Mass culture is becoming a museum dedicated to itself, its artifacts curated by an ever-narrowing family of conglomerates. Nowhere is that clearer than in the decline of The Simpsons, whose groundbreaking satire was killed by monopoly capitalism.
Homer Simpson and Goofy in The Simpsons in Plusaversary. (Disney+)
On November 12, subscribers to Disney+ were treated to a five-minute short film billed as The Simpsons in Plusaversary as part of a “special event” designed to mark the streaming service’s two-year anniversary. If you’re a fan of the golden era of The Simpsons that roughly spanned its run during the mid-’90s, it’s positively nauseating to watch — the premise being a party at Moe’s Tavern where all of your favorite Disney characters-qua-properties have been invited.
After waiting in line, Homer, who has somehow been left off a guest list that includes Ant-Man, Thanos, and Jabba the Hutt, is admitted as Goofy’s plus one. The short subsequently offers up a string of crossover bits that must be seen to be believed: Darth Vader drinks a beer at the bar; Buzz Lightyear arm wrestles the Mandalorian; Barney performs the Heimlich maneuver on Donald Duck; Bart arrives as a hybrid version of himself and Mickey Mouse.
Plusaversary’s centerpiece, however, is a faux tongue-in-cheek advertainment ode to the streaming platform itself — sung by none other than Lisa Simpson — which, among other things, seems to invite viewers to invest in Disney stock:
Streaming’s a dream for Disney,
All content in one place.
It’s beamed all over the planet
And into outer space.
If your kids are driving you crazy,
Entrust them to the TV.
You’ll never find a sitter
For our low monthly fee.
Disney+ for kids that are older.
But best of all, for Disney stockholders.
So, let’s all celebrate Disney+
As it reaches year number two.
As long as we have your credit card number,
It will automatically renew.
Long before it was purchased by the Walt Disney Company in 2019, many Simpsons fans readily acknowledged that the show was, for all intents and purposes, dead, if still technically on-air in a kind of zombified form. When finally acquired by Disney, it had already surpassed thirty seasons — the majority of them coming after its comparatively brief classic era and bearing only superficial resemblance to the glorious show that once had been. In what probably stands as the definitive statement on the series’ precipitous decline, YouTuber Super Eyepatch Wolf’s viral 2017 video The Fall of The Simpsons: How It Happened deftly captured both what had made the show so great and why it had so abruptly gone off the rails.
At its best, The Simpsons was a transgressive answer to the prudish social conservatism of the early 1990s. While docile and laugh-track-saturated sitcoms served up an airbrushed portrait of the American family, the world of Springfield brimmed with irreverence toward both authority and celebrity, offering satirical versions of just about every institution in American life. As the video put it, “every ugly wart of American society” was satirized and made visible, from bullying and depression to the struggles of the lower-middle class.
Though it sounds somewhat absurd now, The Simpsons in its day was practically countercultural, as evidenced by the ire it often drew from conservatives and parent watchdog groups. No less than George H.W. Bush would declare in 1992, “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”
Beginning in season eight (1996–97) and accelerating in subsequent years, the series would not so gradually shed its best qualities, tampering with the foundations of its own universe, deploying increasingly absurdist plots, and becoming self-referential to the point that characters that had once functioned as broad cultural archetypes were mostly exaggerated self-parodies. The phrase “Zombie Simpsons,” popularized by a short book on the show’s decline, thus aptly describes what it has ultimately become: a free-floating commercial property that exists solely to wring continued profits from a undead object for whatever corporate entity possesses the necessary pieces of paper.
Mass Culture as Museum of Itself
Even in its heyday, of course, The Simpsons was a moneymaking venture, and one that inspired a bonanza of spin-off products and branded tie-ins. From Butterfingers commercials and themed merchandise to the hack-and-slash Simpsons arcade game, the series was very much a property like any other. Still, commodification comes in various forms, and it’s not hard to see a difference between the kind that merely attaches a franchise model to an existing universe, and one in which the franchising process has completely devoured the object that originally inspired it.
In an earlier era of cultural production, it was at least possible for spin-off merchandise and branded ad campaigns to remain ancillary to whatever fictional world they existed to profit from. Today, thanks in large part to suffocating media concentration, any firewall that may have once existed has long since disappeared. With the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — incidentally, the year The Simpsons arguably began its terminal decline — a slew of resulting corporate mergers made an already concentrated media landscape even smaller.
In 1983, some 90 percent of American media ownership was diffused across fifty companies — a share that, by 2011, had been gobbled up by only six. As of a decade ago, the same six companies controlled roughly 70 percent of American television and boasted box-office returns twice the size of the next 140 studios combined. Though cultural production and media ownership have become incredibly convoluted, the landscape since has been fertile ground for an even more insidious type of monopolism.
Today, in a kind of unconscious acknowledgement of these developments, the hypercommodified nature of mass culture has even found its way into common parlance. As writing and media have become “content,” movies and shows are now “franchises,” and cultural artifacts of every kind are “IP” (intellectual property) — not just to bureaucrats, investors, and corporate executives but also to audiences (or rather “consumers”) themselves.
Entire narrative universes, meanwhile, are now conceptualized in modular form such that their parent companies can produce an indefinite number of reboots, sequels, and prequels, wringing as much value from the original product as possible. The same monopolism has yielded an astonishing boom in crossover content, as conglomerates seek to extract further rents by combining and reassembling their properties.
In their most extreme form, some efforts in this vein even radiate a burlesque aura of quasi-ironic self-awareness. This year’s Space Jam: A New Legacy, to take one obvious example, replicates the NBA/Looney Tunes mashup pioneered by the original, but adds to it a plot that sees LeBron James navigating the Warner Brothers “Serververse” in order to defeat the designs of Don Cheadle’s “Al-G Rhythm” over its various cultural properties. As a result, characters from Game of Thrones, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, King Kong, The Iron Giant, Rick and Morty, Austin Powers, and Mortal Kombat all make appearances. There’s no fourth wall to be had in the movie, its parent company quite literally being another character, the antagonist being a sentient WB computer program, and the stakes consisting in the liberation of characters and fictional worlds who are, in the universe of the film itself, properties of a giant entertainment conglomerate.
Warner Brothers employed a similar formula in 2018’s Ready Player One, which also places its characters inside a digital world where they are tasked with rescuing various cultural properties, and other studios have leveraged the same device as a pretext for crossover cash grabs and meta self-reference.
The ubiquity of reboots and recycled crossover objects has given rise to a whole discourse concerned with nostalgia, the crux of it being that contemporary mass culture is defined by an ambient craving for the old and familiar. To the extent this is true, it’s probably best understood as epiphenomenal of mass media consolidation. As the likes of Space Jam: A New Legacy and a “Disney+ Day” commemorative event like The Simpsons in Plusaversary seem to explicitly suggest, corporate oligopolies have gained so much influence they no longer regard themselves as mere conduits for culture, but consciously self-identify as its owners and curators as well.
The aesthetic implications of this form of cultural monopoly capitalism thus extend far beyond the realm of tortured pastiche. Throughout the decades, TV shows and film series aged past their expiry dates have often exhibited the same, familiar symptoms of decline: drawing on increasingly arbitrary plots and sustaining themselves through insular and in-jokey self-reference. Today, an analogous process appears to be underway in relation to mass culture as a whole — a grotesque crossover like The Simpsons in Plusaversary suggesting that the barrier that once at least nominally distinguished commercially grounded entertainment from pure commodity has totally collapsed.
Long before Disney finally gobbled up the show, the rent-seeking monopolies of American capitalism had given us Zombie Simpsons — an undead version of a beloved object once precious, iconoclastic, and funny beyond words. Today, it is increasingly churning out a zombie culture in which the old and familiar are endlessly recycled and reassembled by a shrinking number of mega-corporations, with ever more vacuous and derivative results.
Mass culture is, in effect, becoming a kind of museum dedicated to itself, its various artifacts curated by an ever-narrowing family of conglomerates engaged in a perpetual hunt for the next frontier of commodification. In this brave new world, no less than the soulless viscera of monopoly capitalism itself can be whimsically self-referential — the cultural terrain so thoroughly conquered by the logic of markets and profit-seeking that you can now watch LeBron James team up with Bugs Bunny to thwart a sentient computer algorithm and hear Lisa Simpson perform an ode to a Disney-owned streaming service that boasts about the company’s rising share value.