UK: Sky 1
Matt Groening wrote a short cartoon about a dysfunctional family for The Tracey Ullman Show. Naming the characters after his own family the "shorts" first appeared in 1987. By 1989 the show had been developed into full length episodes and began airing on FOX.
The show's first two seasons contain episodes which feel a bit like standard children's cartoons. However from a very early stage the show began to develop a unique style and viewpoint. Unlike other sit coms of the time the Simpson family was perennially struggling. The dysfunction in the family dynamic would never be solved, the family would never stop being poor, Homer would never become selfless nor Bart obedient. This permanent state of struggle ran counter to the established formula of television and reflected a reality about life that gave the show an authenticity which overcame its animated format.
The show also developed a formula for stories and for comedy which made it stand out further. Being animated the show played a lot with slapstick and unexpected visual gags that would be impossible with human actors. Satire of everyday life and the cynical, lazy or corrupt attitudes that exist in the real world but don't feature on TV were another frequent source of laughs.
The writers made many references to pop culture to help tell their stories or make their jokes. Frequent allusions to iconic movie scenes for example helped provide a familiar or grandiose moment out of the mundane life the characters assume they are living.
The writers also slowly began to play with the idea that television shows have conventions which for decades were obeyed. Breaking these or playing with the audiences expectations became a constant source of humour. The town of Springfield was soon populated with stereotypes or stock figures who never changed. The equilibrium of The Simpsons universe would always be returned to normal by episodes end. This was both an aping of a traditional television formula but also an exaggerated extreme version of it to explain the never ageing characters on screen.
As time passed the show found it increasingly difficult to keep a sense of basic reality or find new conventions to play with. The show had become a cultural icon and so has remained on air for far longer than any other show of its era. Naturally this means that the writers have told all their stories and have to work hard to come up with new ones. The writers have leant more and more on celebrity cameos and mimicking plots from famous films, books or other television shows.
I began watching The Simpsons in 1992 and enjoyed its early irreverent take on the sit com formula. A few years later and the show was so ubiquitous that I don't remember a time when I was watching new episodes "live" as I did with other shows. The Simpsons just seemed to exist with an endless stream of episodes appearing and seemingly always getting better. The show had become a part of life with quotes from the show forming a part of everyone's comedy locker.
It was probably in the early 2000s that I became aware of the show's quality beginning to slip. I don't have a strong memory of how I followed the show but by 2006 when I began to seek out American television more regularly I realised what the show had become.
I plan on reviewing every season of The Simpsons. As with Friends I will be fascinated to see the process of rise and fall. Make no mistake The Simpsons is one of the best shows I have ever seen but has also produced seasons of awful television. It will obviously take me some time but eventually I will have produced an episode guide for every single episode.
I don't think anyone will ever know the full impact that The Simpsons has had on life. It's possible to see the show as one of the great popularisers of the post-modernist philosophy and the increased questioning of post-Second World War attitudes in the West.
More humbly perhaps the show has definitely had a massive influence on comedy. The nature of self referential humour has changed a lot since 1989 with everything from stand up comics to movies more and more aware that every joke has been done before and audiences know how the formulas work. The Simpsons has also had a massive effect just by being so popular for so long and creating jokes that others have used or coining phrases like "D'oh", "Don't have a cow" or "Cheese eating surrender monkeys."
Thanks to The Simpsons animated comedy is now an adult pursuit. South Park, King of the Hill and Family Guy followed directly in its wake. The show had an influence on human acted sit coms too by proving that a comedy with no audience or laughter track could be so funny. The Simpsons reached such a high level of fame that it's possible that even in small ways it influenced all sit coms made after say 1994.
There's a downside to all of this too of course. The Simpsons has become a living breathing example of what happens when a show is renewed and renewed because it's commercially successful even when the show has become a shadow of its former self. The excesses of self aware comedy have also come home to roost with reality needing to be exaggerated to new extremes just to make a joke which once would have been so simple.