For better or worse, The Simpsons will be on the air through 2014 with new episodes. The show will most likely conclude after its twenty-fifth season. The creative team and network have been very good at celebrating the milestone achievements of the show. These included a big marketing blitz for the 300th episode, the year long celebration of The Simpsons called “Best. 20 Years. Ever,” and a special documentary on fandom from director Morgan Spurlock that aired, to the date, twenty years after the first episode of The Simpsons.Now The Simpsons have been celebrated for another achievement: 500 episodes on the air. Yesterday, the 500th episode aired and it was a fitting tribute to the spirit of The Simpsons. First, the opening sequence paid tribute to 499 episodes of couch gags. Highlights from each season blurred into each other. The gags flew by faster and faster until the most recent Simpsons couch gag was centered. The family waited for the gag to come in, only to be shrunk down bit by bit as the various featured gags flooded the screen all at once. They turned into a photo mosaic that simply reads “500.”
There were other clever little gags inserted into the episode that reflected the length of the show. Instead of Bart doing the chalkboard gag, Millhouse was shown writing “Bart’s earned a day off.” The animators subtitled the title card with “The Most Meaningless Milestone of All!” Bart and Homer are dressed in tuxedos to address the audience directly, only Homer’s too caught up in choking Bart to deliver his lines.
These were minor efforts compared to the episode itself as a tribute to The Simpsons. A big reason the show has lasted as long as it has is the rich community of Springfield. What better way to pay tribute to 500 episodes of the show than to eliminate that variable all together?The plot of the episode was simple. The town stages a fake emergency preparedness drill to keep the Simpsons trapped in their storm cellar long enough for a secret meeting to go off. Everyone else in the town has shown up to vote on a referendum banning the Simpsons from Springfield forever. Their shenanigans are costing Springfield absurd amounts of money and everyone is fed up. By the eight minute mark, The Simpsons are being dragged out of town in a huge celebration.
Yet, as the town is able to finally have some peace, the Simpsons themselves are restless in their new off the grid community. Homer and Marge sneak back into Springfield for a visit. They avoid detection through walks, drinking, and even a snuggling session before the town arrives in mob form. The hatred they hold for the family is so great that even Marge turns her back on her friends and neighbors.
In typical The Simpsons fashion, everything has to right itself by the end of the episode. The citizens of Springfield take Marge and Homer’s words about their non-judgmental paradise to heart. One by one, they arrive in the off the grid community and begin to build a new Springfield. The Simpsons eventually accept the construction as a peace offering and the episode ends in the new city of Springfield. If everything goes according to plan, this second attempt to completely relocate Springfield will be unnoticeable in next week’s episode.
The show’s creators know that The Simpsons has survived this long by building this big dysfunctional community. Now the characters themselves realize the same. As much as their antics can upset the order of the town, the Simpsons are an integral part of Springfield. They can easily survive on their own, but the town would not be as lucky.If I can deconstruct further for a moment, there is a slightly cynical edge to the story that should be addressed. From the gnashing fans to the moral critiques of the devolution of the characters, the 500th episode of The Simpsons was as much a celebration of the show as it was a commentary on the rhetoric surrounding the show. The people who have something negative to say on the Internet are amplified far more often than people with positive views of the same subject.
How often have you encountered a message board, website, Facebook profile, Twitter account, etc. that routine bashes The Simpsons? I see it all the time. The complaints amount to “not as good as it was before, so it sucks now” more often than not. It’s one thing when another animated show pokes fun at the longevity of The Simpsons as it typically comes from a place of love and a long tradition of inter-show jokes. It’s quite another when people get on their soap boxes and proclaim the death of a program that is still getting solid ratings, good reviews, and awards by the barrel full. Just because a Lisa episode will typically feature similar themes and tones, for example, does not mean that the writers have run out of ideas. It means the show has enough of a history to branch off in different directions that hold true to the point in the show’s history where the characters really came to life.
All cynicism aside, it is quite an achievement for any program to reach 500 episodes. That The Simpsons have managed it with the demands of animation, constantly programming shifts caused by FOX’s sports programming, and a steady surge of new writing talent is nothing short of extraordinary. The show will not be able to go on forever. One day, The Simpsons really will leave Springfield and the airwaves for good. How you choose to respond to the show’s lengthy comedic legacy is up to you.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.