Salon's Matt Zoller Seitz was watching The Simpsons with his kids recently when he was struck by an unnerving thought: do they get this? Surprisingly, it wasn't the sight of Homer shaking his fist at the Egg Council mascot or Roger Clemens clucking like a chicken that sent Seitz's mind racing. It was a scene with Rainer Wolfcastle, the show's Schwarzenegger stand-in, taking pains to explain that his next movie, Help! My Son Is a Nerd, is "not a comedy."
"I laughed at this," writes Seitz. "My son laughed, too -- but after a moment he asked, 'Dad, why is that funny?' I told him it was too complicated to explain, because it was."
The strength of The Simpsons' pop culture references, Seitz argues, is that they "referred to things that were current or that felt that way, thanks to syndication or shared childhood viewing experiences." With each passing year though, the best episodes require "as many footnotes as 'The Waste Land'" to be comprehensible to people under 25. The fact the show was successful led to an explosion of "footnote shows" that currently dominate the airwaves (Among others, Seitz cites 30 Rock, Glee, South Park, and Seinfeld as falling into this category.) Sure, they're "amusing and perhaps hilarious right now, but likely to be dated in five years, quaint in 10, and borderline impenetrable in 20. Or inadvertently poignant. Or chilling."
Considering The Simpsons has featured an episode where Homer engages in a screaming match with people in both World Trade Center towers, Seitz may have a point. And it's also tough to argue his assertion that the first half of the show's run holds up because of "the characters and stories, the timing of certain lines and sight gags, and the phenomenal voice work." There are plenty of Simpsons episodes that exist solely because of a specific phenomena or artifact in popular culture. But looking back, they all seem to work just fine. Here are five topical episodes that won't be getting stale any time soon.
One of the earliest denunciations of tabloid news, but it is still the freshest and most cutting. Without the explosion in cable news, there'd be nobody to care whether Homer sleeps nude in an oxygen tent.
"Deep Space Homer"
The training sequences pay homage to The Right Stuff, but the episode is rooted in America's long, slow loss of interest in space program during the 1980s and 1990s. Homer still could have been an astronaut, but not the kind who got his job only after badgering NASA switchboard operators about why exactly he "can't get no Tang down here."
Martin Scorsese's 1991 Cape Fear remake was striking, uncomfortable, and very, very silly. It was this last quality that The Simpsons exposed, reveling in Scorsese's extreme camera angles, the Bernard Hermann-esque musical score, and the simple fact Kelsey Grammer isn't Robert De Niro. Then they added some rakes and a third act performance of H.M.S Pinafore for good measure.
Lord of the Flies recast with the children of Springfield elementary. Without the book, we wouldn't have the episode, which means we wouldn't have the best last line in any fictional work, ever. Luckily, William Golding is still required high school reading.
"Burns, Baby, Burns"
The greatest Rodney Dangerfield movie Rodney Dangerfield never made. The late comedian lends his voice to the character of Mr. Burns' no-good, novelty-Pepsi-bottle hawking son, and his comedic ethos drives the entire episode, which ends with Journey-induced deus ex machina. The episode couldn't exist without him, but kids of the future won't have to have seen Back To School to appreciate why spelling Yale with a '6' is funny.