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It's All About the D'Oh: Is This the Way The Simpsons Should End?

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The TV news-o-sphere has been buzzing for the last day or so about reports that Fox has threatened to stop producing new episodes of The Simpsons if its voice actors do not accept a substantial—as in, nearly by half—pay cut. Considering that the show has been one of TV’s biggest successes since it began life as a cave painting at Lascaux, I can see lay viewers thinking that Fox is poormouthing the show to save a buck. But while I have not looked inside their books, I can see a point, at least. Shows get more expensive the longer they’re on the air; the ratings are not what they used to be; and there are so many Simpsons episodes in existence that the original series may have passed the point of diminishing returns as a source of repeats.

My gut tells me that this ends with the show staying on air anyway; it’s a sweet deal for the actors even if they get gouged in negotiations, and it’s still a pride-and-branding hallmark for Fox even if it’s losing money on originals. (Go to any Fox network upfront and see how lavishly it uses the show’s images to identify the network to advertisers.)

The one thing that would be an absolutely horrible outcome, however, would be if, as Fox has threatened in the past, it replaces its voice actors with new ones.

Animation voice actors tend to get shortchanged on credit compared with live-action actors, whose work we can actually see. But voice actors’ work—good ones, on a good show, anyway—is at least as important, if not more, precisely because they have only one sense to appeal to. They have to do everything with sound and intonation, and thus a Nancy Cartwright or Hank Azaria is, through only a voice, suggesting emotion and character all at once. “Being” Bart or Homer or any of the well-realized Simpsons characters is not just a matter of imitation; it’s a matter of telling the audience, through how they speak, the way that character thinks. If the cast could casually be ditched, Fox wisely would have done that long ago.

Fox might very well be able to replace its actors with imitators that will do well enough to keep an audience. (Bugs Bunny, after Mel Blanc, was still Bugs Bunny–except he totally wasn’t, if you had any kind of attachment to the character.) But it seems pretty plain that if original Simpsons episodes have any value to Fox, it’s not mainly a monetary one. It’s symbolism, and pride; The Simpsons is exhibit #1 in any claim that Fox is a distinctive, special network devoted to original voices—literally. A pretender Simpsons is not what Fox wants to show the world.

Of course, I don’t have much right to get sanctimonious about The Simpsons; I only occasionally watch new episodes now. I don’t think it has a right to stay on the air forever. But if it’s going to go, it deserves to go out right.

And if it stays, with its cast, that’s fine by me too; even a Simpsons that is not what it was is better than a lot of comedies on the air, and it still delivered several really good episodes last season. Ironically, this whole controversy comes up while there’s a similar dispute at Showtime over Dexter, where the network is in a tough salary negotiation with Michael C. Hall.

But Dexter just debuted to its biggest rating ever, so I’m guessing it’s a lock to come back, at whatever price. I’d take another 10 seasons of an OK Simpsons over one more of this exhausted drama, for my money. But as is always the case in these things, it’s not my money.