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The Simpsons

Bill Gibron

In sharp contrast to the terrific family-based installments, Matt Groening and company have started to let their left leanings show through.

The Simpsons

Airtime: Sundays, 8:00pm
Cast: Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria
Network: Fox
First date: 1989-12-17

Is The Simpsons, after 16 seasons, as good as it ever was? After watching every episode this season -- including the pair of fantastic final episodes that aired on 15 May -- it's hard to say no. Sure, it's traded some of its sublime satire for more shock-oriented and slapstick antics, but you won't find more insightful social commentary on any other broadcast network.

From the start, The Simpsons has targeted the forced domestic wholesomeness crammed down audience throats by traditional sitcoms. Recent seasons have become more surrealistic, almost dada-esque, in their efforts to undo conventions. While it does help push the hilarity into hyper-drive, the lack of realism has also made many fans unhappy; for them, the pratfalls detract from the series' more pointed humor.

At the beginning of Season 13, longtime Simpsons sage Al Jean returned as executive producer, and the show corralled much of its craziness for more personal stories. Many of Jean's changes can be seen in Season 16, as Homer's (Dan Castellaneta) Neanderthal nonsense and bratty Bart (Nancy Cartwright) gave way to "softer" episodes focusing on Marge (Julie Kavner) and Lisa (Yeardley Smith). The usually stoic and supportive Marge was highlighted in "All's Fair in Oven Wars." As she has done throughout The Simpsons' run, she found a way to turn her domesticity into a comment on ethics, commitment, and playing fair (here, when she entered a cooking contest). In "A Star is Torn," Lisa's consistently principled politics grounds to a delicious send-up of American Idol.

In sharp contrast to the terrific family-based installments, Matt Groening and company have started to let their left leanings show through. The series has occasionally crept over into an agenda-based conceit throughout its history. It mocked George Bush Sr. in 1996's "Two Bad Neighbors." But they tried to balance its bashing by taking as many pot shots at Bill Clinton as they did the radical NRA-loving right. In Season 16, however, they took sides. Two of the season's most controversial episodes came at the direct expense of a couple of very overheated hot button issues.

Sensing that there was money to be made in same sex nuptials, Springfield became the gay marriage capital of the world, with Homer as its chief, Internet-approved minister. The episode, "There's Something About Marrying," naturally attacked those who would discriminate, but it also explored the often-cited "slippery slope" of allowing matrimony to be defined outside the parameters of a man and a woman -- with hilarious results. The season-ending "The Father, The Son, and the Holy Guest Star" had Bart falling under the "evil" spell of Catholicism, in a plot that took on the Church without resorting to the obvious gag (sex scandals). It was a highlight in a season that satirized a range of hot button issues, from prescription drugs and junk food in public schools to the peculiar baby-selling practices of communist China.

The season featured the usual celebrity self-parodies: Gary Busey tweaked his psychobilly style by acting as a host for an infomercial on restraining orders. James Caan spoofed both his role as Sonny in The Godfather and his well-known inclination to hang out at a certain aging playboy's mansion. Even 50 Cent showed up as a voice of reason, dropping the gangsta crap to teach Bart a valuable lesson about staying in school. And less obvious guest choices also find themselves trudging through Springfield. While viewers may not have read Gravity's Rainbow or The Crying of Lot 49, reclusive author Thomas Pynchon appeared (wearing a paper bag on his head). The same goes for avant-garde architect Frank Gehry, commissioned to build Springfield's short-lived Cultural Center (it becomes a prison).

Such casting choices, along with the balancing between activism and the everyday ordinary, proves that The Simpsons remains unafraid and inventive, filtering popular culture through its own peculiar lens. Has the show lost its touch? Hardly. In some ways, it's only improved with age.

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