I've been watching the show from the beginning and I remember not being an instant fan. I'd seen a few of the shorts from The Tracey Ullman Show and thought it was okay, but when the show became a half-hour fully-fledged series it wasn't really given the promotion it deserved.
The advertisers seemed to think that because the show was a cartoon the audience would most likely comprise children, so they focussed on the antics of Bart Simpson and released the woeful late 80s synth-pop number 'Do The Bartman' as a tie-in to the series premier. A lot of merchandise was released also featuring Bart and his incongruous catch phrases such as 'Eat My Shorts' and 'Don't Have a Cow, Man'. These were quickly phased out in the show and Bart's early penchant for catch phrases was openly derided in the 'I Didn't Do It' episode some years later.
I really fell in love with the show when living in a sharehouse with about five other people. We'd watch the new episode every week and had an extensive VHS library of past episodes to tide us over until new episodes were aired. There was nothing better than sitting down with a couple of slices of pepperoni pizza from Ribbets at Auchenflower and a four litre cask of lambrusco.
After watching the show with others it was obvious who the star of the show was - Homer. His unbridled rampaging Id combined with his laziness and his lack of concern for others represented the worst aspects of 'the ugly American' but there was something about him that was sweet and childlike too. In spite of early criticism the show received from detractors, The Simpsons, although dysfunctional, proved to be a pretty solid family unit that loved each other and were more easy to relate to than families on shows like Growing Pains and Family Ties which were so formulaic and saccharine. President George Bush Senior famously said that Americans should be 'more like The Waltons and less like the Simpsons'. He would go on to be lampooned in the show as a Mr Wilson-type character that moves in over the road from Bart's 'Dennis the Menace.'
Simpson-speak became an instant part of our vernacular. This, combined with quotes from 70s Australian television shows, sporting commentators and archaic dad-speak made conversations between me and my friends almost indecipherable to the outsider for the best part of a decade (I think I've recovered to some degree now). But that was the thing - if you could drop a Simpsons quote into a conversation and get a response then you knew the person you were talking to was in a group that was as important and exclusive as The Stonecutters. On one occasion this didn't work in a friends' favour. I remember the look of disappointment on the face of his girlfriend who was not familiar with the show when she realised all the witty remarks that my friend was spouting were all lifted from The Simpsons. The show travelled so much comedic terrain that there was no subject the show didn't touch. Even South Park acknowledged this in the episode 'The Simpsons Already Did It'.
To my mind there are three Simpsons eras. Early episodes focussed on the dynamic of the family when the show looked and sounded more like a deranged Peanuts cartoon. When writers ran out of these family scenarios the show shifted into being about social satire and popular culture. Now the Simpsons' universe is so large that they seem to be able to sustain storylines from their own rich past. This makes it strange when watching new episodes because any guest stars seem to be shoehorned in. The show no longer seems to be a part of this world.
Another way to divide the series up would be to consider episodes to be Phil Hartman episodes or post Phil Hartman. I remember being genuinely shocked and saddened when Hartman was murdered by his wife in 1998 as he seemed such a well adjusted guy and was effortlessly funny. He most notably played attorney Lionel Hutz and washed up actor Troy McLure in The Simpsons and left a gaping hole in the series when he passed away. To their credit, The Simpsons' writers did not replace Hartman with another voice actor but his loss is still felt. Hartman's performance in the musical version of 'Planet of the Apes' is still one of the series highlights and a reminder of when songs in The Simpsons were worthwhile. The 'Songs in the Key of Springfield' album is pretty great but the tunes went downhill after that for some reason. If you're a Hartman fan I also recommend his performance in the role of Captain Carl in Pee Wee Herman live.