The best thing about the 500th Simpsons episode is the opening couch montage, which hits the nostalgia bullseye almost perfectly by racing through a glimpse of the many gags that have opened the show, never stopping to linger on any in particular. While the promotional department at Fox has made hay over this milestone, the show is right to mention it and move along. It is, after all, simply another episode, the 14th in the 23rd season, and the episode itself is nothing special. All of the elements seem drawn from earlier stories, although perhaps never arranged in this specific configuration, and only a few of the jokes rise to the lowered bar of latter-day Simpsons humor. On the other hand, nothing in the episode goes outrageously wrong, either. There is little Family Guy-style stupidity and randomness, the satire is gently pointed inward, and the guest star, while splashy for his controversiality, does not hijack the plot— instead appearing for a single joke before vanishing. If last week’s episode was mediocre, this one is the median Simpsons episode, somehow arriving in the center of the bell curve in almost every conceivable way that defines the show: not too dumb or smart, not too funny or dull, not too outlandish or pedestrian, not too mean or kind. In this way, the content of the episode is a milestone of sorts, too, marking the exact center of Simpsons quality upon which one can judge the elements of an episode while somehow defying any attempts to judge its own merits.
The one aspect of the episode that deviates from the statistical norm is its treatment of Maggie. Each act pushes her into strange extremes that never quite reach humor. The best of these is the earliest, where Maggie shoves a handful of the talcum powder that Homer has just regurgitated into the back of her diaper with a contented smile. Later, when she is a mohawked, knife-wielding, American-flag-tattooed hellion, the Simpson family seems content to mostly ignore her descent into feral behavior. Hers is only a small part of the episode, though, but it is notable that the cinematic touchstone for the rest of the exiled Simpsons clan is closer to The Road Warrior while Maggie has gone down the rabbit hole to the extremes of Week End.
The opening sequence features an “is he kidding or ain’t he?” newscast from Kent Brockman designed to encourage the people of Springfield to prepare for catastrophic emergencies. The best joke here is the box of child-sized corpse bags in the Simpson family’s bomb shelter, which is the most average of all darkly comic jests involving preparations for the death of a child. When the Simpsons grow bored, they decide to go out to investigate the empty town, only to find that most of the citizens are holding a secret meeting at the city hall to decide whether to forcibly banish Homer, Marge, and the kids. Since the other citizens of the town have risen as an angry mob many, many times with the intent to kill or otherwise remove the Simpsons, it should come as no surprise—especially to those who read the episode synopsis—that the town votes to toss them.
The second part starts with the Simpsons being drummed out of town despite a classic Marge request for temperance. Everything about the town-hall meeting seems like it has been done before, which may be part of the point, and the self-awareness of the scene prevents it from being terrible without ever becoming fun. Later, when they are driving with no clear destination, the family pulls over to the side of the road so that Bart can drain the inchworm and happens upon a semi-transient, off-the-grid community called The Outlands. Between the town-hall meeting and the aimless wandering, Homer is tarred and feathered, which seems like it’s supposed to turn into a funny situation or grist for a joke but never actually does.
The third act, which contains most of the jokes that work, opens with a parody of the opening credits set in The Outlands. This is a gag similar to some that the show has run in the past, but this time with music by Alison Krauss And Union Station, presumably because bluegrass is the soundtrack to hillbillies living in unincorporated shantytowns. Their neighbor is guest star Julian Assange, who runs an enormous WikiLeaks antenna nearby. Assange is a bit stiff, as befits a person in his situation, but the pleasure that the show gets from establishing that the entrance code to his secret lair is “1-2-3-4” is worth any fallout that may ensue. Later, the segment where Homer and Marge sneak back into Springfield to visit some of their old haunts never quite gets its handhold on the old heartstrings despite a noble effort. When confronted by an angry mob of Springfieldians, they decide to return to The Outlands because it feels more like their home now.
The last segment has only one joke worth mentioning, when one of the rougher Outlanders leaves because he is not comfortable being close to medical care. Because the show has to revert to zero before the next episode, The Outlands are overrun—first by Lenny, then Carl, and then the whole of Springfield, who decide to move out there because, well, freedom and something something. Maybe the dump was full again. Finally, Mayor Quimby and Superintendent Chalmers bring in a corrupt municipal government and a low-performing school system while Lisa shimmies to the top of a newly installed power line to catch up with Maureen Dowd’s columns. Only Skinner is left in Springfield until Bart rescues him in his Road Warrior-esque gyrocopter. While this initially seemed random and out-of-character for Bart, there have certainly been enough moments of kindness between the two to justify the rescue, and thus even this joke winds up in the center of the bell curve of Bart and Skinner interactions.
At this point a normal Simpsons review would explain that better jokes or tighter plotting or something like that could have improved the episode, but this episode defies negative or positive criticism. It certainly could have been funnier, but it was funny enough. It could have been more original, but it synthesized old elements with a thin veneer of originality, and perhaps that is enough. While trying to grasp its points, the details seem to melt away into a simulacra of Simpsons episodes from the past, less an episode than the simulation of one. Wittgenstein ended his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by pointing out that whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent. Perhaps he only meant this to apply to the limits of epistemic knowledge, but hey, I know when I’m licked.
- Homer’s transition from manning up to girling down: both funny and characteristically sexist.
- I am always in favor of Hank Williams’ version of “Lost Highway” in any context. Funeral of a loved one? Sure! Celebrating a job promotion? Yep! Driving around foggy backroads in an existential haze, wondering why your GPS no longer works? If you think so, man.
- Chief Wiggum: “You want I should spray some of my Jerk Off on ya?” That’s a surprising line to steal past the censors.