Among the many gratifying aspects of FXX's recent Every “Simpsons” Ever marathon was the way that it helped shift the overall critical narrative about the series ever-so-slightly away from the conventional wisdom that the series is a shell of its former self – that “The Simpsons” should have gone away after season 9, and that its legacy is forever tarnished because it kept on going and going and going. I've written before of my strong disagreement with that idea – that if the show isn't as consistently great as it was in, say, seasons 4 or 5, that it's still capable of greatness a few times a season, and still one of the more satisfying comedies on television even outside its best recent outings – and was pleased to see so many critics and fans continue watching the marathon in its later days and admitting that, hey, “Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind” or “500 Keys” or “Holidays of Future Passed” are very much worthy of the legacy established in the show's first decade. (Dan, I and some other members of Team HitFix picked some of our favorite latter-day episodes as part of our Every “Simpsons” Ever marathon highlights.)
Ratings-wise, of course, “The Simpsons” is only a faint echo of what it used to be (but then, so is network TV in general), but it still does okay for itself. I'll be curious to see if the enthusiasm for the show that the FXX marathon reawakened will bring any of those long-absent fans back for Sunday night's premiere (at 8 p.m. on FOX, like usual), and also how people respond to the “Family Guy” episode at 9 that sends the Griffins to Springfield to meet Homer, Bart, Comic Book Guy and all the rest of our favorites.
“The Simpsons” premiere is being promoted as featuring the death of a long-standing character, and the plot about that – which kicks off with Krusty announcing his desire to quit his long-running show – has a number of excellent gags, along with genuine emotion. But the two most striking things about the episode are the B-story and the couch gag.
On the latter, all I will say is that it continues the show's post-HD tradition of elaborate couch gags that are almost worth the price of admission on their own, and that it is very much a commentary on the theory that the show has lasted too long and run out of things to say. The former, meanwhile, involves Lisa responding to the death of the mystery character by fearing that her shockingly unhealthy father could be next, and it features some of Yeardley Smith's best acting ever in the series while marrying the rich emotion of the show's early days with the more absurdist streak it developed later.
As a whole, is “Clown in the Dumps” a threat to make it into my top 10 – or even top 50 – “Simpsons” list of all time? Not really, but it's yet another reminder that even after 552 previous episodes, a movie, and a bunch of “Tracy Ullman Show” shorts, a new “Simpsons” can still make me laugh, still make me sniffle, and still make me happy the show is producing new episodes.
As for that “Family Guy” episode – and it is a “Family Guy” episode, written by their people, though it features guest voices by “The Simpsons” cast – it's alternately fascinating, frustrating, amusing and annoying in the way so much of that series is. It is made by people who clearly have a ton of affection for “The Simpsons” – and the self-awareness to include many jokes about all the ways that their show and its characters were inspired by the people of Springfield – but who want to make clear the ways in which their show and characters are different. So when Bart teaches Stewie the joys of prank-calling Moe's Tavern, for instance, Stewie decides to try it for himself by telling Moe, “Your sister's being raped.”(*) Meg and Lisa become fast friends, but it's undercut because only terrible things can happen to Meg.
(*) That joke, featured in promos, is unsurprisingly drawing protests – which, given that the Griffins wind up in Springfield in the first place because of angry protests of Peter's misogynist humor, is likely the exact kind of life-imitating-art reaction Seth MacFarlane and friends wanted.
The strangest part of the episode is its climax, a chicken fight that goes on for so long, with so much carnage and property destruction, that it begins to resemble the end of Zack Snyder's “Man of Steel” – but without any commentary on that. “Family Guy” is no stranger to violent, prolonged sight gags, but even so, this one seems to run forever mainly because they have an hour to fill – a problem even Peter acknowledges, in one of the episode's many meta jokes.
Most of what works about “The Simpsons Guy,” in fact, is in the meta, particularly in having the many parallel characters of the two series finally meet (on down to a brief conversation between “Simpsons” guest star James Woods and “Family Guy” guest star James Woods). The rest of it's on the crasser end of the “Family Guy” humor spectrum, as if the writers want to make clear that these are the kinds of jokes they tell that even “The Simpsons” – once held up as the thing that was going to destroy Western civilization once and for all – won't touch.
It's no “A Star Is Burns” (the season 6 “Simpsons” crossover with “The Critic,” which made Matt Groening so mad at the time, he removed his name from the episode), and I imagine I'll enjoy the upcoming “Simpsons”/”Futurama” crossover much more. But if it, and the afterglow of Every “Simpsons” Ever, maybe brings some people back to “The Simpsons” itself, I can live with it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org