April 2, 2012

Best. Season. Ever.

Audacious Epigone has calculated a good answer to an old question: When was The Simpsons at its best? He averages by season the rankings of individual episodes on IMDB.com, which is a pretty reasonable approach. IMDB ratings are biased toward the tastes of youngish male fanboys ("Worst. Episode. Ever."), but who better to evaluate The Simpsons? And they aren't rating seasons as a whole, just individual episodes, so any preconceptions the raters may have about which was the best season enter into the process less. Sample sizes for individual episode ratings are typically in the 500 to 900 range, which aggregates to over 10,000 per season.

The curve for the first eleven seasons is pretty elegant. The average episode's rating goes up each year from season one to six (with seasons five and seven almost as great), then declines every year through season eleven. The peak years were 5-7 and the big dropoff was in 9-11.

That would fit with my subjective impressions: the show just kept getting better for a number of years, then reached a remarkable peak of consistent excellence in the mid to later 1990s. 

The curve of the first half of the graph is very similar to a professional athlete's career, even though The Simpsons were largely a collective enterprise with a fair amount of turnover among writers.

Off the top of my head, the athlete with the most similar-looking career productivity graph might be Chicago Cub Ernie Banks, who started out as a slugging shortstop, a rare and valuable combination, then blew out his knee and had to switch to first base, where his offensive productivity no longer made him exceptional. But his personality made him popular in Chicago,  and playing in Wrigley Field inflated his statistics, so he had a long career even after his prime.

34 comments:

Thursday said...

The original writing team (along with the original group of directors) was pretty stable from seasons 2-8.

I actually took a look at a list of the top 100 episodes of the show (ranked by other people, not myself) and being in the top 100 correlated more with the directors than with the writers.

Anonymous said...

I HATE THE SIMPSONS!!

Lugash said...

I am Lugash.

Lugash demands a thought article about the Simpsons when the Simpsons ends.

I am Lugash.

Chris said...

Another question that needs solving:
Why are all ten of the happiest countries in the world either in northwest europe or are predominantly populated by northwestern europeans, while 9 of the 10 least happy countries are either in sub-saharan africa or are populated predominantly by sub-saharan africans?

jody said...

also matches a musician's career almost perfectly.

internet said...

1) Not many shows have run so long 2) As with any AV Club show, pool of respondents contains too many who formed strong impression from early eps, should be weighted differently from raters born after the show debuted 3) Nobody watched them in sequence or was not influenced by heavy reruns of certain eps to the disfavor of others 4) A better gauge would be the annual Halloween ep for example (controls for personnel, eliminates the relative efficacy of that week's plot because the Halloween shows never have one) etc. etc.

Ed said...

The Simpsons stands out, in a good way, for the length of its run and in that the shows in its decline were still pretty good.

But the concept of a TV series getting better for awhile, peaking, and then declining is not new, though comparing them to a professional athlete's career is. There is a popular website, "Jump the Shark" that is devoted entirely to cataloging exactly when a huge number of TV series began to decline.

One problem with the "Jump the Shark" site is that people keep confusing "past its peak" with "bad". There are usually separate moments when a series begins its downhill slide, and when it actually becomes bad. General managers keep professional athletes on their teams once the peak is passed, but are quick to cut them once their WAR (wins above replacement) goes negative; declining athletes can still contribute and are cut once this is no longer the case. TV studio executives are just not as good at evaluating their series as sports general managers are at evaluating their athletes, so you see new shows cancelled when they are establishing themselves and long running shows kept on the air part the point where their WAR has gone negative.

Anonymous said...

One finds the colours too bright for one's eyes.

Steve Sailer said...

Yes, they've kept it at a stable decent level for a decade now after the early inspiration was gone through professionalism. That's not bad.

Chris said...

This makes a lot of sense. I discovered Simpsons by accident through my younger brother in the late 90s. It was laugh out loud funny sometimes. I think Conan O'Brien should come back as a writer and see if he can bring the quality back up. It would be like Schwarzenegger's eighth Olympia, and the circle of Conan would be complete!

Silver said...

The graph fits my subjective impressions too. I was in high school when The Simpsons started. I ignored the show for the first five or six years mostly because I didn't like the kids who at school who did like it. Then I caught an episode at a friend's house one night and thought, wow, this is seriously funny. I then began watching regularly. I kept watching until around 2000/2001. It seemed the new shows just didn't compare to the classics (which I'd watched on reruns) and I got tired of waiting for it to recapture its former glory and haven't watched an episode since.

Wes said...

My favorite episode was then one before it started, because I've never seen a good one. This is a much better satire animated video about how Whites Took Over America:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=tacvR87FzBU

Anonymous said...

What would the graph for Seinfeld look like?

Steve Sailer said...

I was wondering the same thing. Seinfeld closed the show down after nine seasons (much to his costars dismay, who were finally making the big money). NBC had reportedly offered hims $110,000,000 for a tenth season, but he didn't want to do it.

guest007 said...

Ed,

One of the reasons to keep older show on is the value of the syndication rights. Adding an extra year of CSI or Law and Order is worth more to the networks than creating a new series.

Out of the current networks, CBS seems to be the best at managing their shows to reach a place where they can be syndicated. A new show needs to reach 100 episodes to be worth as much as an established show.

dufu said...

The graph also conforms with the observation that the drop-off in quality happened at the same time Groening turned his attention to Futurama which premiered in March of 1999. Not only did he leave the Simpsons, but he took some of the best writers with him.

morleysafer said...

In network TV it used to be they might sweat it until the 5th season got ordered, the informal threshold for a profitable syndication future, then sighed, everyone ceased to hold it in, and quality control tanked. What undoes it at that point are the negotiations with the actors (this happened recently with Mad Men and also The Simpsons, come to think of it) and only the production co bigs have incentive to milk it, not the network. Subscription model is catching on because of streaming and the premium channels were already quick to cancel after 1 season. The fact that Seinfeld's cast didn't whirl apart after 7 years or earlier is amazing by this yardstick. Contrast to decades ago, when Patty Duke's sitcom was dropped around the 100 episode mark not for bad ratings but because the network wanted it in color and the producer didn't want to upgrade. The first Star Trek had an even shorter run than that.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what would the graph for iSteve look like?

Mr. Anon said...

"Steve Sailer said...

I was wondering the same thing. Seinfeld closed the show down after nine seasons (much to his costars dismay, who were finally making the big money). NBC had reportedly offered hims $110,000,000 for a tenth season, but he didn't want to do it."

Showmanship, George.

DCThrowback said...

Seinfeld, IMO, would look like a Bell Curve with a less steep drop on the right hand side. Took them a few seasons to find their beat, peaked seasons 3-6, then came down gently after Larry David left. Some memorable episodes in seasons 8-9, but clearly never the same as the peak years.

Curb Your Enthusiasm, however, has a different graph; there were 3 episodes in this (8th?) season that were top #10 of all time, including my favorite, "Palestinian Chicken". Bringing Bill Buckner back for redemption was also highly amusing. Finding out Larry David is a New York Jets fans explains a lot about him for me.

Anonymous said...

Seinfeld started a serious decline once Larry David left. George and Kramer became more buffoonish, storylines got more and more ridiculous (the genius of Seinfeld at its peak was that it took something that likely happened to all of us---getting lost in a parking garage, trying to get a table at a Chinese place---and slightly stretched it into absurdity.)

seinfeld was right to end it when he did. Though I can see how the co-stars were irked (still, they probably get millions via syndication).

Anonymous said...

I cast my vote for Season Seven.

Thrasymachus said...

No way. The Simpsons was at its best in the first season or two. Can anything match "The Babysitter Bandit"? Then the Harvard guys took over, and it became pretty conventional snark. It was actually its worst in the mid 90's, when this chart shows it as its best. That was when they did movie parodies all the time. It improved after that, but has never gained its original freshness. The fact that it came out of the brain of a guy from the heartland- Portland was in the heartland back then- is what made it good. That and Sam Simon I suppose, whom Matt Groening hated.

Worst. Graph. Ever.

The Outsider said...

I'm not sure these data show quite what you'd like them to. They assume that the fan base was consistent from year to year, which I suspect it was not. That is to say, the people who were fans in the early years were probably also a large fraction of the fans in later years, too, only they were no longer twenty years old plus the joke had started to wear out.

For me, even if I watch a new episode and say, "objectively, that's just as funny as a season six episode," I still don't like it as much because nothing is quite as good as it was a) when I was young and bright-eyed or b) the second time around.

KGB agent said...

I was in the third grade when the Simpsons started in Christmas of 89, and I watched it religiously until around 2000/2001. The graph parallels my own memory well. I used to think it was just me remembering something through the lenses of childhood fun. My school yard chums and I could recite the jokes verbatim. But when I watch the older episodes as an adult now, I think they really did have better writers back then.

The TvTropes.org entry on "Flanderization" is as good an explanation as any I've read. The characters used to come across as, well, human beings. In the recent seasons they're more caricatures. Homer, for example, has always been a slow-witted loudmouth who enjoys his beer, but in the early seasons he was still recognizably human. Now his stupidity has been so exagerrated that you can't take him seriously anymore.

smead jolley said...

Just saw Bill Buckner in Curb. Looks like he has AIDS.

Steve Sailer said...

Looks more like Buckner can barely walk anymore due to all his leg injuries, which raises the question why in the world was he still on the field in the 9th inning of the 6th game of the 1986 world series. The newspapers had been full of debates for a week over whether Buckner, who had been carrying the Red Sox with his bat, was too injured to play defense.

I guess his manager had never heard of the concept of a defensive replacement when trying to protect a lead in the 9th inning.

Mac said...

I'd like to second KGB Agent's comment. I was in 4th grade when The Simpsons premiered as a weekly show. Heck, I vaguely remember the one or two minute Simpson skits on The Tracey Ullman Show. The show ran strong in my opinion up until the late '90s or early 2000s. Then characters were "Flanderized" beyond repair. Homer went from an Everyman with a temper to a bullying retard. Marge went from an upright stay at home mom to an erratic loon. Bart was transformed from a basically good but ornery kid into a near sociopath.
Another thing that hurt the show was the advent of the George W. Bush administration. The Simpsons writers (never too conservative or moderate) jumped wholeheartedly on the Hollywood Left bandwagon. Ned Flanders went from a decent but square man to a hateful pitchfork-wielder..... the writers caricature of Red State churchgoers. Homer, normally a drooling idiot, suddenly became an avid CNN viewer or NY Times reader whenever the writers wanted to take a potshot at Republicans or G. Dub.
The Simpsons decline slowly started in the late 90s... within a couple years after 9/11 the show was just too angry, too liberal, too stale.

James Kabala said...

"I guess his manager had never heard of the concept of a defensive replacement when trying to protect a lead in the 9th inning."

It was even worse than that - he put Stapleton in in the late innings of every other game, but he wanted Buckner to still be on the field for the special moment of victory.

Anonymous said...

Since no one has answered my question yet, I think iSteve is as good as it ever has been in nearly a decade of reading. A lot of the low hanging HBD fruit has been mined already and articles written about it. However, the writing is just easily as good and the commentary enhances it.

Anonymous said...

Steve, his manager replaced Buckner constantly with Dave Stapleton during the late season and playoffs as his ankle issues got worse, including games 1, 2 and 5 in the Series. His "reasoning" was he wanted Buckner to have the thrill of being on the field for the final out.

Re: The Simpsons. The first three seasons were the best. Well written, raw graphics, and Homer wasn't yet the buffoon he later became.

Anonymous said...

Consistently great until about 1998-99. Iraq war/9/11 brought the humor to a stop- too liberal, maybe too many woman writers. Haven't watched since 2003 so imagine still sucks. They turned Homer from greatest character ever to worst in 5 short years.


Dan in DC

jody said...

could be a case of character creep. the simpsons initially revolved around bart simpson, but at some point, homer simpson became the focus. then the show was subtly but completely shifted around that new perspective.

i'm not a big simpsons fan nor have i watched tons of episodes, but i do remember watching this shift take place over a few years time during the 90s. when homer first became the primary focus of the show was probably when the simpsons put out it's best couple seasons.

the same thing happens in many long running shows which use the same recurring characters over and over and over. i remember when south park mainly revolved around eric cartman.

eventually the writers ditched kenny, who was used for an every episode recurring gag which was finally written out, and swapped kenny out for jimmy and butters. then for a few seasons the episodes were divided about equally between stan, kyle, eric, and their adventures with jimmy or butters.

then the show changed again a few years later, and randy marsh became the main subject of many episodes. south park is up to 16 seasons.

Anonymous said...

Let me make this clear- I'm the expert here (and Steve). Seinfeld was good until the end and God Bless Jerry for knowing when to fold them.

Liberaliism ruined the Simpsons.....kinda like America.

Dan in DC