At the weekend The Simpsons broadcast its 500th episode.

In the milestone show, which is airing today in the US, characters Homer and Marge hear that Springfield residents have been holding secret meetings to evict the troublesome family from the town.

The episode features a cameo from whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange.

Astonishingly, The Simpsons has been going for 23 mainly glorious years.

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There's little doubt that we have stopped watching in quite such exuberant droves as before. South Park, Family Guy and others have taken over, and the overarching general feeling is that the best work was done in the first 15 years. So we won't give you the best episode, or anything dangerously definitive, but simply our take on 10 aspects of the show, pretty much groundbreaking, for which we should surely still give thanks, most of all for reminding us that clever telly could work.

1) THE AMERICAN DREAM

And the invaluable lessons Homer has taught us on how to live it.

Montgomery Burns: "Turn around, Simpson." Homer: "No! I can't get in trouble if I can't see you." Smithers: "I'm afraid he's got us, sir." Or Homer's "If you really want something in this life, you have to work for it. Now, quiet, they're about to announce the lottery numbers."

Most importantly, of course, his life-lessons to Bart: "Don't tattle, always make fun of those different from you, never say anything unless you're sure everyone feels exactly the same way you do."

Then there are the three sentences he thinks should get any youngster through a life of work, should they be lucky enough to find a job: 1) "Cover for me." 2) "Good idea, boss." 3) "It was like that when I got here." His legacy to Bart, Lisa and Maggie is: "Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try."

2) THE BIT PLAYERS

The extra, if not entirely extraneous, characters have been one of the joys of the series' in-depth work, teaching lazier writers how to make the most fleeting appearances interesting and also, happily, reminding us of the glorious powers of prejudice and stereotyping. Best was surely Bad Jack Crawley, "such a bad man that Bob Dylan wrote a song to keep him in jail". There was Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel, and Groundsman Willie, whose denunciation of the French as "cheese-eating surrender-monkeys" might have been uttered in 1992 but has guided US foreign policy since. And the likes of Bleeding Gums Murphy, Lisa's dentist-averse sax mentor, who incidentally prompted Homer's grudging yet timeless compromise to Lisa: "Go ahead and play the blues then, if it'll make you happy."

3) THE IN-JOKES

Matt Groening was not above slipping in a few sly references. Against lawyers, mainly - the series very nearly never got off the ground because of greedy copyrighting kerfuffles - but also Rupert Murdoch's Fox, which couldn't complain too often because Groening was making its most successful series. Homer once complained to Marge about her ethical stances, moaning that, "We can't watch Fox because they own those chemical weapons plants in Syria."

4) THE GUEST STARS

A curate's egg, this. Some glorious appearances, even in voice, starting with Liz Taylor (who voiced baby Maggie's first word - "Daddy") and including Michael Jackson, who provided the voice for a fat white character from an insane asylum who believed that he was Michael Jackson (I hope you're still with me) in what was my personal favourite, if mad, episode. Yet who can fail to forget Tony Blair? Russell Brand? Often the best were musicians, allowing Homer some of his most genially addled rejoinders, especially when shaking hands with "Hi - Billy Corgan, Smashing Pumpkins." "Um ... Homer Simpson, smiling politely." Ricky Gervais was good, though not as good as he thought, but the stand-out line relating to guest appearances must remain Homer's, after Stephen Hawking had featured. "So, Lisa, did you have fun with your robot buddy?"

5) LOVE

Homer and Marge, of course. Ahh. He just kept coming out with the winners. "Marge, look at me: we've been separated for a day, and I'm as dirty as a Frenchman. In another few hours I'll be dead! I can't afford to lose your trust again." Or, in one which must resonate with any long-married couple, his response to Marge's question: "Homer, is this the way you pictured married life?" Homer: "Pretty much. Except we drove around in a van solving mysteries."

6) THE FALSE NAMES

Part of the decency of the family lies in the fact that when they tell lies they do so with inordinate klutz. Decent Marge, making an anguished anonymous call to the police, gives her address as "Um ... 123 Fake Street."

Best, surely, was when Homer tried to get on a VIP-only rocket to escape the end of the earth. "I am the piano genius from the movie Shine!" Homer declaims and the smiling guard ticks his box before he has a thought.

Guard: "And your name is?"

Homer: "Um ... Shiney McShine?"

7) THE UNSEEN PERIPHERALS

We have the geeks to thank for this. The credits on something the family watch from their famous couch, or the super-fast scrolling of Bart's blackboard lines, which mere mortals miss. Blackboard favourites have included: "I was not touched 'there' by an angel"; "Fire is not the cleanser"; "Fish do not like coffee"; "The hamster did not have 'a full life"' and "I will not surprise the incontinent."

On the family's cartoon telly, the world's worst TV show, Rock Bottom, was once forced to apologise for many things, but unreadably fast. Such as: "Styrofoam is not made from kittens ... Roy Rogers was not buried inside his horse ... Saltwater does not chase the thirsties away" and, aptly enough ... "The nerds on the internet are not geeks."

8) THE HORROR

Many fans have loved most the Halloween horror specials. The Simpsons does gory-funny better than anyone, and seldom better than with The Itchy & Scratchy Show, loosely based on Tom and Jerry but with fewer gentle anvils and many, many more rocket-launchers, napalm, torture and screaming fiery death. There were episodes with such sweet titles as Field of Screams, Skinless in Seattle, Why Do Fools Fall in Lava? and, of course, Reservoir Cats, and mostly set in either Searing Gas Pain Land or Unnecessary Surgery Land.

9) FOOD

Doughnuts and Homer's assertion to his daughter that the purple in doughnuts is "a fruit", and - best of all in all 23 years - the time he tried to become a newspaper's restaurant critic. Editor: "We're looking for a new food critic, someone who doesn't immediately pooh-pooh everything he eats."

Homer: "Nah, it usually takes a few hours."

10) ENDORSEMENTS FROM ON HIGH

The number and quality of the people who have loved (or hated) the programme speaks volumes. The writer A.S. Byatt adores it and thinks that Homer's Y-fronts are "the best bit". The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, said: "It's one of the most subtle pieces of propaganda around in the cause of sense, humility and virtue." Then there was an early statement attributed to George Bush snr that the ideal American family must be "more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons". And which family do we now laugh at more - in a good way?

- Observer, Telegraph