I don't know if you heard, but this weekend sees the debut of the 600th episode of The Simpsons, a feat that will bring it in line with just one other scripted primetime program in American TV history (which would be Gunsmoke).
There are a lot of reasons The Simpsons got to 600 episodes, some creative, some economic, and some just dumb luck. But one thing I think is a little underrated in these terms is just how versatile the show's central ensemble is. There are five core members of the Simpson family (six if you count Grampa, which I'm about to), and all of them can successfully carry many, many different kinds of stories. Some are slightly more limited than others, but they're all simultaneously deep enough to have character particulars and peculiarities and shallow enough to function well as basic stereotypes. They can be as two- or three-dimensional as the story requires, and writing characters who function that way is tough and usually occurs accidentally.
So let's rank the six Simpsons (yes, I'm including Grampa) in terms of how well they can carry a story.
6) Maggie: The Simpsons has occasionally feinted toward making Maggie sort of a Snoopy-style figure, someone who can carry stories through pantomime and occasional non-verbal noises. Perhaps because the show started out as more or less realistic (remember, those first three seasons are basically an animated Roseanne in many ways), Maggie's adventures have always felt slightly cut adrift from the show's center. That's not to say they can't be fun, but I sort of feel like the natural place for Maggie is in animated shorts -- and indeed, she starred in an Oscar nominated one just a few years ago.
5) Grampa: This is closer to #4 than you might expect it to be, but I do think Grampa has some limitations as a character. For one thing, The Simpsons already had a couple of other characters who are, in the words of Conan O'Brien, "infinitely old," so Grampa doesn't get that corner of the show's universe to himself. (If you want to do a great old person joke, Mr. Burns is probably your first go-to.) Grampa tends to work best as a supporting player in the stories of Homer, Bart, and Lisa, which is probably as it should be.
4) Marge: If you go back and look at the archives of SNPP.com, the longest-running Simpsons database, you'll find that Simpsons newsgroups frequently wrote off Marge episodes as season lowpoints. I'm not sure why Marge struggles to hold her own against the top three, but she does. The popular theory is that she's the strong, sensible one, but Lisa also fits that bill, and she's a great character. Marge, I think, is limited by the fact that if you play up her independent side too much, you start to feel bad for her for being trapped in a marriage to Homer Simpson. And the show needs the two of them to be happy to work, so... it can't take Marge as seriously as it can take the other three main Simpsons.
3) Bart: Bart was the original breakout Simpson, the kid who launched a million concerned parents and a million school bans on "Underachiever and proud of it" T-shirts. When I was a kid who wasn't allowed to watch The Simpsons, it was almost entirely because of Bart, who was thought to be a real hellion. As the show went on, and its writers became parents themselves, he started to show new sides, as you'd probably expect. I don't think he's as versatile a character as Homer or Lisa, but he would be easily the most versatile character on dozens of other shows. There was a decided de-emphasis of Bart around the fifth and sixth seasons, and I think that's some of what holds him back from the top two spots -- the show itself didn't want to be defined by its original breakout character, which limited that character in weird ways.
2) Homer: This is kind of a cheat. Homer should really be number one, because he can carry literally any story the show throws at him. He can be a complete idiot to drive a story. He can be a good dad to drive a story. He can be both simultaneously. He's held seemingly every job under the sun, and even some that weren't under the sun. After Bartmania, he became the show's protagonist, and he was a more versatile one all around. He's a great TV character, and a great center for the show. But I like Lisa better.
1) Lisa: Here's why I like Lisa better: She perfectly embodies The Simpsons' central idea that families are at once life's greatest benefit and its greatest burden. The Homer and Lisa relationship is the show's most nuanced because it literally expresses that idea in one character pairing. My wife and I were watching an old "Treehouse of Horror" tonight, where Lisa is gorging on candy with Bart and Homer, and I realized that what makes Lisa such a great character where Marge sometimes struggles is that she can be the strong, sensible one, but also still be a Simpson. She's prone to the same weird flights of fancy and strange obsessions -- she's just better about keeping it slightly hidden. The show all but acknowledges that Lisa's the best chance the Simpsons have at redeeming their family name -- but it never forgets that she still wears that family name and all that comes with it.
Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.
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