Earlier this fall, The Simpsons aired its 600th episode, a staggering number of any era of television, but especially for the era in which it was created, when shows typically produced only 22 episodes a season. (The more recent 13 and even 10-episode seasons of shows shudder at the thought of making that many.) And now the show is about to break a record that seemingly seemed unbreakable: Fox has renewed the animated comedy through its 30th season, which will also bring it to its 669th episode, blowing right past the 635 episodes Gunsmoke produced from 1955-75.
The Simpsons had long since eclipsed Gunsmoke in years on the air, but because the classic Western began in the days when shows routinely knocked out 39 episodes a season, its episode total seemed insurmountable. But The Simpsons just keeps going, and going, and going, and now Marshal Dillon can eat Chief Wiggum’s dust.
(From the Fox press release: “‘Take that Gunsmoke! You lost a race you didn’t even know you were running!,’ said Homer Simpson.”)
When TV (THE BOOK) was published this fall with our insistence that The Simpsons was the best show ever, the inevitable pushback came from people who acknowledged the genius of the first dozen years or so but found the current incarnation of the show an embarrassing shadow of itself. To them, I always said two things:
1) That glory period was so much better than every other TV comedy ever made, and great for so much longer than even the best dramas have managed to be great, that what came after was irrelevant. Yeah, Willie Mays fell down in the outfield when he was playing for the Mets, but on balance he’s one of the two or three best baseball players ever.
2) Reports of the show’s creative demise have been greatly exaggerated, and while it’s not as consistently brilliant as it was in the Greg Daniels/Conan O’Brien days, the show is still funny and inventive, and a handful of times each season puts out episodes that I’d put on par with a lot of the ’90s stuff. Admittedly, there have been some dire periods, especially in the series’ mid-late teens, which is how that “Simpsons hasn’t been good in forever” reputation began. But I watch the show these days not embarrassed by what it’s become, but eager to see how Al Jean and company are going to turn a variation on a plot they’ve done seven times before into something that feels new and clever. I’ve been using Simpsons World to rewatch the vintage years in order with my daughter at the same time I’m keeping up with the current show, and while there’s an obvious difference — no TV show at 28 is going to feel as fresh as it did at 4 or 5, any more than a basketball player will be able to dunk as fiercely at 40 as they did at 20 — I’m glad she’ll eventually get to see episodes like “Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind,” “Holidays of Future Passed,” “Cue Detective,” or this season’s “The Town.”
Why stop at 30? Maybe The Simpsons can grow older than Homer and Marge, or even Grampa and Mr. Burns. And good luck on any other show ever catching up.