The Fox Network’s focus this past Sunday night was on the 20th anniversary of The Simpsons, the adult cartoon that has garnered consistently high ratings and spurned a vast assortment of bumper stickers, key chains, boxer shorts, and catch phrases. Executives have renewed the show’s contract through the 22nd season, but talk of termination has grown more visible of late.

I have watched The Simpsons in its entirety (catching up on the first ten years or so by watching the weekday repeats religiously) and observed all of the gradual changes in look, voice, and style that the show has undergone during its long life. The Simpsons appears to be losing steam—replacing “termination” of the show with “euthanasia” would be far too harsh, but recent episodes have lost much of the creativity and subtle profundity of earlier seasons and seem to rely more on reused concepts.

The first episode of Season 21 opens in the comic book store, where Bart and Milhouse convince The Comic Book Guy to publish his original comic, Everyman (“What are his powers? All of them!”). A film studio picks up the adaptation and Comic Book Guy chooses Homer to play the title role. The executives decide that Homer is unappealing as an actor and he undergoes a fitness regimen. When his personal trainer leaves, Homer gains the weight back, which obviously proves disastrous for the Everyman movie. When hasty editing cannot save the film, Comic Book Guy leaves Hollywood and returns to his humble station behind the store counter.

The action is fast and clear-cut as usual, with every member of the Simpson family getting their obligatory moment. It’s been a while since Comic Book Man was featured and he finishes off the episode with his trademark “Worst. Movie. Ever.” line, even talking us through the rest of the old sequence—“And send, and sip!”—as he submits his movie review online and sits back in his chair with a Squishee. After a cameo by creator Matt Groening and a decent number of laugh-out-loud moments (Homer violently expelling a mouthful of curdled milk, for example, which on second thought is rather disgusting), the episode is wrapped up as always in a neat little package.

As an episode of South Park once pointed out, The Simpsons already did it. The episode seems like a conglomeration of recycled jokes and concepts. Bart starts a trend at school. Homer diets, Marge finds Homer attractive, Homer’s diet fails. A Simpson briefly becomes a movie star and is spat out by Hollywood. Jokes are made at the expense of the big-studio film industry. The episode is funny, of course, and The Simpsons can’t be expected to always be innovative. In fact, I am relieved that the writers don’t seem to be trying too hard—perhaps they know that they can’t top themselves and they are committed to writing good humor without longing too much for the days when new ideas were countless.

They’ve reused a lot of old notions in recent seasons (with a happy number of exceptions), which makes a longtime fan like me feel nostalgic but satisfied. The Simpsons, almost at the end of its rope, is paying homage to itself. Hopefully, The Simpsons will end on a high note after twenty-something (thirty-something?) years. Until then, I look forward to the next couple of seasons. Homer can keep saying “D’oh!” all he wants—some jokes never get old.

Starring: Dan Castellaneta, Nancy Cartwright, Julie Kavner, Yeardley Smith, Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria

Exec Producers: James L. Brooks & Matt Groening

Network: Fox

Airs: Sundays, 8:00pm EST

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