There’s a tired and boring argument that says that The Simpsons season 1 – season 8 (or season 10 or season 12 - it does seem to be creeping up as the years go on) are the only episodes worth watching and that everything since has been an exercise in shark jumping, rehashing old plots, or just going through the motions. In reality, there’s been a wealth of amazing episodes in the last, oh twenty years or so of The Simpsons enough to warrant it’s place on our televisions and it's still the absolute highlight of the TV week for 20 precious minutes, 22 times a year.
The most obvious reason ‘fans’ are quick to spurt this nonsense is that season 1 to 10 included not just some of the best episodes of The Simpsons of all time, but some of the best television of all time full stop. The episodes written by the elusive comedy genius John Swartzwelder and the not-so-elusive comedy genius Conan O’Brien (among a handful of other incredible writers) are magic. There’s no point arguing Marge vs The Monorail, Bart Gets An Elephant, You Only Move Twice (the Hank Scorpio episode) and so on are not the best episodes. But comparing the next 20 years worth of shows to these masterpieces of comedy is ridiculous.
Modern Simpsons is great. It's just previous episodes were great-er.
Part of it is also nostalgia, and that’s understandable considering that for a long time the only thing worth watching on linear television were Simpsons repeats - we were hit with them constantly for years! No wonder we feel so attached.
Some of the greatest episodes of the show happened later than you are likely to remember. You will surely remember fondly when Homer became Mr Burns’ prank monkey. Guess when that was? Season 12. The incredible musical montage in the style of Saul Bass from the parody of Catch Me If You Can didn’t happen until season 18. In series 28 there’s a fantastic episode where the simple premise of The Simpsons moving to Boston becomes an episode that actually rivals The City Of New York vs. Homer Simpson, it’s obvious influence.
Which leads me to a common complaint - The Simpsons relies too heavily on references to itself these days. How is that possibly a problem? The Simpsons movie was ruined by focus groups and a studio expecting a Simpsons movie to be enjoyed by someone who has never seen the show. Who exactly are we talking about here? Its not just leaning on decades of well-loved scenarios and jokes, it’s reveling and indulging in them. Playing them again from different angles, quietly and unashamedly acknowledging the daunting legacy that overshadows.
The couch gags alone are reason enough to bother watching the show with recent highlights including Ren & Stimpy creator John K’s signature style sequence from season 23 episode 2 or Don Hertzfeldt’s mind-blowing insanity from season 26’s opening episode.
It’s easier to pick out and recall these incredible stunt moments, but what makes the show endure is the subtle moments and gags that drive each episode - the small references and quick jokes found on things like background signs are why I can’t miss an episode.
But the day will come when one of the integral cast members moves on to that great Kwik-E-Mart in the sky and it will be devastatingly over, a day I fear as much as my own mortality. When that time finally arrives, it will be certainly apparent that the hundreds of episodes we have are not nearly enough. Until then I will eagerly anticipate every single episode, dwell on the dud jokes, cackle at the great jokes, look up the references I’m now too old to understand (when the show started I was too young to understand them) and relish every damn moment The Simpsons has to offer.