Where would TV be without The Simpsons? Thankfully, it will still be a while before we'll ever have to find out. With no end in sight, Fox's landmark animated hit celebrates "the most meaningless milestone of all!" — their words — with Sunday's 500th episode (8/7c), a remarkable run by anyone's measure. Even if you've been taking this show for granted the last few years, or possibly decade, you don't want to miss — though you might want to record — the dazzling opening sequence, a kaleidoscopic montage showing the Simpsons' evolution from no-def to Hi-Def, with more couch gags than the eye and brain can process.
The episode that follows is a keeper, as the family regarded as "Springfield's unending nightmare" realizes they've been excluded from a town meeting. While Homer tries to calm Marge's nerves — "Oh honey, why must you always assume that a huge picture of us at a secret meeting we weren't told about is a bad thing?" — it becomes immediately obvious that they have become Simpsons non grata and it would be so nice if they weren't there anymore. Like Adam and Eve cast from the Garden of Eden (OK, that's a stretch), the family goes into exile and off the grid, but how long can they live without Springfield and vice versa? From opening chalkboard joke to the final snarky salute to the eternal (if not forever gracious) fan, The Simpsons once again delivers the goods, proving itself to be a classic for our age and for the ages.
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END OF THE ABBEY ROAD: On Masterpiece Classic's always eventful and endlessly enjoyable Downton Abbey, we've (mostly) survived World War I and the Spanish Flu epidemic during this full but fleeting second season. In the great British tradition of leaving us wanting more — if my mailbag is any indication, much more — the series comes to a satisfying, if typically overstuffed, end for now with a two-hour holiday themed episode (Sunday on PBS, check local listings). The household and staff of the grand manor are kept quite busy celebrating Christmas and New Year 1920, the ringing in of which prompts Dowager Countess Violet (the priceless Maggie Smith) to declare, "I feel as old as Methuselah." And once she gets the compliment she was fishing for, to remark, "God knows what we're in for now." Good point, because in this house, the delicious romantic melodrama never lets up.
With the fate of loyal valet Bates (imprisoned on suspicion of murdering his horrid wife) casting a pall on the festivities, we watch as the family plays Charades upstairs while the downstairs staff tempts fate by toying with a Ouija board — and guess which kitchen maid is especially susceptible to this fancy. If only the Ouija could shed light on the pressing matters of the day: What will become of Anna and Bates? Will Matthew and Mary ever achieve happiness, despite the fact that "We carry more baggage than the porters at King's Crossing?" So many characters to root for and against — conniving Thomas' latest scheme for self-advancement even endangers the family dog — and so what if this Christmas gift from the TV gods arrives about two months past schedule?
HERE WE GO AGAIN: Though still a novice compared to The Simpsons' longevity, CBS' The Amazing Race launches its 20th around-the-world adventure this Sunday (8/7c). And as the 11 teams travel from the vineyards of California's Santa Barbara (snatching their first clue from suspended hot-air balloons) to another Santa Barbara down South America way in Argentina, the show gets off to a fairly strong start by treating the armchair traveler to the sort of visually exhilarating "Road Block" — sky-diving from 10,000 feet — that has been a hallmark of the best seasons. "My uterus is in my throat," blurts one of the contestants before making the jump — she's kidding (I hope) — but in terms of quotability, everyone takes a back seat to a Kentucky-fried cut-up who goes by the name of "Bopper." As his partner barfs from the back seat of their vehicle — carsickness not being a particularly promising trait on this series — Bopper cracks, "When you got loot on the line like this, you pee your pants if you have to!" Again, kidding (I hope).
And while much about the first leg is familiar, as long-running reality contests tend to be, it never fails to amaze me that someone could get cast on this show and not take it as a sign to learn to drive a stick shift. Host Phil Keoghan — first seen pedaling a bike, a subtle plug for his documentary movie The Ride (premiering on Showtime Saturday night at 8/7c) — has no doubt seen it all as well, but even he has to admit that the surprise twist at this week's "Phil-imination" is a first.
LONG ON LAUGHS: It's no secret that Ricky Gervais loves taking puffed-up celebs down a peg or two, but the victim of HBO's Life's Too Short (Sunday, 10:30/9:30c), his latest mockumentary of humiliation, can ill afford it. The focus is on Warwick Davis, a fantasy-film vet (the Harry Potter films, a former Star Wars Ewok, and star of Willow) who considers himself "the U.K.'s go-to dwarf." Davis is as rude as he is delusional — making him a perfect target for Gervais' unsparing mischief — and with a dead-end career and serious tax woes, reality tends to kick this little man when he's down.
Like the more inspired Extras, this limited-run (and possibly limited-appeal) satire once again skewers showbiz by revealing its cruel underbelly, as Davis debases himself alongside A-listers: doing improv with an intensely tone-deaf Liam Neeson and letting Johnny Depp study him to research a role. "Wow! He hopped on the chair!" Depp chortles into a tape recorder as Davis grins and bears it. By the third episode, he has landed in a toilet and (to avoid making eye contact with Helena Bonham Carter) a trash bin. Comedy isn't pretty, but in the Short run, it can be painfully hilarious, even when it feels like Gervais is retreading some awfully familiar material here.
O STARRY NIGHT: If CBS' The Good Wife were a play, it would be standing room only. The regular cast has plenty of marquee value already, but this week's guest-star-studded episode (Sunday, 9/8c) certainly makes it look like one of the hottest gigs in all of TV. The case-of-the-week couldn't be more topical, with a backdrop of the Syrian rebellion as Will leads a class-action charge against a smug software developer (John Benjamin Hickey) whose data-mining program has been sold to Syrian authorities targeting the e-mails of dissidents. For Will, a win would carry more significance than usual, not merely for geopolitical reasons but because he's still treading legal hot water. Barely has the firm finished celebrating his win over the Grand Jury investigation than he's brought before the Bar Association — thanks, Wendy Scott-Carr! — for possible disbarment hearings. As Will confronts this latest setback, Josh Charles underplays the situation masterfully, keeping his professional chagrin on low boil while saving his fire for the courtroom.
Among the episode's other notable players: Edward Herrmann as a sympathetic ear on the Bar board, Denis O'Hare returning as the eccentric judge (currently indulging an Occupy Wall Street obsession) hearing the Syrian case, Jonathan Groff (Glee) as Will's emotional client, Rita Wilson as the barracuda opposing counsel, and in an Eli Gold subplot, Parker Posey returns as his politically ambitious ex-wife and Amy Sedaris as his mischievous business rival/paramour. (To be honest, the twists in the case and Will's problems are compelling enough to fill the hour, making the Eli triangle feel like an annoying distraction.)
THE QUICK AND THE DEAD: "We all know this is not gonna end well!" Tell us something we don't know, Sheriff Rick. Just another bloody, intense day in the life among The Walking Dead. AMC's powerhouse of horror (Sunday, 10/9c) picks up in the immediate aftermath of Rick shooting two menacing strangers in the bar last week, while his wife Laurie is a sitting duck on an open road in her wrecked car. The tension on both fronts is excruciating, with the human and zombie menace on high alert. Being lucky enough to see most episodes in advance (and usually watching them in broad daylight), I honestly don't know how anyone watches this show right before going to bed.
Pleasant dreams, and happy weekend viewing.