In December 1989 American TV critics sat down to review the first season of yet another dysfunctional family sitcom ready to fight its corner in the already packed-out TV schedules. Squaring up to compete against its prime time peers was the debut episode of the fledgling Fox network’s newest comedy The Simpsons. Revolving around strange looking characters with distinct overbites and yellow skin, ‘Simpsons Roasting On an Open Fire’ heralded the arrival of a TV show that was about to take over the world on a scale that Hank Scorpio could only dream of.
Only a small handful of media outlets reviewed these early episodes. Fortunately several are collected over at Metacritic. The site itself has had to dig two reviews out of the Wayback Machine. Yet what does survive of the critical reaction to the first season of The Simpsons makes for fascinating reading almost 30 years on. Given how embedded the show is within contemporary popular culture it’s hard to fathom that there was a time when TV existed without it.
‘Marriage is like a coffin, and each kid is another nail’
Most early reviewers compared the series to popular family-oriented live-action comedies that dominated the airwaves of the late 1980’s. Time magazine assessed the American TV landscape of the decade’s tail end as one divided firmly between the ‘sweet wholesome TV clans’ of The Cosby Show on one end, and the ‘depraved and offensive’ characters of shows like Married… With Children on the other.
The popularity of these latter shows irked critics. Time argued that America’s airwaves were saturated with ‘anti-family’ sitcoms. They were vehicles for exploring ‘the squalid underbelly of domestic life’. A subversive form of Generation X entertainment whose scornful cynicism seeped through the ‘romantic picture’ of the American family that had dominated the nation’s TV for decades.
For Time magazine The Simpsons offered viewers something different. Groening and his team had created a show which was ‘much closer to recognizable human life’. It balanced the ‘savvy wit’ of anti-family shows with an ‘oddly touching’ solidarity more suited to TV’s idealised families.
The New York Times also took the same line, arguing that The Simpsons were ‘just about everything that most television families are not’. Entertainment Weekly likewise triumphantly proclaimed Homer and co to be ‘the American family at its most complicated, drawn as simple cartoons.’ These four-fingered freaks exhibited ‘personalities and motives more vivid and detailed than the vast majority of sitcoms featuring flesh-and-blood actors’. The Simpsons was a ‘neat paradox’ of simple animation and complex themes, which helped it achieve phenomenal success against the live-action offerings of the other big networks.
Cynicism and sincerity should have been grappling with one another like Homer’s hands around Bart’s neck. Instead they were blended together perfectly by smart writing that was grounded in an everyday reality that reflected that of its viewers. The first family of Springfield confronted their social and economic hardships with a scathing sense of humour and unbreakable solidarity.
‘Cartoons are just stupid drawings that give you a cheap laugh…’
The show’s satirical undercurrents also left a lasting impression. The Simpsons debuted towards the end of the Cold War, a context that wasn’t lost on its reviewers who were impressed with how the writing team mined humour from the conflict’s ideological battleground.
Reviewing ‘The Crepes of Wrath’, Entertainment Weekly praised the boldness of the show’s subtle sideswipes at both east and west. It noted the boldness of one scene in particular where Homer steps into a politically-charged argument between Lisa and Adil, an Albanian student the family has adopted for the week. Homer remarks that “Maybe Lisa’s right about America being the land of opportunity, and maybe Adil’s got a point about the machinery of capitalism being oiled with the blood of the workers.
The Simpsons was clearly streets ahead of the game. Who would have expected a line like that from any of Time magazine’s ‘anti-family’ shows? The show harnessed the medium of satire to venture into thematic territory that no other series would dare touch. Its writers crashed through the boundaries of what was permissible to present viewers with a series that wasn’t afraid to wear its intelligence on its sleeve.
‘If cartoons were meant for adults they’d put them on prime time…’
Yet none of these reviews foresaw that The Simpsons wasn’t just another comedy about a dysfunctional yet lovable family. It was a landmark turning point in television history. Previous prime time cartoons were largely confined to the family-friendly offerings of Hannah-Barbera and Warner Brothers. The Simpsons was the first show to weld the animated antics of kid’s programming with the sharp satire of adult sitcoms, giving birth to an entirely new sub-genre of comedy.
This formula was quickly borrowed and stolen a thousand times over. As the world transitioned into the 1990’s, a wave of adult animated comedies inspired by The Simpsons swept across TV screens all over the globe. Many of these programmes fell as quickly as they rose, but others managed to stand their ground.
Towards the end of the decade shows like Family Guy and South Park armed themselves with Springfield’s satirical stylings and ventured forth into uncharted territory. They broke through the boundaries of taste and decency with a recklessness that would have made Time magazine nostalgic for the ‘anti-family’ shows it had so quickly condemned. As only popular culture can, the influence of The Simpsons eventually came full circle as the animated classic inspired live-action family comedies like Malcolm in the Middle.
‘I used to be with it, but then they changed what “it” was…’
Almost 30 years on The Simpsons now competes against it’s own protegé in a similar manner to how the show itself engaged in combat with the live-action sitcoms of the late 1980’s. Just like Homer when he comes face to face with Generation X music in ‘Homerpalooza’, the show is an aged parent struggling to remain relevant.
As argued above, the last 30 years have unleashed a slew of animated comedies that have pushed the boundaries of taste, decency and satirical achievement into territories The Simpsons couldn’t possibly go near. Yet before anyone did anything, The Simpsons did everything. Those critics who reviewed its debut season immediately recognised its wit and intellect. They also witnessed TV history in the making, as the show quickly morphed into an unstoppable force that would wield an incalculable influence on popular culture for close to three decades.