'The Simpsons'

Fox anniversary special salutes 20 years of 'The Simpsons'

By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010

It's unclear exactly when the breakup happened. But sometime six, maybe seven, years ago -- after you got married, or perhaps after you moved out of that rowhouse you shared with five guys who constantly quoted Ralph Wiggum ("Oh boy, sleep! That's where I'm a viking!") -- you stopped watching "The Simpsons," calling it quits after many years of deliciously subversive Sunday nights together.

Still, sometimes you miss the "D'ohs." That song in your heart? It often sounds an awful lot like the Mr. Plow theme. And every once in a while, you still whisper the words "Apu, Apu."

These are all good reasons to tune in to Fox on Sunday night as the network attempts to rekindle that "Simpsons" love (not to mention faded ratings glory) with a 90-minute celebration of the show's 20th anniversary. Yes, the animated sitcom that taught a nation -- nay, the world -- to say "Cowabunga, dude," is now the longest-running prime-time series in the history of television. Just one more year, and "The Simpsons" can finally, legally drink its own bottle of Duff Beer.

The homage to all things Homer begins at 8 with a business-as-usual (read: reasonably funny) episode of "The Simpsons" ("Once Upon a Time in Springfield"), followed by an hour-long commemorative tribute ("The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special -- In 3-D! On Ice!") by documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock.

For the most part, things don't change on "The Simpsons," so anyone who hasn't watched in a while can jump back in without having to disentangle a bunch of complicated narrative strands a la "Mad Men" or "Lost." Bart is still a spiky-haired smart aleck, Homer is still a moron and Smithers's sexual orientation remains purposely ambiguous. (Except, you know, not really.)

"Once Upon a Time in Springfield" gives us what "The Simpsons" has reliably delivered -- albeit with less consistent panache in recent seasons -- for the past two decades: timely comedy (in a recession-era cost-cutting measure, Mr. Burns eliminates free doughnuts at the nuclear power plant); winking pop-culture references (this week's victims: Disney princesses and "American Idol"); cheap sight gags (Bart bonks Homer on the head with a table lamp); celebrity guest voices (Anne Hathaway and cartoonist Gary Larson!); and a couple of requisite potshots at the Fox network. Watch closely during the opening credits; that billboard featuring the picture of baby Maggie clearly proclaims: "Fox Network: Still Sucking After 20 Years."

Marge barely appears. There's also no sign of Patty, Selma, Comic Book Guy or Disco Stu. But there's plenty of Homer, Bart, Krusty the Clown and Mr. Burns, plus one "d'oh" and an "Ay caramba!" thrown in for good measure. You'll laugh out loud at least two or three times, then immediately forget every narrative development you just absorbed, which will make the whole episode seem new and funny again when it resurfaces in syndication. (Hmmm . . . maybe that's the secret of the show's success.)

The real headliner in this Simpsons-palooza is the documentary, in which Spurlock has an infectiously good time trotting around the globe and talking to fans both famous (Sting, Dan Rather) and downright wacky (see Chad Rowland, a dude whose back is one massive tatted-up tribute to the cartoon) in his attempt to capture the "Simpsons" phenomenon.

Spurlock heads to Portland, Ore., to visit the principal of the school that inspired Springfield Elementary. Later, he travels to North Carolina to visit uber-collector Noel Bankhead -- "If it says 'The Simpsons' on it, I have to have it," Bankhead explains. "I don't care what it is. It could be a sock."

Then Spurlock pops over to the U.K. to chat with the even more extreme Glynn Williams, whose house overflows with the 30,000 pieces of Simpsons memorabilia he has amassed. And, in the most unfortunate moment of the show, Spurlock even squeezes into a Speedo while visiting Rio de Janeiro, a city still smarting from an unflattering "Simpsons" episode that aired in 2002. (Spurlock in the Speedo probably isn't going to help matters.)

The tribute skims over details regarding the show's creative machinery -- Matt Groening and James L. Brooks, among others, briefly recount how "The Simpsons" leapt from "Tracey Ullman Show" segment to stand-alone series -- and it glosses over the question of how the writers attempt to keep the show fresh amid criticism from longtime fans. ("I think the Internet message boards used to be a lot funnier 10 years ago," "Simpsons" writer Matt Warburton says in a wry attempt to address some of the more negative comments that have surfaced online. "I sort of stopped reading their new posts.")

But it does remind us of some of the people who have been offended by "The Simpsons' " satire over the years, including President George H.W. Bush and members of the Catholic League of America, as well as those who have been inspired by it.

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