Monday, October 10

Canceling The Simpsons? Best. Idea. Ever.

A brief history of FOX programming, legacy versus relevance, and the future of television’s greatest show.

The Simpsons is the greatest, most iconic, most influential and most beloved television show of all-time. Even if you don’t necessarily agree with that statement, it’s a pretty difficult one to argue. It’s akin to the claim that The Beatles were the greatest band in history; even if you generally don’t care for The Beatles, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with another band worthy of rebuttal. In all actuality, thinking of a Beatles rival is considerably easier than thinking of a Simpsons one. Nothing else seems to come close.

Initially, The Simpsons was revered as a cultural movement for their wit, characters, controversy and weekly classic episodes for its first several years on FOX. However, after more than a decade on the air (and after three or four straight seasons criticized for their declining quality), The Simpsons became known for something else. It became the show that might be on the air forever. At some point (let’s say somewhere around 2001), it no longer mattered what the episode was about, how much funnier it used to be, nothing. It just became that thing that you watch because it’s on and you’ve always watched it. And I was fine with that, honestly.

Much like the music of the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan, The Simpsons had reached a point where the longevity of their career (or the quality of their output) would in no way tarnish their initial legacy. For example, nobody would dare argue the merits of Let It Bleed against, say, Voodoo Lounge. In this regard, The Simpsons became untouchable. For my money, The Simpsons did so much for television (and comedy, and the 90’s, and global Pop Culture as a whole) in their first five seasons, they could coast on mediocrity for the next 20 or so without bothering me. And that’s sort of exactly what they did. You can’t deny that the last 14 seasons have produced some classic episodes, but something’s different than the way it used to be. It’s not the same, and everyone knows it.

I’ve always found it interesting that two of the longest-running shows on television, The Simpsons and Cops (both on the FOX network), have been quietly running parallel with each other since 1989. What I find especially interesting is their stark differences and surprising similarities. In The Simpsons, we have an expertly-crafted animated series that takes nearly six months (and hundreds of employees) an episode to script, record, animate and produce. In Cops, we have a show that could theoretically be filmed on a Monday and air that same Saturday. There is no script, the format is always the same, and unlike The Simpsons, there is never the threat of a shortage of material (Cops has also been satirized a few times on The Simpsons, a comedic honor if there ever was one).

That being said, they’ve both been wildly successful in similar ways. Both never receive notes or suggestions from Standards & Practices, both have ran eons longer than the typical shelf life for a 30 minute national television show, and both have woven themselves into the very fabric of American Pop Culture (for better or for worse). You could even argue that The Simpsons and Cops were the cornerstone shows that launched FOX into serious contendership with the then ‘Big Three’ networks at the end of the 1980’s. FOX owes these shows a serious debt of gratitude, and considering that they’re both still on the air a staggering four decades after their respective premieres, I’d say it’s a debt that’s been paid tenfold.

I want Cops to air for the rest of my life and beyond, perhaps until the very medium by which we take in entertainment has shifted completely away from the television. And it could. Unlike The Simpsons, Cops has a built-in, Cinema Verite failsafe concerning the waning of the product. America’s Funniest Home Videos has the very same failsafe; as long they don’t monkey with the format (and as long as methamphetamine and piñatas are easily attainable), the show is virtually guaranteed to never decline in quality. It doesn’t matter where our values and interests migrate as an entertained society, we will always have a constantly-replenishing trove of drug arrests and footballs to the groin (also satirized by The Simpsons) to keep us warm. I sincerely want Cops to run forever, and I wanted The Simpsons to run forever, too.

At least until last week.

This all brings me to a recent news article about FOX claiming they can no longer produce The Simpsons with the $8 million-a-season price tag that the six principle voice actors are currently earning. If you recall from a few years back, the Simpsons voice talent agreed to somewhere in the neighborhood of $400,000 an episode per season, and the undisputed role of Best TV Job On Earth. This title rings especially true for Yeardley Smith, the only cast member who is relied upon for one solitary speaking role (Lisa). To put that into perspective, Dan Castellaneta, Harry Shearer and Hank Azaria are responsible for at least 70 Simpsons speaking roles between the three of them, and there are many episodes that feature nothing more than one or two lines from the usually-overlooked Lisa.

Logically speaking, $48 million a season is a drop in the bucket for the casting costs of the most popular American television show of all-time. Especially if you consider the billions (and billions) of dollars that The Simpsons franchise brings in annually. Next to the eventual deal FOX signed with the National Football League (and perhaps the success of American Idol), I would have to assume that The Simpsons is the greatest cash cow in network history. This is not about money. The real story of this dispute goes back to the first time FOX squared off with the Simpsons cast.

Up until 1998, the six cast members were paid $30,000 per episode, a number that, considering the success of the first decade of The Simpsons, is almost unbelievably low. In 1998, the speaking cast took a stand and butted heads with FOX, looking for a bump to $125,000 an episode. FOX played hardball, even going so far as to (ridiculously) threaten to replace them with sound-alikes, but they eventually won out and got their raises from 1998 to 2004. When the DVD sets were released to major acclaim (and billions more in revenue), the speaking cast once again demanded a “healthy” raise, and by the end of 2008 they were earning somewhere in the neighborhood of $400,000 an episode. This seemed to be the end of it. The actors got their (huge) asking price, the show maintained popularity (and revenue), and FOX executives backed off. But they did not forget.

This brings us to present day. The Simpsons are currently in their record-shattering 23rd Season, the voice actors are almost certainly multi-millionaires, the ratings are adequate and everyone seems happy. Then we get the news that FOX can no longer afford the $400,000 an episode fee (this is a lie), and are asking they take a pay cut somewhere in the neighborhood of 45%. This will obviously not happen, and I think that FOX knows this. I would assume it’s the first lowball offer in what will be a season-long negotiation as to whether or not The Simpsons will return for Season 24. FOX wants their money back, the voice actors will not budge, and the show will be held hostage with the (very real) possibility that it will wrap at the end of this season, with no Series Finale in place. For a show of this significance to be unceremoniously dumped from television without a finale would be an act just short of criminal, and all involved parties seem to not only know that, but are using this information as a weapon in their fiscal battle.

The last time this issue came up in 1998, I was all for the raise. The show was still carving out new territory, the $125k price tag seemed fair and it was mutually assumed that it would not bankrupt the Fox Broadcasting Company. Now, things are different, and I’m not so sure. Honestly, I don’t think The Simpsons has much of a leg to stand on. Even hardcore fans have taken a ‘meh’ stance on the prospect of another season, and each time creator Matt Groening is asked about the subject, his opinion is remarkably similar. When you’re a show that has become famous for being on the air for a long time (and are acutely aware of this), it becomes more difficult to march into a meeting room with the intention of having your demands met.

Furthermore, this could also be a tactic by FOX to push The Simpsons off of the air while at the same time making it look like their fault for being greedy. That way, they can deflect the inevitable backlash, publicly proclaim that they tried their hardest and throw another Seth MacFarlane show in its place. The voice actors will look greedy, the fans will blame the show, and FOX can move on with their dignity (and burlap sacks full of money) intact. I don’t know how this is going to turn out, but I know it’s not about money.

I also don’t want them to agree on terms, and for The Simpsons to be canceled. Here’s why.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger Simpsons fan than yours truly, but not even I can argue that their time isn’t up. Not because of their waning quality, but because of this: The mind-blowing prospect of a final season. It almost sounds mythical when you say it out loud, and it wasn’t something I even considered until I read the aforementioned news article. But consider this. The Simpsons returns for their 24th (and final) Season with the full knowledge that this is the end of their series. How exciting would that be?

To think about a world without The Simpsons is almost a bit like suddenly discovering one’s mortality; it’s too weird and overwhelming to comprehend for more than a few seconds. But now that I’ve thought about it, it’s all that I want. I want to see a season of The Simpsons with the knowledge in the writer’s room that it will be their last. What loose ends will they tie up? What guest voices will return? What on Earth could the final episode possibly be about? Suddenly, The Simpsons is fresh and exciting again, ratings (and revenue) would skyrocket and even long-gone fans will return to see how they handle the light at the end of the tunnel.

Last week, I proposed to a friend that the 2012 return of Arrested Development was a terrible idea, and was promptly lambasted. My theory was that Arrested Development ran for the exact amount of time it should have (53 episodes over three seasons), began cannibalizing itself and devolved into a self-parodying trough of callbacks and in-jokes. My hipster cred was strewn across the living room floor; it was the biggest controversy since the time I (to my friends’ horror) hypothesized that the city of Madison wasn’t as cool as its residents thought it was (or they were). I was nearly run out of my home on a rail. Some things, apparently, cannot be messed with.

You need to be careful of what you wish for, and sometimes too much of something you love is unhealthy for you. I know this because I’ve watched The Simpsons since I was six years old. I have the syndicated episodes memorized. I cannot go five minutes in conversation without quoting a classic (or embarrassingly obscure) line. The Simpsons has shaped my sense of humor, my worldview and my mind as a whole. I don’t know who I would be (or who any of my friends would be) if The Simpsons didn’t exist.

I think I’m ready to find out.

(Note: In a shocking turn of events last weekend, the voice actors agreed to a (much less than 45%) pay cut, and it appears that the show has been saved from the chopping block for at least one more year. However, the future of the series still remains in jeopardy after the current season concludes.)