On April 29th, The Simpsons aired its 636th episode, officially putting it past Gunsmoke as the longest running U.S. scripted primetime show. That's an impressive feat, helped no doubt by the core cast being six actors and the show's floating timeline making aging a non-factor. But any discussion of the show now has to deal with the accelerated decline in quality from the show's peak. Some dance more gingerly around the subject, paying lip service that acknowledges the fall-off but qualifies it by asserting that it's still better than [x] percent of shows on TV.

I stopped watching the show regularly early in the twentieth season. Though I previously showed to see it through to the end, it became clear that the show was irrevocably stuck. Everything that made The Simpsons what it was – the satire, the well-rounded characters, and most importantly, the humour – had all fallen out to the point that there was all but nothing left. I've seen a few episodes since then, out of curiosity. I can't remember much about them, other than the show felt more worn out than over, particularly with the voice actors, straining to bring their iconic characters to life.

Much of the recent discussion of The Simpsons has been not about the episode milestone but about the character of Apu. Voiced by Hank Azaria (a white man), Apu is an Indian and checks off many of the stereotypes of Indian/Southeast Asian people among westerners: such as working at a convenience store, affinity for curry, and a comically exaggerated accent. Hari Kondabolu's documentary The Problem With Apu addressed the frustration felt by him and others with similar backgrounds about how Apu was practically the only representation they had for more than a decade.

On a recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Azaria contended that the Apu character might have to go in a different direction to be sustainable, up to and including having an actually Indian voice actor. Given the overwhelming amount of dislikes on the YouTube video of the interview (embedded below this article), this likely riled up fans (and non-fans), convinced Azaria had been co-opted by some kind of social justice Illuminati, rather than being someone with at least shred of sympathy and understanding of concerns about his character.

The Problem With Apu is about 50 minutes long. A documentary called "The Problem with The Simpsons" could easily run twice as long, albeit for different reasons. The best years of the show (i.e. the first eight seasons) are still as hilarious as ever. From there, the quality gradually went down, producing episodes that were bad by any television standards, not just The Simpsons. Then, it got weird, but not in a particularly interesting way. The episodes I caught recently weren't any worse than, say, 'Kill the Alligator and Run' or 'Bonfire of the Manatees' (that's an actual title), but they were depressingly banal and underwritten. Thanks to Mike Amato's excellent blog, I've been able to understand how modern Simpsons continues its downward trajectory without actual experiencing it.

A common rebuttal of Apu defenders is that the show traffics in stereotypes as its main source of humor, so to chastise one without chastising others is unfair. This whataboutism is more about invalidating the concerns of Kondabolu and others than showing sympathy to Scots who might be offended by Willie or Hispanics who might be offended by Bumblebee Man. It also does a great disservice to the brilliance of the classic years. The show wasn't great because it had characters with 'funny' accents. It was great because of how it cut through the bullshit of institutions like public schools, local government, and the news media without feeling like a sanctimonious lecture, a la South Park.

Does the show get better with Apu gone or revamped with a new actor? Probably not. Of the show's problems, Apu being an offensive stereotype is just one of many. You also have characters reciting dialogue that's embarrassingly hackneyed, terrible pacing, and blatantly transparent attempts to still seem hip by referencing Facebook and smartphones. Al Jean, a veteran of the show, has been the primary showrunner since season 13, and there's no sense he has any ambition for the show beyond adding another 'milestone' to the list and 'trolling' SJWs who dare offer any sort of thoughtful criticism. I actually watched the crossover they did with Family Guy (a show whose use of stereotypes as a source of humor makes Apu seem positively enlightened). While it wasn't particularly good, it was better than any actual Simpsons episode I had seen in years in terms of making the characters feel authentic. I say "actual" because it was technically a Family Guy episode, credited to Patrick Meighan.

Could a major upheaval in staff make a difference? If nothing else, it could make for some new interpretations of the show's world. The beauty of the classic years was that each season felt distinct. Fans of the more down-to-earth seasons two and three might've been horrified in season five when Homer went into space and a house sprung giant legs and ran down the street, but the development was sound in those and in others. Disparate tones or not, it was made by people who would go as far as possible to prove their dedication to quality.

I'm not naive enough to believe The Simpsons will ever officially end, nor am I eagerly anticipating its demise. Even if the show as we know it ends due to the death/leaving of a major voice actor (Harry Shearer's threatening to walk a few years ago didn't seem like it would affect things all that much) or due to the declining ratings, it will still be one of the most valuable media properties of all-time. But the further it goes, the more it seems to be limping towards some sort of finish line that will never appear. A show once dedicated to quality is now just dedicated to quantity.