The Cost of Zombie Simpsons

I think it’s full, sir.” – Mr. Smithers
“That’s ridiculous! The last tree held nine drums!” – C.M. Burns

NOTE: Back in September, in response to Alf Clausen’s firing, I posted what would be a new chapter for an expanded version of “Zombie Simpsons: How the Best Show Ever Became the Broadcasting Undead”. The book is still being shopped to publishers, and early responses have been mixed, in that some of them ignore it, and others reject it.

But it’s Simpsons Day, and I’m a long way from giving up on it, so here is another new chapter. It’s very loosely based off a post on this blog from 2010, so for once I’m repeating a quote intentionally instead of accidentally. 

Feel free to smile and nod and link and share this page [stomps on your foot]. The more traffic and attention it gets, the better chance it has of becoming a real, dead-tree book at some point in the future. Also, on your way out, if you want to post it to /r/TheSimpsons, it would help me a lot. 

Released in 1993, Jurassic Park is a classic movie, one of the most popular in the history of cinema. It’s enduring popularity has green-lit three sequels, all of which are forgettable summer pap and none of which grace “Best Ever” film lists. (A fourth is set for release in 2018.) Published in 1965, Dune is a science fiction masterpiece that was followed by five direct sequels, thirteen follow up spin-off novels, a television miniseries, and a 1984 feature film. None of them have ever lived up to the source material, but the original remains so popular that spinoff novels continue to be published and they’re making another movie adaptation right now.

Sequels, spin-offs, reboots, and remakes are unfortunate side effects of the economics of modern media. Familiar franchises (or “IP”, a/k/a “intellectual property”) are safe economic bets for studios that care far more about the quarterly earnings of their conglomerate owners than they do about artistic merit or simple quality. This is the reason that American multiplexes average a new actor playing Spider-Man every five years, a new Batman every six years, and a new James Bond every nine years.

The acceleration of this trend in recent years is a triumph of what the marketing ghouls call “mindshare.” Basically, the more people that are aware of something (a character, a celebrity, a franchise, etcetera), the more “mindshare” it has. For example, Star Wars has approximately 100% mindshare, since there’s almost no one who hasn’t heard of it.

Once a property or format has proven itself popular, the mindshare that popularity creates means that something similar is more likely to find an audience than something new. This is why NBC has broadcast five versions of Law & Order, why CBS has had four different CSI variants, and why ABC has had more seasons of Dancing With and Bachelor shows than is mentally healthy. Put simply, a new show with an existing audience is more likely to attract large enough ratings to be profitable than a new show that has to start from zero. Zombie Simpsons is simply an extreme case of this widespread miasma.

The enormous and unprecedented popularity of The Simpsons means that there are hundreds of millions (if not billions) of people all over the world whose brains have a few neurons dedicated to Homer, Bart, and the rest of the family. So what critics or fans think of the last twenty years of the show is a lot less important than the rump audience that will tune in out of habit or familiarity. This unfortunate confluence of behavioral psychology and modern economics has been very good to FOX’s (and News Corp’s) bottom line, but it has done terrible damage to the once impeccable reputation of The Simpsons itself.

For anyone born in the mid 1980s or after, The Simpsons has been a background presence their entire lives. But as the new episodes got worse at the end of the 1990s, and then as the pool of syndicated reruns gradually became polluted with Zombie Simpsons, watching the show became more and more difficult. In 1995, you could catch a great new episode on Sundays, then watch two or more classic episodes every weekday on syndicated reruns. By 2005, the new episodes had been bad for half a decade, and the syndication runs were 50-50 with Zombie Simpsons.

The episode catalog has only degraded since then. There are now more than twice as many episodes of Zombie Simpsons as there are of The Simpsons. As a result, a new or casual fan has to go out of their way to see the good ones. Because all of them are billed and sold as “The Simpsons,” there isn’t the kind of easy distinction that there is between Jurassic Park and its many sequels, or Dune and its lesser iterations.

While there are no general social surveys about the state of Simpsons fandom, there is ample anecdotal evidence that nearly two decades of Zombie Simpsons has profoundly damaged The Simpsons in terms of cultural reputation, pop culture standing, and even simple popularity. On the enormous web of message boards which are such a big part of modern fandom, it’s easy to find huge threads about the show being overrated, or having been bad for so long that maybe it wasn’t that good in the first place. Facebook teems with teens and twenty-somethings who know the show only as a cultural totem that gross old people revere for some reason. A sadly large portion of Reddit’s trigger-happy cadre of fanatics are all too happy to dump on Zombie Simpsons without making the distinction between old and new, good and bad.

Statements like the above have to be made with caution because Simpsons fandom is so vast, ancient, and iterative that it would take half a department of sociologists just to catalog it, much less understand it. But the clearest example may have been in August of 2014, when the FXX channel broadcast every episode of the show in order, starting with Season 1. That was the first time since the syndication pools became tainted that so many of the classic episodes were made so easily available to a wide audience, and the reaction was overwhelming.

Promoted and organic hashtags were flooded with people remarking on how smart, incisive, and dark the old episodes were. More than just appreciating it, however, a very common sentiment was people who’d forgotten what the old episodes were like:

  • Wow, I forgot how great the Simpsons was in its early years.

  • Loving the #EverySimpsonsEver marathon. Forgot how good the old episodes are.

  • I forgot how touching these early episodes are. Better settle in for an all nighter

  • I forgot how much I loved the first Treehouse of Horror, my whole family always watched them together

  • Watching #TheSimpsons and I forgot how dramatic season one was!

  • Watching the #EverySimpsonsEver marathon on FXX. I almost forgot how good the old episodes are. Way better than the new ones!

All of the above examples came from only one hashtag, only on Twitter, and only from the first couple hours of the marathon broadcast. It went on like that for days, across all kinds of platforms and (presumably) in personal conversations and interactions that never reached the wider internet. As the good seasons were once again shown without the handicap of Zombie Simpsons, people remembered why The Simpsons really is the Best. Show. Ever.

Amnesia like the above isn’t at all surprising when you consider how much effort it takes to experience the show in its true form. Local syndicated broadcasters are under no obligation to run episodes in order, FXX always sprinkles Zombie Simpsons in with The Simpsons, and new episodes have been bad since Bill Clinton was our standard for what a lousy President looked like. (That The Simpsons predicted the orders-of-magnitude worse President Trump doesn’t help matters.) Watching them the way Jebus intended means either shelling out for the DVDs, buying them from a streaming service, or logging into and then navigating FXX’s kludge filled app. In the 1990s, new fans could simply sit down and watch The Simpsons. Today’s new fans have to work at it.

More motivated viewers will deliberately do so, but, inevitably, lots of casual fans will not. As a result, they often don’t understand what’s so special about The Simpsons. All they know is that it’s been on the air since before their parents met.

Television has never seen anything like what The Simpsons was at its beginning. It wasn’t just smart and funny, it was smart and funny week after week, year after year, never skipping a beat. Forget season finales or cliffhangers, ordinary new episodes were social events in bars, dorms, and homes all over the country. The day after a new episode, conversations in schools and offices brimmed with quotes, jokes, and phrases from the night before. But the magic of that incredible consistency gets lost when the old episodes are buried among the dung pile left by nearly twenty years of Zombie Simpsons.

This is why Zombie Simpsons needs to be criticized. Not because it’s a boring, mediocre television program (there are lots of those), but because each new episode eats away at the foundations of one of the most important and influential shows ever made. Every year a new batch of Zombie Simpsons spews into the rerun pools and episode guides, stealing scarce and easily diverted attention away from the good ones. And so each new batch of potential fans has to work a little bit harder to see the good stuff. Bit by bit, Zombie Simpsons is poisoning The Simpsons for future generations.

Won’t somebody please think of the children?

20 Responses to “The Cost of Zombie Simpsons”

  1. 1 Anonymous
    17 December 2017 at 11:07 am

    I clocked out of The Simpsons around S14 -S15, Fifteen fucking years ago as crazy as that seems. But no matter how much bilge he show turns out until the end of its endless run, I’ll forever hold S2-S8 in my heart, and would say those years, when The Simpsons cemented itself as the best TV comedy ever, still hold sway over 20 years of mediocrity.

  2. 3 Anonymous
    17 December 2017 at 1:44 pm

    Another great article, Charlie. I hope you eventually have better luck with the book.

    Sequels, spin-offs, reboots, and remakes are unfortunate side effects of the economics of modern media. Familiar franchises (or “IP”, a/k/a “intellectual property”) are safe economic bets for studios that care far more about the quarterly earnings of their conglomerate owners than they do about artistic merit or simple quality. This is the reason that American multiplexes average a new actor playing Spider-Man every five years, a new Batman every six years, and a new James Bond every nine years.

    This has been driving me crazy for years. Some of these I can forgive or more easily ignore, like the Superhero franchise, since it would be impractical at best to have the same actor playing the same character for all of the five thousand sequels they want to do now, but I am sick to death of all these unnecessary remakes and reboots. I often find myself wishing there was a site like this one to bitch about them in a constructive manner, but as I’ve yet to find one, I have to settle for grumbling to myself whenever I see a trailer or read another article about the latest soulless cash-grab.

    On the enormous web of message boards which are such a big part of modern fandom, it’s easy to find huge threads about the show being overrated, or having been bad for so long that maybe it wasn’t that good in the first place.

    This actually happens? Maybe it’s because I don’t hang around those places, but I’ve never heard anyone disagree that the “classic” seasons were the best, they generally just disagree about when the show tanked and by how much.

  3. 4 Anonymous
    17 December 2017 at 5:37 pm

    Umm, there is a thing called torrent. It’s not that hard to access the good ol’ Simpsons. Great read btw.

    • 5 Al Gore Doll
      17 December 2017 at 6:59 pm

      It’s not that hard (until the consequences of repealing Net Neutrality manifest) but most people won’t know what that is or how to do it. Hence his talk about casual observers becoming fans ring true. It’s not hard to buy DVDs of the early seasons, but unless they’re exposed to it on television there won’t be any motivation to.

      • 6 Anonymous
        18 December 2017 at 6:07 am

        Yeah Torrenters (myself included) really forget how fringe that stuff is. Most people don’t have a clue about it.

      • 7 Sarah J
        21 December 2017 at 1:11 am

        Plus these days, streaming gives us easy access to so many TV shows that a lot of people aren’t gonna go out of their way to watch a certain show unless they get some other kind of motivation.

  4. 17 December 2017 at 9:36 pm

    I watched the show from the Ullman shorts to S27 where Marge and Lisa wanted to go to mars for some reason. Anyway, get ready for the zealots who’ll be saying the Simpsons were ALWAYS awesome when it was purely a Fox show and how the decline started when Disney bought them out.

    I’m guessing we’ll be hearing this around 2023-ish.

    • 9 Anonymous
      18 December 2017 at 10:15 am

      I’m astonished you kept watching that long. One of those “stick it out till the bitter end” types?

  5. 10 Sarah J
    18 December 2017 at 6:19 pm

    I had forgotten how good The Simpsons used to be until I came across this website in college. As I got older, the reruns on TV would largely just be newer episodes, and old ones were pretty much only played seasonally. And even that stopped eventually. When I went to Wal-Mart I saw that they had the second season for five bucks (maybe ten, but my point is, it was cheap) so I picked it up and fell back in love with the series.

    When the FXX marathon aired, I was working in the employee break room at a theme park. We had two TVs with nice cable packages so I practically begged my manager to let me put one of them on FXX. It was cool to see people enjoying those classic episodes so much, especially the younger employees who may not have ever seen them.

    And you’re right, airing new, crappy episodes really does into the legacy of the show. If TS ended at season 12 or so, it would have been remembered as a great show that maybe went downhill a little at the end. Now it’s just a mediocre/crappy show that just won’t die and continues because it’s an image rather than because it’s any good. (or even particularly popular)

  6. 11 Anonymous
    19 December 2017 at 11:34 am

    When I was a little kid I remember watching Popeye on TV. At that time the only episodes that I saw were the ones originally made in color after Max and Dave Fleischer were fired by Paramount, including the really cheaply made ones for television in the early 60’s. I always thought Popeye was pretty crummy stuff, like the poor man’s Looney Tunes. When I was a teenager they started to broadcast on the cartoon network the original black and white Popeye cartoons in their late night block and I was amazed at how great they were- laugh out loud funny, surreal and visually stunning. I guess broadcasters thought that kids just wouldn’t like something if it’s in black and white. The B&W episodes were cheaply colorized and rebroadcast when I was around ten but at that point I didn’t have any interest in them and didn’t watch them. Zombie Popeye tarnished my image of what turned to be one of the best cartoons ever made but luckily I discovered this when I was older. For a young person today who’s never seen the Simpsons before, maybe they’ll decide to give the show a shot, turn on an episode and see some bland, not really funny, episode where Bart finds his long lost twin, and think the show is nothing special and then have no interest in watching the Simpsons again. It’s not a tragedy but it’s still a shame that they’re missing out on something great.

  7. 12 Hank S
    19 December 2017 at 1:31 pm

    Couple comments:

    The comment about changing actors in bond, batman and Spiderman would be better made by discussing the movies themselves, not the actors. In the case of bond, it’s not lack of quality that leads to changes, it’s the actor getting older or moving on. Same to a lesser extent with the other two. I think the jurassic park example is good, there are probably a couple others that would serve this example better… Fast and furious maybe?

    I’d recommend removing the political narrative about Clinton and Trump. It comes off as neither edgy nor witty and seems out of place. I could see it turning off the reader. It’s OK for the Simpsons to comment on politics, but not so much for you to do it. It seems like you used Clinton’s name where Bush the first would have been more appropriate just so you could balance out the shot at Trump. As you can see, this is how distracted I was by a throwaway line that added nothing to the narrative, so that leads me to suggest it shouldn’t be there. Just my two cents.

    Otherwise, great work and well written

    • 13 Anonymous
      19 December 2017 at 8:19 pm

      I’d recommend leaving the political narrative which was edgy, witty, and in place.

      Gawd, I hate it when conservatives enjoy the Simpsons. Hearing Jonah Goldberg quote Groundskeeper Willie makes me ill. Fuck Trump.

      • 14 Hank S
        21 December 2017 at 2:43 am

        Clinton was bad, Trump is worse. Yeah, super edgy and witty and totally tied into the rest of the narrative.

        God I hate when binary partisans are so self centered to think that anyone cares about their political opinion. Fuck Kodos.

  8. 15 Not Enough Nowwwww
    20 December 2017 at 10:00 pm

    The first Jurassic Park was disposable trash.

  9. 16 Mr. Incognito
    21 December 2017 at 4:17 am

    This “mindshare” looks to be necromancing The (US) Office back from the dead a mere 4 years after it was buried. Not unlike Will & Grace and possibly 30 Rock, only it will have not been off the air long enough for the stench of the original series’ final years to have left the collective stench of audiences. It will also be without Steve Carell, and we all know how well The Office (US) went sans Michael Scott.

  10. 17 acreatureididnotknow
    21 December 2017 at 1:47 pm

    I think this is one of the most important points about The Simpsons today. I don’t tend to tell people I like the show now, as the odds of seeing a good episode are so low.

    If I tell someone I dearly love the show and they watch Politically Inept or Lisa Goes Gaga, they’ll think I’m a total moron. I’d rather they realise this independently and in their own time.

    Apart from that fact, the show is so fringe in the UK now; not even Sky heavily promote the new episodes, and I can’t remember the last time it came up in conversation.

    None of which is to say the new episodes haven’t killed the great ones – they’re still there, after all – but they have made being a Simpsons fan a guilty secret.

    • 18 Bleeding Gums Murphy
      21 December 2017 at 3:25 pm

      Simple solution: “I like”The Simpsons” (Seasons 1-X)”. Replace X with the last season you find more watchable than unwatchable.

  11. 22 December 2017 at 12:39 am

    I haven’t realized that indeed there are more zombie simpsons’ episodes than the good ones! Holy ****! This is so depressing.

    I agree. I know that it became a cliche to whine on trumpo but is getting anoying.

  12. 26 December 2017 at 3:46 am

    Thanks for Sharing With us.

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