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3 YEARS

All Hail 'The Simpsons' No Matter What Season

So the 500th episode wasn't better than the 50th? Who cares? This icon transcends seasons.

The Simpsons 500th Episode - H 2012
Fox

It was telling that at the end of the The Simpsons 500th episode, the writers put in a title card thanking viewers and saying they should go outside for some fresh air before logging on to the internet to say the episode sucked. For years now, one of the interweb’s most enduring memes – more so than the Hitler reworkings – is complaining about how The Simpsons isn’t as funny as it used to be.

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In fact, what’s most interesting these days about fans who continue to watch and then bitch, is asking them what season the laughs eroded. Eighth? 10th? Sixth? Everybody has an opinion.

And yes – this just in – The Simpsons isn’t as funny as it once was. I think when you make 500 episodes and turn your writing staff over as often as The Simpsons did, not to mention running out of or repeating ideas, then yes, a general creative slide might be anticipated. But every time there’s a landmark – and 500 episodes is a whopper of one – a little perspective is handy.

So what if The Simpsons isn’t as minute-to-minute brilliant as it once was? This show was Hall of Fame first ballot generations ago. It didn’t have to prove anything more. What’s impressive beyond the fact it still gets surprisingly good ratings for a show you can find pretty much anywhere in reruns while most die-hards have all the DVD boxed sets piled up on their shelves, is that it keeps getting up and going to work and we keep watching. (Or, in the case of a lot of former fans, not watching –though that automatically excludes them from complaining. You have to watch to participate.) But that notion – clocking in and getting it done – is admirable.

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I like to think of The Simpsons as a great sports hero that keeps playing because it/he/she still loves the game and still understands that it/he/she can still get it done sometimes. Hey, we wouldn’t have had that lovely couch montage without this episode. And there were some laughs to be had in The Outlands portion. And the secret town meeting was mostly good, plus the references to how their voices changed. The rest, well, whatever. I got a few laughs and that’s all I ever look for in The Simpsons these days. I just like knowing it’s still there. It still runs out on to the field. It doesn’t have the spring (see what I did there?) in the legs quite like it used to. It’s not going to dazzle at the same spectacular rate. But even after 500 episodes, it still has a little something left. And, come on, it’s not like Fox has found any other animated series that work and there’s probably a clause that people with Family Guy pedigree can only get so many time slots. So it’s not like The Simpsons is keeping Archer, let’s say, on the bench. Just because The Simpsons is on every Sunday doesn’t take away a slot from The Life & Times of Tim and doesn’t cut into anything Adult Swim is doing.

So it’s kind of pointless to bitch about The Simpsons not being as funny as before. Not to mention it’s annoying. Like, off-the-charts annoying.

What we’re all witnessing is a television series like no other, one that has redefined the culture several times over and owned the zeitgeist longer than anything else of its kind. In short, The Simpsons is an institution, a television show that is well beyond description of its merits and successes anymore. Right now it just exists, and when it finally doesn’t, the same interwebs ablaze with “that really sucked” will be flip-flopping to bleating about how much they miss it. Even further out, there will be a generation that, with some distance, will view The Simpsons as a whole, a remarkably brilliant pop culture creation, and they won’t spend as much time nitpicking the late season quality decline.

I just don’t find any point or joy in bashing on quality degradation when it comes to The Simpsons. I take what they give me, just like I did in Season 1, episode 1. In Season 8, episode 1, and so on. After a while, having made enough points about why the show got away from what made it great, moved in directions that didn’t do justice to the early years, etc. etc., I just found the rant to be of little use. I began to take what they offered and felt good about the laughs I got. Some weeks, more than others. But what has kept me going just as it has for some many others, is the characters. For a long time now it hasn’t been about the main ones. I like the fringe characters and when I see them, I still laugh, sometimes before they say anything. And if they say anything funny, even better. A bonus.

The Simpsons is now, and has been for decades, a pop culture institution, an animated legend. That it has gone on for 500 episodes – and more coming – can only be seen as a gift. I can find funnier shows elsewhere, but when I want The Simpsons, not only can I pull the DVDs off the shelves and laugh, but I can watch the 500th episode and get a couple more as well. Why would anyone want that to end?

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com