to suffer, and the continued rewarding of ignorant and uncaring behavior of Springfield’s men might be intended as a darkly humorous take on the unfairness of reality, but… intentional or not, it does end up reproducing and thus reinforcing the structural injustices of reality. As much as the writers may or may not sympathize with Lisa’s ideals, the worldview ultimately presented seems to show her idealism as a fool’s errand that only brings her suffering.

    The so-called alt-right movement seems to consider itself intellectual and wise for accepting the status quo of Western culture as it is while downplaying any efforts to change it for the better as naive, emotionally-driven “snowflake” behavior. Thinking about it this way, I can see how even a show that thinks itself progressive can have the opposite effect when it insists on presenting a nihilistic worldview where nothing ever changes and destructive behavior never receives a due comeuppance.

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  13. Unilaterally agreed. Cept for one minor thing. Bart has always been the subject of extreme emotional and physical abuse from every member of the cast over the entire series, and while he might end up with the Catharsis phase in some episodes, it sure doesnt happen in every single episode.

    Take “The Boys of Bummer”, S18, E18. Which literally ends in a sequence where after, and only after, attempting to commit suicide they have a fake game where Bart is explicitly given a chance to “redeem” himself in the eyes of the town. Only to have them “as a joke” fast forward to the future where milhouse brings up this trauma mockingly and it starts the suffering all over again.

    I’d take a moment to go deeper, I simply don’t have the time right now but functionally bart goes through the same emotional torture Lisa does and definitely “doesn’t get healed.”

    He has catharsis moments, but those are almost always self earned (Season 2, Episode 1). Lisa also has these throughout the entire ‘golden age’

    But the fundamental difference is that sometimes Bart isn’t healed at all. In fact he’s given the message that its not so bad and he should power on through it and because the show paints this boy as a Stupid it becomes ok for him because “he doesn’t know better”.

    But the trauma is still there, and Bart rarely actually gets his issues actually dealt with unless it’s “more funny” to do so.

    Due to the show’s anti-intellectual bent, Bart gets rewarded only for fitting back into his box and fulfilling his role as “stupid useless problem child” that the show wants so desperately to shoehorn him into being.

    Otherwise, hes hurt for no reason, gets no apology and ends up having to stay suffering for any number of baseless reasons, mirroring most of what happens to lisa, on the same degree.

    The difference? Bart tries to fulfil the status quo (for better or for worse, often ending up more or still just as depressed or upset afterwords, or like in S18E18, forced to push down his trauma until he can’t focus on it through positive reinforcement designed to disguise the problem rather than fix it) and is re-welcomed back into the arms of the cast. Lisa never tries to be anything but herself and the show continues to punish her for it.

    As a result, the “catharsis” bart gets is never passed onto the viewer. Nor is anything ever given to lisa. So; as if were supposed to care about these characters and ensemble cast they keep putting us through this cycle of abuse, something they have done from the beginning of the show.

    The difference isn’t just how they treat lisa. Its that they expect us, as the viewers to want to also maintain this continuity status quo. They consistantly make this clear that the only way to be happy is not to challenge it.

    Bart doesnt get half as many episodes as Lisa does, he’s sort of tossed to the wayside, so episodes centred around him, when they do happen, come in two flavours.

    Bart (and/or Lisa) torture porn. Or bart is punished for being himself and in attempting to fulfill the status quo expectation for him he is rewarded. There are basically no in betweens nor exceptions to the rule.

    The only episode i can think of that actually does break this cycle is S27E09 “Barthood” which I’d really applaud them for if it weren’t an explicit (semi sequence per sequence) retelling of the 2014 movie boyhood.

    That aside, both Bart, and Lisa end up happy in the end. They are both healed, and happy in their new respective lives separate from the normal pushed “requirements” of the series.

    I can only hope this leads to a change but I doubt it.

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    • One of the few episodes in which the Simpsons kids are allowed to age. I can think of Bart graduating grades and of course a few future history episodes. The episode where Bart gets himself declared emancipated is one way the writers have of pointing out the forced lack of growth, it’s even lampshaded in the episode where Homer and Ned Flanders become friends with “next Thursday” scene where everything is back to where it was.
      I think the frequency of future history episodes is picking up. A run of them just before The Simpsons heads off to the sunset would be sweet.

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  14. The problem you’re talking about here isn’t exactly a problem with ‘The Simpsons’. ‘The Simpsons’ takes a satirical approach to American society; the mechanism by which satire works is to amplify or exaggerate the problems inherent in its target to a degree that is both comic (because the problems are usually absurd to begin with) and painful (because having to confront these problems means confronting something you’ve been either trying to ignore because ignoring it benefits you or trained to accept as ‘normal’ because it benefits someone else). If it veers from that — if it tries to offer a solution to these problems, or even if it tries to openly state that these are problems — it collapses as satire. (The whole challenge of writing satire is to exaggerate enough so that the problems become apparent without over-exaggerating to the point that the argument feels overblown and — hah! — cartoonish.)

    Misogyny and anti-intellectualism are deeply woven into American society and ‘The Simpsons’, because of its form, is trapped into mirroring them. It cannot express a solution because the solution isn’t funny, the problem is. Unfortunately, pointing out the same problem year-in-year-out for 29 years isn’t funny either. Satire is usually not a prolonged serial form for this reason, and the current fate of ‘The Simpsons’ — that it’s been embraced and commodified by the society it sought to satirize and become a money-making machine to its own detriment — is the sort of problem that artists often aim to expose through satire.

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    • Which isn’t meant as a criticism of your analysis, btw — more an expansion of it. I think you’re pretty much spot-on here.

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      • Groening’s pre-riches comic Life in Hell was always a sharper satire on all the same things, and frankly instead of watching later Simpsons, I just dig out my copy of School is Hell…

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  15. The underlying nihilism and how differently some characters are treated made (among some other things) not really like the show as a child even though there were laughs and some other good things despite me only watching the golden age episodes. It’s never been my thing and I know people keep saying it’s satire but if some things are always repeated without a joke it nothing else leaves you with a sour taste.

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  16. I surprisingly agree with this, and I never thought I would until I realised what episode was when I stopped watching the Simpsons. The one where Simon Cowell first guest-starred (”Smart and Smarter” Season 15 episode 13).

    – Lisa discovers Maggie is exceptionally intelligent for her age with numbers (Lisa tries to share her Gift)

    – The family takes Maggie to a screening for a very prodigious nursery to prove Maggie’s smart. They find her IQ is higher than Lisa’s which people taunt her with in forming a sibling rivalry (Lisa is punished for her Gift)

    – Lisa struggles in torment between jealousy for her sister and empathy knowing exactly how that feels, resulting in her trying to sabotage Maggie’s future education. They go to a museum with a giant human body exhibit they accidentally get trapped in and Maggie frees them by recognising the buttons Lisa taught her (Lisa needs help to escape from punishment)

    – Lisa finally accepts not being the smartest of the Simpsons, but this entire point is null when Simon Cowell’s character reveals camera footage from the screening showing that Lisa had given subconscious signals to Maggie in giving her the right answers “even when you weren’t aware of it”. (Lisa’s gift is rejected, status quo is restored)

    For YEARS that episode left a bad taste in my mouth, I assumed it was cuz I thought Cowell was just really bad in it. But no, it’s all down to the exact same problems you listed out in this! So it’s not just you definitely, I can also vouch this theory!

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  17. Bravo! Congratulations on this wonderful article and the monumental work that went into it. And your commenters are intelligent too. I had some of my own reactions about satire, the place of the intellectual in society and the demands of television in general, but, lo and behold, they’ve been covered by others. So instead, I will just say great job everyone for participating in a thoughtful conversation. I’ll be back to see what else we can get into.

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  18. There are many things to either agree with or disagree with in this piece, as there would be with any piece on such a widely shared cultural touchstone as THE SIMPSONS, but there is one prominent assertion by the writer that I have to say genuinely shocked me. It’s difficult for me to understand how any viewer could possibly see it the way he does.

    In the view of the writer, the earlier years of the series (the “Golden Age”) prioritized jokes over character, laughs over heart. Character consistency and internal logic were never important parts of the equation, and the show would happily sacrifice character traits for the sake of a quick joke. The downfall, the writer asserts, came when the show changed its mind about this and “started wanting to make us care about the characters.”

    I admit to being gobsmacked by this opinion, because as MANY others including myself have seen it, the show’s evolution in fact followed literally the exact opposite trajectory.
    The earlier seasons, while prioritizing comedy and satire above all else, achieved their beloved place in the hearts of so many precisely BECAUSE the characters were so strongly written, BECAUSE their personalities and internal motivations were so consistent, BECAUSE the writers wanted us to care for them and identify with their struggles. What happened as time went on was the precise opposite of what the writer sees—-long-established character traits began to be seen as disposable for the sake of a quick gag, and characters started being regularly shoehorned into unlikely roles in order to serve a plot function. This damaged the fragile believability and trust that the previous years had built up in the relationship between the show and its audience.

    (For the record, I think this tendency peaked a while back and is not nearly as bad now as it was a few years ago, but the damage has been done.)

    I am far from the only person to see the show’s evolution this way, and it greatly surprises me that the writer could see it literally backwards and upside down from the way many of us see it.

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    • The writer mentions “I AM THE LIZARD QUEEN” as an example of absurdism, but failed to point out it was part of a traumatic experience for Selma who was attempting to fulfill desires of motherhood she’d been feeling, which led to the most touching scene I remember from my childhood where she sings to the lizard she adopted from her late aunt. (Selma’s Choice). I mean I staunchly agree that Lisa has become a focal point for a complete lack of emotional payoff (I’d call this a post-Meg Griffin effect), but to say the show betrayed the humour by having elements of drama is just deeply flawed.

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    • I agree that the naysayers who draw a line at good/bad at a certain period of time aren’t really paying attention. There are some good episodes in all seasons and some great moments in recent seasons. Some jokes don’t work in almost every episode, there’s some selective memory going on to forget some of the misfires in earlier seasons.

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    • I think you both might be right. Comparing both the writer and this point of view, I could see how at the beginning we learnt to love the characters despite the comedy being the focal point because they weren’t as dense as they would be in a character-driven show (as opposed to a gag-driven show), whereas now it feels like a different show because the focus has shifted to the characters and the material that’s left from previous seasons (the amount of characters, their relationships) doesn’t allow for better storytelling.

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  19. That aside, I actually have my own thoughts on the status of Lisa Simpson, and they seem to also be quite different from the author’s.

    One of my biggest issues with the direction the series started to go in around a decade or so in was the phenomenon that widely came to be known as “Jerkass Homer.” I’m sure you all know what that meant. The dumb, selfish but ultimately well-meaning dope of earlier years (putting aside the grumpy, depressed authoritarian of the first season, in some ways a different character altogether) gradually gave way to semi-sociopathic manchild-thing who acted with complete unthinking selfishness nearly all the time and caused remorseless destruction at every turn. This tendency became so pervasive and so dominant, that by the time of the movie I’d given up on Homer altogether. But then a remarkable thing happened—-he actually learned his lesson. Jerkass Homer died in the movie, and has pretty much stayed dead ever since. I was amazed, and very grateful. Homer actually became likeable again. And all was well.

    That is, all WOULD be well if Jerkass Homer hadn’t gradually been replaced by, well…Jerkass Lisa.

    I loved Lisa. The old Lisa was my favorite character. She was an earnest little sage who was intellectually advanced for her age and had a strong head on her shoulders, but at the end of the day was an innocent, vulnerable child prone to a child’s anxieties and struggles, which only made it more painful and frustrating when her sophisticated view of things added the burden of more adult struggles on top of it.
    It was a very unusual mixture of character traits to write, and to balance convincingly, but for a long time they did. Lisa was not only an appealing character, but a believable one.

    But gradually, things began to shift. Over time her earnestness and innocence slowly evaporated and were replaced by snarky cynicism and smug superiority, traits it’s impossible to imagine her having displayed in her earlier portrayal. Instead of a believably precocious child with evolved awareness and a strong social conscience, she’s now usually written as a grating stereotype of a smug, trendy, elitist poseur—-exactly the kind of shallow caricature used in some circles to mock and marginalize people with liberal politics or social views.
    To put it bluntly, at some point Lisa became unbearable. Her sincerity gone, her dominant trait seems to be a desperate need to be trendy and “woke” in the most superficial, shallow ways, using her supposed enlightenment as an excuse to feel superior. A developed, believable character has been replaced by a cheap, unlikeable stereotype. It’s almost as if her character was lately being written by members of the College Republicans.

    What makes it even more of a shame is that unlike with Homer, I don’t think there’s really a way back from this. A man can be brought to see the error of his ways and become a better person, but a kid can’t regain her lost innocence.

    Now and then, I’ll run across an old episode from the first several years, and as far as Lisa goes, I always have the same thought—–god, I miss that character. I really do. The little girl who looked up and asked, with complete seriousness, “Mr. Hutz, are you a shyster?” is long, long gone.

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    • Yeah, so many episodes in which when Bart or Maggie or even another kid do well, her first instinct is to sabotage them. It’s almost as if she’s become more immature and insecure. Although she does seem to mature some in “Barthood” but that could be just because she matures like everyone else in that episode. Which may be a way for the show to redeem itself.

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  20. Thank you for this.

    I notice that the big changes in the Simpsons seemed to come as it began competing with South Park and Family Guy and other “adult” animated comedies.

    I watched The Simpsons from age 2 (when the first episode aired, my brothers are older and we watched it together) through my childhood and adored it. As an adult, I have a now-6 year old niece who I consider showing episodes to, and I tried to watch some recent ones to see if I thought she’d like it, and I realized how much I couldn’t share that with her.

    When I was little, plenty of the jokes went over my head, but pretty much none of them were too inappropriate for me. I feel like the humor of the last 20 years or so is something I can’t just share with a small child, unlike the golden era.

    I may pick out some older episodes to share with her, but seeing recent episodes makes me want to rewatch the old ones – because the show was not as exclusively adult as it seems to be now. 😦

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  21. This is excellently written and argued, thank you for it. Here are a couple potential cases for your consideration:

    People have already mentioned ‘Lisa on Ice’ and ‘Summer of 4ft 2.’ as a couple instances where Lisa has been rewarded. How do you feel about the (all golden era, wouldn’t even know where to begin beyond that) instances of Lisa getting defining traits through struggle and reward which have stuck with her as the show has progressed? My examples are:

    Lisa the Vegetarian (S7e5) – This is an interesting episode where Lisa admits at the end she was wrong (too) after quite a fundamental argument with her father over eating meat and ruining his BBQ. She has to struggle to get there, but the family ultimately accept Lisa’s newfound vegetarianism (and continue to do so) and Homer reconciles and (seems to at least) understand why he was at fault to make up with Lisa.

    Lisa the Simpson (s9e17) – Lisa gets in a slump when she believes she has “The Simpsons gene” which will slowly kill her brain and will physically make her unable to be a professional Jazz-musician (anti-intelligence ruling again). She then discovers this only effects The Simpson men and The Simpson portrayed as pretty all much being successful and intelligent, giving Lisa a new lease on her future life. While the logic here is pretty questionable the episode does at least end of a note of “look there are plenty of successful women out there, they’re just often hidden behind idiotic, loud, primal men”.

    ‘She of Little Faith’ (s13e6) – a.k.a “Lisa the Buddhist”. Much like her finding vegetarianism, Lisa realises Christianity may not, in fact, be the religion for her, despite all her surroundings willing her to be, so after much personal struggle and reflection, comes to the conclusion that Buddhism is the religion for her, which again, by the end the family respects (although given the conclusion that “Buddhists can still attend church” they don’t have to bring this fact up as often as something like, not eating meat). This is one of the last decent episodes for me (though the Buddhism angle might have been just to attract guest-star Richard Gere on board) because it shows some progress in Lisa’s character even in the face of her own family initially being quite awful to her over this decision but at least in a way one could imagine, sadly, many practicing Christians (or any major religion) doing so.

    Be interested to know your thoughts, it certainly is a worrying trend overall!

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  22. Come on man the show has been on TV for 29 seasons. At this point I would challenge you to come up with a thesis you *couldn’t* somehow read into the show. There’s just so much intellectual dishonesty in comparing episodes that have nothing in common besides character names and superficial producer credits.

    How about picking an episode and critiquing it from the perspective of “the show hates Lisa.” Hell, even pick a SEASON and critique it from that perspective. But I can’t buy putting that label on “The Simpsons” as a whole because there is no one “The Simpsons.” Hundreds of writers and producers and showrunners in total have passed through the scripts at this point. All of your analysis is high on speculation but tellingly doesn’t mention a single writer or producer or anyone involved with the show by name.

    If you’re gonna throw around arguments like “the show hates Lisa” you should really consider doing your homework. There are a handful of books that detail the genesis of the show and explicitly discuss how they wanted each character to come across. There were a bunch of profiles done in the 90s on The Simpsons writers (including a really good one about George Meyer in The New Yorker) that are loaded with insight that could be mined to analyze where Lisa is coming from. You should even check out https://deadhomersociety.com/zombiesimpsons/ for some appreciation of why The Simpsons of the 90s shouldn’t even be considered the same show as the one on TV now.

    I know most of your criticism in this article was against the newer episodes but I wish you didn’t try to shoehorn in the earlier seasons for the sake of a total (but misleading) narrative.

    Sincerely,
    alt.nerd.obsessive

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Long read, and while I agree for the most part about the decline of the show I think the author gets it backwards about Lisa. The reason Lisa is the only character to not get what she wants and to suffer is because we as the viewer are suppose to identify with her. She is really the only character that isn’t a caricature for the most part. She is us, the (hopefully) intelligent viewer who sees something of themselves in her. This is why she gets the shaft most of the time while the others blissfully go about things. Suffering is a major part of comedy and this is what had made Lisa’s character more human than the others.

    Liked by 2 people

  24. 629 episodes multiplies by 23 minutes = 14,467 minutes, or 241 hours of show time. Had the show run it’s course and finished at around 40 hours, even 80 hours, the banal repetition of Lisa losing wouldn’t be so significant, but now it’s been 27ish years of this idiom repeated and it’s become vulgar, vain.

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  25. The irony in this is that the Golden Age was supposedly about being funny, and not about character development. Yet, the lack of Lisa’s development seems to have occupied a great space in your head. I’m curious to know whether any time for in-depth character narrative analysis was given to any other of the characters? I haven’t watched Simpsons since… about the end of the Golden Age, but is Bart still not a menacing, troubled, disobedient kid? Is Homer still not the middle-aged white male idiot provider for his family? Is Marge still not the nagging house wife?

    Intellectualism is “punished” as you put it because that’s the narrative of the show. It’s first and foremost a SATIRE. Satire often takes a ludicrous and unrealistic approach to things – such as dismissing ambition, self-growth etc. If it were to move away from this, Lisa’s character would change entirely, transforming the relationships she has with every character (obviously most significantly Bart, Homer and Marge), in turn, transforming these characters. The entire tone of show would be even more distant from the Golden Age.

    As for the misogyny in the show. Female president? Marge becoming an ass-kicking cop and body builder? Kirk Van Houten castrated by his (ex)wife over and over? Skinner being controlled by his mother? There are many examples of female characters being in positions of power. Now, to expect these examples to reflect character development or story/show progress? That’s going against your entire discussion about Golden vs Post-golden. Marge will forever be the house-wife. Homer will forever be the idiot provider working in a dead-end job and so on.

    Perhaps the producers and writers picked up on some of these un-PC tones and attempted to rectify them to the despair of their viewers. I admit I haven’t watched any of the “newer” episodes (probably season 18 and onwards!), but the ones I have seen, I recall Bart being… different. Like he was trying to grow as a person. Irony eh?

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Thanks for this, really interesting!

    I think there’s a possible more positive view to take from Lisa’s essential headbutting-a-wall-forever; that can be what it’s actually like for women in the world. You can offer gifts, have them repeatedly rejected and never fulfil your potential because society is set up in such a way as that can be very hard for a lot of people who happen to be girls/women.

    It’s not necessarily that the creators agree with that and so they write it (knowingly or otherwise) because they think it’s funny or fair. It could be a very deliberate comment on why it’s *unfair*. The world doesn’t twist itself about to make things right for people just because it should.

    Absolutely agree that Marge’s happiness is psychopathic. But women have had to do that for generations; detach themselves from reality, because it’s fucking grim, in order to live a life and find some happiness where you can. “She should have left him” is one view, but she has her children and her town and some friends, too. Seeing Homer as a loving husband is an easier reality to live in than accepting he’s a terrible person who throws you under the bus at every opportunity.

    That may be over-charitable. Overall I think this is a good assessment of the series, which has other issues (racism for example) because it’s written by a little group of nerds. But it’s a good show in many ways; I haven’t studied the later series closely.

    So many of us grew up with it; compared to the utter nonsense that’s out there, it’s pretty good.

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  27. Reblogged this on A Borderline Life Worth Living? and commented:
    This explains everything I feel about The Simpsons. I can stomach watching two or episodes a week. Any more than that and I start to experience the urge to murder Homer or smash the TV.

    Lisa has always been the only Simpsons character I’ve ever identified with. I sometimes want to slap Marge for allowing Homer and Bart to treat both her and Lisa so badly. I always end up feeling so sorry for Lisa.

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  29. My goodness, what would this person make of such works of genius as Steptoe and Son or Fawlty Towers?

    This dynamic — a character dreams of escaping their horrific prison of a life, and then their dreams are cruelly crushed — is the basic engine of every truly great sit-com (and why the USA, with its obsession with ‘healing’ and ‘learning’ and characters being ‘rewarded’) has produced so few of them.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. Thank you for this post. I’ve had a bad feeling when watching recent episodes of The Simpsons, not really knowing why. But I’ve noticed that Homer has been become increasingly meaner and selfish. Earlier seasons he was just stupid, but he clearly loved his family. Now I don’t know anymore.

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  31. It’s a show based on absurdity, of course Homer is going to always have his job back and of course Lisa is not going to get what she wants… the show is the reverse of reality! Also, misogynist? The female Simpsons are smarter than the male ones, even the baby, where’s the misogyny in that?

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  32. I think Lisa being the reject of the family is kind of what gives Lisa her charm. She is a very intelligent and talented person in a town where the smart have no power and the stupid run everything. Lisa lives in a family with a baby and a dumb brother and father, the mom, is aware of her gift (As Marge was also highly intelligent before she met Homer) but she spends so much time with Bart and Maggie, that Lisa is basically the forgotten middle child. Homer tries to appreciate Lisa, but since they are so far apart he struggles to handle and work with Lisa, and I think Bart is really probably a bit jealous of her. At school, there are a load of other nerds at the school, but I think she is a bit neglected at school aas she is the only really smart girl (Apart from Allison who gave up her intelligence for popularity) Since she is the only smart girl, Lisa has no friends and she struggles to be a normal child. Since she is alone she works really hard and she is the best student in school and unappreciated. She has had many one off friends, many of them have been just like her, including Luke (cowboy), Tina & Carrie (College students) and many boyfriends and crushes that were just like her. The only friends that she has made that weren’t like her were the ones she made on the beach… I think that she is very smart and that she wants to leave her family to get a better life but she still knows her family care about her and that she is only a kid. I think that Lisas unapreciation is what makes Lisa likeable. She is a smart person in a dumb town and she will escape and show her gift, but at the moment she is trapped in her own life. Also I think that this was the main focus of ‘Lisa Goes Gaga Lisa was feeling rejected and felt that no one liked her, but when she managed to release her rage, that she was able to appreiciate herself. So Lisa Goes Gaga does have a strong message, even though it is the least popular episode of all time !!!! 🙂 I like Lisa because of her love for the environment and Animals Also I think the main sexist joke of the Simpsons is that most of the men are dumb and useless and that the women are smart. The only smart guys that are shown regularly are Skinner, Dr hibbert, Sideshow Bob, Comic Book Guy and Professor Frink. The only really dumb female character is Branden Spuckler. I find this funny though, as I find dumb male characters are the most funny

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  33. Sounds like they don’t hate Lisa at all but are building more on her being an empath. Like it or not that’s literally the life of most empathic people. They try hard, usually too hard, and are almost always knocked down for doing nothing other than being themselves; hell are even more often than not a middle child. When they have the rare moment of selfishness it’s almost always to unhealthy levels just as their emotional giving without being refilled. Also most of them are crazy co-dependent and end up in bad relationships with damaged people. This is what The Simpsons does; it makes the real VERY real and it gives the characters long lasting solid REAL PEOPLE personalities.

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  35. Such an interesting piece! I’m wondering if its view on Lisa being unable to escape a mundane domestic life in Springfield, and its vision of morons winning as an empathetic intellectual loses, is in fact THE SIMPSONS’ dark vision of middle America — a place where brilliant women are sidetracked by early pregnancy and railroaded into lifelong domesticity, schoolyards and workplaces where intelligence and empathy are beaten out of kids and workers on a daily basis, a place where toxic masculinity runs riot, a place where women’s achievements are marginalised in favour of louder men, a place that might cast a decisive vote for Donald Trump. Perhaps this bleak, all-too-sad and real vision of what America has become has been THE SIMPSONS’ long game gut-punch all this time? Just a thought.

    (Doesn’t make it any funnier, though.)

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  36. Counterpoint: Lisa is terrible.

    If she was Lester Simpson, you would call her what she was: an absurdly arrogant and entitled asshole who, despite being a know-it-all, knows nothing about how other people experience the world and doesn’t care anyway. She’s a selfish glory-hog who gets high off of sniffing her own intellectual farts and pursues education just for the sense of smug superiority it grants her. Over half of your examples of “Lisa’s Gift Is Rejected”, when they actually constitute Lisa’s gift being rejected in any coherent sense, are actually “Lisa tells a bunch of people how to live their lives, and they don’t do what she says.” We have words for people who constantly tell others how to live their lives and act wounded when those people don’t do that. Words like “arrogant”, “entitled”, and “asshole”.

    Were Lisa really Lester, you would completely ignore all of the unwarranted abuse meted out onto her, the same way you did Bart. You would think all of the Lisa’s Gift Is Blah Blah Cycle thing was great and laudable, because it was putting a “mansplainer” in his place. If Bart was a girl, you’d suddenly notice all of the unwarranted abuse on him, and say the consistency with which her annoying pranks were escalated to life-threatening peril by the other parties was a reflection of deep-seated misogyny on the part of the writers in the idea that women must be punished worse than men for their transgressions.

    We would still all agree that Homer’s character distortion has totally ruined the show, he’s absolutely irredeemable, and every living thing in the world should stay 50 yards away from him. The most he ever does in a given episode to be a hero, is to partially solve a problem that he himself created. He brings nothing but ruin and despair to everything he touches and yet everyone, regardless of gender, offers him infinite forgiveness.

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  38. I wonder if the Golden Age ended when shows like Family Guy and American Dad came around, where the daughters of the shows often were mistreated or rejected when they wanted something from life or their parents. It could also have ended around the time that Futurama started and the show may have held less due to the juggling of the two. Still I am saddened and awakened by this article. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

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  43. Hey hey,

    First off I just want to say, I appreciate the effort you’ve put into this article, watching every episode to get a more holistic view of the series is no small feat, particularly one with as much of an archive that ‘The SImpsons’ has, and you’ve raised some excellent points about how the show treats Lisa, particularly in the latter episodes.

    I just wanted to raise a couple of things that I feel are missing:

    While the early years of the Simpsons had a more absurdist approach to its humor, these episodes actually had a lot more weight in character and plot, which is what grounded that absurdist humor. The format of the show for the first decade was based around wild things that would happen, driven by the weight of a character’s motives. For example, in “Lisa the Vegetarian,” Lisa Simpson pushes a BBQ’d pig on a lawnmower and sends it down a hill for Homer and Bart to chase it throughout town. It’s a wildly comedic thing to happen, but is the climax of an ongoing debate between Homer and Lisa in their fundamental opposition on consuming meat. It’s character and plot driven, which makes the absurdist humor pop.

    Matt Groening’s hypothesis of the Simpsons family was “a struggle to be normal.” There has always been motive for the characters to be normal people, despite the crazy stuff that happens, and that central conflict makes for hard earned emotional moments. Homer buys Lisa a new saxophone in “Lisa’s Sax,” after telling her the story about getting her first saxophone. Bart pays for a nice Christmas photo for Marge after she’s completely shut him out for shoplifting and ruining yet another family portrait, which forces Bart to reconcile how much he takes his mom for granted. Bart and Lisa playing on opposite hockey teams and being forced to compete for Homer’s affection, where their sibling love ultimately wins out over their escalating rivalry and they end up hugging it out in the ice rink, while a riot breaks out in the stands. All of these moments are preceded by events that are triggered entirely by their character motives and ideologies, and have emotional payoffs.

    What the latter episodes actually lack is this emotional character and plot building. It’s switched out with story of the week plot lines that require little to no complexity in character decision making. Marge becomes a Lyft driver. Homer becomes an Ice Cream man. A whole episode parodying ‘Catch Me If You Can’. The focus is more on the theme of the episode rather than who they are as people, or how their characters will develop from this. Insert several gags about being a Lyft driver. Whole episodes parodying something topical basically write themselves. They pluck a current event that’s happening and just plug and play. It all feels very auto-pilot, so why would we invest in characters that don’t invest in themselves?

    Also worth noting, season 9 is where the identity of the show shifted from emotional storylines to the more slapstick approach that has been prominent in recent seasons. The focus became more about “How can we hurt Homer?” instead of building character dynamics or emotional plots. By season 9 the show had lost show runners Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, who were responsible for a lot of the heartfelt episodes in seasons 6-8, and they had also lost much of the writing team from the first four seasons to other shows. Conan O’Brien moved to his late night gig, Al Jean and Mike Reese went on to make The Critic. So much of the original writers were gone by Season 9, leaving the mission of the show to shift, which has been documented in many reviews of seasons 9-12 when the episodes aired.

    That was my only qualm. I agree with you that Lisa gets an unhealthy share of tragedy, particularly in later seasons where they write it off to her archetype, which leaves the character worn. Again, thank you for writing this, it’s a wonderful read!

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