There’s something off-putting about Simpsons episodes that end on a serious note. Not necessarily a heartfelt conclusion—that happens often enough, and is a regular part of the show’s DNA—but a downbeat political one, a moment when the show drops all pretense at maintaining some humorous distance from whatever message it’s driving home. Sometimes this can be deployed to incredibly potent effect, as in the haunting final moments of “Treehouse Of Horror XVII,” when Kang and Kodos’ alien attack bleakly allegorized the disaster of the Iraq war. But at other times, it feels like the show is treading dangerously close to “Very Special Episode” territory, which basically sums up the end of “Trash Of The Titans.” For a show that has made environmentalism a recurring theme of its politics, this unabashed plea for conservation is only a hair’s breadth away from a shooting star and “The More You Know” sailing across the background.

This episode doesn’t have the biggest belly laughs of the season, but what it does have is a solid story, one that follows a consistent and clear three-act structure, as though the impetus to deliver an indictment of American society’s waste prompted the writers (specifically Ian Maxtone-Graham, credited scribe this week) to hone a plot that’s the inverse of the story’s representation of messiness. Even the brief bit of tomfoolery that kicks off this episode—Costington’s need to buttress the season’s plummeting profits with a new national holiday—ties into the overall theme of our need to continually generate more and more pointless junk, and then promptly evade responsibility for such stupidity. Or, as former sanitation commissioner Ray Patterson (largely underutilized guest star Steve Martin) puts it, in a quick rush of condemnation, “You’re screwed thank you goodbye.”

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The garbage generated by new holiday Love Day (how long do you suppose it took Marge to take down that Chuck-E-Cheese-level animatronic stage of musical bears on the front lawn, a.k.a. “Love land”?) shifts the plot into motion, as the amount of junk left over eventually needs to be disposed of. But, thanks to Homer’s frustrated tirade at the trash collectors, the Simpsons lose their garbage pickup, and his refusal to apologize means their yard slowly becomes a massive dump in its own right. (You’ll want to put a clothespin on your nose before the sun hits Diaper Mountain.) Once Marge says sorry on his behalf, the Simpson patriarch’s desire to fight city hall leads him to run for sanitation commissioner, where a landslide victory prompts his fateful squandering of the city’s entire yearly trash budget in a month. This segues to the underground burial of other cities’ garbage, the eventual eruption of all that crap into the town itself, and then the show’s ludicrous deus ex machina of having the entirety of Springfield move five miles down the road.

“Trash Of The Titans” has a clear centerpiece, however, and it’s the musical parody of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory’s “Candy Man” that serves as high point of the third act. Sure, the show wasn’t the first one to substitute ”garbage man” for “candy man” in a parody of the tune, but it was the first to go full-bore performance piece with it. From Chief Wiggum’s ticklish response to the men cleaning his tux to the Oscar The Grouch cameo, it’s an artfully directed and breezily executed number. It’s not quite up to the level of, say, “The Monorail Song”—that line about telling you when your ass is showing is clunky, even if Bono’s affected delivery helps sell it—but it’s a solid entry in the Simpsons musical montage canon.

Still, for being the 200th episode, this feels like a fairly standard entry in the “Homer does something dumb and fucks up everyone’s lives” category. There’s no B story to speak of, and the progression from the household trash slowly filling up to the destruction of Springfield is somewhat haphazard, if consistent with jokes and a linear narrative. But it does seem a bit underdeveloped in the way that the coming seasons often do: While it’s nice to have the entire family so supportive of Homer’s election, there’s almost no way Marge and Lisa wouldn’t have raised some concerns about the insane promises he made to get the job. (Indeed, Yeardley Smith even calls this out on the DVD commentary.) There’s three separate (and good) jokes about Homer’s “crazy promises,” and by the time he’s scrambling to fix the budget crisis, even Marge assumes his solution was to sell drugs.

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But in this, one of the final episodes of the show’s waning golden period, there are still delights to be found, albeit it at increasingly intermittent moments. After the Simpson patriarch tries and fails to get the U2 crowd to rally to his cause, his pitiful attempt to do the monkey is a spot-on moment of flailing-Homer characterization. (The Jumbotron that airs his backstage beating by security staff while the band launches back into “(Pride) In The Name Of Love” is great, too.) And who knew U2 was so demanding about getting the potato delivery man to show up to every concert? Similarly, Lisa’s inner monologue from her brain is excellent, after her father proudly proclaims that his supposed victory over the garbage collectors is like David vs. Goliath, only this time, David won: “I know, I heard it, too. Here’s some music.” These are the flashes of wit that continue to spark periodically, even as the series enters one of its weaker phases. Individual installments may go off the rails completely, but the family dynamics that ground these relationships never fully dissolve. And thank goodness, because otherwise, who’ll be there to buy Bart a “Kisses Make Me Boogie-O-Lantern” for Love Day?

Stray observations

  • Poor Sir Loves-A-Lot, the bear who loves to love. No matter what he does, he’ll never be Lord Huggington. (Speaking of which, it’s a nice callback when we see the lil’ unwanted mechanical guy, spiked through with syringes, being pushed into the abandoned mine with all the other trash.)
  • “Animals are crapping in our houses, and we’re picking it up?!? Did we lose a war? That’s not America. That’s not even Mexico.”
  • Really, the abbreviated political campaign contained some of the best parts of the episode. Ex-commissioner Patterson: “You told people I lured children to my gingerbread house!” Homer: “Oh, yeah. That was just a lie.”
  • One of the best visual gags comes courtesy of the Flanders’ unfortunate decision to bury their beloved bunny right when all that buried trash starts bursting up from the ground:

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  • Thank God for Adam Clayton’s spoon collection. You know, the one from Springfield makes nine total!

Next time: Have you had the good fortune yet to bite into a Powersauce bar, the only bar that contains a secret ingredient that unlocks the power of apples? Les Chappell has, and it’s given him a powerful hunger—a hunger to reach the top of the Murderhorn, the biggest mountain in Springfield, and one never to be heard from on the show again, after its starring role in “King Of The Hill.”