The Simpsons premiered 26 years ago Thursday, as part of Fox’s Sunday night lineup that at the time included Married… with Children.
Because the family had popped up as animated shorts on The Tracy Ullman Show a few years earlier – and also because of creator Matt Groening’s success with the cartoon strip Life in Hell – they weren’t exactly an unknown quantity when the show premiered on Jan. 14, 1990.
Critics were quick to respond, too. In honor of The Simpsons‘ 26th birthday, check out what some of the country’s leading pop-culture publications were saying about the show in its first few months on air.
PEOPLE: David Hiltbrand, writing in PEOPLE’s Feb. 12, 1990 issue, called The Simpsons “the most subversive beast in the Fox den, and, at least initially, the wittiest.” He continued: “Groening’s style clearly owes more to underground cartoonist R. Crumb than it does to Hanna-Barbera,” adding that Homer and Marge’s “offspring are exactly the sort of low-slung predators people who hate children dread most.” (Bart, sure; but such unkind words for Lisa and Maggie?) “Watching the antics of these inveterate losers,” he concludes, “is seriously skewed and seriously funny.”
TIME: Richard Zoglin was considerably more critical of the show, writing in the April 16, 1990 issue that, while “The Simpsons has a good deal of savvy wit,” it’s “strangely off-putting most of the time.” “The drawings are grotesque without redeeming style or charm (characters have big beady eyes, beaklike noses and spiky hair),” he added, “and the animation is crude even by TV’s low-grade standards.”
Entertainment Weekly: EW didn’t review The Simpsons initially, but it did write a huge behind-the-scenes feature about the show in the May 18, 1990 issue. “In just a few months, The Simpsons has become the shining star in Fox’s lineup,” Joe Rhodes writes, “a regular entry in the Nielsen top 15 despite the fact that at its heart this is guerrilla TV, a wicked satire masquerading as a prime-time cartoon.” “Homer Simpson,” he adds, is “the leading candidate to replace Ronald Reagan as America’s most befuddled father figure.”
The New York Times: The Gray Lady praised the show as “impressively on target” on Feb. 21, 1990, though with a few caveats: “There is, admittedly, a fine line between being hilariously perceptive and just plain, even objectionably, silly. While habitually teetering on that line, The Simpsons has shown a remarkable ability to come down on the right side most of the time.”
Rolling Stone: Rolling Stone wrote a deeply bizarre feature in its June 28, 1990 issue in which writer Bill Zehme pretends that the Simpsons are a real family, and that he’s embedded with them in Springfield. (Confusingly, he continually refers to them as orange, which makes us wonder a) if Zehme is colorblind, and b) how this made it past a fact-checker.) “The Simpsons live in ignorance,” he writes loftily. “They receive their mail there. And that is where I recently found them.”
About halfway through, the feature switches viewpoints and concedes that the Simpsons are not a real family. As close to a critique as the feature gets is probably the line: “They’ve become the soul of Fox Broadcasting, dependably notching Top Twenty Nielsen ratings.”
All this proves that, essentially, The Simpsons emerged already an institution – and was feted as such. Congrats, and may it reign for many more years.
The Simpsons airs Sundays (8 p.m. ET) on Fox.