One of my favorite classic Simpsons bits, something I am guaranteed to laugh at until the day I die no matter how many times I see it, is Homer’s attempt at jumping Springfield Gorge. The moment Homer’s ambulance hits the tree and his stretcher starts tumbling down the cliff once again is one of my all-time favorite television moments.
That episode, Bart the Daredevil, first premiered on December 6th, 1990. Twenty-four years ago. Unfortunately for fans of the classic animated television series, ratings for The Simpsons are taking a similar fall.
This week (April 27) represented the lowest rated first-run episode of The Simpsons in the 25th season of the show. “What to Expect When Bart’s Expecting” is the 549th episode of The Simpsons, and was the lowest rated in the show’s history according to EW, and drew just 3.4 million viewers. The Simpsons‘ audience was little more than half its network competition during the 8 PM ET Sunday night timeslot. It’s a mere 10% of the 33.6 million viewers for the most watched episode in the history of the series, “Bart Gets an F,” that debuted on October 11, 1990.
Just how far have Simpsons ratings declined? Twenty years ago in Season 5 (1993-1994), the fewest number of viewers to watch a Simpsons episode was 14.7 million. Even at the beginning of the 2000s, episodes were still regularly drawing over 10 million viewers. However, the last 10 years have brought about a gradual slide in viewership where the series is now reaching new lows. Since the January 5 episode drew an audience spike over 12 million, no Simpsons premiere has garnered more than 5 million viewers.
As someone who counts The Simpsons as my favorite television series in history, this is sad news. Not a day goes by in my life that isn’t filled with some obscure Simpsons quote or reference. (See: Pepito, the biggest cat in the whole wide world.) But even though I still count it as my favorite show, I haven’t watched a new episode in more than a decade. Apparently, I’m not alone.
Many Simpsons fans have “the episode.” The one when they gave up on being a weekly viewer and chose to enjoy the Simpsons canon of their own making before the decline in popularity. That defining moment when you were still a Simpsons fan, you just weren’t a Simpsons viewer. At the risk of being cliche, we have that moment where we judge the series jumped the shark.
There is no right answer in this regard. Some people contend the first 10-11 seasons are the cutoff, some say it was when the original writing team began to disband, some can point to a specific episode.
For me, that was Season 9’s “The Principal and the Pauper” which introduced us to Armin Tamzarian and then led us to completely forget about him in the course of 30 minutes. Like many Simpsons episodes, the idea of Armin Tamzarian existed in a vacuum. But this time, that vacuum was also devoid of any humor or anything that made you feel good. Say what you want about The Simpsons, but one of the most overlooked aspects of the series is its charm. And maybe over time, that’s what has been lost the most.
Most series only last a handful of seasons if they’re lucky. The Simpsons has lasted for a quarter century. When the series debuted in 1989, gas was $1.12 and Joe Montana won his first NFL MVP award. Its longevity is extraordinary and may never be seen again in primetime television. But nothing is meant to last forever and The Simpsons deserves a better sendoff than to bumble around centerfield like Willie Mays in a Mets uniform.
But for longtime fans of that Simpsons Golden Age, we can be encouraged by the fact that the brilliance of the show will always outweigh its non-descript ending. Today we remember Willie Mays as one of the greatest players of all-time. We remember the Hall of Famer who was ahead of his time and provided some of the best moments in the history of baseball. We don’t remember the 42-year-old who hit .211 in 1973.
Our memory of The Simpsons will be much the same way. But in a strange sense, that’s already happening with fans of the show who prefer popping in a Season 4 DVD versus watching a new episode on Sunday nights. We can relive Homer Simpson falling down Springfield Gorge again and again without fear that some day he won’t return.