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The Simpsons 500th Episode: Celebrate An Old Friend

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I know, many of you "Simpsons" fans stopped watching a long time ago. Even us diehards petered off, drawn to the more risque and blatantly un-PC stylings of "Family Guy" or other Seth MacFarlane creations. Many of us just grew up and away from the very idea of primetime cartoons. And, as with all things, TV shows get stale, regardless of how many guest stars you parade in front of your audience, and no matter how strong our initial loyalty may have been.

This Sunday, that very loyalty is tested as we bear witness to the 500th episode of "The Simpsons" (8 p.m. EST on Fox). A truly epic landmark, really, considering the show's humble beginnings. Did you really think we'd reach this point? We've seen 500 different couch gag sequences, chalkboard writings and we've heard countless "d'ohs," probably into the thousands. We've reveled in the glory of the 22 -- yes, that's right, 22 --Treehouse of Horror episodes. Every character, no matter how minor, has had their day in the sun.

And the gang's all here for the 500th episode. We see Gil, Cookie Kwan, Otto, Sideshow Bob, Lenny and Carl (and more) as they all gather -- sorta -- to take part in this epic milestone. Titled "At Long Last Leave," the very premise of the episode (booting The Simpsons out of town) and the title itself are obvious hints at the show's self-awareness. That is, "The Simpsons" knows it's past its prime, but doesn't care. Instead of offering us cutting-edge humor and side-splitting comedy, "The Simpsons" now provides us with a sense of comfort, like the old couch Homer so begrudgingly bid farewell to in Season 3. (Season THREE!) Instead of guffaws, we get giggles; instead of knee-slapping, we knowingly smirk; and instead of sitting on the edge of our seats, we sit back, relax and enjoy its familiarity.

Yes, the key to enjoying "The Simpsons" now is to treat it like an old friend. Welcome it into your home and let it take you back to a simpler time -- before the craziness of the internet and the influx of racy, envelope-pushing shows. If you overanalyze, kiss your joy goodbye. You will hate the show and every single thing that happens. Because, if you get right down to it, the 500th episode has the exact same jokes you heard in the very first seasons: Flanders is saying "diddly," Chief Wiggum is a bumbling idiot, Mayor Quimby is corrupt. The only difference between then and now is how these themes are expressed.

If you don't think the writers, producers and even creator Matt Groening himself are aware, think again. The 500th episode is peppered with numerous references to the show's age, in the guise of the town's hatred for the Simpson family. Called an "unending nightmare" one minute and a "meaningless milestone" the next, there are many "nudge, nudge" moments for the longtime fan to acknowledge. On some level, we the audience are sick and tired of "The Simpsons" too, but we still tune in. Why? Because when Homer strangles Bart or Lisa quips some know-it-all factoid, we know it's coming. Half the time, when I catch an episode here or there, I barely register what's happening onscreen. It's like spending the holidays with familly: borderline annoying, yet strangely warm and reassuring. You want to go back, and when you do, they will always be there.

And perhaps the most important reason of all, why we return to "The Simpsons" time and time again, is because we always have, like a cultural staple, turned to the show for the next step. Going back about two decades, "The Simpsons" used to set the trends, not follow them. I recall the episode "Bart's Dog Gets An F," where Santa's Little Helper goes to obedience school, and the instructor calls him a "son of a bitch." There was media uproar about it when it originally aired in 1991, because the word "bitch" hadn't been uttered on a primetime show before, especially in a cartoon. In that sense, "The Simpsons" broke new ground and paved the way for all the shows with grisly murders, foul language and nudity that we enjoy today.

The show may not have any more ground to break, but it certainly played a part in getting us to where we are. And for that, at the very least, we should appreciate "The Simpsons." The show thanks us at the very end of the 500th episode for being a loyal audience over the years, but I want to say thank you, Simpsons.

See you in the car
-- Milhouse