The Simpsons hit the 500 episode mark tonight, and for a monument so massive, we of course get a "Simpsons are forced to leave Springfield" plot that has been recycled at least three times over the series and its movie. Yet, despite what appeared to be made for Comic Book Guy-style internet rants, there's enough humor and heart thrown in that this feels like an episode worthy of the milestone.
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.
As it's so ingrained in popular culture now, we often forget how unlikely it was that The Simpsons would make it one season, much less 500 episodes over more than two decades. After all, it's an adult cartoon spin-off of a variety show, features yellow-skinned caricatures of family sitcom stereotypes, and during its first season was plagued with animation problems. Did it ever sound like a winner? But through its great writing, characters, and satire, it captured our hearts, overcame its hurdles, and now many of us have grown up with the show and have seen episodes countless times thanks to reruns and DVDs. Some who have grown up with it have kids now that are growing up with it too; it's a bit surreal to think of it in those terms, isn't it? But like Superman and Mickey Mouse, the townsfolk of Springfield have become a massive part of both American culture and international consciousness as a whole. That's quite an amazing feat for a show that couldn't have sounded that good on paper.
So, does the episode commemorating 23 years worth of laughs and adventures hold up?
I've only caught three other episodes this season: "The Book Job," which was a surprisingly great episode; and the Halloween and Christmas episodes, which were awful and decent, respectively. So even with that small sampling, it's safe to say newer The Simpsons continue to be hit-or-miss. "At Long Last Leave" falls between the "decent" and "great" categories; there are some solid story ideas and character moments, but there are a few elements that hold it back.
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.
The structure of this episode is quite different from a typical episode, as we get no B-plots. While structuring the episode differently could have made it feel more monumental, it hindered the episode pacing-wise because it felt like it moved a little too slowly, despite not much plot really taking place. Also, while I did like the implications of the town's move to the Outlands, Springfield's turn didn't come across quite as strongly. We saw some sympathy when Marge first indicated she was happier being accepted in the Outlands, but it was so quick that it didn't feel significant enough to have emotional resonance, which this episode was pulling for. And as expected, some jokes were a little forced, like Smithers being jealous of the Burns kiss, for example. But even then, they were more hit than miss.
In the grand scheme of things, though, these were minor nitpicks. "At Long Last Leave" did feel a little off when first viewing it, but after following the end titlecard's instruction of going outside before going on the internet and talking about how the episode sucked--I have to admit, this is a very strong episode in retrospect. The jokes that worked were very funny, and there was genuine heart at the episode's end, something The Simpsons has often missed in its most recent years. Even if some of the steps getting there were a little rocky, the result is still a nice shout-out to why we loved the show in the first place: a funny, flawed-yet-still-loveable family of misfits just living their wacky lives. Only in the case, the family isn't just the titular Simpsons, but the town of Springfield as a whole. And even though we can all agree the show's not as consistently strong as it used to be, as long as we can get little gems like this, it's still nice to have our familiar family around for a little while longer.
Some stray tidbits:
- The opening chalkboard and couch gags were worthy of the milestone.
- It was great hearing Kelsey Grammer and Jackie Mason return again in their painfully brief cameos.
- Flanders being the sole Springfieldian to support the Simpson family was in-character and a really nice touch.
- The opening sequence has been parodied numerous times in-show, but each time it's always fun. "The Outlands" version was no different, as was the bluegrass version of the theme music by Allison Krauss.
- That Fox pun was so cheesy, but so delicious.
- The Wikileaks references were incredibly random and felt a little out-of-place, but admittedly, Julian Assange's "1234" code was cute.
- Homer's terrible Burns impression was awesome.
- Anyone else get flashbacks to "Natural Born Kissers" when Marge and Homer were having sexcapades in forbidden sports places?
- I'm not sure why, but it just seemed fitting to have Principal Skinner be the last person in town.
- "I think I heard a pair of underpants being picked up off the ground. Big ones!"
- "I'm at least as smart as a cat, right Lou?" "What breed, Chief? I mean I saw an Abyssinian once who could change channels."
- I mentioned it once, but I have to mention it again: that referential titlecard at the end? Brilliant and insightful.