The fledgling FXX Network is making itself known. It rose from the ashes of something called Fox Soccer a year ago, beginning its new life with a day-long marathon of the NBC fan-favorite sitcom Parks and Recreation.
Now they’ve upped the ante, with the longest streak of programming in the history of television. If you own a TV or happened to check any of your social media accounts in the last few days, you know I’m talking about the channel’s highly publicized “Every Simpsons Ever” promotion. FXX is going all in on Homer and company for 12 days, showing all 552 episodes (so far) of the classic animated series, and why shouldn’t they? The network coughed up a record-breaking three quarters of a BILLION dollars to acquire the broadcast syndication rights. Might as well get a return on that investment.
And so at 10:00 am on Thursday, August 21, many of us began the journey down memory lane with our familiar friends from Springfield, as FXX compresses 25 seasons of content into a mere dozen sleep cycles. I’m sure many readers of this site weren’t even alive when The Simpsons first invaded the airwaves – and make no mistake, there were plenty who did see the show as an attack of obscenity.
But codgers like me grew up with The Simpsons. Flopping on the couch in front of the tube this week (yes, TVs once had tubes inside them) lets us re-experience not just historical progress, but often helps us recall personal touchstones in our own lives, their focus sharpened by shared moments. Much like a human life, The Simpsons started out rocky, grew into a period of great achievement and then, some would argue, trailed off towards irrelevance later on.
I grew up in the mountains of upstate New York. I was 6 years old when the Fox Broadcasting Company first debuted in 1986, and 9 when The Simpsons arrived shortly thereafter. Our cable company claimed we couldn’t get the channel because they didn’t have the right wiring or some such nonsense. I wouldn’t get to regularly watch The Simpsons episodes until the mid-‘90s, when reruns hit the network affiliates.
Still, the culture crept in. I remember a school field trip probably right around The Simpsons‘ first few seasons, during which one of the bad kids was wearing a Bart shirt. Most of us had only heard whispers of the source material, but the chaperones sure didn’t approve for some reason.
My first full episode was #88, “Bart’s Inner Child,” originally airing in November of 1993, all the way at Saturday, 5:30 am on the marathon timeline. My family was visiting my aunt and uncle in Long Island. I remember thinking that this wasn’t nearly as vulgar as I had been led to believe, as Homer bounced up to Bart’s window repeatedly on a trampoline just to say “hi.” My cousin was a toddler then, and I haven’t seen him since. He’ll be graduating from Cornell in the spring.
College brought the motherload, as several local stations played back to back reruns every weeknight. I caught up quickly and quoted with the best of them, while finding the first couple seasons too sappy, always groaning when I unluckily caught one. Now I can definitively tell when things got really good, and I call that point “Marge vs. the Monorail,” season 4, episode #71, back at 9:00 pm Friday night. Phil Hartman’s character sings his carny heart out and I’m officially hooked.
The marathon hit a real sweet spot at 2:30 am Saturday night with a 2-hour block of “Radioactive Man,” “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily,” “Bart Sells His Soul,” and “Lisa the Vegetarian,” all from season 7. Those episodes are better known to my friends as “The Goggles Do Nothing,” “Painty Can Ned,” “Way to Breathe, No Breath,” and “You Don’t Win Friends with Salad.”
Most Simpsons episodes seem to remain timeless, but a few can be pigeonholed into a particular era. Episode 163, “The Springfield Files,” from 7:00 Sunday night, features the cast of The X-Files and a “Boris Yeltsin drinks a lot” joke. Five shows later we get “Homer’s Phobia,” in which John Waters has to convince him that he won’t turn Bart gay. And then there’s the whole mystique around Smithers’ sexuality. How strange it is now in the days of “out and proud” to see him constantly hedge and hide.
Beginning of the End
But all great runs start to stumble eventually, and most of the old-timers will tell you the show took a nosedive at some point. But when, exactly? I cast a suspicious glance at “Mayored to the Mob” (season 10, episode 212) Monday night at 7:30. Mark Hamill guest stars at Bi-Mon-Sci-Fi-Con, and that all scans, but there’s something different there I can’t quite put my finger on. I’ll let it go, as “Super Nintendo Chalmers” was just two episodes before.
“Wild Barts Can’t be Broken” hits an hour later and all is forgiven, as Chief Wiggum imposes a curfew and the kids start a gossip-driven radio station. Then there’s the Superbowl episode that aired right AFTER the Superbowl. Uh-oh. But hey, here’s Max Power! It’s a momentary respite, though, as Marge’s roadrage episode smashes through at 10:30 and it’s all downhill from there.
So by my estimation that’s only four and half of the 12 planned days worth watching, with somewhere around 217 episodes. A front-loaded 39% of the total duration. If The Simpsons were an average American life, it would peak at 30. Makes sense. Also puts me four years over the hill. F--k.
But hey, that’s just my account. What are your Simpsons milestones? Did you not develop consciousness until after 1999 and think I’ve just been yelling “Get off my lawn” for a thousand words? Tell us in the comments section!