The golden age of 'The Simpsons': TV comedy’s greatest winning streak

The Simpson family in all their glory. (Fox)

It’s not a big secret that The Simpsons has experienced a decline of sorts in recent years. Opinions vary on the extent of this dip but one thing that is universally accepted is that while it may not be the powerhouse it once was, at its peak, The Simpsons was utterly peerless.

For over a decade, The Simpsons was one of the most innovative, witty and outright hilarious shows on television. With stories now circling suggesting that producers are looking for ways to end the show, it feels like an apt time to look back and establish what made this such a successful era for the show.

Defining The Simpsons’ “golden age”

The Simpsons receive a visit from Mr Burns in “Homer Goes To College”. (Fox)

The exact scope of what constitutes The Simpsons’ golden age is another topic open to considerable debate. Most people would probably agree that it began in season 3. The first two seasons contained moments of genius for sure with the likes of Lisa’s Substitute and Homer vs Lisa and the 8th Commandment being two prime examples. However it was clearly a show still finding its feet.

With season 3 however, The Simpsons transformed into a genuine masterpiece. The show began delivering knockout episodes with unprecedented regularity, with the blend of heart, humour and pop-culture awareness we now know and love.

The endpoint of this golden age is harder to define however. Anything from season 7 through to 10 could legitimately be argued. Personally I’d suggest that seasons 3-8 constitutes the true pinnacle of the show, with 9 and 10 offering a sort of golden era-lite.  Whenever we pin it down to, this period saw the show at its creative peak for a hugely impressive length of time.

Tone

The Simpsons pay a visit to Itchy and Scratchy Land. (Fox)

During this golden age, The Simpsons found its signature tone and honed it to perfection. The comedy got smarter the subject matter more satirical and the show itself became far more culturally aware than it had prior. This comedy style was then seamlessly blended in to a range of well-crafted story lines, while a healthy sprinkling of surrealness was also thrown into the mix.

Gone was the traditional family-centric real world story lines, and in came a willingness to embrace the more far-fetched plots, as exemplified by the likes of Itchy and Scratchy Land and Homer the Great  It was this mix of ridiculous and smart that made the show so special.

During this time The Simpsons also took far more risks in terms of the subjects it might cover. Episodes emerged focusing on sensitive topics including sexuality, religion, gambling and alcoholism. The likes of Bart After Dark and Homer’s Phobia are indicative of the show’s bolder new direction.

Writing

Homer’s mysterious new boss Hank Scorpio in “You Only Move Twice”. (Fox)

A lot of the credit for the show’s success during this era lies with its incredible writing team. The likes of Al Jean, Jon Vitti and Sam Simon helped transition the show into its modern format, with the late Simon noticeably giving the show a sharper edge before he left in season 4.

Conan O’Brien was also at one stage a writer on the show bringing an SNL-style comedy sensibility to proceedings as well as a tremendous penchant for the absurd. O’Brien left a lasting impact on the show’s writing room and gave us some all-time classic episodes in the process including Marge Vs The Monorail and Homer Goes To College.

There have been countless other talented writers who have worked on the show, but one who particularly stands out is the enigmatic John Swartzwelder. Reclusive and extremely idiosyncratic, Swartzwelder has written more episodes than anyone else and is responsible for creating some of the shows best loved outings.  He wrote throughout the golden age from early episodes like Homer at the Bat  and Whacking Day, to later gems like You Only Move Twice and Homer Vs the Eighteenth Amendment. Like O’Brien, Swartzwelder gave the show a unique edge, injecting absurdity into everyday events and blending the silly and the clever to phenomenal effect.

Character focus

Troy McClure takes the lead role in “A Fish Called Selma”. (Fox)

Another thing which stands out during this golden age was that the shift in character focus. Minor characters were brought to the fore and even became the focal point for many episodes. The likes of Troy McClure and Moe suddenly had personalities and traits of their own and as a result Springfield suddenly felt far more fleshed out and real.

Equally so, the Simpsons themselves were noticeably rounded out as characters in this period. Bart was no longer just a Dennis the Menace style rebel and Lisa became more of a moral heart to the show rather than just a generic bookworm.

Homer in particular went through a considerable transition compared to his original character. He went from being a ill-equipped angry dad to a lovable idiot everyman who continually gets himself into various zany schemes. Later he would become far more mean-spirited but during this period he was always sweet and good-natured at heart.

Consistency

Homer and the nerds in “Homer Goes To College”. (Fox)

When you run through the episodes that made up these seasons its immediately noticeable how few misses there are among them. It’s an incredible hit rate to maintain and it’s also precisely why to so many fans, this is an era they remember so fondly.

Take for example my personal favourite season, season 5. The season opens with a storming run of Homer’s Barbershop Quartet, Cape Feare, Homer Goes to College and Rosebud and that’s just the opening salvo. The season never really lets up from there. Few, if any, comedy shows have a hit-rate anywhere near this prolific. 

Beyond

Homer gets a new addiction in “Weekend at Burnsies”. (Fox)

This effusive praise of the golden age is not to say that everything since has been bad of course. There have certainly been some classic episodes since season 10, but they are noticeably more scarce in number. The focus on heartfelt family and community based story lines are long gone and in its place there is a growing reliance on guest stars and increasingly far-fetched plots.

It’s of course arguable that this shift in approach is inevitable given the sheer volume of story lines The Simpsons has already covered. Likewise, a marked increase in rival animated comedies, particularly newcomers like Family Guy, has also inevitably had an impact on the show’s approach. In recent seasons especially, it has noticeably tweaked its style in order to compete with these edgier and less structured programmes. Whatever the root cause may be, it’s clear that the winning balance of narrative and silliness that prevailed throughout the golden age has never really been found again.

At its peak though The Simpsons was one of the greatest shows ever crafted. While it’s unlikely that the show will ever get back to this impossibly high standards, it will always be able to boast a run of seasons that will remain benchmarks in TV comedy for years to come.

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