The wildly popular Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play might be a sign of the death knell of the show's cultural resonance.
It’s the longest-running televised cartoon, and it’s spawned comics, a movie, music albums, and countless merch. The Simpsons is clearly, to anyone who came of age since the 1970s, one of the most important cultural artifacts of late-20th-century American culture. But what can explain the enduring popularity of a show many people claim to disdain in its current iteration? Why do we still see new expressions of the connection viewers feel to the Springfield universe, like Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, currently onstage in Toronto?
Perhaps in a metaphor for the country from whence it came, The Simpsons continues to be a powerhouse in every metric, even as nearly everyone agrees the quality has flagged considerably. Connoisseurs often point to seasons three through eight as the show’s high point (uber-connoisseurs will call those “the only good seasons”), but enough people still watch the show that, despite it nearing 600 episodes and recently losing the actor who voiced Mr. Burns, Skinner, and Flanders, the show is still expected to finish out its remaining two seasons—at least.
One obvious answer is that those early episodes—where the show’s universe was perhaps more manageable, the social commentary was all the more biting because it arguably punched up rather than laterally or down, where the out-of-touch fat jokes could at least be rationalized as coming from an earlier time (for the love of god, 2015 is no longer the time for gleefully mocking the overweight)—are still available for our viewing pleasure. Aside from being easy to download online, The Simpsons is in syndication on pretty much any TV channel that airs syndicated shows. Young adults who grew up watching the show’s golden years can reminisce alongside teens and tweens watching for the first time.
And those early episodes, some unfortunate tone-deaf jokes aside, still hold up. They hold up even more in comparison to the show today: early episodes have lower production values, but it’s clear the emphasis was on storytelling and joke construction.
Today’s comparatively lackluster Springfield is in many ways a victim of its own success. It’s hard to mock the mindless consumerism of media execs when the show you’re writing for is one of the most identifiable real-life examples of that corporate synergy excess, and the death-blow criticism of recycled plots or jokes is inevitable when you’ve written nearly 600 episodes of a show. Like so many other revolutionary shows before it, the things that originally made The Simpsons so avant-garde, like a dysfunctional family and ribald humour, eventually became the new standard.
The show also still resonates for a lot of the reasons it originally became popular, although it’s hard to say if some of these things will continue to resonate with even the next generation. Largely white and Christian small-town America, for example, and the vague references to the Simpson family’s lower-middle-class status without any realistic financial worries, are things that seemed to make the characters relatable to anyone. But we’re fast moving beyond even middle-class white North Americans thinking the best representation of the world is a middle-class, roughly 95-per-cent-white American town where everyone still attends church every single Sunday, where Lisa’s vegetarianism is the vanguard of both eating habits and liberalism, where somehow Marge remains a stay-at-home mom while her family regularly struggles with its finances.
For those of us who grew up with The Simpsons, even if we’ve outgrown some of its politics, the show still feels like home, and the jokes are good. But we may be nearing the end of the show’s enduring cultural legacy, and it’s partly because of the show’s success that that’s the case.
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play runs at the Aztec Theatre (1035 Gerrard St. E.) until May 31.