The Simpsons returns for its 29th year on the air in October. Before the season is over, it will have broadcast more episodes than any other scripted TV series in history. Still, it has slipped off many Americans' radar: Do a Google search on the show's title, and "When did The Simpsons stop airing?" will come up as a question "people also asked."
When The Simpsons premiered in 1989, Fox was a new network doing something novel. (The last notable animated prime-time network show had been The Flintstones.) Since then, the show's storylines—originally driven by verbal wit, clever stories, and flawed but sympathetic characters—came to rely on increasingly zany antics, eventually making it indistinguishable from other, crummier cartoons.
Some signs of life are still visible in the Simpsons' old yellow flesh, with stronger stories that capture some of the series' early sentiment and humanity. One episode from the 27th season parodies the film Boyhood, following Bart from toddler to early adult—a touching story that wouldn't make sense if we hadn't spent more than a quarter-century contemplating these frozen-in-time characters.
Millennial culture and attitudes offer ripe targets. "Studying is not appropriating nerd culture," Bart Simpson writes in one of the show's weekly chalkboard gags. "She's loser-shaming me," Ralph Wiggum complains when Lisa Simpson goes after him. A recent episode takes on campus P.C. when plutocrat Mr. Burns visits Yale to start a nuclear power management department. "With an issue as heteropatriarchal as nuclear power, we'll have to hire multicultural empathizers, build a new safe space," an administrator tells the creepy billionaire.
We're not back to the glory days of seasons 5 or 6; the episode eventually spirals off with gratuitous celebrity cameos and other follies of the latter-day Simpsons. But after decades of loyal service, we'll miss the Springfield gang when they're gone—if they ever leave.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Simpsons".