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In denial as Homer loses his zing

D'oh! The pain, the pain! The Simpsons is agonising to behold at the moment -- like watching someone you love breathing with the aid of an oxygen tank and insisting they'll be going home any day now, when you know they'll never see the hospital car park again.

People say The Simpsons has been in startling decline for years, a pale shadow of its former self. You know it's true, yet you still don't want to believe it, because to do so hurts.

Every time you sit down watch one of the new episodes -- which, in my case, is not as often as it used to be -- you mentally cross your fingers that this will be a really good one. And then the reality kicks you in the stomach: the magic has disappeared and is never coming back.

Sky 1 seems to be loudly trumpeting the new instalments more in desperation than hope. The continuity announcer heralded last night's as "a typically irreverent episode", which sounded suspiciously like a subtle warning that what we were about to see might not suit everyone's sensibilities.

The episode was set in Israel, after all, where Ned Flanders had taken the family in an attempt to save Homer's soul. Could there be something edgy and challenging here? Nope, not a bit of it. The Simpsons doesn't do edgy and challenging any more; that's South Park's job.

What The Simpsons does these days is soft, safe and increasingly predictable. The last one is the worst. What once made The Simpsons so great was its elastic unpredictability. Homer could start out in Mo's Bar and end up in space.

Now, though, you know exactly where you're going. There was a scene at the Wailing Wall. Bart was pulling slips of paper left by the prayerful from between the bricks and scrunching them up.

"Hey boy, what are you doing?" says Homer. "Reading prayers and ignoring them," says Bart. "Just like God." Ho, ho, ho, ho-hum.

There was a handful of visual gags. Homer happens upon The Gaza Strip Club and a restaurant called The Wailing Waldorf, complete with a fiddler on the roof from, well, Fiddler on the Roof.

In the old days, these would have been throwaway gags: blindingly fast little treats that whizzed by your eyes almost before the chuckle had escaped your mouth. Now they're the pivots for whole scenes.

Something else The Simpsons does is guest voices. Too many guest voices. These, too, used to be an occasional delicacy; now they're the engines that power whole episodes. A couple of years ago, Matt Groening let Ricky Gervais write a whole episode. It was terrible.

This week's guest voice belonged to another English darling of American comic royalty, Sacha Baron Cohen. He played a rude, yammering tour guide. They seem to have let him ad lib his own dialogue. It was tedious.

Near the end, Homer gets lost in the desert and emerges believing he's the Messiah, which gave the episode its one classic Homer zinger. Uniting the various faiths, he says: "Some of us don't like pork, some of us don't like shellfish, but we all LOVE chicken!"

But it was about the most obvious storyline you could imagine. Homer isn't the Messiah, he's a very lazy cartoon character. Sad. Terribly, terribly sad.

Another series showing signs of strain is Outnumbered, which reached the last episode of the current series. Outnumbered is still funny, but the super-precocious kids are becoming ever so slightly irritating, their semi-improvised dialogue a little too polished for comfort.

One more series and that, ideally, should be it. But since when have TV people ever known when to call it quits?


The Simpsons **

Outnumbered ***