I dissed Lucy. I stomped on Mary Richards' earnest little hat. Norman Lear, Steven Bochco, all TV's anointed greats I told them to eat my shorts. At least, I suspect, that will be the reaction I'll get for naming one of the most praised and reviled shows of TV history "The Simpsons" as the best TV show ever in TIME's listing of the greatest artworks of the 20th century.
But before you sentence me to write "I Love Lucy" 500 times on the chalkboard, let me explain myself. There are a good 10 or so shows one could easily argue for as TV's best, "All in the Family," "M*A*SH," "The CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite" (my #3) and "The Twilight Zone," to name a few. My job, as I saw it, was to choose one program I could confidently send into space as an example of television as a distinct genre at its best. (Thus I excluded shows, like "Playhouse 90" and "The Ed Sullivan Show," that were really more about using TV to broadcast other genres.) The following are five of many reasons I like NASA before me would choose to launch Homer:
(1) It's great 20th-century art. "Ulysses," "The Godfather," "Rhapsody in Blue" 20th-century art has been about smashing barriers between high and low culture, intermingling prosody and pulp fiction. Most of the finest shows in TV history, like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (my #2 of the century), "The Cosby Show" and "Hill Street Blues," don't; they aim for the solid middle. (Some greats like" I Love Lucy" were more strictly vaudeville; some, like "Twin Peaks," aimed elite and ended up noble failures.) "The Simpsons" aims both higher and lower than its predecessors, not afraid of either highbrow literary references or butt jokes, offering something for everyone from grad-school snobs to grade-school snots much as Shakespeare and Chaucer did centuries ago.
(2) It was the best series of television's best decade. The '70s were the real Golden Age of television in terms of the quality of the average show the last period when networks grabbed massive chunks of the populace with smartly written programs like "MTM," "All in the Family" and "M*A*S*H." Yet in sheer numbers the '90s had it beat, precisely because people saw more television than any other decade. And the same forces that ended "broad"-casting the fragmentation of the audience enabled Fox to gamble on and thrive with a brash, satiric series from an alternative-newspaper cartoonist. In a decade packed with breathtaking innovations from "Seinfeld" to "The Sopranos," "The Simpsons" is the show that captured the '90s cold from beginning to end the consumerism, the media saturation, the stresses on families and civic culture.
(3) It has TV's greatest cast. No other series has developed as numerous and fully fleshed a supporting cast as the population of Springfield. The writers of "The Simpsons" opened worlds within worlds, investing seemingly minor characters with full back stories and lives. Any character who showed up for a few seconds one episode might carry entire episodes later on: Apu, Smithers, Barney the drunk. To look at one of these B-listers, Krusty the Clown, is to understand the endless fertility of "The Simpsons." Beginning as a prop for Bart and Lisa to watch on the family TV, Krusty developed a story of ethnic identity (born Herschel Krustofsky, he rebelled against his rabbi father) and became a satiric stand-in for the entire entertainment industry. By comparison, "MTM"'s Chuckles the Clown (murdered by an elephant while leading a parade dressed as a peanut) was the jumping-off point for perhaps the finest TV episode ever, but he was never drawn in the detail "The Simpsons" gave Krusty.
(4) It is every television series. It's a loving satire of home and society, just as trenchant and ultimately warm as "All in the Family" and Norman Lear had the advantage of writing at a time of a clearly drawn generation gap and social turmoil. It's a workplace comedy, like "Dick Van Dyke," "Taxi" and "MTM," and with the incomparable villain Montgomery Burns, it shows that the job is more than just a warm surrogate family. It's a political satire, like "M*A*S*H," but with an even broader range of targets from Burns's money-fueled run for governor to education and privatization (most recently, when Bart and Lisa's school was bought by a toy company for test-marketing purposes) and a more nuanced, less ideologically certain point of view. Both timeless and au courant, it was not just the comics; it was the news.
(5) It is no other television series. In 1997 critic Steven Stark omitted "The Simpsons" from his survey of television's 60 top shows, "Glued to the Set," saying that it had not influenced as many other shows as "I Love Lucy" or "Dragnet." Although Stark's argument looks less convincing with every year, it still has some validity but that's precisely why finally "The Simpsons" is TV's best. We have words for the phenomenon Stark notes. We call it uniqueness. Inimitability. What "The Simpsons" has accomplished for 11 consistent seasons and no other canonical TV show has had the same legs may never be copied. And as long as Matt Groening and company keep it on the air, who cares? One greatest show of all time is plenty, thank you very much. As the century ends, we should be thankful one of its finest artworks is still being created, week after week.