One month after Sachin Tendulkar played his first Test match, a fortnight after V.P. Singh was sworn in as India’s prime minister, an animated series called The Simpsons premiered on TV. That was 1989. Matt Groening’s iconic series—the longest-running prime-time comedy in television history—is now in its 32nd season. That’s more than three decades of “D’oh!” and doughnuts, of a boy calling his father by name and being strangled in return, of a precocious girl too smart for the world around her, and of a blue-haired mother hoping things could get a little bit better.
Over the years, we lost touch with that yellow family and the town they lived in. We have our top Simpsons episodes from 20 seasons ago, but the show petered off in quality after the first 15 years and, while it has been a comfort to have the residents of Springfield around (to look up the occasional Treehouse Of Horror special, applaud the terrific The Simpsons Movie, or grin at some inventive couch gag), I don’t know anyone who has regularly been keeping tabs even though every single episode is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar Premium.
The show accidentally made headlines two weeks ago. True to form, this was because of an old episode. For the US presidential inauguration, vice-president Kamala Harris showed up in the almost exact outfit—a purple suit, a high shirt and pearls—worn by Lisa Simpson when she became president of the US and spoke of a budget crunch inherited from President Trump. This was from a 21-year-old episode ("Bart To The Future", season 11, episode 17), marking one of numerous uncanny coincidences that make the showrunners look like Nostradamus.
A few years ago, The Simpsons appeared to “predict” their own future: that Disney would buy their own parent company, Fox. Over 32 years, the show has satirised everything in sight. Rival animated series South Park had an episode called "Simpsons Already Did It" about the impossibility of coming up with a world-domination plot not already done by The Simpsons, and even that affectionate parody is nearly 20 years old.
Regardless, the vice-president’s outfit was enough to make me peek into Springfield. I discovered that David X. Cohen, the long-time writer of beloved classics like "Lisa The Vegetarian" (season 7, episode 5) and "The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show" (season 8, episode 14), had written his first episode since 1998. "Podcast News" (season 32, episode 6) ruthlessly needles both creators and consumers of true-crime serials, with suitably sensational flair. “Some people look at a neck and think ‘what a great place for a scarf,’” says a guttural podcaster, “and others think ‘I’d like to choke that’. For Jackson Reeb of Lansing, Michigan, it was the latter.”
How could I possible resist? I dove into The Simpsons and I am thrilled to report that season 32 is a return to bright yellow form. Within it, you will find treasures such as:
—Marge and Homer enacting the passions of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. (“You are a genius!” says Homer as Rivera. “From now on, I will show my awe of you by sleeping with other women. Starting an hour ago.”)
—Mr Burns changing the sign at the nuclear power plant from “Take your kids to work day” to “Put your kids to work day” as soon as the parents leave, eager to put “tiny little hands” to good use.
—Olivia Colman voicing Lily, a British woman so irresistible that “like The Beatles and balmy weather, she was too hot for England to handle”. After leaving average Joes (and DiCaprios) in her wake, in Homer she meets the first man “who didn’t offer me his chair or his beer”.
—Lisa losing the coveted saxophone position in the class orchestra, and sobbing as she throws away letter paper proudly marked “From the First Chair of Lisa Simpson”.
—An immaculately symmetrical and twee Wes Anderson parody, narrated by Anderson favourite Bob Balaban, to tell us the singular origin story of Comic Book Guy. Like so: “His aunt collected taxidermised chestnut-tailed starlings, causing her to form a tacit alliance with her twin brother, who collected brutalised birdhouses.”
It has been splendid to reconnect with TV’s longest-running family. This year the iconic (and all-white) cast stepped aside so actors of colour could voice characters of colour. The season isn’t all aces—an episode about filming a Christmas movie emerges as toothless as the movie being mocked—but The Simpsons is still chipping away, tipping over our sacred cows, forever saying what mustn’t be said and doing it in their own oddly tender way. The gags are subtly honed, intended more to provoke smirk than shock, giving them a timelessness. Season 30 had its highs, but 11 episodes in, this one feels special. Yellow fingers crossed.
Back to vice-president Harris. My theory is that she dressed purposely— and purposefully—like Lisa Simpson. She represents a new line of leaders aware of social caché and the power of a meme, and I believe invoking Lisa Simpson, a brilliant outlier progressive too smart for those around her, is a strong decision. Note also that the episode featured Lisa becoming president, and that is a fine idea to seed in the public consciousness. The Simpsons has always been unafraid to get political, and it’s good to see politicians return the favour. As Mr Burns would say, “Excellent.”
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.