Homer SimpsonGiven that this magazine is pledged at least partially to the purpose of defenestrating idols, slaughtering sacred cows and so forth, there seems little reason not to begin by adding the elephant in the room to the body count. The Simpsons is not as good as it once was.

There are many reasons for its decline. One is simple weariness: The Simpsons has now been going for 22 years, the longest-running scripted primetime series in the history of American television. Another is a certain staleness by comparison to the shows The Simpsons can claim much credit for inspiring (South Park, Family Guy, Modern Family et al.). But the most crucial reason why The Simpsons right now isn’t as good as The Simpsons at its peak is that, in terms of television comedy, very little ever has been.

The Simpsons deserves eternal credit for much, but in particular for a lack of compunction about contemplating religion, a subject that many satirical and comedic vehicles, in the age in which The Simpsons operated, found easier to leave uncontemplated. A couple of the programme’s descendents, doubtless emboldened by The Simpsons’ demonstration that a cartoon can get away with what a flesh-and-blood presence might not, have since carried the attack forward. South Park has been abrasively confrontational about the self-censoring shrivelling of free speech in the face of zealous indignation (its “Cartoon Wars” two-parter is a magnificent defence of common sense against the predations of both bully and appeaser).
Family Guy has essayed some fine jokes at the expense of the dimwitted hooligans of jihad, ­especially the one in which a suicide bomber arrives in Heaven excitedly anticipating delivery of his 72 virgins, only to be faced with six dozen spotty Star Trek enthusiasts pecking nerdishly at laptops.

While The Simpsons has never been this bold, it has plausibly been more effective, because the distinguishing keynote of the show has always been that its satire, however barbed, is essentially affectionate. South Park, in particular, is the chest-prodding goading of someone looking for a fight. The Simpsons has been more the gentle hair-tousling of a relative whose ragging is at least partly intended to remind you that you’re family first and foremost. The two Simpsons characters whose pieties are most frequently mocked – mercilessly good neighbour Ned Flanders, indefatigable Kwik-E-Mart proprietor Apu Nahasapeemapetilon – are also (the saintly Marge Simpson aside) the two most decent, honest and kind adults in Springfield.

This is obviously endearing – especially to those of us who believe that one of the more admirable aspects of atheism is its essential humility, the acknowledgement that our lives are random and cosmically meaningless occurrences with no higher purpose than to attempt kindness towards our fellow beneficiaries of the same fluke (or, as Homer puts it, with zen clarity, at the end of Season Two episode “Blood Feud”, “[It’s] just a bunch of stuff that happened”). This good-natured indulgence is also a cornerstone of some of the show’s finest half-hours. The Simpsons in its prime got better in proportion to the size of the questions it confronted – something it could not have done equipped only with rage and derision.

Consider “Like Father, Like Clown” – a highlight of Season Three and, the case can reasonably be made, of 20th-century philosophical discourse. This is the episode in which irascible children’s entertainer Krusty the Klown unburdens himself of his tormented back story – in an obvious nod to the 1927 Al Jolson film The Jazz Singer, Krusty reveals that he is Jewish, born Herschel Krustofski, the son of a rabbi who has disowned him due to the frivolity of his career. Lisa and Bart take it upon themselves to effect a reconciliation. Though the gags are sublime – to Lisa’s brief soliloquy on the Jewish contribution to American popular culture, Homer incredulously replies “Mel Brooks is Jewish?” – the treatment of religion itself is punctiliously respectful. Lisa and Bart cite Bible, Talmud and Sammy Davis Jr to Krusty’s father – voiced with brio by the great Jackie Mason – and it is difficult to imagine (and impossible to respect) the ironclad humourlessness that would be required to take offence.

Funeral with Rev LovejoyLikewise, Springfield’s Christians are never explicitly depicted as credulous or foolish – just good people, as most church-goers are, seeking solid refuge in a fluid world. God’s resident emissary, Reverend Timothy Lovejoy, is a lugubrious hack who never gives the impression that he has more than half a heart in his deliveries of doctrinaire brimstone (“Just about everything is a sin. Have you ever sat down and read this thing? Technically, we’re not allowed to go to the bathroom”) or sectarian spite (“That’s Catholic, Marge. You might as well ask me to do a voodoo dance”). When woken from one slumber by Flanders, calling in the grip of some arcane spiritual torment, Lovejoy replies, “Ned, have you thought about one of the other major religions? They’re all pretty much the same.” Asked by the same pestilential congregant if he should fear God’s wrath, Lovejoy sighingly counsels, “Short answer, yes with an if, long answer, no with a but.”

God himself is never mocked, however. Indeed, when the Almighty appears to Homer in a dream – in “Homer The Heretic”, the Season Four episode in which Homer decides to cease attending Lovejoy’s gruelling sermons – he is altogether reasonable, accepting Homer’s point that “I’m not a bad guy. I work hard, and I love my kids. Why should I spend half my Sunday hearing about how I’m going to Hell?”

If The Simpsons is less sure-footed in its discussion of religions aside from Christianity and Judaism, it is failing no more or less than the nation it reflects. Hinduism ­ or “Miscellaneous”, as Rev Lovejoy has it, ­is mostly personified by Apu, though in Season 17’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bangalore” Homer invites himself to join a Hindu pantheon already populated, as he calls it, by “the Elephant Man, Johnny Six-Arms, Papa Smurf”. Again, however, the failings that provide the comedy are exclusively human hubris, rather than divine caprice. Islam is barely touched until Season 20, when Bart befriends a Muslim in “Mypods & Broomsticks” – and even then the jokes are exclusively at the expense of paranoid Springfieldians. Anti-Muslim hysteria is indeed a ripe topic, but it’s uncharacteristically pusillanimous of The Simpsons – though perhaps characteristic of recent seasons – that the riskier angle languishes entirely unexplored.

At its peak, though, The Simpsons amounted to a fierce, funny sceptics’ primer. Location of its moral core may be performed by balancing historical American figures who’d have loved the show (Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, HL Mencken) against those who could have been banked on to hate it and/or demand hearings into it and ritual burnings of it (Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Ayn Rand, William Jennings Bryan). And perhaps the most eloquent encomium to its metaphysical vigour, and its seductive warm fuzziness, was offered last year by a journal well used to deliberating the ineffable. The Simpsons, it said, was “tender and irreverent, scandalous and ironic, boisterous and profound, philosophical and sometimes even theological, nutty synthesis of pop culture and of the lukewarm and nihilistic American middle class.”

Not the words of New Humanist. The words of L’Osservatore Romano – daily newspaper of the Vatican.