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'The Simpsons' celebrates 20 years on FOX

"The Simpsons" celebrates 20 years on TV. Credit: FOX

Forget for a moment about the 20th anniversary now upon us of the most famous, beloved, imitated (and occasionally condemned) animated series in the long and spotted span of TV history.

Forget all the tributes and the mountains of admiring prose you may be asked to read today (like this one), or why we will gather Sunday night to watch a 450th episode or the follow-up documentary facetiously promising "The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special: In 3-D! On Ice!"

>>Read the review for the "The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special"

Forget all that and consider this instead: There's no earthly reason at this point why there won't be a 30th anniversary, too.

In other words, we may have to do this all over again 10 years from now.

A couple of summers ago, there were reports that "The Simpsons" might not even live to the ripe old age of 20. Ratings had softened (and have done so since its heyday in the early '90s), while the voice cast was wrestling with Fox over another major raise. But deals were subsequently reached, contracts signed and extensions granted.

A 22nd season is now assured, and if a billion or so viewers from Scandinavia to Argentina continue to proffer their unabated love - the key reason "The Simpsons" is still with us - then so are another eight.

In 2020, we will still marvel at its durability and cultural resonance, and gape at its industrial might - the Godzilla of merchandising and perhaps the most recognized American export in the world, after Coke. We'll still choke on the incomprehensible wealth it has accumulated - an estimated $2.5 billion to $3 billion for Fox alone by age 20.

Naturally, we'll still wonder why it's not as good as it used to be. The lament is as familiar as Homer's "d'oh!" or Marge's towering blue beehive. The fanboys long ago decided that seasons 3-7 were the best, and as "Simpsons" historian John Ortved notes in his recent book, "The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History," "around season 9 it hit a point where ... the comedy became so disposable and the show so unmoored from its origins that even the most die-hard fans had trouble finding positive things to say."

In an interview earlier this week, longtime executive producer Al Jean - who's been tied to the show all the way back to the first episode, on Dec. 17, 1989 - said, "I've been hearing it's not as good as it was for 449 episodes. But we work as hard as we ever did, the recognition we're getting for the shows we're doing is terrific , more importantly, we like the shows we're doing."

What's happened to "The Simpsons," in fact, is as natural as the seasons or the tides. Key members of the original brain trust have long since moved on, like Sam Simon, George Meyer and John Swartzwelder, who gave "The Simpsons" its early comic-Dadaist flavor. Even a guy like Conan O'Brien, an important early writer, eventually found another line of work.

A different world

And you may have noticed that the world - particularly compared to the world of TV in 1989 - has changed. "The Simpsons" grew out of some cartoon shorts that were designed to separate skits performed by Tracey Ullman in her first show for American TV. Those, in fact, were particularly cherished by James L. Brooks - who developed "The Simpsons" - because a friend had given him a copy of "Life in Hell," Matt Groening's cartoon on which they were based. (As Brooks recalls in Sunday's special, he especially liked the last two panels of the cartoon, with the message that whether you are a success or a failure in Hollywood, you still end up dead.)

Brooks, a titan of '80s TV ("Taxi") and movies ("Terms of Endearment"), had enough clout to keep Fox far away from the creative process, which probably saved "The Simpsons" early on from death by a thousand network line edits. He attracted smart writers who attracted others, in turn. They were given unlimited freedom to say what they wanted, skin whatever victim they chose, which often as not included Fox.

Homer passes Bart

Early on, Bart was the core, the "eat-my-shorts" incendiary punk and parental pariah, but, in time, he was eclipsed by Homer as the show's most popular and relatable character. And what seemed so shocking in the early

years - most notably relentless pokes at the trinity of American institutions of religion, family and TV - gradually seemed less shocking.

Over time, edge and buzz were co-opted by live-action shows, from "Arrested Development" to "30 Rock." Vulgarity and shock value were absorbed by other animated programs, most notably "Family Guy" and "South Park."

Tastes changed. Eyeballs drifted. The culture moved on to the next big thing. "The Simpsons" is anchored firmly in place. Springfield still looks pretty much the way it did 20 years ago. The rest of the world sure doesn't.

So why - and how - has it hung on? For the simplest of reasons: "The Simpsons" remains fresh, funny and inventive, as Sunday's

episode will again establish. That's why on this cold January day, a 20th anniversary is still cause for celebration, while a 30th feels so possible.

In 10 years' time, who knows? It might even be more essential than it is now.

>>Read the review for the "The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special"


Long Island - yes, our Long Island - gets some nice and amusing props in "Once Upon a Time in Springfield," the 450th episode of "The Simpsons" (8 p.m. Sunday on Fox/5).

Especially Mineola.

Here's the plot: The network airing Krusty the Clown's show has decided in its dubious wisdom to broaden the program's appeal to young girls. So, a unicorn is added, along with Princess Penelope (voiced by Anne Hathaway). One thing leads to another, and before long, the princess and Krusty have fallen for each other.

"I have loved you," Penny says, "since I was a 12-year-old girl in Mineola."

At another point, she's talking to someone on her cell phone: "You're not even in Nassau County anymore - you're in Suffolk. NO NO NO . . . you're going the wrong way." Alas, no further explanation. But we did note that she says this line in a thick Long Island accent, which she miraculously loses when she becomes her Princess Penelope character.

>> PHOTOS: Click here to see photos of 'The Simpsons,' through the years

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