At Long Last Leave
The Simpsons reached its 500th episode milestone last night, a fact given more attention by Fox’s marketing department than the episode itself, which was content to offer a charming recap of the series’ trademark couch gags before proceeding with business as usual. The curious thing about Simpsons, of course, is that ‘business as usual’ is rarely something to be cherished these days, despite its seeming invulnerability. Many articles and fan discussions have already covered the bases of the show’s heyday vs current state, but as someone who rarely bothers watching these days – I’ve seen a few episodes from the past few years and rarely come away feeling like anything worthwhile has been missed – that contrast was as disheartening as it has ever been on this landmark occasion.
After overcoming a brief threat of cancellation this past fall, The Simpsons have kept on trucking through its 23rd season, already renewed for at least two more seasons, with a total of 550 episodes expected to be produced. Only two other American scripted series have managed to reach the 500 episode milestone—Lassie (588 episodes) and Gunsmoke (635 episodes). Both shows had their respective 500th episodes aired in 1969, coincidentally, and both were fairly innocuous and uneventful episodes; Lassie had an episode featuring ghosts in an old mining town, and Gunsmoke had a basic story about a character selling horses to some outlaws. Nowadays, the milestones are a little more recognized, so The Simpsons might be the only show you’ll ever see that attempts to commemorate it.
The show’s opening offered up some nostalgic pangs as it rapidly raced through past couch gags with Marge, Homer, Bart, Lisa and Maggie rushing to their places on the family sofa. It was a nice touch, but it definitely made me miss The Simpsons of old. All those classic gags connected us to the classic Simpsons episodes that went with them. And, unfortunately, reminded me of how these last few years have paled in comparison.
Watch Simpsons – At Long Last Leave Online
The Simpsons S23E14: At Long Last Leave
However, the beginning of the episode delivered some hope for an amusing night. The Simpsons are banished from Springfield in a covert town meeting. When the townspeople go through their list of grievances against the family (Bart’s pranks, Lisa’s environmental initiatives and Homer’s drunken shenanigans), it’s surprising that the “worst Simpson of all” is actually Marge. Her ability to humanize her crazy family has led the town to forgive them for far too long.
The second part starts with the Simpsons being drummed out of town despite a classic Marge request for temperance. Everything about the town hall meeting seems like it has been done before, which may be part of the point, and the self-awareness of the scene prevents it from being terrible without ever becoming fun. Later, when they are driving with no clear destination, the family pulls over to the side of the road so that Bart can drain the inchworm and happens upon a semi-transient, off-the-grid community called The Outlands. Between the town hall meeting and the aimless wandering, Homer is tarred and feathered, which seems like it is supposed to turn into a funny situation or grist for a joke but never actually does.
Remember that episode where Homer discovered that his ‘face’ was being used by a Japanese company for their commercials? It turned out then that ‘Mr. Sparkle’ was nothing just a fusion of two company logos, whose similarity to Homer was entirely coincidental. Watching modern Simpsons gives the impression that the real Homer has been replaced by Sparkle Homer, a cobbled together talking head whose only relation to the character many of my generation grew up with is his starring on a show called, but bearing little relation to, The Simpsons. Like the Mr. Sparkle advert, latter day episodes are all meaningless flash, resembling something we loved but lacking any of the substance or heart that made it a pleasure. The Simpsons used to mock show that opened with witless dialogue exchanges lacking any comedic nuance. Now it’s unironically trying to sell them back to us. When Bart’s antics were described by Mayor Quimby as ‘dwindling in humour as they [rose] in destructive power’, a parallel could be drawn a little too easily between the condition of series and its role as a centrepiece of the Fox television network.
The episode’s theme was probably the strongest part—cliché as it may be, home is where the heart is, and we all just want to be accepted. The plot is simple enough: there’s a fake “apocalypse drill,” then the Simpsons discover it’s to mask a secret meeting where Springfield has decided to throw them out for so many years of crazy antics. After being run out of town, they discover “the Outlands,” a haven for rejects. However, while Springfield treated the Simpsons as outcasts, Springfield itself is a town full of outcasts. So when they realize that the Simpsons are comfortable and accepted in their new place, the rest of the town yearns for that same acceptance. Things come full-circle when slowly-but-surely, the entire town seeps in to feel the same homeliness, building what’s presumably going to be an exact replica of Springfield.
At this point a normal Simpsons review would explain that better jokes or tighter plotting or something like that could have improved the episode, but this episode was engineered to defy negative or positive criticism. It certainly could have been funnier, but it was funny enough. It could have been more original, but it synthesized old elements with a thin veneer of originality, and perhaps that is enough. While trying to grasp its points, the details seem to melt away into a simulacra of Simpsons episodes from the past, less an episode than the simulation of one. Wittgenstein ended his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by pointing out that whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent. Perhaps he only meant this to apply to the limits of epistemic knowledge, but hey, I know when I’m licked.
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