Now in its fourth season, The Simpsons has never been better. At a time when half-hour TV comedy is reaching a new level of self-referential daring — you can’t fully appreciate the intricate, in-joke pleasures of great shows like NBC’s Seinfeld and HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show unless you’ve also watched a lot of really bad TV — The Simpsons continues to emphasize that there’s a big world out there that television barely touches upon.

In its constant acknowledgment of history, current events, and forms of art and entertainment other than television, The Simpsons is probably the most realistically surreal cartoon series ever; the show is always striving not only to be funnier but also tighter, more precise in its sarcasm, and (in its own brusquely unsentimental way) more moving. Artist-writer Matt Groening’s animated clan started out in 1987 as subversive little squiggles squeezed in between the live-actor sketches of The Tracey Ullman Show, but Groening has long since rejected subversion in favor of cultural aggression. He has said that he created these bright yellow, bulgy-eyed characters — Homer and Marge Simpson, along with their children, Bart, Lisa, and infant Maggie — to ”offer an alternative to the audience, and show them there’s something else out there than the mainstream trash that they are presented as the only thing.”

Groening has remained true to his intentions. In fact, the series’ Feb. 4 edition — in which Bart, angry with Homer, disavows his father and applies to the Bigger Brothers Agency for a surrogate dad — may be the best Simpsons show ever. Devised by writer-producer Jon Vitti, it is a masterpiece of tiny, throwaway details that accumulate into a worldview. When Bart and his Bigger Brother, Tom, go to a baseball game, for example, it’s Tomato Day at the stadium; the pregame festivities include a speech by ”the recruiter for the Springfield Communist Party,” a grizzled old man who gets booed and pelted with red, rotting fruit before he opens his mouth.

A subplot involves Lisa’s crush on a vapid teen idol named Corey, and her uncontrollable urge to call a 900 number (only ”$4.95 a minute”) that features taped messages of Corey reciting things like ”words that rhyme with Corey” (”Um, story… allegory… Montessori”). How did Lisa learn about Corey and his money-leeching phone service? We notice that her bedroom contains a copy of Non-Threatening Boys magazine.

Groening’s writers tend to make their sharpest points quickly, matter-of-factly. In a quiet moment Tom says, ”Bart, I could kiss you — if the Bigger Brothers hadn’t made me sign a form promising I wouldn’t.” Earlier, Bart’s schoolteacher Mrs. Krabappel (her nicely sour voice supplied by Marcia Wallace of the ’70s sitcom The Bob Newhart Show) thanked our little antihero for bringing in a deadly looking, U.S. Navy-made ”neural-disrupter” gun for show-and-tell. ”Don’t thank me,” says Bart briskly, ”thank an unprecedented eight-year military buildup.” (Groening, once asked if his politics weren’t left of center, said, ”I like to think of myself as middle of the road, but the rest of our culture would define me as loony left.”)

But the Simpsons aren’t winking, rib-cage-nudging rebels; if anything, they’re touchingly sincere. Groening and company want to suggest that family life is so complicated, so full of inarticulated desires and fears, that it can never be reduced to a mere collection of wisecracks. The closest the series has ever come to offering a ”message” has been in a few episodes this season that mercilessly satirize the alcohol industry in the form of the profoundly cynical ”Duff” beer company (”Can’t get enough of that wonderful Duff” is its slogan).

In one episode, Bart and Lisa’s Aunt Selma brings them to Duff Gardens amusement park, where they take in the ”beeraquarium” (soused fish swimming woozily in frothy suds) and the ”Beer Hall of Presidents” (a mechanical Abe Lincoln quaffs endless cans of Duff). A few weeks later the show has Homer trying to give up Duff for a month, with great difficulty. The episode is hilarious, in part because it makes alcoholism seem like such an absurd horror, you have to laugh.

With each season, the writers seem to concentrate on deepening and enriching a different character. Last year it was Homer’s marvelously vile boss, Mr. Burns; this season it’s Lisa. Always the smart, well-behaved middle child, Lisa has evolved into an adolescent confused and frightened by her buzzing hormones. In addition to being permitted a few tantrums and some satisfying revenge upon the bratty Bart (she recently mounted an elaborate science-fair exhibit to answer the question ”Is My Brother Dumber Than a Hamster?” in the affirmative), Lisa has also been the object of a little boy’s mad crush.

People have been investing strong emotions in cartoon characters at least as far back as Mickey Mouse; the sustained cleverness and, yes, humanity of The Simpsons proves that our devotion is not misplaced. A

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