Tonight The Simpsons celebrates its twentieth anniversary, and its creators certainly deserve a bit of pomp and circumstance. For any show to last that long is impressive, but for one to remain consistently relevant for two decades in our hyperkinetic culture is nothing short of amazing.
And if all The Simpsons amounted to was great entertainment, it would still deserve praise, but in my opinion it’s much, much more. For 20 years Homer and company haven’t just been our favorite Sunday night clowns, but part of television’s most reliably erudite social psychology analysis ever created.
The vector of self-understanding and social understanding has always been difficult to pin down, mainly for two reasons: people fear self-disclosure, and social groups intensify the need for self-preservation. We’re all in protection mode much of the time, trained from an early age that the world is a rough place and if you want to make it, keep your guard up. In social groups, that nurtured instinct is amplified, and we adopt—or hide behind—constructs that help preserve our place in the social order.
The Simpsons started there, with the comically tragic premise that we’re all very much afraid of losing our standing. But instead of mirroring social attitudes as would a standard sitcom or drama, it turned them upside down without regard for sacred cows or social taboos. It illustrated better than any comedy before it Nietzsche’s quote: “That which is falling should be pushed.” Every weak edifice of self preservation was a target for The Simpsons to topple. From the start it was a dose of immediate social catharsis.
That’s what makes it refreshing, but it’s not what makes it great. The media landscape is littered with failed social commentaries, some of which started out strong but degenerated into formulaic fluff between commercials (think of the sharp-biting All in the Family becoming the toothless Archie’s Place). To be great over time, The Simpsons had to stay in the fray, citing like a seasoned research team trends in politics, culture, media and world events, and interweaving them into insightful, funny and palatable storylines with characters that stay fresh week after week.
To pull that off requires a commitment to never getting complacent or lazy. And it also requires dedication to finding new ways to make people laugh. The Simpsons has hit a few humor dry spells in two decades, but has always managed to push through. What’s even more impressive, it’s done this without ever falling into the trap of taking itself too seriously—the ultimate sin of self-righteousness that so many other shows have failed to resist and paid the price.
All of this in combination is what makes The Simpsons a social psychology phenomenon. The escapades of a cartoon family that defy the pop pysch label “dysfunctional,” in a cartoon town that manages to draw out and contort every conceivable social construct, in a cartoon world that morphs into whatever it needs to be for insight to yield laughter—no other show has even come close to matching how well it all works together.
And no other show has made us laugh for so long while shredding social pretense in all its forms, giving us weekly license to make fun of the stuff we have to suck up and endure all week–like a running inside joke that keeps being funny after 20 years. More importantly, amidst an ocean of mindless pabulum, The Simpsons has been television’s best serving of “smart” for anyone who has cared to watch.