Someday, The Simpsons is going to end.
As a diehard fan, even one who has some significant misgivings about the current state of the show, that’s a tough pill to swallow. The Simpsons has been on as long as I’ve been watching television. Even at its lowest lows, it’s been the small screen version of comfort food for me, and sooner or later our favorite family will sign off for the last time.
If show runner Al Jean is to be believed, that might not be for another twenty-five years. Still, the day is going to come, and I think it’s close on the horizon. With the recent contract negotiation, standoff, and finally renewal through Season 25, the end of the show appears to be on the minds of those who work on and produce it. Whether it’s threats to pull the plug in order to prompt salary cuts or requests for a share in the back end profits of the show, those involved seem to have a not-too-distant endpoint in mind.
This begs the question – how do you end a show that will have been on television for a quarter of a century and produced more than five-hundred episodes? How do you sum up, honor, and conclude twenty-five years worth of adventures? It’s a tall order to say the least.
Fortunately, I believe the show may have already found a blueprint with Season 19’s “Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind.” As the title suggests, the episode does do a bit of parodying of Michel Gondry’s transcendent film, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but it goes much further, and in a direction that’s pure Springfield.
The premise is deceptively straightforward. Homer wakes up one morning to find Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie gone. He has no memory of what happened the night before, and he slowly but surely begins to piece together the clues of what occurred. Along the way, he has help from Chief Wiggum, Ned Flanders, Grampa Simpson, and even Moe (creator of the “Forget Me Shot”). Homer suspects he’s done something terrible to Marge, causing her to take the kids and leave. Things become a little wild when Homer uses Professor Frink’s memory machine to go inside his own mind to piece the puzzle together. Without spoiling the ending of a four-year old episode, I’ll just say that it in true Simpsons style, the episode ends on a happy note.
I rewatched this episode recently, and it occurred to me that it would have been perfect as a series finale. “Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind’ certainly had a number of good things going for it. There’s the obvious advantage that the episode centers around memory. As Homer is zooming through his own mind trying to piece together the night before, scenes from hundreds of earlier Simpsons episodes race by, reminding the audience of how many misadventures the Simpson clan has been on over the years.
Beyond that, this was one of the most creative episodes the show has ever done. It’s especially notable insofar as this creativity came so late in the game as Season 19. While a mystery that can only be solved through flashbacks and memory machines seems pretty out there on its face, the execution absolutely worked. As Homer gathered clues and remembers more and more of the story, the audience followed right along with him. Once we delve into the nether reaches of Homer’s brain, featuring help from the kids, a fight between Bart and ten-year-old Homer, and some mind-bending ways of kick-starting his memory, the episode truly takes off. It was a unique and truly creative way to tell a story, especially for a show that’s told so many.
But that alone is not what makes this episode worthy of being the last word on The Simpsons. It also centers around the show’s biggest character, yet does so in a way that brings the rest of the family to the fore with him. Moreover, it shines a light on one of The Simpsons’ biggest and best themes over the years – Homer as an oafish but loving and well-intentioned father and husband. His joy at playing with Bart and Lisa in the snow reminds you of Homer the parent at his best, and his concern and reunion with Marge puts a nice cap on one of the show’s strongest undercurrents – the strong if rocky relationship between the matriarch and patriarch of The Simpsons.
To boot, it features a sizeable helping of the townsfolk that made Springfield a place worth visiting every week, as well as pitch-perfect humor. Whether it’s quips from characters as far in the background as “Old Jewish Man” waxing nostalgic about his first Christmas (“such great Chinese food”) or the random silly wordplay gags that made us laugh (“Goodbye cruel world. Goodbye Cruller-World!”), almost everything worked beautifully. The episode did justice to both the cast of characters who turned the show into a vibrant comedic ecosystem and the style of humor that prompted so many guffaws since the show debuted in 1989.
Whenever the show ends, I hope the writers and producers coming up with the final episode look to this one for inspiration. It would be all too easy to put together a self-referential, self-aware finale that winks at the audience, but fails to really embody what one of the greatest television shows of all time is all about. Instead, the creative minds behind the show should aim to accomplish what “Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind” accomplished. Put together a sweet story that centers on our favorite family, hits the biggest themes of the show over the years, includes the townspeople and humor we’ve come to know and love, and adds a little creativity to the mix as well.
This all seems like a great deal to ask of the writer’s room. I have no doubt that it will be difficult to give closure to a show that’s been on so long, become so engrained in American culture, and which has such a devoted fan base. Thankfully, as this episode demonstrated, they’ve managed to do it before. And I believe, with the right motivation and the right inspiration, they could do it again.