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TV Weekend: The Simpsons At 500

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A fox, and the Simpsons, on The Simpsons, on FOX.

Is there anything left to say about The Simpsons? Is there anything left to be said by The Simpsons? Maybe not on either count, but the show has, despite some recent contract-negotiation drama, kept chugging along past landmark after landmark. Sunday night, it sails past its latest marker with episode 500, “At Long Last Leave.”

I was recently asked my favorite Simpsons episodes,* an impossible task considering the show has had more couch gags than Ikea has couches. I figured the most honest way to decide, rather than go back and look over a complete list, was to come up with them off the top of my head. It probably won’t surprise you that every single episode I came up with was from the show’s first decade. I would love to write the contrarian article saying that 2000s Simpsons is better than 1990s Simpsons, but come on.

*(Since you’re wondering: no, I won’t list them all, because there are too many that I love. But the best is “Homer’s Enemy.” Period. I shall not hear it gainsaid!)

That said, the whole question of whether The Simpsons should go off the air doesn’t excite me, because it’s moot. The Simpsons, which is to say the classic, worldview-defining show that provided me a memorable quote for pretty much every occasion in life, already went off the air. It had a great run–eight or ten years, depending who’s counting, which is far, far longer than even most great TV shows maintain their greatness.

It was replaced by a second Simpsons,** which began around the late ’90s, give or take. This was not as great a show, it was less focused on the Simpsons as a family unit, and in some ways wasn’t even really a sitcom, so much as an institution, like Saturday Night Live, which became known for its famous guest cameos and its parodies and takes on topical issues. It was a lesser show, but that was fine; the world also needs comedies that are just often pretty funny, and to me its existence took nothing away from the preceding seasons.

**[This is a very crude and broad division, I admit. Within the first Golden Age of The Simpsons, you could also define separate periods: the first couple seasons, for instance, were much more based on realistic family comedy, while later years moved into more fanciful, if no less hilarious and meaningful, stories about space trips and monorails. And the latter Silver--or Bronze--Era of The Simpsons had its variations too. In the past couple of years it's become more family-focused again, and is still capable of world-class episodes like the recent "Holidays of Future Passed." The Simpsons movie too, if you count that, stands up with most of the show's first-decade greatness.]

The Simpsons takes its half-millennium bow Sunday with “At Long Last Leave,” an episode that spoofs… The Simpsons. Like the Seinfeld finale, the episode looks back on the series’ history by asking: how could the rest of the world tolerate being disturbed by this family for so long? The answer is that it can’t; the townspeople of Springfield finally respond to decades of shenanigans and property damage by ostracizing the Simpsons, who relocate to an outcast’s camp in the country. The episode, true to form, makes room for guest voices–notably Wikileaks’ Julian Assange–but the real stars are the central characters, and their history, with gags referencing how Homer’s voice has changed since the first episodes and how disturbing it is that Maggie is a baby, yet never cries.

Is it a great episode? It’s… all right! It recalls some of the show’s earlier better work, some of the gags feel forced by the writers’ room, and yet a few moments made me bark out loud and realize why I loved the show in the first place. Pretty much exactly, in other words, what this iteration of The Simpsons is meant to do.

But I’ve gone on too long. If I know the Internet, you’ve been waiting all this time to tell me why I’m out of my mind and “Homer’s Enemy” is not the greatest Simpsons of all time by a long shot. So break out your chalk and write your favorite episode in the comments.  Register your disgust throughout the world!

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