Five Ways “The Simpsons” Changed Television


By now, you’ve probably heard the news that the pop-culture sensation that is The Simpsons has been renewed for another two seasons. Provided it doesn’t get cancelled before Seasons 29 and 30 go to air, this will bring the programme’s total number of episodes to 669, over an uninterrupted run of 28 years.

A show as iconic as this one should need no introduction, but for those who haven’t been exposed to the outside world for the past quarter of a century, here’s a very brief synopsis: The Simpsons premiered on the Fox Network in the United States in 1989, and follows the exploits of the Simpson family – Homer, Marge and their offspring Bart, Lisa and Maggie – in the middle-American town of Springfield.

Although the show has seen a decline in ratings and quality over the past decade or so, fondness for The Simpsons remains strong. Reruns of earlier episodes continue to make millions of dollars in revenue for Fox, while the dozens of fan pages on Facebook are also indicative of the show’s enduring popularity the world over. And with good reason.

During its first few seasons in the Nineties, The Simpsons was the most unique series on air. It was funny, smart, heartfelt, and endlessly quotable. In the time since, the show has brought about a revolution in the industry, with its hallmarks making their way into other programmes in one way or another. Though the program’s legacies are too lengthy to list here, there are five common TV tropes for which The Simpsons is responsible for.

1.The Animated Sitcom

An obvious one, sure, but when The Simpsons was introduced to the world, there were no other animated shows airing during primetime in America. Though it cannot claim to be the first animated situation-comedy, the popularity of The Simpsons was proof enough for other networks that the formula could, and did, work on their own channels. Just think of the many adult-oriented animated comedies which The Simpsons has paved the way for: South Park, Beavis and Butt-head, Family Guy, Archer, Bob’s Burgers, Rick and Morty, BoJack Horseman… and that’s just a handful of them.

2. Cross-generational appeal

The late Eighties/early Nineties were a time when animation was considered to be a medium for children. This was a major concern for Fox – their fear was that adults might be alienated by the show’s bright colours, while children would be confused by the mature storylines. Much to everyone’s surprise, both demographics ended up warming to The Simpsons, with children laughing at the slapstick humour and adults at its contemporary satire. Today, children’s programmes are imitating this approach by having more complex narratives (and jokes) which adults can appreciate. Adventure Time’s Pendleton Ward and Gravity Falls’ Alex Hirsch have even cited The Simpsons as a major influence on their respective programmes.

A cross-over with Adventure Time heralded the beginning of the 28th Season of The Simpsons.

3. No laughing track

Otherwise known as “canned laughter”, the laughing track was once considered a staple of television comedy – even the cartoons of Hanna-Barbera had laughter recorded from a live audience. Creator of The Simpsons, Matt Groening, was apprehensive about the idea, eventually deciding to forgo a track. This move proved positive for two reasons: it meant the animators didn’t need to accommodate for the audience’s laughter (or lack thereof), and that it was left to the viewers at home to decide what was funny. It also led to the omission of canned laughter from a number of live-action sitcoms, including Malcolm in the Middle and British comedies like The Office and Spaced. This is despite two of the most popular shows of the Nineties – Seinfeld and Friends – utilising a laughing track to great effect. Now, canned laughter is the exception rather than the norm.

4. Challenging gender stereotypes

Lisa Simpson, looking confident

In many ways, The Simpsons is quite conformist in the way the writers present the show’s titular family – Homer is the working Dad, Marge the housewife and Bart the rebellious son. But there is one member of the Simpsons family who defies typecasting, and that’s Lisa. Although she wears a dress with a pearl necklace, Lisa’s characteristics are asexual and there is little to identify her as female. Rather than play with Malibu Stacey dolls, she reads books; instead of fantasising about boys, she spends time with her brother; and rather than go shopping at the mall, she engages in political activism. Lisa is her own woman, and has become a feminist role-model not just for young girls, but for other animated characters, like the science-savvy Princess Bubblegum in Adventure Time, or the fiercely independent Louise Belcher in Bob’s Burgers.

5. Large supporting cast

Many commentators have paid attention to the plentiful number of supporting characters on The Simpsons, each with their own eccentricities and catch-phrases. In later seasons, when the writers were seeking new storylines, they would devote entire episodes to the likes of newscaster Kent Brockman, or the neighbourly Ned Flanders, or even Bumblebee Man to keep things fresh. Once again, this trait was able to extend elsewhere in the television industry. The most obvious example would be the modern-day popular-culture juggernaut that is Game of Thrones, but even The Simpsons‘ animated peers have seen value in their lesser-known characters. Would Archer be as enjoyable without Cheryl Tunt? Or Bob’s Burgers without Teddy the Handyman? Or Adventure Time without the conflicted Ice King? Or… you get the idea.

It’s remarkable how much an egalitarian show about a dysfunctional family has influenced the television industry. Whether it be animated or live-action, comedy or drama, in America or abroad, for the past two decades programmes have turned to The Simpsons for inspiration. And though its superiority has waned in recent years, the fact that the show is still airing after so many seasons demonstrates its wide appeal. Whether they are past their peak or not, the Simpson family will always be welcome on our television screens.



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