Want proof that FOX’s “The Simpsons” is mellowing in its old age? Back in Season Seven, the long-running animated smash mocked the idea of landmark telecasts with “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular.”
It’s 15 years later and “The Simpsons” team seems to have made peace with the show’s iconic status and with the idea that certain milestones truly are significant. “The Simpsons” caps off a full-year 20th Anniversary celebration on Sunday (Jan. 10) night with the show’s 450th episode and an hour-long documentary titled “The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special: In 3-D! On Ice!”
It’s funny to see a show that used to revel in a renegade’s disregard for industry convention getting so caught up in its own hype, but you know the truth? If “The Simpsons” wants to take a night to celebrate itself, the show has earned the right, especially since both of Sunday’s big Springfield-ian events are plenty entertaining.
A little more talk on Episode 450 and the Morgan Spurlock-directed “The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special: In 3-D! On Ice!” after the break…
The 450 episodes for “The Simpsons” aren’t 450 lightly considered, tossed off episodes. As I’ve written before, “The Simpsons” was probably TV’s best show of the 1990s and it recently came in at No. 22 on my list of TV’s Best of the Aughts. If you accept, as I do, that “The Wire” is the greatest television show ever made, “The Simpsons” is one of maybe a dozen shows with legitimate claims on second place.
And even if “The Simpsons” isn’t as great as it once was, it’s totally capable of great single episodes and even great runs of episodes. We’re in the midst of a solid stretch at the moment. Last Sunday’s “Thursdays with Abie” was, in fact, one of the best Grandpa-centric episodes the show has ever done (not a high bar, since I’m not an Abe Episode fan, but still).
Sunday’s episode, “Once Upon a Time in Springfield,” is also solid. It fits into a very clearly defined “Simpsons” plotline, the Krusty Has Ratings Problems archetype, as network executives force Krusty to hire a new co-host in order to reach younger female viewers. His new co-host, Princess Penelope, appears to be a caricature of Disney princesses but holds a funny secret that unfolds throughout the episode. Princess Penelope is voiced by Anne Hathaway, who sings and does an accent and may set a new recent standard for charm from a “Simpsons” guest voice. If “The Simpsons” were a live-action show, you’d be talking about an Emmy nomination for Hathaway, she’s so darned good.
Hathaway aside, the 450th episode isn’t exactly a stunt episode, though it has an opening chalkboard gag and a closing title card noting the momentous occurrence. It’s just a funny half-hour with a few choice pokes at FOX. It also has a number of very small visual gags of the sort the show has trafficked in since transitioning into hi-def last season. Have your pause button ready.
“The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special: In 3-D! On Ice!” takes a kitchen sink approach to the show’s Emmy-winning run. Did you know “The Simpsons” was loved throughout the world? Did you know that some people’s love for “The Simpsons” borders on obsession? Did you know that lots of celebrities get a kick out of “The Simpsons”? I did! But that doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy a decently presented documentary covering familiar territory.
One thing that Spurlock has done a tremendous job with is rounding up the key creative personages who made “The Simpsons” the monster it is today. That means Matt Groening and James Brooks and long-time showrunner Al Jean, but it also means long-since-departed original executive producer Sam Simon and such influential writers, producers and directors as Matt Selman, Mike Scully, Conan O’Brien, Mike Reiss, David Silverman and Brad Bird. Tracey Ullman drops by to remind us that “The Simpsons” is, at its core, just a very, very successful spinoff. Much of the show’s vocal talent shows up for talking head duty, though Harry Shearer and Dan Castellaneta are notably absent.
Spurlock also assembles an eclectic group of big names to salute “The Simpsons.” Come of the choices are predictable, but welcome, including Brian Williams and Dan Rather sharing their respect for Kent Brockman, but there’s something inspired about getting San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom to talk about Mayor Quimby. It’s better to leave many of the guests as surprises, but an impressive number of the animated masterminds who followed in the wake of “The Simpsons” pop up to add to the honors.
Because Spurlock wants to touch on everything possible in a single 44 minute doc, nothing really gets the time it deserves. FOX made such a big deal last summer of taking Spurlock down to Comic-Con to find the biggest “Simpsons” fan, but that amounts to maybe three minutes of screentime, roughly equal to the carping of the Catholic League’s Bill Donahue and a Moby presenting a unique cover of “Mr. Plow.”
As ever with Spurlock, “The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special: In 3-D! On Ice!” ends up being nearly as much about the filmmaker as the subject, which proves to be an occasional drawback. Going to Brazil and looking for the monkeys and multi-colored rats in the streets of Rio was inspired. Having Spurlock wander a beach in a Speedo just because Homer Simpson did the same was pretty pointless. There were a few times I’d loved to be able to trim Spurlock out of the film and replace him with extra time for things directly “Simpsons” related. Really, it was probably a mistake not to give Spurlock two programming hours for “The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special: In 3-D! On Ice!” I wanted to know more about the British collector with 30,000+ pieces of “Simpsons” memorabilia. I needed a more justifiable explanation for why Argentina is so “Simpsons”-friendly. I’d have taken more time on global “Simpsons” redubbing or the battle for Groundskeeper Willie’s Scottish heritage or more from the animation titans on how “The Simpsons” paved the road for them. If you give me more of the substance, I can tolerate a lot more of Spurlock’s solipsistic noodling.
I guess my complaint is the difference between a diverting hour-long special and the sort of definitive “Simpsons” documentary that the show could sustain.
Anyway, it’s a great Sunday night for TV.
Watch “The Simpsons” and “The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special: In 3-D! On Ice!”
Watch the fourth season premiere for HBO’s “Big Love.”
And *really* watch the third season premiere of “Chuck” on NBC.