On The Simpsons, And the Complexities of TV Nostalgia

TV Features The Simpsons
On The Simpsons, And the Complexities of TV Nostalgia

I won’t be so arrogant as to assume you, the Paste reader, have internalized my work for this website. However, if you have, then you probably have a sense of what I write about with the greatest frequency. I write about The Simpsons, and I write about nostalgia topics. If a show had its heyday in the ‘90s, there is a good chance I’ve written about it, here or elsewhere. For two years I even ran a ‘90s pop culture podcast, called “Existential Parachute Pants.” In short, old pop culture and The Simpsons are really the things I have built my life around, in so many ways. And so of course I’ve come to realize that there is also a major intersection between nostalgia and The Simpsons. At this intersection is where things start to get complicated and tricky.

The Simpsons has been on since 1989, and unlike essentially every other show that was on the air in 1989, it’s still going. It will air its 600th episode in the upcoming season. The Simpsons existed in the ‘90s, the motherlode decade for nostalgia right now, and it exists in the present too. I’m certainly not alone in my love for the long-running series but many former fans now despise the show. This is partly because The Simpsons committed the greatest sin a TV show can commit: it stopped being what people wanted it to be. More to the point, it stopped living up to the vision people had created for it in their own heads. Ultimately, The Simpsons was crushed by the ardent, fervent nostalgia it generated.

“Classic Simpsons.” This is a phrase that’s impossible to miss on the internet, if you have even a passing knowledge of the show. Everybody has their own idea of what seasons constitute the “classic” period of the show. I personally feel like the show was at its best from Season Two through Season Nine, and many others feel similarly. However, not everybody has the same relationship to their own personal “Classic Simpsons” era. To some of us, it’s just the stretch of time where they show was at its best. It is my belief that Seasons Two through Nine of The Simpsons are better than anything in the history of television. But is the The Simpsons worthy of my contempt, or even my disinterest, simply because it’s not the “classic” version of itself anymore?

It’s true that the series hasn’t been the proverbial, heartbreaking work of staggering genius in recent years. But in watching the series today, I am capable of putting aside nostalgia and my love and fondness for the older, better days of The Simpsons, so as to view the show without bias. The series has been uneven, and yes, there have been bad episodes since as early as Season Eleven, and there will probably be more in the future. If you’re a fan of the show, you’ve encountered some truly terrible episodes, too—some that likely made you cringe, or made you angry. I can understand why some people may see these episodes as a betrayal. But they aren’t. They are well-meaning failures.

And of course there have been good episodes in the more recent seasons, too. A personal favorite is “All’s Fair in Oven War.” It’s from the sixteenth season, which is now over a decade old itself. And still, it’s true that this is a hit-or-miss show, that’s ultimately just pretty good. If it wasn’t The Simpsons, those of us still tuning in, probably wouldn’t be watching it regularly at all. But it is my fondness for the eras gone by, for my love of the older days of the show, then and now, that keeps me watching. In this way, The Simpsons is benefitting from my nostalgia, but I’d argue that this is counterintuitive to most people’s nostalgia-based impulses when it comes to the show. Because the show is not what it once was, it is no longer worth their time. In other words, they have been poisoned by their own nostalgia. Since The Simpsons is now rarely great, as opposed to always great, it has become, to many, a garbage show worthy of contempt. People who love The Simpsons most are some of its harshest critics. But so many of them literally haven’t watched the show in years, and yet still despise it for having the audacity to exist! It’s beyond unreasonable, holding the show to unfairly high standards because of one’s love for episodes like “Homer the Great” and “You Only Move Twice.” If one could simply view the show somewhat impartially, it’d be far more enjoyable. But nostalgia is so powerful as to negate such impartiality.

Of course, there’s the obvious argument to be made that my passion in defending the show stems from my own nostalgia for it. My love for the show has calcified, instead of dissipating. Fellow Simpsons lovers of a certain age all hit a point where the show wasn’t what we wanted it to be, and we each took one of the forks in the road, becoming further and further entrenched in our personal beliefs about the show we’d loved since we were children. I’m happy with the path I chose because it guarantees that I will not let my nostalgia turn toxic.

Of course, The Simpsons fallout is really a symptom of the greater issue at hand. We have become a nostalgic culture. We use the word “nostalgia” so much, it’s essentially lost any meaning beyond vague signifiers of “stuff from the past.” The definition of the word is, “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past.” That doesn’t necessarily apply to “nostalgia” in the sense of, “Hey, remember Nickelodeon’s Doug? That was a cool show.” But it could not apply more to most people’s feelings about The Simpsons. But so many people have let his wistful affection turn into a collection of negative emotions. Is it really fair to blame a show for a certain hole in your heart that can’t be filled? On the other hand, is it really fair for someone like me—employing my own nostalgia in a very different way—to tell another person what to do with theirs? This is part of what makes the concept of nostalgia so powerful and ubiquitous.

Still, I’d argue that there’s something regressive or warping about our culture of nostalgia. When you romanticize your childhood, for one, it makes enjoying things as an adult so much more difficult. You measure your pop culture experiences against the rose-colored glasses of your youth. On a practical level, that show or movie you loved as a kid probably wasn’t very good. It probably had mediocre writing and overly simplistic plotting and the acting was likely not that great either. You don’t care, though, because it’s hitting you in a different part of your brain. As an intellectual, I can’t help but want to bristle against that. In talking this piece through, I’ve been asked whether or not we cheat ourselves out of a lot of good things, TV-related and otherwise, because we can’t get past our own nostalgia. I feel like this has to be the case. And as a result, the movement of nostalgia should be, empirically, something that we rally against. However, the very fact that we feel nostalgic is indicative of the decidedly un-empirical lives we lead.

A lot of people have probably read articles I’ve written because I was writing about a show they felt nostalgic for. Maybe they have deeper feelings about the show. Maybe they are interacting with it on the same, substantive level I am, thinking about it critically as a piece of pop culture. But maybe they aren’t. Maybe it’s just a pure nostalgia fix: “I remember that, and I loved that, and it makes me happy to remember I loved that.” The older I get, the less I feel justified in being annoyed by that impulse that had bothered me for so long. It’s kind of hard to react negatively to the harmless happiness boosts people get from some joyful sentimentality.

I see the The Simpsons as the vessel for the most complicated nostalgia in pop culture. This is a show that has been on for so long that different people even experience nostalgia for different eras of the show. It’s very difficult to look at almost 600 episodes of television, and try to assess their overall quality. It’s incredibly easy to react swiftly and emotionally to an entire series (or the emotions it inspires) instead. Unfortunately for The Simpsons, so many of those reactions are negative. The best sitcom in history has gotten the rotten side of nostalgia. Being good, or pretty good, isn’t enough anymore. But I fervently believe that the so-called “Classic Simpsons” fans are missing out.

Perhaps I can sum things up with a metaphor from their favorite era. Remember when Sideshow Bob stepped on all those rakes? Some of us are willing to risk stepping on those rakes, because of all the good moments that happen when we aren’t stepping on rakes. Some people are angry that the rakes even exist—angry that they remember a world where they never had to step on a rake. But where will that anger ultimately get them? We can’t go back to the rake-less world.

Come to think of it, Sideshow Bob is a character with a whole lot of nostalgia. Lest we forget, he tried to use a nuke to get rid of the entire world of television. I suppose I should be happy that we, at least, haven’t reached that point in our Simpsons fandom yet.

Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.

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