Though it captivated a massive audience when it began in 1989, for the last few years, "The Simpsons" has been to Sunday night what icing is to a doughnut: You'd miss it if it wasn't there, but it's not exactly exciting.
Despite its antics over the last 18 seasons, the animated family from Springfield became as familiar as next-door neighbors. Then came the hullabaloo over the show's 400th episode in May, and after that, the opening of Kwik-E-Mart-themed 7-Elevens across the country in June.
Now, "The Simpsons Movie" is hitting theaters and it's hard not to wonder: Can all of this get audiences excited about an almost 20-year-old series?
The challenge is certainly there. The much-anticipated movie, which features Homer turning Springfield into a toxic wasteland and the Simpsons fleeing to Alaska, comes at a time when people are turning away from the Fox show.
During the 1992-93 season, "The Simpsons" averaged 22.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. An average of 9.1 million viewers tuned in for the 2006-07 season — not a shabby audience, but not the overwhelming one the show drew in the past.
And regardless of how well the movie does or how many packs of Buzz cola the Kwik-E-Marts sell, media experts agree that the glory days of "The Simpsons" are long gone. While the satirical sitcom broke ground and remains a cultural icon, it's almost impossible for it to regain its 1990s' level of popularity.
"I can't imagine that the movie would come out and 'The Simpsons' would return to the ratings that they had 1991," said Bob Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of television and pop culture. "'The Simpsons' is its own toughest act to follow. Everyone is going to go to the movie thinking this is the best 'Simpsons' that they've ever seen."
Besides trying to outdo itself on the big screen, on its home turf "The Simpsons" has to contend with similar shows that didn't exist when it began. Fox's "Family Guy" and Comedy Central's "South Park" followed in its footsteps. Now, they compete for its audience.
"'The Simpsons' started such an explosion of shows like it that now the market is much more crowded," Thompson said. "In 1989, it had its niche all to itself."
Change 'The Simpsons' to Fit With the Times?
Plus, as any veteran channel surfer knows, TV fare today is not what it was in the early '90s. While audiences have soured on sitcoms, they're lapping up reality TV and dramas, according to Joe Lazslo, director of market research firm JupiterResearch. "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening may have to change the core of the show to keep it appetizing.
"Story-arc-based shows are huge right now," Lazslo said. "People seem to be latching onto stories that change over time and plots that take a whole season to unfold. It would take a fundamental change for 'The Simpsons' to do that, but that might be what it takes to revitalize it. Maybe you have to let Bart and Lisa grow up a little bit."
Indeed, if Bart were flesh and blood, he'd be in his late 20s by now. And though the show's cast doesn't cover up age lines or flaunt surgically enhanced body parts, Thompson thinks they're getting a little old.
"Eventually, you wear the characters out," he said. "I would say Homer Simpson is one of the great comedic characters in the history of American TV. But still, you get to the point after so many years that you've kind of said what there is to say about them."
That feeling has spread to some fans. Anurag Kumar, a New York City financial analyst who has watched "The Simpsons" for 14 years, still tunes in for weeknight reruns of his favorite episodes. But he no longer schedules his weekend around new Sunday night shows.
"It's just not a lock," he said. "Before, it used to be always funny. You could guarantee it. But now, they stretch things a lot. I still laugh every time I watch it, but it's just not the same."
Will he still see the movie?
"Yeah, for sure," he said. "But on a scale of one to 10, my expectation is like a four."
So instead of getting audiences revved up for the show, "The Simpsons Movie" might make them reflect on a landmark series that's slowly but surely coming to an end.
"This is a show that is probably getting to a period where we realize it isn't going to be around forever," Thompson said. "'The Simpsons' has been on for 18 years. It certainly won't be on for another 18 years."