It would be reasonable to expect that The Simpsons’ innovating days are over. Making 550-plus episodes will do that to a series. There are only so many ways Homer can lose his job at the power plant, and Bart–after 25 years as a 10-year-old–is old enough to be his own father.
Yet on Oct. 21, The Simpsons unveiled what may be the future of TV, or at least one version of it: Simpsons World, an online experience that allows access to the entire series. Every episode. Every “Treehouse of Horror.” Every couch gag, to enjoy on your couch until you gag.
The on-demand reruns in themselves would be enough to shorten your productive life. But what’s really revolutionary about Simpsons World is the way it redefines the experience of how we watch and organize TV. It may even change our notions of what a TV channel is.
Using the website or the FXNOW app, you can watch playlists chosen by theme. Or you can customize your own themes using the powerful search feature: every episode involving politics, say, or every appearance of Troy McClure. (Some Simpsons World features are yet to come, like the ability to select and share video clips, at which point 95% of your Facebook feed will be Simpsons snippets.)
The result is a better way to experience an expansively world-building show like The Simpsons than watching it on TV. One reason television has become so powerful as a medium is that serial dramas–The Wire, Breaking Bad–have taken advantage of its linear nature. The ability to binge-watch them on DVD or streaming sites emphasizes their novelistic qualities, which in turn has given them the kind of cultural respect once accorded to novels.
But Simpsons World also emphasizes how TV does things novels can’t. A comedy like The Simpsons creates an immersive, fully realized universe of hundreds of locations and characters. Whereas a serial drama is propelled forward on a track, The Simpsons expands outward like a spiral galaxy. With Simpsons World, you can adventure inside it, skipping from point to point and leaping across decades as if through a space-time wormhole. It’s not binge watching; it’s more like graze watching.
Simpsons World shows how TV is moving toward choice and customization, which may apply to your TV bill too. Right now, cable is built on the bundle. You pay for dozens or hundreds of channels even if you want only 10. But in October, HBO unsheathed, in Game of Thrones terms, the Valyrian-steel sword of cable-cord cutting: in 2015 you’ll be able to get HBO over broadband even if you don’t have cable. (No price yet, but at pay-TV rates, it would be about $15 a month.)
The same week, old-school broadcaster CBS unveiled its own streaming deal for live TV on mobile, plus thousands of archival programs, for $6 a month. Ditch cable, get an antenna, throw in Netflix or Hulu Plus ($8 a month) or Amazon Prime ($99 a year) and you’ve got a nice mix of new and classic TV on the (relative) cheap.
Simpsons World is not a cord-cutting bid; it requires a cable subscription. But who says it always will–or that future TV franchises won’t see the value of unbundling themselves? (Earlier this year, South Park’s creators signed an $80 million deal with Hulu.) Just so, other channels have to be looking at HBO’s grab for the wallets of the 10 million broadband-only households.
Couch cheapskates shouldn’t get too excited. You may need to sacrifice channels you like to truly save money. The channels you will pay for may cost much more à la carte than you’d think–particularly sports outlets like ESPN. (The CBS streaming app pointedly does not include live sports.) And your broadband Internet bill may just get more expensive. That bill, in fact, may already come from your cable company, which is one reason cable is O.K. with moves like HBO’s.
Little by little, though, TV’s future is shaping up to be less like having to buy a prix fixe meal and more like selecting a box of doughnuts. Mmm … doughnuts.
This appears in the November 10, 2014 issue of TIME.
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