/ 7 July 2006

Long live The Simpsons

The cultural phenomenon that is The Simpsons notches up its 350th episode on Sunday night, and the creator of the legendary animated comedy says there’s plenty of life left in the series.

”I think the show has almost reached its halfway point, which means another 17 years,” said Matt Groening in a New York Times article about The Simpsons, which — in the midst of its 16th season — is already by far the longest-running show now on television.

The Simpsons made its debut in 1989 on Fox, the then-fledgling network owned by Rupert Murdoch. It has gone on to earn more than $1-billion — and a reputation as the most consistently subversive programme watched by a mainstream audience in the United States and around the world.

At age 350, the cartoon has far surpassed the lifespan of classic sitcoms and ratings rivals such as Cheers, Frasier and Friends. There are shows that have run longer, but The Simpsons has most of them firmly in their sights.

With the irreverent cartoon already renewed through the 2005/06 season, the show will surpass Dallas (357 episodes), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (361 episodes) and My Three Sons (369). At that point, only one comedy series will have made more shows, Ozzie & Harriet, with 435 during its 14-year run. It would take The Simpsons 20 seasons to reach the Ozzie & Harriet milestone — and it could well happen.

”You know, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s really not out of the question,” executive producer Al Jean told the Hollywood Reporter. ”The cast is already signed through season 19. I think we’ll get at least that far. It required such a long negotiation to get the cast under contract for four years that I think it’s likely we’ll do them.”

Some Simpsons purists claim that over time, the quality of the show has declined. But in the office building in the Fox Studios where 20 writers work on each episode, such an attitude is seen as pure snobbery.

”Have you ever known people to say that something is better now than it was in the past?” Jean asked. ”Of course not. That isn’t to say we don’t do some bad shows now and didn’t then. But I’d say that by and large, the shows we’re doing now are just as good as any I’ve been involved with.”

Groening was equally adamant, in his own deadpan fashion.

”No matter how hard people try to run it into the ground by putting it on too many times a day, putting it on multiple DVDs and oversaturating the marketplace and all the rest, we still keep going,” he said. ”I’m very proud of this season and the coming season. We try to keep surprising the audience and keep surprising ourselves.”

To be sure, The Simpsons is no longer the ultimate rating draw that it was in its 1990s heyday. According to the Nielsen media ratings, it is 68th out of all network shows, attracting almost 10-million viewers, many of them in the younger demographic groups that advertisers crave.

The Simpsons is certainly just as controversial as ever. In February, an episode about gay marriage created international headlines with its plot about Marge’s sister Patty Bouvier coming out of the closet and Homer conducting gay unions to increase tourism to Springfield.

It showed its topicality with a scheduled April 2 show satirising Catholicism and featuring the guest voice of Liam Neeson. But perhaps it also showed maturity by pushing back that episode to May 15 until after the new pope was installed, to avoid offending too many viewers.

Groening dismisses such notions as almost heretical to the Simpsons ethos. He told the website Zap2it.com that the decision was one the network made.

”We think it’s offensive whenever you run it,” he said. — Sapa-DPA