The Simpsons Movie
It was not the first animated series in prime time. It was not even intended to be a series at first, but a supplementary feature of a mostly-forgotten variety show. Other animated series have since come and gone that have tried to harness its spirit, to varying degrees of success. One or two have come close. When the final tally is taken, however, I suspect the dysfunctional family from Springfield, USA will reign supreme. If you disagree... well, don't have a cow, man.
I knew The Simpsons had arrived on the pop culture landscape when I first saw the t-shirts. They were everywhere. Wearing a Bart Simpson t-shirt, for awhile, was a countercultural statement. "Family values" was a big thing in the Reagan 80s, but Reagan's family was just as screwed up as that of most people. I think Matt Groening's creations were meant to reflect not just that, but to reveal the soft pink (or yellow, in this case) underbelly of what we always thought of as the traditional American nuclear family, the flip side of Andy Hardy and Father Knows Best and The Waltons we never noticed - or wanted to notice.
Nothing was more symbolic of that idea than the moment when Fox, the fledgling network with nothing to lose and everything to gain, put The Simpsons head-to-head against The Cosby Show. I remember feeling torn. The Huxtables represented the epitome of urban middle-class, upwardly mobile family life that also appealed to middle America - a black family, no less. Abandoning them in favor of these animated upstarts from the same network as the equally trashy Married... With Children, to me, almost felt like an act of disloyalty... but The Simpsons were that good. Time has borne this out.
When The Simpsons Movie was announced, I remember thinking after the show's unprecedented longevity, having done and said so much about so many things, a movie version would be pointless without two things: a naked Marge (or at least topless) and Bart saying fuck (or at least shit). Otherwise, why do it? I still think that way. We got nudity, but seriously, was anybody clamoring to see a 10-year-old animated boy's penis?
The movie has everything that made the show great, but I found it a bit disappointing because it didn't push the boundaries more. The South Park movie preceded this by eight years and they took full advantage of their R-rating. The Simpsons, by contrast, stuck to a PG-13. Maybe that was a result of having become so mainstream, so accepted by America. I dunno.
If The Simpsons has a legacy, hopefully it's one in which audiences see animation as capable of more than Disneyesque talking animals and family-friendly entertainment. Movies, in this country, at least, still tend to stick to the cutesy stuff - even Pixar, for all its innovation, has yet to make a "mature audiences"* movie - but TV has seen an explosion of edgier animated material post-Simpsons (even if it's been confined to cable), which is good.
Has The Simpsons ever done a multi-part arc? (Besides the "Who Shot Mr. Burns" two-parter.) Each episode is packed with so much stuff, it almost seems redundant to engage in the latest trend in television. Still, I think that's the one thing I'd like to see them try before they retire. What else is left after all this time?
* We do understand that stories with mature themes don't necessarily have to have nudity and profanity, right?