There is a constant sense of surprise — a wily exuberance — about THE SIMPSONS (Fox, Sundays, 8-8:30 p.m.) that still hasn’t abated after eight seasons: This is one of the sharpest, most purely pleasurable television series ever. What began in 1987 (as animated filler between sketches on The Tracey Ullman Show) has become one of the medium’s most dependable entertainments, a cartoon that transcended cartoonishness a long time ago.

My friends, the saga of one little family in Springfield, USA — parents Homer and Marge; kids Bart, Lisa, and Maggie — has become the story of America. I can’t think of a topic, from TV violence to religion, from Disney World to alcoholism, on which The Simpsons has not offered pointed, hilarious commentary. The Simpsons has also made better use of the voices of its guest stars than most live-action shows do with celebrities in full corporeal form. (Recent visitors have included Frasier‘s Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce as the murderous Sideshow Bob and his brother, Cecil, and Albert Brooks as jovial corporate mogul Hank Scorpio.)

Over the years, creator Matt Groening and his large team of writers have filled Springfield with what is by far the largest supporting cast of any prime-time TV series, and managed to make every one of those bit players a vivid presence. In particular, Harry Shearer and Dan Castellaneta deserve high praise for the wide range of distinctive tones they bring to their voice characterizations. (Did you realize that Castellaneta’s chores include Homer, his pal Barney, Krusty the Clown, Grampa Simpson, Mayor Quimby, and Itchy the mouse? And that Shearer’s list is even longer?)

So far, The Simpsons‘ 1996-97 season has been one of its most satisfyingly knotty ever. Please don’t tell me that you’ve missed:

— The one where Marge, so overworked and tense she’s starting to lose puffy tufts of her blue hair, hires a nanny who’s an awful lot like Mary Poppins. (Her name? Shary Bobbins.) This episode was festooned with musical-comedy parodies so adroit, they could move to Broadway tomorrow;

— The one where prohibition returns to Springfield, and Moe’s Tavern is forced to become an illegal speakeasy. The show gave Homer the final line, a toast that was chilling in its funny bluntness: ”To alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems!” I am certain no flesh-and-blood sitcom protagonist would have been permitted to deliver that sentiment;

— The one where Homer discovers gay people, embodied (er, emsketched?) here by a campy kitsch-shop owner, voiced by John Waters in a terrific performance. At first, Homer doesn’t realize his new pal is gay, and Marge tries to clue her husband in: ”Mmmm, he prefers the company of men.” ”Who doesn’t?!” bellows the clueless Homer. The writing in this episode — by Ron Hauge — had some of the subtlest pop-cultural riffing I’ve ever heard on television; and

— The one where ratings plummet for The Itchy & Scratchy Show, the ultraviolent cartoon-within-a-cartoon, and the network decides that the rambunctious cat and mouse need a new ”sidekick” character, a dog named Poochie — voice provided by Homer. The show’s satire of TV-exec gutlessness and corporate reliance upon focus groups was savage — in the most heartfelt way.

The aforementioned episode, credited to writer David S. Cohen, was the culmination to date of everything Groening has been saying about TV for years now. In fact, Groening’s show has itself become the medium’s shrewdest critic. Which is also the core reason for The Simpsons‘ continued excellence: that it is Groening’s point of view — always skeptical, sometimes cranky, profoundly kind but never sentimental — to which the series’ vast number of writers and producers over the years have remained true.

It helps, of course, that as a cartoon whose time in the media spotlight has waned, The Simpsons is able to get away with jokes and opinions that would raise howling protests in other, higher-profile shows. The new animated sitcom that follows it, King of the Hill, has likewise benefited from this freedom, as evidenced by the entire half hour devoted to Hank Hill’s colon. (And a fine piece of work that was, too.)

It also helps that The Simpsons is densely packed with throwaway jokes and references to both high and low culture, which provide a constantly humming subtext. The prohibition show alone contained references to James Joyce, the IRA, and a visual allusion to Edward Hopper’s diner painting, all of which weren’t there just for smarty-pants attitudinizing in the manner of, say, Mystery Science Theater 3000. In the world of The Simpsons, everyone has a purpose; everything exists to make a point. In that sense, this cartoon is the most humanistic show on television. A+

The Simpsons
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