February 20th, 2012
11:45 AM ET
Let me just say it up front: The 500th episode of "The Simpsons" wasn't terrible, but it also wasn't spectacular - especially after all of the hype.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was an odd choice as a guest, and the jokes were only chuckle-worthy. Yet even with all of these elements and numerous references put together, this episode still served as a fitting tribute to a classic that we love.
At the very start of the show, longtime "Simpsons" fans were treated to a mash-up of some of the best couch gags from the past 23 years.
You saw a quick flash of it all, from "The Flintstones" to the Blue Man Group. The montage, which ended with an angry Homer choking Bart, was an opening that made me grin.
During a Springfield bomb drill, the Simpsons come across a secret town hall meeting where the residents have voted to banish the family. After years of tolerating Homer's drunkenness, Bart's pranks, Lisa's fervent environmentalism, Marge's reasonable nature and Maggie's lack of crying, Springfield's denizens have had enough.
So with a fancy going-away parade, the Simpsons are ejected and make their new home in The Outlands, an isolated, post-apocalyptic, dirt bike-driving community.
Despite how much at home the family feels, Marge gets restless, and so she and Homer sneak back into Springfield. They are soon discovered, and this time it's Marge who willingly leaves.
By the end of the episode, Lenny, Moe and everyone who wanted the family to be removed come crawling to The Outlands. Eventually, the whole of Springfield - even Principal Skinner – move in and set up what could be called Springfield 2.0.
This plot is nothing new. The whole townspeople-turning-on-the-Simpsons story was the premise of "The Simpsons Movie," when Homer accidentally pollutes the lake and the family is kicked out, only to be welcomed back after they save the day.
But it was a clear representation of Springfield's relationship with the Simpsons family; can't live with them, can't live without them. In many ways, that is the relationship the show has with its fans, which it recognizes at the end of the episode with this: "Thanks for 500 shows. All we ask is that you go out and get some fresh air before logging on the Internet and saying how much this sucked."
The entire episode paid homage not only to "Simpsons" history, but also to the role that the show has played in popular culture. It goes without saying that the show broke new ground in TV with its satirical worldview and unconventional animated sitcom family.
For more than two decades, we saw America's most recognizable and dysfunctional family give their take on major news events and cultural occurrences, national and global. They did it in a way that at first raised eyebrows, and then opened up primetime for shows like "Family Guy." (So much so, that the latter doesn't shock us anymore.)
The references in "At Long Last Leave" remind us of how established "The Simpsons" tradition is - even if the program is dealing with average viewership, contract negotiations, and the acknowledgment that it may never live up to its glory days.
It's like an old high school pal: You were once great friends (fans), but now you only occasionally keep in touch to talk about the old days, and will sometimes look for updates on Facebook.
Nonetheless, it's a constant background presence that I can't imagine being without.
What'd you think of the 500th episode?
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