The Simpsons has earned all kinds of accolades over the past 18 years. But lately the longest-running American sitcom may as well be stamped with the Krusty Brand Seal of Approval.
While writer turnover is as inevitable as creative burnout when a show spans nearly two decades, The Simpsons’ decline was at first gradual and excusable, then sudden and difficult to watch. Were the new scripters even fans? Homer became an angry ass instead of a cranky buffoon. And classic jokes were shamelessly repeated, as if the creators didn’t realize that many viewers know past episodes by heart.
Then the series got a big-screen jolt. This summer’s The Simpsons Movie may not have matched the show’s best moments, but it was a pretty impressive try. Sharply drawn both literally and figuratively, the film offered satire and a Simpsons-save-the-day story arc that was saturated with old-fashioned sight gags and witty one-liners. True, series creator Matt Groening and executive producer James L. Brooks had to bring in old blood to pull it off. But the success of the project likely kept a number of the disheartened from giving up on the show for good.
Wisely, the Season 19 premiere milks that high right from the start. You’re lulled by the familiar intro—the opening notes of Danny Elfman’s theme song, the logo materializing among the clouds—and, hurray, a chalkboard gag: “I will not wait 20 years to make another movie,” Bart writes before blazing out of the school on his skateboard. But then… wait, what’s going on? Bart’s ride through town is different. Springfield, destroyed at the end of the movie, is still in ruins, and the boy careens off of pieces of the dome that had quarantined the city and zips past “Burns Construction” signs, the Alaskan “Boob Lady,” Moe in a short robe and traffic-cone hat. The Simpsons’ house is little more than a frame, but a couch remains, along with Spider-Pig.
The reinvented introduction is, quite frankly, thrilling, a shot of creativity that Simpsons fans haven’t seen since the live-action opening created by a British ad agency a couple years back. What follows, well, it isn’t so hot. But at least you’ll be in a forgiving mood.
The episode begins at the Springfield Mall, where Mr. Burns is checking things such as “spats” off his shopping list when he spots a coin in the fountain and tries to grab it. Because Burns is so frail he’s practically boneless, however, he gets sucked into the fountain and spit out the top. (Nearly drowning, he thinks, “I just wish I’d spent more time at the office,” a line that’s way too close to a recent 30 Rock joke.) Homer comes along and pulls Burns out. Sudden benevolence? Nope: “Hey, you’re not a penny!” Homer moans.
To thank him, Burns offers to takes Homer out to dinner, an evening that ends up with the two flying to Chicago on Burns’ private jet for pizza. The plane ride and its luxuries—sushi, a sexy flight attendant, no one to stop Homer from bringing a full bottle of lotion on board—makes Homer realize that his everyday life is lacking. To alleviate his depression, Marge hires a life coach named Colby to help Homer “get back on a private plane in no time.” Colby sees that Homer acts like a loser everywhere but in the bowling alley, so he makes Homer wear his bowling shoes 24/7. The job offers start pouring in.
Stephen Colbert plays Colby, a more successful bit of stunt casting than Lionel Richie, who occasions moonwalking and Harlem Globetrotters jokes. Colbert brings the same dry arrogance he’s perfected on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (“Remember the NDCs of concentration: Never Don’t Concentrate”), but here he’s only fitfully amusing.
The same can be said of the episode as a whole. There are bright spots of old-school, risqué humor on subjects from terrorism to drug use, and the mall scenes reliably offer a stream of punny store names. But too often, the comedy relies on grotesqueries (Burns’ trip through the fountain isn’t pretty), gags that go on too long, and Homer’s knee-jerk rage. The premiere hints that The Simpsons’ 19th season will be worth watching, but with the Krusty Brand caveat: “It’s not just good. It’s good enough.”