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September 22, 2014

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D’ohlightful: The Simpsons’ steadily approaches TV milestone

Top 10 episodes

With "The Simpsons'" 14th season fast approaching, and nearly 300 shows already produced, what better time to put together a top-10 best-of list? Following is one person's list of the best-ever episodes:

10. "Rosebud"; airdate, 3/18/93: Brilliant send-up of "Citizen Kane" with C. Montgomery Burns as Charles Foster Kane.

9. "Homer the Great"; airdate, 1/18/95: Homer joins the Stonecutters, an ultra-secret, Mason-like organization.

8. "Simpsoncalifragilisticex-piala (Annoyed Grunt) cious"; airdate, 2/7/97: When Marge can't handle the household chores on her own, Shary Bobbins arrives via flying umbrella to save the day.

7. "Simpsons Bible Stories"; airdate, 4/4/99: Members of the Simpson family offer their own take on Old Testament tales.

6. "The Cartridge Family"; airdate, 11/2/97: With crime on the rise, Homer buys a gun to protect his family.

5. "When Flanders Failed"; airdate, 10/3/91: Homer wishes his next-door neighbor, Ned Flanders, misfortune in a new business venture.

4. "Marge vs. the Monorail"; airdate, 1/14/93: Marge is the sole voice of reason when the city of Springfield elects to build a monorail system.

3. "The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase"; airdate, 5/11/97: A peek at the future of "The Simpsons" franchise, including "The Simpson Family Smile-Time Variety Hour."

2. "Radio Bart"; airdate, 1/9/92: Bart pretends to be trapped at the bottom of a well, a la Baby Jessica, and Springfield rallies to his aid.

1. "Homer Goes to College"; airdate, 10/14/93: While enrolled at Springfield University to study nuclear physics, Homer decides to turn a pack of college nerds into party animals.

Enthusiasts of "The Simpsons," along with followers of "Star Wars" and "Star Trek," can be a bit fanatical.

Ask them a question about the TV show, and they reply not only with the answer, but the character(s) involved, a detailed plot synopsis of that particular episode, and sometimes the time and date the program originally aired.

But there is one "Simpsons" trivia fact, of which even the most diehard fan is probably unaware.

Fourteen.

That's the number of seasons Homer J. and his family wife, Marge; son, Bart; and daughters, Lisa and Maggie have graced the Fox network schedule. It also means that this season "The Simpsons" pulls even with "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" as the longest-running sitcom in TV history.

During its 14-year run "The Simpsons" has survived three U.S. presidents and nearly a dozen Fox network presidents.

To put that kind of longevity in TV terms, "The Simpsons" has outlived:

The milestone is even more impressive when factoring the odds of the show's survival.

Prior to "The Simpsons" the most recent animated program to make it in prime time was "The Flintstones." The Hanna-Barbera cartoon take on "The Honeymooners" ran on ABC from 1960-'66.

Despite the odds of lasting one season, let alone 14, "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening never doubted his show's shot at success.

"I remember back in the early days, thinking that if we could only get this thing on the air, it was going to be a hit," he told Newsweek in January 2001. "America was ready for an animated prime-time TV show that was subversive."

The Simpson family was born in 1987 as a series of animation shorts on "The Tracey Ullman Show." The cartoons were essentially comedic filler between Ullman's skits.

It was also Groening's first attempt at an animated series. At that time the cartoonist was best known for his cerebral, alternative comic strip "Life in Hell."

But "Ullman" executive producer James L. Brooks saw potential in the crudely drawn Simpson family.

And fledging Fox was desperate enough to agree.

Here-and-gone TV series such as "Mr. President," "Women in Prison," "The New Adventures of Beans Baxter" and "Werewolf" had taken a ratings toll on the upstart network, which, at that point, only offered original programming three nights a week, Saturdays through Mondays.

So with a "What-have-we-got-to-lose?" attitude shared by both the show's creators and network, "The Simpsons" debuted on Dec. 17, 1989.

The animated series originally centered on the trials and tribulations of perennial underachiever Bart (later shifting to Homer), and the spiky-haired fourth grader quickly became the series' most-popular character.

Bart's catchphrases, "Don't have a cow, man!" and "I'm Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?" became counter-culture sayings in the waning days of the ultra-conservative Reagan-Bush era of the early '90s.

And the first President Bush was not amused at the ironic antics of a 10-year-old animated boy.

Just as his vice president Dan Quayle attacked TV's "Murphy Brown" for promoting single parenthood, Bush derided "The Simpsons" for eschewing basic family values.

This approach seemed odd to many fans, considering the series was one of the first sitcoms to show a family praying and attending church together.

Despite the bad publicity -- or maybe because of it -- "The Simpsons" became Fox's most successful series. It didn't take long, though, for network executives to try to meddle with the show's success.

For "The Simpsons' " second season Fox yanked the animated sitcom from its original 8 p.m. Sundays slot and moved it to 8 p.m. Thursdays.

This put "The Simpsons" in head-to-head competition against NBC's Must-See-TV juggernaut "The Cosby Show."

War between America's top TV families had been declared. When the ratings arrived, however, there was no clear victor.

"The Cosby Show" came into battle as the No. 1-rated show over the previous five years. In 1990 though, after facing its strongest competition in "The Simpsons," "Cosby" dropped to No. 5.

And by the following season -- "Cosby's" last -- the sitcom sank to No. 18.

But "The Simpsons" was battered and bruised even more by its ratings struggle.

The series entered the 1990 season as the 28th most-watched program on TV. Against "Cosby," though, the show's ratings plummeted; "The Simpsons" routinely finished in the 50s.

Once the "Cosby" competition ceased, "The Simpsons" boomeranged back to No. 30.

By 1994, four years after Fox's grand counter-programming scheme, the network returned "The Simpsons" to its original time slot. It has remained at 8 p.m. Sundays ever since.

'Excellent'

In TV Guide's most recent list, the 50 Greatest Cartoon Characters of All Time, the Bible of Television voted Homer as its second-favorite animated character. Bart and Lisa shared No. 11.

Other than "Seinfeld," and perhaps a few seasons of "Saturday Night Live," no other TV show from the '90s can match "The Simpsons" in terms of cultural impact.

For example: How many sitcoms can claim to have invented a word? Homer's frustrated exclamation "D'oh!" -- a combination of "Duh" and "Oh" -- was listed in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2001.

Then there is the "Simpsons"-related merchandise: T-shirts, posters, calendars, hats, mugs, action figures, board games, puzzles, video and computer games, trading cards, books and comic books, videos and DVDs, to name a few.

There are even occasional murmurings of a feature film based on the series.

"The Simpsons" is no longer just a TV show -- it's a franchise.

But the reason for the show's success has little to do with spin-off merchandise, Homer's wacky antics or even the show's ubiquitous catchphrases.

Despite their four-fingered hands and crayon-yellow pigment, the Simpson clan, quite simply, is like many typical American families.

The Simpsons fight, but they always make up.

The Simpsons make mistakes, but in the end they do what's right.

And no matter how difficult life may get, the Simpsons know they can count on each other.

Still, critics of the show seem to miss that point.

Instead, they focus on Bart's lackadaisical attitude toward school or Homer's often inattentive approach to child raising.

They lob easy-to-make epithets such as "anti-family" at the series, while claiming "The Simpsons" is further proof of the decline of family values.

All of which should only make Groening smile. After all, the creator of "The Simpsons" wasn't joking when he said the country was ready for a subversive animated show.

For the past 13 seasons "The Simpsons" has quietly broadcast pro-family messages past the moral brigade and into the homes of millions of unsuspecting Americans.

And in one more season, that will be a record.

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