I'm going to say something, and I ask that you give me a few paragraphs before you begin preparing kindling in the comments with which to burn me alive. Okay. Ready? Maybe new voice actors are the best thing that could happen to The Simpsons.
This is heresy
I love the show. I'm one of those people who still regularly watches the show. The worst part about the show isn't the scripts, which have steadily improved from its creative nadir a decade ago. Nor is it the animation, which thanks to computers and outside artists has become one of the strangest, most impressive examples of the craft on television. The worst — or let's just say most disappointing — aspect of The Simpsons today is the voice work.
The Simpsons has one of the finest voice casts, if not the finest voice cast, ever assembled. But they're phoning it in — literally. This has been happening for sometime, but this week Al Jean commented on the process in an interview about voice actor Harry Shearer (Flanders, Mr. Burns) with Entertainment Weekly:
"He actually gets to record on the phone and do the [table] reads on the phone. So we've never kept him from doing that stuff. So that's one confusion I had. For the last several years, he's done reads on the phone. He doesn't always participate. We've excused him for several and he records, as long as it's done in time, when it's convenient for him."
If you've watched The Simpsons in the past couple years, the disinterest and disconnect of some of its cast is audible. Many jokes feel like first takes, and characters reactions to one another sound like parts of different conversations. But the worst crime is the lack of faith in the show's jokes.
The worst part about The Simpsons isn't the scripts
Who can't relate? The actors voiced iconic characters through their golden years, then continued to do so for 15 more years. They have a relationship with the show and its scripts, and like all relationships this one is built upon trust. When an actor stops trusting that scripts will be good, she or he might mentally check out. Multiply that by 250 or so subpar episodes of a 573-episode run, and you get why someone like Harry Shearer or Nancy Cartwright would see recordings as an obligation instead of an opportunity.
These days the show has decent scripts again, but that trust between actors and writers seems to be gone. And the result is tepid delivery of jokes that could and should land. Then there's the sad reality that many characters already sound as if they're performed by impersonators, thanks to age and presumably the damaging effect throwing your voice day after day may have on one's vocal chords.
What I'm saying is sacrilege! It's heresy! It's the words of a scoundrel! And the nostalgic, sentimental part of me — the part that loves the early seasons of this very show — would probably rather watch The Simpsons end poorly with its original cast, than hobble a couple more years with a band of replacements. But let's not delude ourselves into thinking the voice actors aren't in some part to blame for the show's decline.
Maybe what's best for the show is to recognize it's now a cultural myth, or visual language, that's more than its talent. And that it's time to hand it over wholesale to people who can try something new.