Recently, seasoned actor Harry Shearer announced that after 26 long years, he would be retiring from his career as a voice actor for The Simpsons. Any fan of the show will undoubtedly understand what a tremendous role Harry Shearer’s talent has had on what used to be one of the greatest TV shows on the planet. He provided the voices of Ned Flanders, Mr. Burns, Waylon Smithers, Seymour Skinner, Kent Brockman (perhaps my favourite of his roles on the show), Reverend Lovejoy, Dr. Hibbert, and several other characters. Coupled with the death of Sam Simon, I think this a very strong sign that The Simpsons, as a TV show, is on its last legs.
To be honest, this doesn’t surprise me. Harry Shearer has been vocal about the decline of the show’s quality before. However, this time he may have left because his work on the show was making it harder for him to work on other projects. Shearer was responsible for some of the funniest and greatest voice talent in recent memory. His retirement from the show will be a great loss for the show.
Naturally, the show’s producers have reacted swiftly. The current showrunner, Al Jean, has announced that the show is trying to recast all of Shearer’s former roles. In my opinion, this is going to be impossible. I don’t think anyone can capture the talent of Harry Shearer, and the characters he once played might sound noticeably different. Also, what if no single actor could take on all those roles? It’s possible that either multiple actors will be hired, or the show will kill off some of the characters in order to take the pressure off the one actor they do eventually hire. If they do kill off another character, who would they pick? Would they pick Mr. Burns (who, in all honesty, is probably so old we’d probably expect him to go), Kent Brockman, Rainier Wolfcastle, or Principal Skinner? Either way, it’d serve only to boost the show’s abysmal ratings, which might suffer even more after the new voice actor (or actors) have been cast.
However, The Simpsons isn’t the kind of show the producers will give up on without a fight. To my dismay, the show is still renewed for two more seasons, both of which are probably going to suck harder and harder as the years go by. I should also note that as long as they still have Hank Azaria, the only voice actor who could equal Harry Shearer’s ability on the show, and as long as Dan Castellaneta, Juile Kavner, Mary Cartwright and Yeardley Smith are still in the cast, the producers can probably do the show without Harry. However, history has shown that some TV characters are so well-liked that recasting them is never an option. The Simpsons has its own examples. In 1998, Phil Hartman died, and as a result, we never saw Troy McClure or Lionel Hutz ever again, with Rainier Wolfcastle filling Troy’s old spot, and Lionel being replaced by the irredeemably lame Gill Gunter. In 2013, we lost Marica Wallace, who provided the voice for another classic character, Edna Krabappel, who until this point was Bart’s teacher. Following Marcia’s untimely death, the show’s producers quietly killed off her character, and even Bart mourned.
Of course, outside The Simpsons, there are other examples of irreplaceable actors whose characters were killed off. For example, Star Trek: The Next Generation featured a character named Tasha Yar. When Denise Crosby, the actress who played her, walked out of the show, she was killed off in the lamest possible way, by being pushed aside by a creature that looked like black sludge. Even more insulting was that this was a character that many agree could have had plenty of room for development, but according to Denise, the character was not being developed enough, so she walked out the show, appearing once more in “Yesterday’s Enterprise”. Perhaps the cruellest example can be found in South Park. After the legendary Isaac Hayes quit South Park, having been offended by their portrayal of Scientology, the show’s main writers opened season 10 by killing off Hayes’ character, Chef, by re-writing him as a paedophile, and when he finally snaps out of it, he dies by falling of a broken bridge, and then being mauled by a mountain lion and a bear. After that, South Park was irreversibly doomed to suffer a painfully sharp decline in quality, but is set to continue for two more seasons.
Bearing this history in mind, the future for such beloved characters as Ned Flanders doesn’t look very bright. Over the next two seasons, we may see a slow and systematic decline of some of the characters Shearer voiced. Let’s face it, the show’s quality has decayed so much that at this point, anything’s possible, even a mass suicide of characters (which would probably court a hailstorm of outrage from the show’s already frustrated fans). Whatever happens in the future, with the retirement of Harry Shearer, the show has reached a point of no return. From here on out, the show will never be able to restore its former glory, and with declining ratings, the dissolution of Fox’s Animation Domination block (now replaced by Sunday Funday with the addition of live-action shows), increasingly over-recycled stories, and the lingering threat of more characters being killed off, I’m almost certain that the show will not be able to last much longer. At this rate, cancellation could be certain, for as the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end. In this case, it should have ended over a decade ago.