If you're anything like me, then you probably haven't seen a memorable episode of the Simpsons in roughly eight years. For a show that's been around for more than twice that amount of time, I suppose that's not really so bad for a statistic. Then again, at it's height, the Simpsons was without a doubt the best show on television. It's influence has been integrated to cultures world wide. Short of Mickey Mouse and Coca-Cola, The Simpsons are easily the most recognizable group of characters in existence. They have integrated themselves into the english language, with "D'oh" prominently placed in the Oxford English Dictionary.
But what ever happened to them? At just about the turn of the century they seemed to change, apparently the only victims to the millenium bug. Some attributed this change to their sudden neighbors on the Fox network, Family Guy, who only just began their initial stint in 1999 before their first cancellation two seasons later. More likely, it was due to eventuall loss of some of their best writers. Conan O'Brien was a head writer in the early 1990's before taking David Letterman's spot on late night television. John Swartzwelder was the most prolifant writer, with 60 episodes under his belt, and worked notoriously as a recluse, so much so that some have even argued he doesn't actually exist. His work, in fact, was eventually sent in by mail due to his avid smoking habits, (Swartzwelder even installed a coffee booth to write on in his own home after California passed a "no smoking" bill, stopping him from attenting his favorite coffee shop). John Swartzwelder left the writing staff in 2003, the Simpsons fifteenth season, and only returned for the Simpsons Movie. Despite the over-arching environmental themes in both the show and film, he has frequently called himself an "anti-environmentalist." Show runner Mike Scully left in 2001, and went on to write for Everybody Loves Raymond, a show that matured so much with it's writing that it ended with a status surpassing that of stage productions.
But the Simpsons has steam-rolled it's way through 20 seasons. It has continued to be one of the most profitable power machines in the entertainment industry. Talented writers may be in short supply, but there's no doubt that the majority of them would be willing to contribute to a series heralded by Time magazine as "20th century's best television series." Time magazine made that proclamation in 1999.
So what stopped it? When did the Simpsons faulter?
The answer could ironically be found in the show's inception, The Simpson's first aired Christmas Special in 1989. On that date the show's core characters were established. Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie clearly had their stages set, along with their pet dog Santa's Little helper who was adopted in that very same episode. Other minor characters were also established, Moe's Tavern was set as a regular location for the series, along with it was the town drunk, Barney Gumble. In the Simpsons Christmas Special Barney made his first appearance drunkenly wearing a Santa costume, in fact, he's the one who suggests Homer takes a similar position. He also suggests later in that same episode that they take their earnings to the Dog Track and place bets.
If it wasn't for Barney Gumble, the Simpsons would in fact be without their lovable mutt Santa's Little Helper, but that's not the only reason Barney Gumble is essential to the show.
It's reasonable to assume that Barney Gumble is in fact an alternate version of Homer Simpson. They are, in many ways, the exact same character. They both drank endlessly. They both spend their time with similar slobs. They were even established as good friends in high school, with Homer providing Barney with his first beer. It could be argued that Barney is Homer trapped in an alternate dimension. He is the mirror for Homer's faults. He is Homer Simpson, had Homer never married Marge or had children. In effect, Barney Gumble is a testament to married life. He is a living lesson for what not to become, or what could have been. It's no wonder that Barney was originally considered to be the Simpsons next door neighbor.
Then, on April 9th 2000, the Simpson universe had changed. Before that, Barney Gumble was a living embodiment of the show's political incorrectness. Matt Groening mentioned, "there was a sort of unspoken rule about not having drinking on television as a source of comedy. So, of course, we went right for it." Barney definitely went for it. But on that 244th episode, something changed.
Barney Sobered up.
In "Days of Wine and D'oh'ses," Barney realizes the error of his ways after witnessing an embarrassing video of his surprise birthday party. Barney goes to AA meetings, he learns to fly a helicopter, and ends up saving the Simpson children from a forest fire, all the while having a drunken Homer at his side.
The episode itself is quite funny, with a charming gag involving an escaping bear attempting to hitch a ride on Barney's chopper. It's resulting implications however, were less charming than that.
Somehow, making a character clean himself up in one episode only to revert back to a stumbling slob in the next, just isn't very funny. In fact, it's rather sad. The writers must have realized this, and from that point onward (with a few exceptions) they had Barney enjoying a cup of coffee in Moe's Tavern rather than nursing a Duff. He looked cleaner too.
In this manner, Homer effectively took his place as the sad drunk, and Barney's life was escalated to only slightly less empty with the addition of his helicopter liscense. Although Homer had the benefit of a loving family, his status as a lovable role-model diminished. Barney's ability to function as a proper catalyst for action was also crippled. As a result, the Simpsons became a lot less fun to watch as the domino's failed to fall.
So perhaps it was political correctness that slayed the Simpsons humor.
No matter what the case, the show has stayed steady in it's endless production, sober Barney intact. The Simpsons may simply never be what it once was. No additional characters could resurrect the same humor established in it's first decade of work. In the end, Barney's change in character wasn't the straw that broke the camels back, he was the broken back that mended all too soon.