Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #1

So, just to recap, here are the 25 Best Sitcoms of All Time according to this blog so far…

25 - Night Court
24 - Andy Barker PI
23 - That 70's Show
22 - The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
21 - The Middle
20 - Family Ties
19 - Frasier
18 - Clerks: The Animate Series
17 - Raising Hope
16 - The Golden Girls
15 - The Office (UK)
14 - Friends
13 - How I Met Your Mother
12 - Scrubs
11 - Everybody Loves Raymond
10 - Parks and Recreation
9 - Seinfeld
8 - Arrested Development
7 - The Cosby Show
6 - The Office (US)
5 - The Big Bang Theory
4 - Community
3 - MASH
2 - I Love Lucy

And the #1 Sitcom of all Time is…….


Coming as a surprise to probably no one, I have concluded that the greatest sitcom of all time is The Simpsons.

As a testament to the strength of the show, it has been on television for more than a quarter of a century with more than 560 shows under its belt as well as a feature film.

I know that today The Simpsons has many detractors.  Particularly, the most common complaint is that the show is not as good as it used to be.

It's not.

I would be the first to agree.

But even The Simpsons as it is now is funnier, wittier, and better than most sitcoms ever get.

What is the secret to the show's success and longevity?

Many people have written about it.  Documentarian Morgan Spurlock even went around the world exploring this question.  I will add my own take as to why this show has been a pillar of television for so long.

1.  Breaking the Rules
One of the most common explanations for why the show works is that it broke most of the traditional sitcom rules.  When it first came onto the scene, the characters said and did things that no other sitcom could get away with.  Homer's coming home drunk would be a most uncomfortable thing to watch with live actors.  And especially things like his choking of Bart would be downright horrific.  But in animation there is a buffer, an extra layer of suspension of disbelief, that allows the audience to move past these things.  And this is on top of traditionally zannie animation tropes.  The Simpsons could stage a scene that was reminiscent of real life and then they could flip back immediately into strange cartoon physics.  This "keep them on their toes" style allowed for a maximum spectrum of jokes.

2.  Following the Rules
While the maverick nature of The Simpsons is often discussed, it should also be noted that one of the reasons the show didn't flame out completely as a pop culture footnote is that the show's creators understood that could not be all sass with no sap.  Hence, no matter what strange and outlandish happenings on the show, it almost always ended on a schmaltzy note.  I still smile when I remember Homer's last words as Lisa hugs him in "HOMR" (12x09) or the collage Homer makes at his work to remind him why he slaves away in "And Maggie Makes Three (6x13) or that horribly sad moving final shot of Homer looking up at the stars in "Mother Simpson" (7x08).  Shows like Family Guy and South Park broke the rules too, but they did not give their characters any real heart.  I have no affection for Peter Griffin or Cartman.  But I do have an abiding affection for Homer.

3.  Shifting Focus
If you noticed, most of my examples from reason 2 were about Homer.  That is because if The Simpsons has an iconic central star it is Homer.  The show smartly does not make it all about him, but there are few characters who have brought more laughter to as many people.  But if you remember (those of you who are old enough) in the early episodes, Homer was much more of a side character.  If the series had a central character in its original form, it was Bart.  The show was young and rebellious and so was he.  But as the fan base got older (I won't say matured), we could identify much more with the lazy, stupid, put-upon Homer than the loudmouth Bart.

4.  Springfield
Another advantage of animation is that you don't have to hire a different actor to play each part.  There are multiple characters who are voiced by a few of the main cast.  As a result, you can have an expansive, diverse, and voluminous population of characters for the price of a much smaller cast.  This has led to a rich and quirky tapestry where the writers have explored different threads to varying degrees of success (I love the Ralph Wiggum episodes, but does anyone care about the life of Kent Brockman?).

5.  Ageless
A show that has been on this long would have required some serious character development to the point where the original characters and their relationships might be unrecognizable.  But in another example of the advantages of animation, The Simpsons are stuck in time.  Or rather, they are the same age in every time.  Bart, Lisa, and Maggie never get older.  This could be a deficit, but the show has turned it into a positive.  The show changes and yet stays the same.  The humor and topics get updated, but the characters have not changed beyond recognition.  Watch nearly every other modern sitcom and watch how the writers have to change the characters over time just to keep it fresh.  But The Simpsons keeps finding new humor to mine from these constant characters.  When you watch new episodes it is like experiencing newness and nostalgia at the same time.

6.  Witty Writing
I know this should go without saying and it has been alluded to in the above points.  But the writing on The Simpsons is above and beyond.  There is a special kind of insane genius with The Simpsons that is not found anywhere else.  To this day I will be walking along when a random joke from the show will enter into my brain and I am caught up laughing like I just heard it.  This includes maybe the funniest joke ever on television (about Candy Apple Island) and the funniest word I've ever heard ("Sacrilicious").  Jokes tend, by their nature, to become less funny over time the more and more you turn it over in your mind.  But so many of the jokes on The Simpsons have a recurring shelf-life.

7.  Universality.
There is so much in The Simpsons over so many years with so many character that there is something about your own life that you can find reflected in humorous truth from the show.  I found myself identifying deeply with something true found in Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie, as well as a host of other Springfield inhabitants.  And it is also a show of universal mockery.  Although you can pick out the biases of the producers, you can see all people from all walks of life, all political affiliations, and all culture get zinged.

Now I should make a note about the show's conflicted relationship to religion.  Strong voices on the show, including the recently departed Sam Simon (God rest his soul), were atheists who made sure to make digs at religion and people of faith.  Ned Flanders is the most prominent example of this.  And yet, as much as we love Homer, isn't Ned a better, kinder, happier person because of his faith.  Yes, he is prone to hypocrisy and he sins like the rest of us.  And his piety comes off often as annoying.  But he is not a bad person.

And the show is often, but not always, fairly even-handed in dealing with religion.  In "Homer the Heretic" (4x03), Homer abandons religion only to find his life saved by people of faith.  In "Pray Anything" (14x10), Homer sues the church and falls into debauchery only to have God send a flood, allowing him to have a moment of repentance.  And in "The Father, The Son, and The Holy Guest Star" (16x21), I found the shows approach to Catholicism teasing, but funny.  I particularly liked the division of Protestant Heaven and Catholic Heaven.

Now these are the more balanced examples.  If anyone finds the more biting religious sequences too much to tolerate, I have no objection.  But what I find in The Simpsons is a skewed, humorous snapshot of fallen man as he is broken in all ways, including his relationship to God.  And exploring that absurdity can actually lead to some humorous insights.


"Three Men and a Comic Book" (3x21)
Let's admit that the early Simpsons episodes are rough.  They were finding their way in expanding from a short format to the sitcom format.  But the show began to really find more of its stride in the 2nd and 3rd season.  And then this episode is where it all came together.  Using the Treasure of the Sierra Madre as the template, it is a story of paranoia and avarice over the most absurd things.  And the Simpsons trademark wit really cam to full flourish.

"Mona Leaves-a" (19x19)
I think most people would place the shark jumping moment way earlier in the series.  But I disagree.  There are so many fantastic episodes even into the 19th season.

But this episode leaves you cold.  It feels like it supposed to pull at heartstrings, but really it feels like some of the heart has been cut out.  Instead of making you care more about the show, it actually makes you care less about how cavalier the show is about some of its characters.


This is by far the hardest "Best Episode" I've had to choose.  There are way too many amazingly worthy candidates that I could pick and all would be legitimate.  But if I had to choose, I would have to say…

"Cape Feare" (5x02).
I don't think that I've laughed more consistently through any half hour of television ever in my life than this episode.  Almost every joke is comedy gold.  And it has the best visual gag ever in the history of television: Sideshow Bob and the rakes


My love for The Simpsons is deep.  My appreciation is decades-long.  I do not know how much longer The Simpsons will be on the air.  But as far as I am concerned, it can run forever.

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