This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
For argument’s sake, let’s say that The Simpsons has to end someday. Granted, it’s not a show that has exhibited any of the obvious signs of being finite. The season 30 finale just premiered on Fox and as the show enters Disney’s domain, at least two more seasons have been greenlit.
Many would remark that the show has now been “not so great” for longer than it was ever great in the first place, but then any show is going to struggle to live up to the heyday of The Simpsons, let alone The Simpsons itself after two more decades.
The show itself has been making jokes about its own inability to end since at least Season 13’s “Gump Roast,” which ended with a “We Didn’t Start The Fire“ piss-take about how long it had been around. Since then, the show has gone on for just as long again and still shows no signs of ending.
Even in the earliest days, you’ll find this tongue-in-cheek send-off to The Cosby Show, in which Bart and Homer discuss how if they had a TV show, they’d ride it into the ground. Even if you feel that prophecy has come true, and The Simpsons is no longer relevant, it’s been a part of the entertainment landscape for long enough that it deserves a strong finish.
Whatever you think of the show in its current form, no one can doubt that when it does come to an end, it will mark the biggest online pop culture funeral we’ve ever seen. Fans and shit-posters alike will commemorate this cultural touchstone like they lost a brother, even if those tributes don’t extend much further than Season 10.
The people behind the show must know this and thus far no one, from the producers to the network heads, has weighed that the show has run its course to where this obvious “this is it, it’s all over” event episode would be worth considering. If and when they do, the show’s format makes a finale something of a narrative challenge in itself.
Why does it have to end?
Thus far, there’s no indication of Disney’s plans for TV’s longest-running sitcom, outside of a specially animated tease announcing that every existing episode (except, presumably, Season 3’s “Stark Raving Dad“) will steam on Disney+ at launch. If it’s still profitable, they’ll probably keep it going for as long as long-serving showrunner Al Jean still wants to keep going. The only exception to that could be if Disney decides they want to take it back to the big screen.
Praised in some quarters as a return to form and slated in others for being more of the same, 2007’s The Simpsons Movie got a mixed response from critics and fans, but audiences at large powered it to more than $520 million at the global box office. When the family returned to TV later that year, the season opened with Bart writing “I will not wait 18 years to make another movie.”
Although Jean and others have been talking about a sequel to The Simpsons Movie for a long time, the main reason for the delay in making the first one still persists to this day. Even if they have a sequel script that’s ready to be produced, it has to happen without interfering with the ongoing series.
While there’s no indication that Disney wants to finish off the series, they might want to have a go at replicating those box office results. This might happen, but it still brings us back around to the question of “What might the last episode of this TV show look like?”, so that it’s not just a footnote to whatever films may follow it.
That’s not even counting any assorted pay disputes with the show’s regular voice cast, comprising Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria, and Harry Shearer. Looking back to when it seemed as if Shearer was leaving the show back in 2015, we can see at least one big reason why it will eventually have to end.
The producers eventually settled with Shearer, keeping that core cast intact, but we know that the show can’t go on without them. Without wishing to be morbid about it, we know from the precedent of retiring characters voiced by actors Phil Hartman and Marcia Wallace that the series won’t just go on indefinitely without the cast. There’s no way that the producers will consider recasting the regular voice actors.
Even if The Simpsons remains profitable, there has to be a point where the producers decide to end it on their own terms rather than because a cast member leaves or passes away. But whatever the reason for the series finale finally coming to pass, there’s no ongoing narrative to complete, and so a send-off for The Simpsons is a challenge of storytelling.
Simpsons did it already!
The trouble is that what would be a natural endpoint for most other long-running sitcoms wouldn’t feel so final for this one. The Simpsons can’t end with Rachel getting off the plane, Frasier moving away from Seattle, Kenneth becoming the head of NBC, or any number of other endings that suited other shows, because it’s practically designed to go on forever.
Remember how Parks & Recreation ended with a look at what happened to every character in the end? The Simpsons did it, multiple times, in wildly varying potential futures that largely hinge upon whether Lisa settles down with Milhouse or becomes President of the United States. Plus, we already know that in the timeline proper, Bart has to grow up and become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. And yet, the series didn’t end.
Remember when Disney’s Dinosaurs ended with an extinction event? Messed up, wasn’t it? Well, The Simpsons did that too. The characters have died so many times across 29 (and counting) Treehouse Of Horror episodes that it wouldn’t even be a new thing. And yet, the series didn’t end.
It’s not only that the show has “done everything” by this point but also that its frequent dalliances in uncanonical stories mean you can’t wrap up this show with any semblance of finality. As part of that, the show has veered so wildly outside of its usual bounds that there’s little you could do that would be different or unusual enough to bring it to an end.
When asked what the show would never do in a 2016 interview with Esquire, Al Jean said: “I don’t think in the run of the show that we will ever permanently age them or change the template. […] “I would just do it as long as everybody wanted to in the same format until we finished.”
For a long time, that format has been futureproofed, with a sliding timeline comprising flashbacks, flashforwards, and “What If” stories, alongside a generally loose approach to continuity. The only way to end this particular show is with a celebration of what it has cultivated, rather than a definitive end to it.
The end is the beginning is the end
The show has previously adapted potential exit roads for the series into season finales, including a voyage of rediscovery for Homer in Season 19’s “Eternal Moonshine Of The Simpson Mind,” which ends with all of the show’s various characters together in one location, and more notably, Season 23’s “Holidays Of Future Passed,” a potential future with a standout scene in which Bart and Lisa have a heart-to-heart about their upbringing and sum the series up pretty nicely.
Those episodes may have been and gone, but it’s the sort of ending we could reasonably expect the show to have overall. Indeed, when Jean has been asked about this subject, he has favored the idea of ending where the show began, by having the finale end with Homer, Marge, and Maggie going to the school Christmas pageant from the very first episode, “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire.”
If you can’t end the series, then joining its endless timeline back up to the beginning and enclosing the show in an infinite loop might be a fitting finish in line with its uniquely long-lived format. It would also lend an extra irony to Homer’s consistent complaints about events at Bart and Lisa’s school – they’ll always be headed for one of those pageants.
To paraphrase the Smashing Pumpkins (“Homer Simpson, smiling politely”), the end is the beginning is the end. But that’s an ending that you could drop on the end of any episode, and it doesn’t answer the question of how the 20 minutes before it would make a satisfying finale.
Though we’re not the first to suggest it, the key to ending the show might lie in the way that it has always begun. When the last episode of The Simpsons arrives, it should be a story about the entire family trying to get home.
By using the show’s famous opening title sequence as the basic story structure for the episode, you have the opportunity to one last almighty couch gag that culminates from each of the family’s very last plotlines, while visiting other characters and locales around Springfield on the way. That seems like a fitting send-off for a show that grew into a cultural touchstone based on characters, gags, and reference points way beyond those of the titular family.
Whenever the final season arrives, they’ll have 20 or more episodes to do more bucket list stuff. But if it ever comes down to a finale, the best way to celebrate an extraordinary cultural touchstone may be to continue as if it’s business as usual.