We used science to pinpoint the exact episode when The Simpsons got shit
A scientific investigation into the slow, gradual death of a TV institution
The Simpsons is currently airing its 28th season.
Or, to put it more accurately - The Simpsons is currently crawling, trailing bloodied fingernails and emaciated entrails, through its 28th season. We love The Simpsons here at ShortList. Not a day goes by when someone doesn't crowbar a quote into conversation, or realise a creative idea was actually already done - with more humour - by The Simpsons.
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But, as uncomfortable as it might feel we all admit (albeit quietly) that our favourite show is past its prime and - whisper it - the time may have come to put it out of its misery.
Take, for example, the trailer for an upcoming episode that sees the citizens of Springfield head to the polls to vote, "and Homer discovers Russia's President Vladimir Putin in disguise". Seriously, the YouTube description just shoves the punchline in your face without giving the tiniest of craps about the value of comic timing.
This is now the bar at which The Simpsons levels its jokes, flopping out new material after what would appear like a panicked skim of seeing what's trending on Twitter. "Putin! We'll do a Putin gag! And something about Burns supporting Trump! Leave the biting satire to South Park - they've got the hang of it now."
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What happened to The Simpsons? Why has no one been brave enough to pull the trigger? To admit that you can have too much of a good thing?
When did The Simpsons stop being funny? We turned to science, and did some serious number crunching, to find out.
If we consider the US viewing figures of all 28 series of The Simpsons as a barometer for its comedic powers, a dip in its average viewers would suggest that people had started to give up on the beloved show, right?
Here's a neat graph illustrating the slide in viewing figures between series one and 26, put together by Reddit user Autonova3, alongside the number of awards each series has picked up and the number of shows that made it into the 'Top Ten' lists of media publications including Time, IMDB, and Rolling Stone.
So, first up, lets focus on the last time a series saw an increase in viewers - indicating it still had the power to draw a new audience to its familiar sofa.
That would be series 14, first aired in 2002, which saw an average of 14.4 million viewers compared to 12.5 million of series 13. After series 14, things have taken a turn toward Shelbyville. What happened?
To dig a bit deeper, we can take a look at the audience ratings of every episode of the show, accumulated by Graph TV - a site that pulls in the average episode ratings of the gold standard of web ratings databases, IMDB.
The average viewer scores of The Simpsons (which you can study in detail here) shows series 14 ended on a high, with episode 22, Mo Baby Blues, gaining the highest rating of the series with 7.8. People didn't finish series 14 with a bad taste in their mouth - everything was coming up Milhouse. Something happened within series 15 that saw viewers reach for the remote or just stop talking about the show.
That something was episode 21 of series 15, Bart-Mangled Banner. It received a tame rating of 6.2 - the lowest rated show for the next three seasons. First aired on 16 May, 2004, it was really, really bad.
In the episode, Bart get injected with a shot by Dr Hibbert, which results in Bart's ears swelling shut and rendering him temporarily deaf. There's then an inexplicable sequence in which Bart wants to play donkey basketball at the same time the school is playing the national anthem. After placing a carrot in his shorts to taunt a donkey, the donkey eats said shorts, causing Bart to cover his exposed genitals with his t-shirt at the precise moment a large US flag is revealed behind him.
Skinner believes that Bart intentionally mooned the flag, which begins a series of events that culminates in the Simpsons appearing on a talk show to clear Bart's name. This results in things only getting worse for them, with Marge suggesting she does hate the US. This spirals into the family being thrown in the Ronald Reagan Re-education Center, which is actual Alcatraz. They break out. No one laughs.
Don't believe me? Here's a clip from the episode:
Could this be it? Could this be the episode that convinced several million viewers that The Simpsons was no longer worth bothering with, beginning a slump from which the show has never recovered?
It's not the worst rated episode in the show's overly long history: during the show's 'golden years' there was episode eleven of series nine, All Singing, All Dancing, which gained an IMDB rating of 5.1 - or episode 17 of series three, Gump Roast, with a below-par rating of 5.6.
It's these blips that acted as the first nails in the show's coffin, lows that undo all the good of episodes like Homer's Enemy (ep 23, series eight, IMDB rating 9.3), or The City of New York vs Homer Simpson (ep one, series nine, IMDB rating 9.1).
If you look at that Graph TV chart, the average IMDB ratings have been slumping ever since series eight - but the viewers clung in there; "It's The Simpsons," they probably said. "You watch it because it's there - televisual wallpaper, a warm blanket of gentle chuckles and familiar characters." It was series 15, with its low of Bart-Mangled Banner that we think will have seen many give up and watch something else. Something funny. Something relevant.
You'll have your own theory on the worst Simpsons episode, or on when things all went wrong. The point of all of this has been to air that popular opinion that you don't really want to have - like acknowledging that your granddad isn't "just from another decade", he's just a racist. The Simpsons is now shit. It's been shit since series 14, possibly earlier. It should have bowed out in 2003, but it didn't. If there are any lives that the Grim Reaper of 2016 should take, it's that of the population of Springfield.