The Simpsons hits 600 episodes, and hits us over the head with it

By Mike Tunison  |  Last updated 10/17/16

"The Simpsons' are up to their old tricks (and treating) with their 600th episode of the show, "Treehouse of Horror XXVII." "The Simpsons"/Fox

Back in 1995, smack dab in the heart of The Simpsons’ prime, a run of comedy masterpieces few TV series have ever even come close to rivaling, the show aired "The 138th Episode Spectacular." It’s far from the most enduring episode from that period though it a provides an instructive counter to where The Simpsons is now.

Poking fun at television tropes has always been central The Simpsons’ sensibility, and that was entirely the premise of the 138th episode – sending up the self-aggrandizing anniversary special that used to be the norm among long-running sitcoms. You don’t see those much nowadays, partially because sitcoms have fallen out of favor but also because entertainment options are so multitudinous that shows can rarely get away with creating that type of filler.  

Two years later, The Simpsons passed The Flintstones for the title of the longest-running prime-time animated program with its 167th episode. It did so with only the most oblique acknowledgement to the achievement. The episode itself, titled “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” was a commentary on how difficult it is to remain fresh in entertainment and the exacting standards that fans place on their favorite shows. That’s proved prescient. 

The Simpsons had riffed on The Flintstones previous to passing the mark and even included a reference to Fred and Wilma in a couch gag a few seasons before. Not bothering to make a big deal of the show’s new place in history was a graceful note and evidence that The Simpsons was so good that it didn’t even need to waste time with historical markers.

This week, The Simpsons reached another milestone, or at least another big round number: 600 episodes. That it did so in the 27th installment of the "Treehouse of Horror" is fitting, since along with Sideshow Bob episodes, the annual Halloween show is one of the series’ most notable staples. Bob, naturally, makes an appearance in an intro segment that also features Frank Grimes, one of the best known one-off characters in the show’s history.

“Will nobody stop these people?” Grimes bemoans of The Simpsons’ family and then an explosion of screencaps from the 600 episodes plays out behind him with a giant number 600 superimposed. “In hell, they make you watch them all in a row,” he deadpans. If that’s the case, I guess hell is FXX, since FOX’s cable channel is doing an encore of its "Every. Simpsons. Ever." continuous marathon next month, which will span 13 days, one longer than the 12 it took in 2014.

In recent seasons, the couch gag that opens each episode has been a sly way for The Simpsons to cling to some measure of relevance by referencing trendy things in pop culture and pushing it on social media. Sort of the same way the John Oliver EVISCERATING some topical issue can dominate your feeds on a Monday. And so an extended intro turns into a Planet of the Apes parody with the couches as the creature that takes over the planet. If The Simpsons was once unwilling to indulge in itself too greatly, that’s clearly no longer the case. Episode 600 is as much about fan service and winks toward big moments in the show’s past as it is creating new laughs now. I’m a fan so I can appreciate those references, but it’s a harsh reminder that The Simpsons is creatively stagnant and has been for some time. The Simpsons has always been self-aware and willing to have fun with itself, though at some point self-deprecation is just a lazy attempt at excusing what you really are.

"Treehouse of Horror XXVII" closes out with a James Bond parody that features Bart as a spy and Homer as a supervillain. It doesn’t particularly fit a Halloween theme, but that’s excusable if it’s entertaining, and this is amusing enough. The bit, and the episode, ends with a Bond style song that is entirely about the fact that this is the 600th episode, which is really pouring it on thick in the self-promotion department.

“Six huuunnn-dred,” the singer intones, a la the Goldfinger theme. “Yes, that’s right - we’ve churned out 600 shows.” There’s then a reel of forgettably trashy FOX series that The Simpsons has soared past over the years, including Herman’s HeadMan vs. BeastCelebrity Boxing, and Allen Gregory. And because we’re being cute and self-deprecating while also self-promoting, there’s The Critic and Futurama. It’s funny enough if you happen to be a Simpsons fan, and frankly at this point if you’re not, you’re probably not sticking with a series 600 episodes deep.

Depending on who you’re asking the answer may vary by a year or two, but the consensus is that it’s been about 20 years since The Simpsons lost its fastball. That’s a long time for any entertainment to exist, let alone coast. In that span, a once classic show has gone from pretty good to okay to bordering on awful then back to pretty good again in the last few years. In some ways I feel like an ingrate complaining about what it is now since the show’s golden years helped shape my sense of humor like few things. I won’t remember much about the 600th episode, but it gave me more reasons to think back on the things about the show I’ve loved over the years.

It’s exceedingly difficult to stay fresh after 600 episodes and nearly 30 years of consistent production. The show itself comes off as resigned to the fact that it’s sort of just humming along, waiting for the end to come and doing the best it can in the meantime. And it’s still not clear when that end will be. The ratings are still solid, after all. While the official announcement for the 29th season has yet to come, it seems inevitable that it will. There’s no way an institution that’s been so integral to Fox’s success would be allowed to abruptly end. Hell, The Simpsons might very well hit 700 before it’s all said and done. And I’ll be here for it, even if the last 500 are something of a blur.

Mike Tunison is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va. and the former editor of Kissing Suzy Kolber. You can follow him at @xmasape on Twitter.

QUIZ: Name the players in The Simpsons baseball episode 'Homer At The Bat'

Who are the professional MLB players who appear in classic Simpsons baseball episode 'Homer At The Bat'?

Clue is the player's position.

Wade Boggs
Jose Canseco
Roger Clemens
Ken Griffey, Jr.
Don Mattingly
Steve Sax
Mike Scioscia
Ozzie Smith
Darryl Strawberry

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