This weekend, The Simpsons airs its 600th episode. an achievement that’s downright mind-boggling. Currently on its twenty-eighth season, it’s the longest-running scripted primetime series in U.S. television history, outpacing Gunsmoke by eight years and counting. (The dramatic shift in typical episode orders over the years means Gunsmoke still aired about 35 more episodes than The Simpsons has thus far.) In commemoration of the new milestone, this is the review I wrote for the long-gestating film version of The Simpsons that arrived in theaters almost ten years ago.
Back in 1995, Time film reviewer Richard Corliss submitted his list of the top films of the year. Nestled in among the expected costume dramas, foreign films and arthouse fare was the Simpsons episode “Bart Sells His Soul.” It was a strange, silly, unexpected bit of rule-bending from a major critic, and, the more you thought about it, exactly right. The episode in question is The Simpsons at its best, artfully skewering religion with heretical glee while remaining slyly pious, and deconstructing the booming artificiality of American culture. It does so with sharp writing cemented in character, throwaway moments of pointed satire and even a Pablo Neruda reference (that remains one of my all-time favorite Simpsons lines). If Corliss was prepared to tout this animated half-hour as finer than hundreds of films, he could likely maker a stronger case than anyone arguing the contrary point.
So it’s not necessarily a slight to decide that The Simpsons Movie just feels like an extra-long episode of the tv series. Then again, we’re well removed from the heady heights of season seven. The show has long-sinced evolved away from being a regular dispenser of savage, shrewd commentary in densely perfect episodes. 400 episodes into a historic run with no clear endpoint, it is an institution, still smart and funny, but a victim of its own extraordinary accomplishments. Strong episodes come more rarely, and inevitably suffer in comparison with the nightly rerun reminders of former greatness.
The Simpsons movie is strong, funny, and a little unremarkable. The filmmakers are generous enough to make sure that fan favorites supporting characters get their moments to briefly shine (Ralph Wiggum afficiondos will likely rejoice at the quality and forgive the limited quantity of his screen time) and there may be a line or two that elbows its way into the remarkable pantheon of Simpsons quotables. The plot will likely recede into the blur of others involving unique new pets, Marge growing weary of Homer’s blundering selfishness, Lisa developing a crush, and aquatic environmentalism, but the truest measure of the effectiveness of any Simpsons episode these days is whether or not is it worth revisiting. The Movie succeeds in that regard.
This trip to Springfield (and beyond) is comforting and satisfying. It doesn’t matter that the film doesn’t immediately merit inclusion with the likes of “Krusty Gets Kancelled,” or “Rosebud” or “Lisa the Vegetarian or, yes indeed, “Bart Sells His Soul.” By this point The Simpsons has changed the very face of comedy more decisively than any contemporary purveyor (aside, perhaps, from David Letterman) and crafted a twenty year statement on American culture, norms, prejudices and aspirations, and that should be enough to allow the movie to be simply another entertaining chapter in that ongoing accomplishment.