The Simpsons broadcast its 500th episode at the weekend. Astonishingly, the series has been going for 23 mainly glorious years.
Recent online discussion over the “best episode ever” has already caused, depending on your point of view, validation of the power of honest, muscular human debate or an existential crisis about the ability of our race to live on the planet together, or spell correctly.
There’s little doubt that we have stopped watching in quite such exuberant droves as before. South Park, Family Guy and others have taken over, and the overarching general feeling is that the best work was done in the first 15 years.
So we won’t give you the best episode, or anything dangerously definitive, but simply our take on 10 aspects of the show, pretty much groundbreaking, for which we should surely still today give thanks, most of all for reminding us that clever television could work.
The American dream
And the invaluable lessons Homer has taught us on how to live it.
Montgomery Burns: “Turn around, Simpson.” Homer: “No! I can’t get in trouble if I can’t see you.” Smithers: “I’m afraid he’s got us, sir.” Or Homer’s “If you really want something in this life, you have to work for it. Now, quiet, they’re about to announce the lottery numbers.” Most importantly, of course, his life-lessons to Bart ...
“Don’t tattle, always make fun of those different from you, never say anything unless you’re sure everyone feels exactly the same way you do.” Then there are the three sentences he thinks should get any youngster through a life of work, should they be lucky enough to find a job: 1) “Cover for me.” 2) “Good idea, boss.” 3) “It was like that when I got here.” His legacy to Bart, Lisa and Maggie is: “Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try.”
The bit players
The extra, if not entirely extraneous, characters have been one of the joys of the series’ in-depth work, teaching lazier writers how to make the most fleeting appearances interesting and also, happily, reminding us of the glorious powers of prejudice and stereotyping. Best “only mentioned in passing” character was surely Bad Jack Crawley, “such a bad man that Bob Dylan wrote a song to keep him in jail.”
But we also had such subtle nomenclatures as Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel, and of course Groundsman Willie, whose denunciation of the French as “cheese-eating surrender-monkeys” might have been uttered in 1992 but has nevertheless comprehensively guided US foreign policy since. And the likes of Bleeding Gums Murphy, Lisa’s dentist-averse sax mentor, who incidentally prompted Homer’s grudging yet timeless compromise to Lisa: “Go ahead and play the blues then, if it’ll make you happy.”
Matt Groening was not above slipping in a few sly references in the same way the ocean is not above the sky. Against lawyers, mainly — the series very nearly never got off the ground because of greedy copyrighting kerfuffles — but also Rupert Murdoch’s Fox, which couldn’t complain too often because Groening was making its most successful series ever. Homer once complained to Marge about her ethical stances, moaning that, “We can’t watch Fox because they own those chemical weapons plants in Syria.” How did they get away with that? And one of Bart’s blackboard punishments was to rewrite the line Temptation Island was not a sleazy piece of crap.” Guess who made the TV series Temptation Island?