There was a time in my life when ‘adult cartoons’ were forbidden fruit. Back in middle school, if I was feeling angsty/edgy, I’d stay up late until Adult Swim came on, a mess of a channel that even to this day delights in offering some of the strangest content on television. I’d catch pieces of ‘Futurama’ and ‘Aqua Teen Hunger Force,’ or maybe some ‘Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law.’ It was weird stuff, and I could probably blame more than a few prevailing fixations on those shows. But I’m sad to say I don’t get the same feeling when rewatching those shows today. Instead, they blend into the background as well as my 21st rewatch of ‘The Office,’ Season 3.
And in a way, that’s how America has felt about cartoons on television in general. Back in the late 80s, ‘The Simpsons’ broke new ground with a portrayal of American family life that found its humor in personal imperfections, criticizing national trends while maintaining an incredibly light tone. It was new, it was silly, and it was insanely popular.
And now we’ve gotten to a point where ‘The Simpsons’ has outlived all other staples of the late 80s/early 90s. We have now seen 29 seasons of that goofy yellow family, in part because their home network, Fox, was legitimized by the show’s popularity. It’s the reason shows like ‘Family Guy’ (we’ll get to them in a bit) and ‘Bob’s Burgers’ even exist. ‘The Simpsons’ proved that animated television can discuss serious subject matter and current events, making it work not just for kids but for families, a feat that’s pretty hard to pull off in the world of entertainment.
But this legacy is not enough justification for beating the same dead horse for nearly 3 decades. Unfortunately, since ‘The Simpsons’ jumped the shark so spectacularly and managed to limp along 20 years longer than it should have, it has set the model for other series that have also lost their relevance.
The obvious example is ‘Family Guy.’ It had its time of innovation, putting out rapid-fire jokes that were more offensive, faster-paced, and with an inherent anger. It made ‘The Simpsons’ look like an after-school PBS program. And, unsurprisingly, 16 seasons later, the show has lost its spark. It’s a factory for outdated jokes and a dumber brand of American comedy that anyone over the age of 16 is embarrassed by.
And I understand that television is a business, and that as long as these shows keep drawing viewers, it makes good business sense to keep them on the air. And it makes sense for the creators, writers, and voice actors, too, who continue to make an incredible amount of cash with each passing season.
But, deep down, I want to believe. I want to believe in what I call the Television Conscience. I want to believe that today, in the golden age of television writing, that the folks in charge have enough good sense to know when it’s over, to know when to make room for something new.