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Simpsons still a riot at 300, er... 302? Doh!

It is, of course, wholly indicative of how painfully geeky the sworn disciples of Homer can be that The Simpsons' 300th episode is being greeted not as an occasion for celebration, but as a lightning rod for picayune controversy and renewed bellyaching about how the show's not as good as it used to be.

Yes, technically tonight's thoroughly manic Simpsons episode, "Barting Over" - in which Bart emancipates himself from his parents ("Don't you like being a dude?" cries Homer) - is neither the 300th to be produced nor the 300th to be aired, as it has been widely promoted on the Fox network and in publications such as this. That honor actually belongs to "The Strong Arms Of The Ma," the Feb. 2 Simpsons show wherein a 'roid-raging Marge bulked up on various muscle-building powders and potions after being badly shaken by a mugging.

It's very difficult to find a straight answer why milestone status has been bestowed on tonight's episode. Some rationalize that the 300 figure doesn't account for two early holiday specials, while Fox maintains that there was some discrepancy between the original, scheduled broadcast date - deep in the heart of the ratings-mad February sweeps - and the number of episodes that were eventually aired leading up to it. Conspiracy theories abound in online Simpsons discussion groups as to why The Man has moved on from Kennedy assassinations, UFO cover-ups and the destruction of the World Trade Center to covert manipulation of Simpsons numbers; none will be repeated here.

In the end, it doesn't matter. That a show as fearless, funny and flamboyantly subversive as The Simpsons has survived on the air with no real lapse in popularity for 14 seasons - and with at least another two to come before the show's latest contract with Fox expires in mid-2005 - deserves commemoration and commendation whether or not the "official" 300th episode lines up with the actual one.

And while die-hard fans might fret over the particulars, The Simpsons - which, let's not forget, threw itself its own "138th Episode Spectacular" in 1995 - doesn't seem to be taking the moment too seriously.

At one point in tonight's episode, Marge remarks to Lisa: "I can't count the number of times your father has done something crazy like this." Lisa responds with 300. "Hmm," says Marge. "I could have sworn it's been 302."

A nice blast at the whiny "worst episode ever" contingent. So, in fact, is the whole 14th season. "Barting Over" - which deploys gags and pop-culture references (Ornette Coleman, Arthur Miller, Michael Jackson's infamous baby-dangling escapade, pro-skater Tony Hawk, Blink 182, Samurai Jack and Bart's old Butterfinger commercials all figure briefly in tonight's plot) at a furious rate on par with The Simpsons' acknowledged, mid-'90s peak - continues a creative resurgence in the show that has been apparent since Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Tom Petty, Elvis Costello and Lenny "Don't you have a crotch to stuff?" Kravitz allowed themselves to be mercilessly ridiculed in the season premiere.

It has been an "on" year for The Simpsons, a return to the rapid-fire joke barrages and semi-linear plotlines of old after a few up-and-down seasons that occasionally tested the resolve of even the hardiest Simpsons apologists.

The Simpsons at a low ebb is still 20 times better than every other primetime series ever, mind you, and recent seasons have produced some genuinely brilliant moments: "Skinner's Sense Of Snow," "Jaws Wired Shut" and the Run Lola Run parody "Trilogy Of Error" all come immediately to mind, as does "Weekend At Burnsies," the almost cripplingly funny episode where Homer developed a chronic appetite for medicinal marijuana.

In between, however, whereas once there was the occasional middling misfire (anything with Bleeding Gums Murphy or Michael Jackson in it, for instance), there were suddenly complete duds like "Simpson Safari," the woefully unfunny singing-cowboy homage "The Lastest Gun In The West" and "Bart To The Future," a lame 2000 outing that foresaw Lisa as president and Bart as Jimmy Buffett in the future - and which Entertainment Weekly rightly dubbed the "worst episode ever" in a recent survey of favorite Simpsons shows.

The writing this season at least seems to be making a conscious effort to echo the series' golden years in blistering pace and tone.

There are stories again, too, rather than weird-for-weird's-sake plot twists and blatant, self-referential mugging designed specifically to irk self-appointed online critics. Second viewings of Marge's breast-implant misadventure, "Large Marge," or last week's "Pray Anything" - a head-spinningly blasphemous episode that found Homer throwing a day's-long "beer bash" at Springfield United Church while Rev. Lovejoy was forced to preach at the Bowl-A-Rama - are required not to figure out what the hell just happened, but to catch all the gags that were missed while laughing. That's a crucial difference from the past couple of seasons, which tended to baffle as much as they amused.

The Simpsons is still far more consistent than it has any right to be, in any case.

My love has certainly never wavered, in case the litres of ink I've previously expelled about the show in this newspaper hadn't tipped you to that already. We're not at the 300th Simpsons column yet, but we are hovering around 30, and letter writers regularly catch Simpsons references in my everyday copy that weren't even intentional. There will be more in the future, I'm sure.

None of these words, though, will ever come close to explaining why I and the millions like me adore this show so much. The reason, intangible, can be found in my favorite episodes, I suppose: "Rosebud," which features the hysterical "64 slices of American cheese" incident; Sideshow Bob's Cape Fear parody (for the rakes); "Three Men And A Comic Book" (for its Comic Book Confidential parody); the Monorail (everything about it); and Monty Burns' tour de force performance in "Two Dozen and One Greyhounds."

"Mother Simpson" I hold particularly dear, too, because it begins with some of the most sustained, intense hilarity the show has ever known - when Homer fakes his own, gruesome death to get out of a day's labor ("Best $800 I ever spent!") - and ends on a note of genuine, affecting sadness, as Homer's long-lost, '60s-radical mother flees into the night, leaving him alone and unusually contemplative in the desert.

It might be the best episode ever, but you know how hard it is to choose. There are 300 of the damn things, after all. Or 302. Whatever. I don't count 'em, I just watch 'em. Again and again and again. And I'm still lobbying the CRTC for that all-Simpsons channel.