From 1955 to 1975, Gunsmoke lived on television. It can only sound silly to list all the transformative events from that two-decade period, reductive. The more you mention, the more you miss. But: Vietnam, Martin Luther King, JFK, Great Leap Forward, Malcolm X, Watergate, Beatles, every rock & roll band besides the Beatles, the invention of Marvel Comics, Apollo 11, Woodstock, Roe v. Wade, everything covered in Mad Men, everything covered by Elena Ferrante.
In my lifetime, Gunsmoke has only been remembered statistically. With 635 episodes spread across 20 seasons, it held the record as the longest-running scripted series in TV history. It seemed impossible that any show in the modern era could equal Gunsmoke‘s run. TV seasons are shorter, so The Simpsons passed the 20-season mark in 2009 having produced a mere 441 episodes, of which roughly 73 are brilliant documents of human endeavor that belong in every museum.
(Side note of more record-setting show statistics: NBC’s weekly news show Meet the Press has been on TV for 69 seasons and CBS Evening News has aired more than 16,000 epsiodes over 68 seasons.)
The Simpsons just aired its 636th episode. It still has this season to finish, and then two more on order. That’s 30 years, from barely any popular internet through Cambridge Analytica, from the first Gulf War through Little Rocket Man, from The Cosby Show to the Cosby verdict. You wonder if, in the future, every episode of The Simpsons will include a closing “Loving Memory” card, as eons of notable guest stars go where Maude Flanders went.
It’s possible that the show will outlast its own network, Fox, which is the subject of so many merciless Simpsons gags and is currently part of a cosmic asset merger with Disney. If the merger goes through, Disney won’t own the Fox TV network, but it will own Fox properties. I’m not sure what Disney has planned long term for The Simpsons, but I’m guessing their plans don’t include making money for some other company.
The record-breaking episode comes amidst a controversy about the show. Controversy about The Simpsons is, historically speaking, unusual. The early seasons met with anxious-parent hostility—the mature content, the slithery just plain wrongness of the animation, the general tone of nose-thumbing Bartistry. But past the first Bush presidency, even the most nervous mothers (like mine) seemed swayed by the critical accolades, the general feeling that Simpsons was too Harvard-ish to be bad for your kids. Helped, maybe, that the goalposts kept moving. I recall Mom turning off King of the Hill mid-episode (a nude cartoon butt), and I remember having A Conversation (or three) about South Park. Compared to which obscenities, The Simpsons probably looked like Beetle Bailey.
Since the end of the Clinton era, the main controversy surrounding The Simpsons is that it’s not as good as it used to be. Even that complaint has faded, maybe because it’s boring to argue the same thing for 20 years, more likely because The Simpsons has lasted long enough to create its own cultural gravity. You could program a whole network with just Simpsons reruns, and that network is called FXX.
But this Apu thing feels sticky, man. It goes deeper than a white man voicing an Indian man. As my colleague Dana Schwartz has noted, the Simpsons‘ response has been point-missingly tepid, almost troll-ish, the highbrow equivalent of defensively protesting that some dumb joke was “just for lulz.” Hank Azaria, who voices Apu, has expressed a vastly more complex perspective on the controversy. Maybe more actions will follow, but, for once, The Simpsons actually feels old. And not “old” like sage, wise, clever. “Old” like Grampa Simpson Old.
Grampa is the focal character of “Forgive and Regret,” Sunday’s 636th episode. The eldest Simpson has a secret, rooted in deep canon, requiring a flashback swingby from Glenn Close as Homer’s deceased mom. Turns out Young Homer bonded with Mona over the fine art of baking cakes, using recipes Grampa threw out after his wife ran off. We learn about Homer’s cake days from a montage set to a parody of Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were.” The episode also features a short parody of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” so that’s two Nixonite song riffs in one 2018 episode.
You could say the old tunes were purposeful, in a flashback episode. (The stated timeline would place Homer’s youth around 1985, but Simpsons canonical pedantry is the worst sort of canonical pedantry.) The other reference points weren’t too fresh, though. There was a rather broad spoof of NCIS: “That’s what makes America great, prompt investigation of in-house naval crimes!” There was a joke about the Escape Room craze, precisely eighteen months and eleven zeitgeists after the Escape Room craze. Homer sold his car, which meant Marge would have to ride the bus: “Like rock stars, and Rosa Parks.” That latter is weird low-hanging fruit, but when’s the last time you saw a non-period sitcom refer to “rock stars”?
(If you’re controversy-tracking in search of fresh ragebox material, you might appreciate the commercial for a Demolition Derby, which featured two flashing textboxes: “No Overt Racism!” and “If You Can Prove Racism, Free Cola!” This was obviously a joke about the sort of people who attend Demolition Derbies, a scenario The Simpsons last visited in 2002. But a Simpsons joke about “overt racism” carries an extra charge just now.)
I was just settling in for a jokey meander, and then the family actually went to a Demolition Derby. One automobile was called Car-Rak Obama, the Affordable Healthcare Mobile, which, the announce declared, “You can’t kill no matter how hard you try!”
The crowd pelted the metaphor-car with trash. And the scene ended with the car’s giant Barack Obama head rolling over the ground, possibly exploding. It was a sight gag, but The Simpsons often shocks the most lately in its throwaway material. The show’s been doing angry mobs since “The Monorail Song,” but this felt different, weirder, a scab being torn off.
Otherwise, the plot felt creaky. At one point Homer said, “Life doesn’t always give you neat endings that ties everything up in a bow.” And then the ending involved a Macguffin literally tied up with a bow. Cute—but you’d prefer something clever. The episode wrapped on a closing-shot hug between father and son, the kind of sitcom trope The Simpsons could make fun of, back when most sitcom families were blandly happy (and not snarkishly happy, which is to say, Simpsons-esque).
There were some laughs. The NCIS gag got funnier as it went along, when it became clear that The Simpsons‘ whole view of the CBS franchise was “Guns, Guns, Guns.” (At one point, the cartoon version of Mark Harmon fired a gun, and the bullet was a smaller gun, and, God help me, I died.) Cameo all-star Cletus described the Demolition Derby to his kids by comparing it to Cars: “All your favorite characters are going to commit suicide!” And I’ll never complain about an episode that starts in Moe’s Tavern. A scene in the Springfield bar feels like visiting an old unreconstructed dive bar in a neighborhood long lost to gentrification. I pray Disney opens a real-life Moe’s Tavern in California Adventure, serving Duff Beer. Maybe right outside the Cars ride, for added inappropriate thrills.
It’s too easy to rag on the show for feeling out of date, especially since shameless topicality is now the de facto mode of popular comedy. Saturday Night Live is much older than The Simpsons, but their origins probably seem contemporaneous to anyone in college now. And NBC’s late-night franchise has extended its life by transforming into Trending Topic Theater, promising some of the week’s finest jokes about the memes you’ll forget about eight days from now. Meanwhile, twenty-year-old South Park, is still figuring out its own post-Trump reality, struggling through a freaky new world where all the worst powerful people think Cartman is hilarious.
What I mean is: The Simpsons feels old now, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You may feel it’s lost sight of some of the younger characters. Lisa had a line about environmentalism and a line about jazz, the twin Lisa fascinations every Simpsons wikia must mention in the first paragraph.
But could you scan a bit of resonance in the saga of Grampa? Here’s an old man who thinks he’s dying. He reveals a great crime from his past—and then refuses to acknowledge it when his life is extended indefinitely. Grace arrives only when he admits to his mistake, and seeks penance, returning to the scene of the crime to right an old wrong.
The Simpsons is old enough to be really old. No one, and no show, lives forever without making mistakes. But people can evolve. TV shows can certainly evolve. You wonder what The Simpsons would become, with a bit of penance following Azaria’s confession. The last couple years have witnessed endless revision of old cultural expectations, heroes turned villains, onetime rebels turned defenders of the status quo. Could The Simpsons change? Why not? Age is just a number. That number is 636, and counting.