CLOUDS-PART. TITLE: “THE SIMPSONS” …
With Halloween rapidly approaching, I was debating what to write on. I wanted to do something I associate with the season and tackle a topic with a long transmedia history – so what better franchise to discuss than The Simpsons?
I like to think Matt Groening’s beloved yellow family doesn’t need much of an introduction. We’ve all grown up with these characters, know the jokes inside and out, and can name just about every Springfieldian. Starting in 1987 as shorts on The Tracy Ulman Show, the Simpsons evolved into pop-culture legends and are currently the longest-running animated series of all time – currently in their 31st season.
As for me, my personal favourites episodes are the Treehouse of Horror segments. These segments exist outside of continuity and are a highlight of Fox’s fall line up every year. But beyond that, The Simpsons now sits in a strange place in our cultural landscape – even I, a casual fan and avid transmedia enthusiast, haven’t caught up with some of the later episodes.
That’s why I wanted to discuss this topic and use this post as a personal dissection to see what makes The Simpsons tick, and whether they could better incorporate transmedia concepts into their storyworld.
The year is 1991 and Simpsonmania is in full swing. Beyond the critically acclaimed series, Do the Bartman (released November 1990) has topped the charts in the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Norway, becoming Britain’s seventh best-selling song of the year.
For me, this was the moment the franchise became multi-platform. This was the leap from a television show into an everyday phenomenon. Even people who hadn’t seen the show knew about Bart Simpson’s radical 90s ‘tude, and his relationship to Homer, Marge, Lisa, Maggie, and his elementary school.
This was the blossoming of a transmedia franchise; turning a TV series into everyday culture and is an excellent study of the transmedia storytelling of old.
With such iconic characters, it was natural that they would find their way in other media as well – there was merchandise, paraphernalia, dolls, books, games and comics.
As with all TV series of the time it was designed for syndication – episodes could easily be watched in or out of order, with Springfield returning to a state of normalcy after each 21-or-so minute episode.
Homer would always be at the nuclear plant, Bart would be forever 10, Lisa would always have her Saxophone, there’d always be a Moe’s, a Comic Book Store, a school etc.
There were of course some exceptions – the death of Maude Flanders and the Van Houtens divorcing had a lingering impact on the series and were not resolved at the end of the runtime. But otherwise, Springfield remained in a state of consistency.
A major benefit of this storytelling was how easy it was to write tie-in material that didn’t question canonicity of the ongoing Springfield story. Bart could have his “Bartman” persona greatly expanded upon in the comic series (despite only ever making a few appearances on TV,) and it wouldn’t impact anything or any of the other characters. Theme park rides and The Simpsons Movie could simply use their iconography whilst existing within the larger Springfield saga.
In theory everything could be considered canon – to some degree.
Audience played a bigger role in shaping the individual narratives. TV series felt more universal and adult (addressing political or social issues of the day).
But the comics and games were geared more towards a younger demographic under the Bongo group imprint. Instead of dry wit and political satire, they could explore more exciting and surreal stories like “The Amazing Colossal Homer” in the first issue – something that naturally would never be referenced in the TV series.
This was really where the Treehouse of Horror stuff stood out. If you can, I recommend checking out some of the comic-exclusive Halloween specials; you can tell the creators were having fun with the gorier designs for the child demo.
Video Games were also a big draw, with both 2003’s Simpsons Hit and Run and 2007’s The Simpsons Game being real standouts in the franchise – both of which took story elements and Easter Eggs straight from some classic episodes. Simpsons Game especially had a strange meta quality that felt ahead of its time given our current fixation on 4th wall breaking humor.
The tie-ins were certainly more “trickle-down” transmedia – events from the comics and games would never show up again in the TV series, but it certainly did a good job to cement their brand amongst different audiences.
The Simpsons doesn’t look to be slowing down … however there are difficulties.
TV SERIES STRUGGLES
It probably hasn’t escaped anyone that The Simpsons has “lost its magic.” There are countless articles about how people were fans, but that it’s “just not as good as it used to be.”
This isn’t surprising, The Simpsons began life as a late-80s/early-90s family – it’s two decades removed from the culture it originated from. Sure, you can update the technology, have their boxy 90s TV become a flat-screen, and have Bart and Lisa use iPhones instead of Game Boys, but that doesn’t solve the current issues.
I think part of the reason the Simpsons has struggled amidst our current television culture. We live in the “Golden Age of Television.” With SVOD like Amazon Prime and Netflix, we’ve seen a massive variety of choice that we can watch whenever and however we want.
In fact, interest in the tie-ins has arguably surpassed the TV series, and really resonated with younger fans. We now have various petitions calling for a Simpsons Hit and Run sequel, or remaster despite the waining TV viewership.
Yet, between phenomenal series like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Good Place, Bojack Horseman or any other series, we can watch these anywhere, on any device, any time.
Producers and writers are no longer designing seasons so that episodes can be watched out of order or picked up for reruns – they’re designing seasons to have a compelling story arc that will keep binge-watchers glued to their device.
With that, syndication is a thing of the past.
But the Simpsons has a made-for-syndicated TV story model. In a world where there is such variety available, it feels like a 90s TV series (even if it addresses current issues). With that, many are no longer interacting with the series as a series, but rather through memes and short form content – this is something the writers have picked up on as well, with political snippets designed for a quick watch and share on YouTube and Twitter.
But that’s when fandom takes over.
SIMPSONS FANS: MEMED-HAMS
When it comes to The Simpsons it’s taken on a weird evolution with long-time-fans deconstructing and re-evaluating the series as a whole. This has given new life to the series in the form of Memes – repurposed clips and images from pre-existing material.
This can be done through a fan-made comic recreating the Japanese Manga epic Akira with Springfieldians, known as Bartkira, or a surreal memification of a clip from Season 7 Episode 21: 22 Short Films About Springfield.
This was a repurposing of the clip called Steamed Hams which showed an interaction between Principle Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers reinterpreted countless ways near the end of the decade.
Of course, my personal Simpsons reinterpretations are on the Instagram pages: “Scenic Simpsons” and “Springfield by Night” – both of which recolour and re-explore the surprisingly beautiful Springfield town.
There are too many of these to count, but it proves that there is a fan community active, and willing to create and recontextualise established Simpsons stories.
But why is this important?
Firstly, fandom is an essential part of any transmedia franchise; it’s indicative of a level of everyday engagement and Simpsons is no exception.
But what’s interesting is it’s reached the point where it’s fed back into the show. There’s a gif from Season 5 Episode 16: Homer Loves Flanders where Homer disappears into the hedge behind him – reminiscent of the t-1000 from Terminator 2.
Most importantly the show referenced it. It’s that weird meta-convergence culture that only works between the fans and the series creators.
This is a level of convergence media that I doubt Matt Groening, or anyone in late 1980s could have foreseen. But it sadly reinforces the idea that the series is coasting by on past successes. Merely referencing Internet media may not be enough to bolster viewer investment.
A TRANSMEDIA FUTURE?
I began this article thinking where the Simpsons was going wrong. It is a great case study in the textbook transmedia of the 90s, but times have changed and we interact with media on multiple levels. Although it’s great to see creators incorporate an awareness of internet culture into a show, I fear that it’s more a distraction from the inevitable.
The Simpsons is “good,” but it feels outdated in a world that’s constantly pushing the boundaries of media and comedy. How does their 90s format compare to the serialised format of something like Netflix’s Bojack Horseman or F is for Family, and is it even still relevant?
The world has changed a lot in the last thirty years, and in some ways it’s a relief to have The Simpsons as a pillar of consistency – and I really hope it continues on. But I feel that there is remarkable untapped potential, and there are more calculated risks that could be taken.
Looking back at their original use of the multiplatform, we see the comics and games constantly testing out bold and surreal ideas. The Simpsons Game especially sees the family dealing with an existential crisis when they realise they’re just video game characters. It was a well-written way to put the family in a truly bizarre and creative situation, whilst taking inspiration directly from the show.
In transmedia terms, this can be referred to as a “wilderness,” where a franchise can thrive beyond its original format and find new life. We’ve seen it work already for properties like Doctor Who and Star Wars; where original comic book and novel characters made it into the series proper, so who’s to say it couldn’t work for The Simpsons?
Perhaps it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Continue with the animated series, but flesh it out with a new game, or even a Simpsons Movie 2 … if possible.
With the recent acquisition of Fox, Disney now owns the rights to a ton of series to put on their SVOD service – The Simpsons is one of them. It may be bizarre having the yellow family in the House of Mouse, but Disney’s already investing in Marvel and Star Wars, so investing in another instantly recognisable IP isn’t totally out of the question.
I remain optimistic that The Simpsons can regain its spark in some way, and transmedia integration could be the solution it needs.