Amidst the frothing fanboyism surrounding the announcement of the Superman - Batman crossover at San Diego Comic-Con came another similar announcement that was infinitely more surprising and yet slipped largely under the radar. Whilst, after the runaway success of Marvel's cross-franchise project, it was inevitable that DC Comics would follow suit, you would have been laughed out of the convention centre if you had suggested just a couple of years ago that The Simpsons would agree to grace the same sofa as their cruder, ruder equivalents from Family Guy. The very fact that the show's creator Matt Groening would even cede to such a meeting, let alone the decidedly muted reaction that greeted the announcement is demonstrative of a show whose decline has been allowed to continue unabated for far too long.
It isn't just that Family Guy is a rival series that makes this move so emblematic of The Simpsons' slide. Al Jean, one of the few remaining staff writers who has been with the show from the beginning (albeit off and on), has referred to Family Guy as "derivative", and numerous sly accusations of plagiarism have made their way into recent episodes. Groening, famously protective of his pride and joy in its formative years, fought tooth and nail to have an episode from the 6th season which featured the main character from The Critic (created by Jean and fellow Simpsons' writer Mike Reiss) cancelled, declaring that such cartoon miscegenation "violates the Simpsons' universe". Admittedly, the upcoming episode will officially be an episode of Family Guy, but it's still an act of licensing that Krusty the Clown, whose image can be found emblazoned on everything from overheating alarm clocks to chewing gum containing spider's eggs, would be ashamed of.
So where did it all begin to collapse for what was once spoken of in hushed tones as a contender for greatest TV series of all time?
Fans point at the 10th season as the beginning of the long decline, although at that stage, the show was still performing at an extraordinarily high level, with the odd damp squib of an episode doing little to rain on the seemingly endless parade of classic televisual moments.
However, slowly but surely the quality has ebbed away. It's not altogether surprising, given the show will be beginning its 25th season in September and has racked up an astronomical 530 episodes so far. It's perhaps for this reason that few long-standing fans see it as a question of revamping the writing staff or making some dynamic, permanent changes (Lisa's vegetarianism in the 7th season was an exception to her advice to Bart to "ride it out, make the occasional smart-alec quip, and by next week we'll be back to where we started from, ready for another wacky adventure"); there's simply no new ground left to cover. As one character found in a particular episode of South Park when trying to concoct a dastardly scheme, invariably The Simpsons have already done it.
The Simpsons always utilised its cartoon medium to fabricate situations which would be impossible with live-action, and was never afraid to dip into a bit of surrealism, but the lynchpin to its success was that when all was said and done, Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie remained grounded and relatable, the archetypal dysfunctional nuclear family. As the years have rolled by, more and more stories have utilised increasingly peripheral characters as a way of staving off the inevitability of running out of things to say about the five family members. One particularly (un)memorable example featured the blossoming relationship between Principal Skinner's mother Agnes, who in earlier seasons was largely restricted to channeling Norman Bates' mother and exerting a psychological hold over her son, and Comic Book Guy, a character whose lack of even a full name is a perfective illustration of his intended one-joke nature.
The episodes' title, "Worst Episode Ever" (taken from Comic Book Guy's famous catchphrase), proved slightly more prophetic than the writer's would have hoped, although the crown has been wrested from it several times over in the intervening 12 years. However, the most truly ironic prediction of the show's downfall can be traced back to 1992, and this moment.
The presence of certain writers, such as the near-ubiquitous Ian Maxtone-Graham, have become synonymous with increasingly zany plot lines taking the place of the touching pathos that lurked under the surface of almost every early episode. The writers haven't exactly helped themselves by including messages such as "go out and get some fresh air before logging on the internet and saying how much this sucked" at the end of episodes.
If scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of fresh narratives wasn't bad enough, recent efforts have also eroded the time-honoured traditions of seasons past. The couch scene, once a place for minutely observed, timeless gags, seamlessly pulled off in often less than three seconds is now an embarrassing showcase for the latest flavour of the month (the Ke$sha themed example, clocking in at over a minute and featuring various characters miming along, comes to mind). Another sacred piece of Simpsons' folklore - the state that their hometown of Springfield belongs to - was revealed by Groening in an interview last year, who freely admitted "In anticipation of the success of the show, I thought, 'This will be cool; everyone will think it's their Springfield.' And they do". Or rather, they used to. Statements such as this alongside the Family Guy move seem to be indicative of the knowledge that The Simpsons lost its resonance and heart an awful long time ago. In 2002, Groening claimed "I think we're close to wrapping it up", whilst stating that his opinion on the matter may be rendered moot by 20th Century Fox's desire to "wring every last penny" from the franchise.
There's no denying there are still huge profits to be had from the show, but even those are slowly dwindling. To return to the example set by Springfield's favourite children's entertainer, it's hard to imagine any item that hasn't been given the Simpsons treatment, with everything from energy drinks to theme park attractions bearing the brand. The ratings will also be of concern to the executives who have overseen the gradual suffocation of the series; the past five years have been the worst in the show's history by a large margin, with last year attracting less than half the numbers that the most successful 12th season claimed.
Both Groening's and mainstay fans' relationship with the show is analogous with that of the long-suffering Reverend Lovejoy and the God-fearingdiddly-iddiest guy in town, Ned Flanders; one that started with the best possible intentions, of love and compassion, before the loss of direction and identity saw the connection dwindle to the point where, in the words of the good reverend, "I gave up and stopped caring".