The Simpsons, which began its eighteenth season on Sunday, has had such a vast influence, and been on the air for so long, that in a weird way it’s become invisible. TV animation for adults; high- and lowbrow comedy seamlessly melded; the subsumption of cultural clichés into a unique artistic world: The road to everything from The Onion and The Daily Show to South Park and Family Guy runs straight through Springfield. Simpsons quotes have become a language unto themselves, existing separately from the episodes that spawned them. As a result, we’re swimming in Simpsons: new seasons, extras-packed DVDs, and round-the-clock repeats in syndication—an overwhelming prospect for anyone who’s not a Homer-crazed completist. But don’t fret: Those who want to truly savor the show’s cultural importance can start—or, rather, end—with the recent DVD release of the show’s eighth season, which marks the final year of a six-season run of sustained genius.
In seasons three through eight, the animation became more assured, the characters came into their own (Homer’s voice, for example, stopped being a Walter Matthau impression), and, most critically, the show began to grasp the possibilities inherent in animation, a medium whose greatest previous prime-time experiment was The Flintstones. Episodes started to move faster, as the writers realized they could cram in more characters, more story, more references, and more jokes than any live-action show could accommodate. The creators also began to mess with different genres: One season-eight DVD alone contains a full-on musical, an X-Files parody, and a Carlos Castaneda–style mystical voyage. The show could go anywhere, be anything. The only thing it couldn’t do was top itself.
After season eight, there were significant staff changes: A new show-runner was brought in, a number of key writers moved on, and genius animator Brad Bird (The Incredibles) left. But perhaps it was inevitable that The Simpsons couldn’t sustain forever such a high-wire mix of hilarity and humanity; on a commentary track for the season-eight DVD, creator Matt Groening acknowledges that the characters became more exaggerated as time went on, so as to not be repetitious. The show’s still good, and sometimes very good (it won two Emmys last month). But at a time when the Simpsons aesthetic is echoed everywhere, and the show will receive more attention than it has for a long time—the 400th episode will air in May, and The Simpsons Movie is scheduled for July—it’s worthwhile, and thrilling, to revisit these 23-minute masterworks, produced back when America’s favorite yellow family was solid gold.