You may not have noticed, but The Simpsons just passed a major landmark. This past December 17 commemorated the 25th anniversary of the first broadcast of an episode of the series, the Christmas-themed "Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire." And January 14 will mark the 25th anniversary of the show's debut proper, with "Bart The Genius." As of this month, an entire quarter century will have passed in which The Simpsons has been airing on television for at least 30 minutes a week. (The characters have been around even longer than that, having first appeared in 1987 as a series of shorts on the then-fledgling Fox network's Tracey Ullman Show.)
Long-lived shows and franchises are nothing new. Gunsmoke ran for twenty years, M*A*S*H ran for eleven, and Archie Bunker's prime time tenure spanned twelve years and two sitcoms. When The Simpsons premiered in 1989, Star Trek was still going strong after 23 years, with a third season of The Next Generation airing in syndication and a fifth movie starring the original cast just released on home video. But outside of daytime soap operas, continuously long-running shows lasting a decade or more were extremely rare, particularly in America. However, there was one program that had been around for just over a quarter-century at that time, barring a few hiccups, and it's that show with which I'd like to make parallels to the current run of The Simpsons. That series is, of course, the original Doctor Who (1963-1989).
A few years ago, Charlie Jane Anders wrote an insightful piece pointing out that the secret behind "classic" Who's longevity was that it was not one program, but at least ten, changing producers, casts, and formats to stay fresh and exciting, all the while sticking to a handful of core concepts. Borrowing the format of her article, I would like to demonstrate that The Simpsons has followed a similar pattern. Granted, unlike Who, the cast has stayed the same, and, for the most part, the types of stories have remained fairly consistent over the years; there was never a time when Homer and Marge went to work for a government agency (though Scully and Mulder did visit Springfield once), and Bart and Lisa never went on the run from a malignant demigod (Sideshow Bob notwithstanding). But like Who, the spirit and tone of the program has changed dramatically depending on the season or decade. Just as the "educational" 1960s Hartnell series about a crotchety mad scientist traveling the universe with a pair of captive humans and his granddaughter feels utterly removed from the freewheeling Time Lord sitcom of the late Tom Baker Era, it's impossible to watch an episode of The Simpsons from 1991 back to back with one from 1997, or 2007 for that matter, and feel that it's the same show. Herewith then, are the six unique shows that The Simpsons has been since 1989: