When The Simpsons first debuted on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987, there had never been anything quite like it. Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie proved that nothing is sacred, turning the historically tame, kid-friendly medium of television cartoons on its head with expletive-drenched social commentary. Few cartoons can boast an intellectual reach that encompasses the nuclear family, American culture, and the human condition. Even fewer (read: none) have completed 27 seasons. America’s longest-running animated program premiered its 28th season on Sunday.
Amidst a historical presidential election and the looming specter of the end of the world as we know it, America’s first cartoon family returned to business as usual.
Of course, even the most ardent Simpsons enthusiast has to admit that the show’s stronghold on the cultural zeitgeist has slipped over the course of a few decades. Cool kid slang has evolved beyond “eat my shorts,” and the season premiere of this living classic is hardly event television. While The Simpsons had the original vision to make cartoons coarse, their juvenile fantasy has long been surpassed by South Park, a gloriously deranged series that never quite left its anal stage. College-aged stoners, predisposed to The Simpsons for its accessible humor, pretty shapes, and intellectual edge, can now turn to the truly caustic BoJack Horseman. Robot Chicken, Bob’s Burgers, Archer, and Family Guy have also swept in to fill the public’s insatiable appetite for precocious cartoon babies and anthropomorphized, cursing house pets.
The Simpsons, then, is an interesting case—a truly radical series turned TV comfort food. And 597 episodes later, it’s a nostalgia trip well worth taking. Season 28 opens, as is The Simpsons’ wont, with a couch gag. This time, the iconic opener is reimagined as a paean to Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time—another heir to The Simpsons’ animated series throne. Here, Adventure Time’s familiar intro is converted into “Simpsons Time”: “Simpsons Time / Run don’t walk / You might even hear Maggie talk / Bart the boy / and a dog named Homer / and jokes written on signs / it’s Simpsons time!” Like other beloved Simpsons couch gags, this visual tangent is a window into the writers and creators’ brains, and acts as both a reference point and a recommendation.
This first episode, “Monty Burns’ Fleeing Circus,” finds the Simpsons family begging hometown billionaire Mr. Burns to bankroll the rebuilding of a newly annihilated Springfield. The endlessly avaricious, hopelessly attention-hungry money monster isn’t above philanthropy—for a price. Sound familiar? With the lascivious cotton candy-haired Donald Trump trampling towards The White House, Groening and co. are leaning into Mr. Burns as a built-in comedic allegory. In a later episode this season, Jason Alexander is slated to guest star as the fictional inventor of for-profit colleges. This not-very-subtle sendoff of Trump University will find Mr. Burns attempting to start his own university—the predictably named Burns University.
This won’t be the first time The Simpsons has mocked the real-estate magnet, but it is the first Trump-centric episode that could potentially air during a Trump presidency, as “The Caper Chase” is slated to hit the small screen in early 2017. When asked how Trump might react to this episode, executive producer Al Jean mused, “I guess he’ll sic Putin on us.”
While seasoned enough to know its own strengths, The Simpsons isn’t above pandering to viewers with some topical content. One surefire way to stay relevant is through celebrity cameos, which the animated series knows how to deliver. This season alone will guest star Taraji P. Henson, Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, and Keegan-Michael Key, to name just a few. In the premiere, very big deal comedian Amy Schumer plays Mr. Burns’ mother through a series of very funny flashbacks. With the help of Schumer, brought to animated life through a sepia filter, we learn that Burns’ present-day cruelty is the result of a childhood trauma. As a young tyke around the turn of the century, Burns thoroughly embarrassed himself at the Springfield Bowl’s “Pee-Wee Pageant of 1912.” When Burns, urged on by his stage mother, went to perform his act, he ended up dropping trou and exposing himself to the entire audience. Images of the pantsing, titled “The Befuddling Britches,” went 20th century viral—according to Mr. Burns, “Within days, half of America was cranking to my bottom.”
Mr. Burns attempts to sooth his own psychological scars by demanding the right to put on a variety show. In return for starring in the Springfield Bowl production, Mr. Burns will restore the average American city to its former glory-ish. Meanwhile, we—and Homer—learn that the Simpsons’ family patriarch is the sole safety inspector at the nuclear plant. With Burns away avenging his childhood exposure, the plant workers go on workplace Rumspringa. The end of the episode finds history repeating itself, as Mr. Burns inadvertently drops his bloomers onstage, and an instant popcorn explosion in the nuclear plant lends the variety show an unexpected finale. Also, we learn that the Simpsons family is forever destined to fail because they were cursed by God after shooing the pregnant Virgin Mary from their doorstep.
In a continuation of this season’s focus on all things Mr. Burns, the despicable tycoon will get an Oculus and hire the Simpsons to play his family. The animated series might not offer the most cutting edge commentary on the pros and cons of the budding virtual reality movement, but Mr. Burns’ twisted family man fantasy is sure to give Springfield’s greedy villain unexpected emotional depth. And while Homer’s family is away working for Mr. Burns, Homer will form a new friendship with neighbor Julia, played by Allison Janney. Despite participating in deeply unsexy activities like beer-drinking and belching, Homer and Julia’s relationship makes Marge suspicious. Even after 29 years of marriage, it’s nice to see that Marge and Homer still know how to keep things interesting.
The Simpsons’ staff has also teased a number of hot-topic episodes for this season: a Masters of Sex-inspired episode, an Empire homage, and even a Pokémon-Go subplot. But The Simpsons excels when it prioritizes its timeless characters and charm over timely gags and big-time stars. The nostalgic allure of The Simpsons is multifaceted and undeniable. First off, there’s the America it chronicles: a middle class nuclear family in Everytown. Sure, The Simpsons is making fun of traditional family archetypes, particularly as seen on sitcoms—the clueless dad, domestic housewife, bratty son, and precocious daughter. But the depiction is light-hearted and compassionate, a far cry from the twisted interpersonal dynamics that have progressively blurred the lines between TV comedies and serious dramas. The Simpsons harkens back to a different America, a different television landscape, and, most powerfully, to our younger selves. With the first generation of kids to be contaminated by the grown-up cartoon approaching their own Homer years, The Simpsons’ return is an invitation to regress—to pay tribute to the original subversive animated series, and to remember the first time the show left us shocked and delighted.