“Don’t be a sap, Dad. These are just crappy knockoffs.” – Bart Simpson
“Pfft. I know a genuine Panaphonics when I see it. And look, there’s Magnetbox and Sorny.” – Homer Simpson
Zombie Simpsons is a show on the FOX Network that’s been airing on Sundays at 8pm since roughly the year 2000. Like most half hour comedy shows, it has its ups and downs, but it’s usually blandly forgettable. Its viewership has been steadily declining for years, but new episodes still routinely draw between five and eight million viewers. It grinds out a steady profit one commercial break at a time, directly and indirectly employing a few hundred people, most of whom are neither rich nor famous. In all but one respect it is a middling, unexceptional television show . . . and there’s nothing wrong with that.
It is the sacred right of everyone to veg out in front of a screen. On American television at any given time there are scripted and unscripted dramas and comedies, political gossip programs, science shows, pathetically fraudulent docu-dramas, movies, travel narratives, and game shows that pay varying levels of money for varying levels of contestant humiliation. These almost uncountable offerings are geared to appeal to every conceivable niche and demographic, and Zombie Simpsons has carved out its own cozy corner among them. The only thing that makes Zombie Simpsons exceptional is its illustrious predecessor, The Simpsons.
That show is arguably the most renowned and celebrated program to ever grace the airwaves. No other television program in history can match its levels of critical adoration, popular acclaim, global reach, longevity, and cultural impact. And, given the increasingly segmented and fractured media environment of the twenty-first century, it is difficult to conceive of something in the future even coming close. Zombie Simpsons is just another television show. The Simpsons was unique.
To be sure, Zombie Simpsons does bear a cosmetic resemblance to The Simpsons. After all, the two shows share a great deal of their casts, as well as a few writers, producers, directors and artists. Even the surface similarities are fading with time, though. The fluid and vibrant hand drawn animation has been replaced by militarily rigid computer templates. The exquisitely talented cast members can’t resist a quarter-century of wear and tear on their vocal chords, and many characters now sound only vaguely like they once did.
Things have changed even more beneath the surface. The two have polar opposite senses of humor. The Simpsons trafficked in tightly plotted stories that were cynical, anti-authority social satires that often bordered on nihilism. They managed to get away with it thanks to a clever veneer of sweetness and slapstick. Zombie Simpsons reverses those priorities. It leans heavily on sweetness and slapstick, leaves plot threads all over the place, and only rarely musters even a fraction of the hilariously bleak cynicism that was a big part of what made The Simpsons what it was.
Broadly speaking then, “Zombie Simpsons” is the regular television show that remained when The Simpsons stopped being The Simpsons. There is much argument among fans over when precisely the change took place, but there is wide consensus that such a change has indeed occurred.
As for what’s left, some people still like to watch it; most others don’t, including some of its original creators. After conducting dozens of interviews with Simpsons veterans for his oral history of the show, John Ortved reported that few of them bother to watch the new episodes.i They aren’t alone. The ratings have plummeted from where they were in the 1990s, even accounting for the general decline in network viewership. Despite the fact that FOX was only available in about 80% of households during the show’s early years, The Simpsons was twice in the top thirty of all television shows (1989-90 and 1992-93). FOX wouldn’t put another show on that rarified list until The X-Files in 1996-97.ii By contrast, Zombie Simpsons can’t crack the top fifty on a FOX network that is fully established. New episodes routinely break the record for the least viewed in the show’s history.
Popular apathy persists after the original broadcasts and into the home video market. Seasons 1-14 and Season 20 have so far been released on DVD, and all of them are available on Amazon.com. The average customer reviews tell the tale:iii
[Note 1: The dip in the ratings for Season 6 is wholly attributable to a new kind of DVD packaging FOX used. Seasons 1-5 came in sturdy, fold out cardboard boxes. Season 6 came in a plastic bin shaped like Homer's head and the DVDs were held in flimsy panels. Customers were outraged at the shoddy packaging and the reviews reflect that. There are a number of one star reviews that say the box is terrible while still praising the episodes as some of the greatest ever. After the outcry, FOX began releasing them with both a standard box and with the "collector's" head boxes.
Note 2: Season 20, which broadcast some episodes in high definition, was rushed out on a bare-bones Blu-Ray/DVD to capitalize on the new format. The lack of extra features figures in many of the reviews. Though subsequent seasons have been entirely in HD, no similar releases have been made.]
The little ups and downs aren’t important here, especially in later seasons when the lack of interest results in much smaller sample sizes. (Season 14, for example, has 4.1 stars, but on only 31 reviews, compared to an average of 237 reviews for Seasons 1-10.) What is clear and unambiguous is that the show had a long plateau of nearly perfect reviews that came to an end around Season 9. In the eyes of people who are willing to spend money to watch the episodes whenever they want, the show has never recovered, nor shown any signs of doing so.
Almost the exact same pattern can be seen among a different set of fans, registered users of IMDb.com. The internet’s premier source for basic facts about movies and television, IMDb allows its members to vote on how much they like or loathe every episode of a television show. The ratings are done on a scale of 1-10, though, like many internet ratings, only a small portion of the scale is ever used.1 The chart below is their average rating for the episodes of each season:iv
Despite different user groups, different levels of involvement, and different voting structures, the decline in IMDb’s estimation of the show closely tracks the Amazon rankings. There’s an early plateau that begins tapering off in Seasons 8-9 and crashes after Season 10. According to the IMDb users, no double digit season rates higher than any single digit season. Even Season 1, when the show was still finding its footing, outranks everything from Season 10 and after.
That general opinion is prevalent among the most involved fans as well. In February of 2012, users at The No Homers Club, far and away the most active Simpsons discussion website, voted on a collective Top 100 episodes list.v Of the hundred they chose as the best, ninety-eight were from Season 9 or earlier. (The only exceptions were Season 12′s “Trilogy of Error” at #54, and Season 19′s “Eternal Moonshine of the Spotless Mind” at #91.) A few months before that, they held a similar vote for the Bottom 50.vi Forty-eight of those episodes were from Season 10 or later, and the two episodes selected from the single digit seasons were both clip shows.
Nor is the belief that the show has noticeably declined limited to its fans. Outside of press releases and the occasional adversarial interview, even people associated with the production will admit that Zombie Simpsons isn’t what The Simpsons was. In 2009, as a promo for Season 20, FOX released a YouTube videovii of Grampa Simpson’s best rambling nonsense about American history. As “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and other favorites play lightly in the background, Grampa confidently states that the Wright Brothers won the Civil War and that Sarah Bernhardt was the President in 1906. The video goes on for over two minutes with clips from nine episodes. All of them are from Season 9 or earlier.
To celebrate the show’s 20th anniversary, FOX commissioned documentarian Morgan Spurlock, of Super Size Me fame, to create an hour-long special. Spurlock’s mini-movie covered both the history of The Simpsons and some of its most memorable moments. He interspersed interviews and trivia with numerous clips from the show. Tellingly, almost all of the clips were from the early years, with those from Seasons 1-10 outnumbering the rest by a ratio of nearly ten-to-one.viii Pressed to come up with clips that put the show in the best possible light, Spurlock rarely grabbed anything broadcast after 1999.
Nor is Spurlock the only outsider who’s worked with the show to notice its decline. Harvey Fierstein played Homer’s gay assistant Karl in Season 2′s “Sampson and Delilah”. He was invited to reprise the role in Season 14′s “Three Gays of the Condo”, but rejected the offer:ix
Basically, Homer just had a lot of fun hanging out with gay men, and drinking in bars, and dancing at discos, and all that, and there was nothing – there was no commentary there. Every restaurant had a silly gay name. They gym had a silly gay name. They were all double entendres, obviously. And I said, “Anybody could do this. You’re the fucking Simpsons. Do something we have never seen before.”
And let me say that it was very flattering that they asked me to do it. Jim Brooks said, “You know, you’re the very first voice we ever asked to come back and do it again.” I was surprised. I asked, “Why do they need me to introduce them to this gay couple? Why wouldn’t he move in with Carl and his partner?” Then I started thinking, Maybe [sic] they just wanted my stamp of approval on it because it was just a bunch of cliches.
Despite the fact that there was a lot more leeway for televising gay characters in 2003 than there had been in 1990, the jokes and ideas had actually gotten worse.
Even people who work on Zombie Simpsons will occasionally acknowledge its descent. Mike Reiss, a member of the original writing staff, co-show runner for Seasons 3 and 4, and a man who still consults on modern episodes, spoke to a group of college students in New York City in 2010. When asked about the declining quality of the show, Reiss gave a telling response:x
“The Simpsons change the way people change. Think of your grandparents. They either get boring or crazy and weird. I like to think ‘The Simpsons’ has gotten crazy and weird.”
Comparing the show to a senile old person, especially given the show’s history of mocking senile old people,2 is hardly a ringing endorsement. But it’s telling that even someone as inside as Reiss admits that the show has become something very different than it once was.
The voice actors have occasionally expressed the same sentiment. During contract negotiations in 2004, Harry Shearer, the man behind such iconic voices as Ned Flanders and Mr. Burns, said of the show, “I rate the last three seasons as among the worst, so Season 4 looks very good to me now”. In 2011, Hank Azaria, who voices characters like Chief Wiggum, Moe and Comic Book Guy, told Vulture, the cultural blog of New York magazine, that while he used to do new voices for almost every episode, since Season 10 it’s more like one or two new voices every season and that he’s got nothing left.xi
Even people who’ve defended Zombie Simpsons against the persistent charges of mediocrity have been known to slip up and cop to the fact that the program isn’t what it used to be. Late in the Spurlock special, in a segment specially designated to rebut the show’s many critics, Dana Gould, who first wrote for the show in Season 12, came on and said:
“The people who say ‘It was never as good as it was five years ago’, it’s like well, neither are you, that’s the problem.”
A year later, speaking with a website of the Denver Post about another project, Gould went back on that, saying of Season 4, “That to me was the show’s early zenith where it just cranked on all cylinders.”xii Gould was only on staff during Zombie Simpsons years, and even he thinks that the show he worked on wasn’t the same as the one that conquered the world.
The idea that Zombie Simpsons is as good as The Simpsons is a kind of Soviet fiction. The words are mouthed dutifully in publicity interviews and scrupulously recited in press releases and official communiques, but when the klieg lights turn off everybody will admit that it’s a front.
Still, there are literally millions of people who enjoy Zombie Simpsons. They laugh at it and come back for more twenty-odd Sundays every year, and that’s just fine. Different people enjoy different things; they always have and they always will. But there’s no denying that the show being broadcast today isn’t the same. Whether you’re going by audience opinion, Nielsen ratings, or even the words of people who’ve worked there, the distinction between the two is clear and undeniable. You can call it Zombie Simpsons3 or you can call it something else, but it isn’t The Simpsons.
Continue to Chapter 2: The Terrible World of 1980s Television
Notes and Sources
1. This is commonly referred to as the “7-9 scale”. You can read all about it here: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FourPointScale.
xi. “Hank Azaria on Crying After Sex, Going Topless, and Playing a Simpsons Character on His New Show, Free Agents”, 14 September 2011, http://www.vulture.com/2011/09/hank_azaria_on_crying_after_se.html
xii. “Why So Serious, Dana Gould?”, 15 July 2011, http://www.heyreverb.com/2011/07/15/why-so-serious-dana-gould/