The 25th season of “The Simpsons” began a couple weeks ago. The show has already been picked up for a 26th. People have now been debating the precise moment the show began to decline for longer than even the most successful TV series tend to stay on air. And the producers know this, of course: Executive producer Al Jean has recently promised new reasons to watch the next two seasons — including the death of an “iconic” character, which he said he hopes will garner “Breaking Bad”-like ratings. (He was apparently joking about the ratings.)
The death of that character, whoever he or she is, may make viewers pay attention to the show again, for a bit. But it’s a move we’ve seen before (most notably, Maude Flanders died in Season 11). And it’s just a temporary fix: It will not restore the show’s reputation as innovative or groundbreaking. To reclaim that type of territory, and reestablish its hold on the American zeitgeist, “The Simpsons” needs to think much bigger. So here is what I’m proposing: “The Simpsons” should break free from its static biological present. The characters need to age. Yes, a cartoon, a 2-D world where the laws of nature are constructed in a writers’ room, should suddenly be forced to carry, like Homer chained to the “Stone of Shame,” the same burden all humans are forced to carry: growing older.
Over 25 seasons, the characters on “The Simpsons” have grown in complexity, but they still mostly grapple with issues appropriate to their respective ages. The possible narratives are dwindling. And our few glimpses of the Simpsons at more advanced ages have been tantalizing. Four episodes over 25 years have flash-forwarded in time and braved the family’s future, showing us Lisa, Bart and Maggie as teenagers, college students, adults. Out of those four episodes, three were nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program. (In all fairness, Entertainment Weekly called “Bart to the Future” the worst episode in the series’ entire, gigantic catalogue. But hey: high risk, high reward.)