Perhaps predictably for a series with such a contentious fanbase, one’s enjoyment of the current season of The Simpsons will depend on the expectations one brings to it. What kind of fan are you? Disenchanted disciple? Unabashed apologist? Listless rubbernecker? I consider myself an acquiescent onlooker, long past the point of begrudging the series its continued existence following an inarguable decline from its golden years (seasons two through nine, for the record). Watching Fox grant The Simpsons a renewal year after year isn’t unlike watching Sideshow Bob step on rake after rake; that abrupt movement from delight to annoyance gradually turns into pleasure at each repetition’s absurd inevitability. With death comes acceptance—and so, too, with undeath.
As for my own expectations, these days I ask only that an episode of The Simpsons tell a start-to-finish story rooted in recognizable character behavior and contain a handful of laughs. By those standards, season 26 is, well, perfectly cromulent. The first three episodes draw on well-established character patterns—Krusty’s need for approval, Bart and Homer’s mutual disrespect, Marge’s desire for a career—to tell conventional stories that wrap up plausibly, if predictably. If there’s an air of the perfunctory to these episodes, there’s also a sense of ease. The series has settled into a relaxed middle age, and one of the pleasures of tuning in at this late stage is the comfort of the familiar.
Comfort didn’t used to be a selling point for The Simpsons, but it affords its own distinct pleasures. Take the recent episode “Super Franchise Me,” in which Marge becomes the operator of a sandwich chain and ropes the rest of the family into working for her. Even when her initial success is jeopardized by the opening of an “express” version of the franchise across the street, there’s no real sense of an impending threat. True, any sitcom is bound to boomerang back to the status quo by episode’s end, but here, the threat is dispatched so quickly that there’s barely time to register a danger.
Rather than accentuating the narrative stakes, the trend this season has been to hit story beats lightly, placing the focus squarely on the jokes the writers set up (and land on a fairly consistent basis). That may limit the immersive engagement that accompanied the show’s best seasons, but it allows for a reassuring amusement at familiar characters behaving in familiar ways in familiar situations. A different sort of engagement, to be sure (The Simpsons as comfort food), but one that isn’t without merit, particularly when it’s executed with confidence.
If there is an area where The Simpsons remains innovative, it’s along the fringes. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a series that seems less and less interested in adroit narrative constructions, it’s expended increasing energy on creating inspired couch gags, be it through outsourced animation (as with the season premiere’s superb Don Hertzfeldt sequence) or esoteric allusions (as with a beguiling Tea for Tillerman non sequitur). As the stories themselves become ever more routine, the increased prominence of this paratextual material offers an indication of what will likely be the most enduring latter-day contribution to the show’s legacy.