On Sunday night, The Simpsons will kick off its 24th season of animated hilarity, and it’s entirely possible you don’t care. The accepted knowledge on the show is that the first eight seasons or so are some of the best half-hours in the history of television comedy, but that it long ago ran out of gas.
And while the show hasn’t reached the incredible plateaus of classic episodes like “Marge Vs. The Monorail” and “Homer’s Enemy,” it maintains an incredible balance between animation-enabled wackiness and actual storytelling. South Park may have eclipsed it as the definitive satirical voice in television comedy, but it retains a certain amount of social bite.
What I’m saying is that The Simpsons used to be better than 98 percent of everything else on television. Now it’s only better than 90 percent — and still stands head and shoulders above most any other animated program on network TV.
In fact, last season featured an episode that absolutely belongs in the Simpsons pantheon. “Politically Inept, With Homer Simpson” featured Homer’s ascendance as a Glenn Beck-style TV zealot — complete with crying jags. It embodied everything that is great about the show past and present.
It’s remarkably compact
The episode managed to skewer the TSA, the absurd politics of wedding invitations, the frustrating nature of air travel, and the silliness of YouTube buzz — and that’s all in the first three minutes. It even snuck in a gag about how nobody knows where Springfield actually is. Some may consider that overloaded, but it all functioned in service to the main narrative quite nicely. It’s a style that the producers of the show have been perfecting steadily over the course of the show’s run, and it runs like clockwork.
It’s political without really being “political”
In the main narrative, Homer gains all sorts of attention for an online rant about airlines, which leads to a news organization giving him his own show called Gut Check. The whole thing is aimed pretty specifically at Glenn Beck, though it doesn’t so much accost any of Beck’s messages as it does his methods (the crying, the not-entirely-thought-out metaphors, the broad invocations of freedom and patriotism). It’s a general attack on talking head culture and the ridiculousness of cable news, no matter what their opinions may be. The Simpsons does what Fox News doesn’t: They are fair and balanced satirists.
Many have accused the producers of The Simpsons of ginning up numbers with guest stars, and the celebrity cameo glut has sometimes gotten huge. But in the case of “Politically Inept,” the show uses its guest star exceptionally well. Ted Nugent plays an only slightly more cartoonish version of himself, using Bart’s friends as arrows for bow hunting and declaring an ungulate’s antlers “not meat.” He becomes the Republican presidential favorite (remember, this episode aired during primary season) following Homer’s endorsement, and the results are pretty funny. The Nuge looks ridiculous while carrying just enough of a cartoon wink to let everybody know he’s in on the joke, and somehow it ends up being his most charming, palatable television appearance ever. You wouldn’t think that he would make a great guest star anywhere, but The Simpsons knows exactly how to treat outsiders. Zooey Deschanel will play a major role tonight, and the rest of this season’s lineup is incredibly promising, featuring the likes of Tina Fey, Benedict Cumberbatch, Justin Bieber, Steve Carrell, and the return of Danny “Unkie Herb” DeVito.
It’s just funny
Look, the bottom line is that The Simpsons remains exceptionally funny, and there will always be one moment in each 30-minute installment that will make you laugh out loud. In “Inept,” that moment comes just after Homer decides to wear a gravy boat on his head, and his fans follow suit in a show of right-wing solidarity. After a parade of people walk out of Moe’s Tavern wearing the same accessory, Moe cries, “Why did I do this as a loss leader?” It’s simultaneously topical, absurd, and a little bit heartbreaking (because Moe’s sadness is always a little funny — he’s like an animated Louis CK). It’s a killer joke, proving that the writers of The Simpsons still got it.
The show is increasingly a victim of its own success, and if it’s true that it no longer delivers the never-ending parade of greatness that it did in its youth, that doesn’t mean it’s a failure. It’s funny, it’s adventurous — and it’s still way better than Family Guy.
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