"The Simpsons Movie" opens today, marking the end of a near decade-long slog to bring the series to the big screen. While diehard fans and summer moviegoers alike will likely line up in droves this weekend, the film's opening comes at a strange time in the series' 19-year run.
After all, critics have long attested to the series' downslide over the years. The writing has not been as consistently funny or clever as it once was. Irony has been replaced with absurdity, the outlandishly witty with the witlessly outlandish.
Still others bemoan the movie's belated release. Eight to 10 years ago, they argue, it would have shattered records; now it's arrived late to the ball.
Some reason that the show peaked in the early '90s, and a sizeable chunk of the show's fan base believe the show is past its prime. The noticeable—but not great—drop-off in ratings does little to dissuade from this line of thinking.
But the film may be able to reverse this downward trend. Interest levels definitely rose leading up to the film's release, and mostly positive reviews have been trickling out today. According to Yahoo, Internet searches about the film recently doubled due to clever marketing moves like 7-11's Kwik-E-Mart campaign.
Despite the rise in interest, fan expectations remain difficult to gauge. A mixed bag seems to be the norm: Some proceed with cautious optimism, others seem less enthused. Still others seem unable to get over the fact that they will be shelling out $10 for something they can see for free on TV.
Longtime fan Jeffrey Jackson Karb says the movie "will be a disappointment in that it will more closely mirror the newer episodes." Karb's comments point to a clear divide among the show's fans. Some hold the early seasons in the highest esteem and consider more recent episodes to be products of an obvious decline. Others mark a steady continuum of solid humor and timely satire.
Haynes Lee, who works for the Simpson Archive, a fan Web site, has high hopes for the film. "I found the 'The Simpsons' has been running out of ideas the past number of years and the episodes are repeating plot elements from previous seasons. However, for the movie it looks like they will not fall into this cookie cutter deathtrap…I predict it will be a summer blockbuster."
His associate, Gary Goldberg, adheres to what might be called the "steady state" theory of "Simpson" fandom. In an e-mail interview with ABC News, Goldberg addresses the shift of viewer interest, saying, "I don't believe it was because of a decline in the show specifically – each season had its duds and over-the-top episodes. I think between work and family responsibilities, new interests and other distractions, I drifted away…I'm sure the writers and producers of the show have felt similar distractions."
That the ebb and flow of ratings can be traced to audience aging only points to the show's longevity. "The Simpsons" has been with us for nearly 20 years. On the air since 1989, the series is the longest-running American sitcom and the longest-running animated series.
Steven Merrill, who has been a fan of the show since it first aired and remains undismayed by "the absurdist bent the shows took after the '90s," recounted his early memories of watching.
"One thing I'll always remember about 'The Simpsons' was my mom's pronouncement after seeing approximately half an episode that I was not to watch it. This was typical for a lot of shows that were too violent or sexual for her to deem appropriate. But when I asked her why I couldn't watch 'The Simpsons,' she got all flustered and mumbled something … So that's something I've always associated with the show, it's humor is funny and subversive in a way some just don't get."
Merrill for his part "couldn't be more excited for [the film] to come out," and theorizes that the film's protracted release might be the result of producers "waiting for a generation that grew up on the [show] to reach their 20s and their large disposable incomes."
Fans in their 20s certainly will make up a large portion of the film's audience. "The Simpsons" practically defined and shaped the humor of their generation. For them, watching an episode in syndication is often a nostalgic exercise.
Self-proclaimed "'Simpsons' nut" Jonas Bender-Nash, a production coordinator for MTV who calls the show "one of the funniest television shows of all time, if not the funniest," highlighted the entanglement of the show's appeal and growing up. "I can remember making lists of our favorite 10 episodes when I was in the eighth grade. 'Monorail,' 'Cape Feare' and numerous 'Treehouse of Horrors'… It was the only show on TV I felt comfortable watching with my entire family, and probably the only show that appealed to everyone from kids to adults."
Perhaps this can account for the mixed feelings that attend the film's release. So much is riding on its success. Jokes are not simply jokes when talking about "The Simpsons;" they are the souvenirs of a generation's youth.
Whether "The Simpsons Movie" will live up to this legacy remains to be seen. Fans who have been hedging their bets will likely give way to the excitement.
Sean Mannion, another longtime fan, admitted that "as the film's release gets closer and closer, I can't help but become more and more pumped. If the film can sustain the promise of the clips circulating on the Internet, it could even revitalize the show for a few more seasons."