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Simpsons' Brick will be hard act to follow

Widespread opinion has it that The Simpsons, now in its 25th season, was at its peak in the final decade of the last century, and everything since then has been a slow, painful decline into mediocrity and irrelevance.

Matt Groening's groundbreaking animated sitcom was once powerful enough to get up the nose of the first President Bush, who declared in a 1992 speech that American families should be "a lot more like The Waltons and a lot less like The Simpsons".

Ingeniously, the very next episode featured Bart watching Bush's speech on television and shooting back: "Hey, we're just like The Waltons. We're praying for an end to the depression too."

The intervening years have seen The Simpsons regularly being outshone, at least as far as critical opinion is concerned, by Family Guy, South Park, American Dad and even cult favourite Archer. Ratings have been sliding as well.

You can't expect a show to stay on air for a quarter of a century without losing an awful lot of viewers. The audience for The Simpsons is now less than half what it was when it began in 1989, and a recent episode was reportedly the least-watched in the programme's history.


Which brings us to last weekend. This was supposed to be the point at which The Simpsons hit its final creative wall – a wall made from small plastic bricks, invented by a Danish carpenter called Ole Kirk Christiansen, which first went on sale in 1949.

The "Lego episode" (actual title Brick Like Me), which went out on the Fox network on Sunday and will be broadcast on Sky 1 later in the year, features a Springfield where everything and everyone is made from Lego.

When the episode was announced, the series' fiercest critics accused it of selling out by climbing into bed with a toy manufacturer in a blatant attempt to cash in on the surprise success of The Lego Movie – as though a programme which has spawned a huge range of merchandise over the years was somehow a stranger to commercialisation.

The fact that, according to Groening, the episode had been in the pipeline for two years, long before anyone came up with the idea for The Lego Movie, didn't seem to cut any ice. This would still be a new low point.

Except the script didn't pan out quite that way. The ratings were up 19pc on the previous week and the reviews largely excellent, with many claiming it was the finest episode in a long time. Having seen a preview, I can testify that the praise is deserved.

Brick Like Me isn't the funniest episode of The Simpsons ever made, although there are some marvellous, knowing lines. "It's not selling out," proclaims Homer, getting his retaliation in first, "it's co-branding!"

It's certainly the most technically accomplished, though. The reimagining of a familiar world in shiny, colourful Lego bricks looks stunning, and many of the sight gags – such as baby Maggie being bigger than everyone else because she's made of larger, age-appropriate Duplo bricks – are superb. It's also one of the most warm-hearted episodes I've ever seen (and warm-heartedness, it's often forgotten, has always been a key element in The Simpsons).

Without giving too much away, Homer wakes up in an alternative Springfield where, as everyone keeps telling him, "everything fits together and nobody gets hurt", but soon discovers he prefers the real world, with all its imperfections and disappointments.

The matter of how and why he's there in the first place is beautifully and quite touchingly realised. New Simpsons episodes, like new Rolling Stones albums, are regularly hailed as a return to form, and usually aren't. But Brick Like Me offers a lot to build on in the future.