Summarize The Simpsons in 10 episodes? That’s unpossible! (But we try anyway)
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With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch those 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.
As it was with Saturday Night Live, choosing the 10 most “representative” episodes of The Simpsons is a fool’s errand. How can one of history’s most acclaimed and feverishly adored TV shows—and the longest-running American scripted primetime series ever—be distilled into five hours?
It can be, many times over, and that’s unique to The Simpsons: My fellow Simpsons expert Nathan Rabin could pick 10 different episodes that could be just as valid as the ones below. TV Club editor Todd VanDerWerff could come up with a completely different list that could also work. The scale of The Simpsons supports many interpretations, all of them yelling at each other, “How could you have left [episode title] off your list?! Like Jimmy Carter, you’re history’s greatest monster!”
Or maybe it’s best to subdivide TV Club 10 for The Simpsons by category—family life, parenting, childhood, politics, celebrities, education, work—and see how the show treated each. Across 24 seasons and more than 500 episodes (and counting), The Simpsons has covered a lot of ground.
It has spent its twilight mostly re-covering the same ground. As much as that’s an indicator of creative bankruptcy, it’s also a necessity of The Simpsons’ unprecedented longevity. The Simpsons visited New York in season nine, and hey, there’s nothing saying they can’t go back during the season 24 première. What if Moe redid his bar again, but this time as a gay bar, as he did in “Flaming Moe,” from season 22 (its title a nod to the season three classic “Flaming Moe’s,” the first time the bar underwent big changes)? Back in the 13th season, Bart created a popular web series called Angry Dad based on Homer, which became a movie in season 22, “Angry Dad: The Movie.” The strained-but-loving relationship between Lisa and Homer has propelled at least half a dozen episodes at this point. (Ditto the occasionally tumultuous relationship between Homer and Marge.) The series has flashed forward to show its characters’ futures a handful of times. There have been 12 episodes about Sideshow Bob. As Bart said in the season five classic “Bart Gets Famous,” “It’s my job to be repetitive. My job. My job. Repetitiveness is my job.”
When repetitiveness became too much a part of The Simpsons’ job remains the subject of fierce debate. Although season 23 earned some surprising praise (itself kind of sad—“Hey, that episode about the novel was actually good!”), the consensus is that the show has been on a downhill slide for years. How many? That depends. No one would bat an eye at 10 years. Twelve? Ever since that episode when Principal Skinner turned out not to be the real Principal Skinner? For the record, “The Principal And The Pauper” aired all the way back in 1997, a low point in the otherwise solid ninth season. It’s definitely a miss, but many subpar Simpsons episodes improve with subsequent viewings. (No such promises for last year’s dreadful “Moe’s bar rag tells its origin story” episode, though.)
But TV Club 10 isn’t here to fall into the trap that ensnares every discussion of The Simpsons, where ostensible fans end up debating when the show “started to suck.” It has a far more utilitarian purpose: to pare down to 10 episodes a show whose entirety would take nearly two weeks of 24-hour-a-day viewing to watch.
“The Way We Was” (season two, episode 12): The relationship between Homer and Marge Simpson forms the core of The Simpsons. The mythology around how the couple met begins with this episode, written by a trio of Simpsons all-stars: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, and Sam Simon. When a broken TV forces the Simpsons to entertain themselves, Marge tells the story of her and Homer’s relationship, which began when they were seniors in high school in 1974, providing some critical background information on characters viewers had only known for 24 episodes at this point. Homer was lackadaisical even then, content to shirk his responsibilities and not worry about the future until meeting Marge, whose conservatism and naïveté stretch back to her high school days. She gave his life direction, and proved that when he wanted to, Homer could be incredibly focused. Viewers also learn that Barney was basically the same in high school, and that Abe Simpson had been lowering his son’s life expectations from an early age. (“Oh son, don’t overreach. Go for the dented car, the dead-end job, the less attractive girl.”) All of it would heavily inform The Simpsons as it continued, from the character of Artie Ziff, who would have two subsequent episodes dedicated to him, to the format of telling these origin stories, as The Simpsons would do later with Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. It’s also the first appearance by Jon Lovitz (as Ziff), who has voiced six different characters over the years.
“Lisa’s Substitute” (season two, episode 19): The closest thing to an audience surrogate on The Simpsons is Lisa Simpson, typically the most rational and intelligent person in the family and, possibly, all of Springfield. That puts her at the opposite end of the spectrum from her father, who is aggressively uncurious, lazy, and prone to irrational thinking and ill-advised crusades. The clashes between Lisa and Homer have provided the basis for numerous episodes over the course of 24 seasons, but “Lisa’s Substitute” is the first episode that fully explores the disconnect between Lisa and Homer. When Lisa finds an intellectual peer in charismatic substitute teacher Mr. Bergstrom (played by “Sam Etic,” a.k.a. Dustin Hoffman), it throws Homer’s limitations into stark relief—which he sees and resents. Unsurprisingly, he’s delighted when Mr. Bergstrom inevitably moves on, dismissing Lisa’s sadness with a classic Homer line, “Hey! Just because I don’t care doesn’t mean I don’t understand!” But he does care and loves Lisa unconditionally, and no matter how boorish of an oaf he is, she loves him too. The Simpsons was still relatively controversial when this episode aired in April of 1991, but for all the rhetoric about the show’s cynicism and supposed threat to the nation’s children, “Lisa’s Substitute” ably displayed the beating heart underneath the satire. It’s in the sweet goodbye scene between Lisa and Mr. Bergstrom, and it’s there at the end, when Homer makes up with Lisa, successfully consoles Bart on losing the class-president election, and comforts a fussy Maggie. The Simpsons are, fundamentally, a family whose members love each other greatly, and the writers frequently use the relationship between Homer and Lisa to show the extent of that.
“Marge Vs. The Monorail” (season four, episode 12): Easily on the short list of all-time Simpsons classics, “Marge Vs. The Monorail” is a stellar episode in the show’s bulletproof fourth season. Where episodes like “Lisa’s Substitute” advanced the core themes of The Simpsons, “Marge Vs. The Monorail” wins by doing nothing of the sort. Although it provides one of many examples of Springfield’s susceptibility to con men, it’s really a standalone episode, and a perfect one at that. In a nod to The Music Man, a shyster from out of town convinces the city to spend a monetary windfall on an unnecessary (and incredibly dangerous) monorail. There’s a song, a Leonard Nimoy cameo, Mr. Burns shackled like Hannibal Lecter, a hilarious file photo of Homer, and an important message about the utility of donuts. That all of this sprang from the mind of Conan O’Brien—then an unknown former SNL writer—should come as no surprise to people familiar with his subsequent late-night career. O’Brien is credited as a writer on four Simpsons episodes, all of them great—and in the case of “Marge Vs. The Monorail,” iconic.
“Last Exit To Springfield” (season four, episode 17): “‘Last Exit To Springfield’ is a popular candidate for the single greatest episode of The Simpsons, the greatest television show of all time,” wrote Nathan Rabin in his review for TV Club Classic. What makes it so special? Joy. It “positively radiates an unlikely but pervasive sense of joy,” a particularly notable accomplishment considering it centers on the seemingly disparate but intertwined subjects of Lisa needing braces and Homer leading a strike at the nuclear power plant. For all the places the series has traveled—thematically and geographically—The Simpsons has only a handful of sets that appear regularly: the Simpson home, the nuclear plant, the First Church Of Springfield, Springfield Elementary, the Kwik-E-Mart, and Moe’s. Of the non-home locations, the plant plays the biggest role: Although Homer has taken many odd jobs over the years, he works at the plant, and much of his identity—and unhappiness—stems from his job. The plant has played a pivotal role in numerous episodes, but most importantly, it provides the show’s biggest secondary character, Charles Montgomery Burns, the evil man who owns and runs it. Mr. Burns is a frequent foil for the Simpson family (and Springfield at large), which “Last Exit To Springfield” shows, along with the environment of the nuclear plant and the family’s relationship to all of it. It also lands some knockout jokes, including a hilarious, sepia-toned flashback to Mr. Burns’ childhood, a “Yellow Submarine” riff, a funny nod to How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and the classic line “It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times.” A running theme throughout The Simpsons is how Homer stumbles through life, yet somehow thrives thanks to an endless series of lucky breaks. In “Last Exit To Springfield,” he accidentally leads Mr. Burns to believe he’s a brilliant tactician, unwittingly breaking the old tyrant’s will through sheer dumb luck.
“Bart Vs. Australia” (season six, episode 16): “The Simpsons are going to ____________!” Twenty-four seasons in, that’s become a familiar trope on The Simpsons, as the family has traveled to Japan (season 10), Tanzania (season 12), Brazil (season 13), England (season 15), Sweden (season 15), China (season 16), Italy (season 17), India (season 17), Peru (season 20), Ireland (season 20), and Israel (season 21). That trope began—and was done best—in season six, when a dispute over a collect call Bart makes to Australia causes an international incident. In the DVD commentary track for this episode, executive producer/showrunner David Mirkin notes that “Bart Vs. Australia” has a “great combination of nastiness and inaccuracy” in its portrayal of Australia, which the writers selected because the country is famous for its sense of humor. The episode may have tested the limits of that, as it portrays Australia as a backward nation populated by roughnecks. But “Bart Vs. Australia” also reveals the real targets of The Simpsons: “The reason we can be nasty to any country, any person, any race or creed, is because we are always the most nasty toward the United States, toward our main characters,” Mirkin says in the commentary track. Perhaps that’s what unsettled the show’s early critics more than anything: Some of the show’s sharpest satire was directed at us, not them.
“Much Apu About Nothing” (season seven, episode 23): “The Simpsons really has more angry mobs than any comedy on television,” jokes episode writer David X. Cohen—or David S. Cohen, as he was credited at the time—on the “Much Apu About Nothing” commentary track. As executive producer Bill Oakley notes, this may be the angriest, mobbiest of them all: “This whole episode is kind of about mob hysteria and how it affects politics, and innocent people can be swept up in that.” As stand-ins for average Americans, Springfieldians are especially susceptible to mob hysteria, so it’s not surprising that a bear harmlessly wandering into town prompts an overzealous bear patrol. But when the costs of the bear patrol spark an outcry, inveterate politician Mayor Quimby deftly shifts the blame to illegal immigrants. That includes Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, who stayed in the country illegally after his student visa expired. “Much Apu About Nothing” works well on a couple of levels—as a portrait of Springfield mob hysteria and as a healthy origin story for a character who began as a one-dimensional stereotype. It also contains possibly the greatest Simpsons joke ever written: When Apu’s plight forces Homer to rethink his anti-immigrant fervor, he says, “You must love this country more than I love a cold beer on a hot Christmas morning.” The episode also shows how smartly The Simpsons can comment on current affairs, even with the year-long lead time its episodes require: Its Proposition 24 was based on California’s Prop. 187, which denied health care and education to illegal immigrants and their children.
“El Viaje Misterioso De Nuestro Jomer” (season eight, episode nine): Executive producer/showrunner Josh Weinstein notes in the commentary track for “El Viaje Misterioso De Nuestro Jomer” (“The Mysterious Voyage Of Our Homer”) that the show aimed to do one weird episode every season. At the time, none topped “El Viaje” for weirdness: Hot peppers in chili send Homer on a hallucination-induced vision quest led by his coyote spirit animal (voiced by the inimitable Johnny Cash). The first and third acts of the episode are relatively conventional, but the hallucination-fueled second act took the show to new places thematically and visually, with whimsical, psychedelic animation overseen by director Jim Reardon. During his quest, Homer comes to question whether Marge really is his soulmate, even though meeting her was the defining moment of his life. (Comparing their record collections, he says, “Look at these records! Jim Nabors, Glen Campbell, the Doodletown Pipers! Now look at her records—they stink!”) The rest of the episode follows Homer’s Are You My Mother?-style attempts to find his soulmate, though it naturally all comes back to his wife. “El Viaje” nicely mixes a de rigueur storyline for The Simpsons—the occasionally shaky relationship between Homer and Marge—with an ambitious, envelope-pushing second act no one would have expected when the show debuted in 1989.
“The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” (season eight, episode 14): Why was The Simpsons so willing to take the kind of risks that produced “El Viaje”? Because nobody on staff thought the show would last more than 10 seasons, at least according to the commentary track on “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show.” Few shows make it to eight seasons, and those that do have usually passed their prime. After eight seasons, The Simpsons had gone from stoking hysterical hand-wringing to being one of the most acclaimed series of the ’90s. What was once feared was now a television institution. Simultaneously, Internet culture began taking shape, providing a forum for fans of the show to discuss (and criticize) The Simpsons in ways easily accessible to the people who created the show. “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” another excellent episode by David S. Cohen, is partially a ham-handed rejoinder to the Comic Book Guys of the world, but it’s mostly a funny, razor-sharp satire of show business. When the venerable cartoon duo of Itchy & Scratchy faces declining ratings, the network (and Krusty The Clown) pressures its producers to add a third character: Poochie, a “dog with attitude,” says a network executive. “He’s edgy. He’s in-your-face. You’ve heard the expression ‘Let’s get busy’? Well, this is a dog who gets biz-zay. Consistently and thoroughly… We’re talking about a totally outrageous paradigm.” As showrunner Josh Weinstein notes, the writers would often use Itchy & Scratchy as a way to comment on The Simpsons, and “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” comes from a real place: The Itchy & Scratchy writers are drawn to resemble Simpsons writers (as is the animator, who’s based on Simpsons director David Silverman), and a Fox executive had actually suggested The Simpsons add a character, like a cousin, who would live with the Simpsons. As a preemptive satirical strike, the writers created Roy, a sassy cool guy who inexplicably lives with the family. Poochie is fantastically terrible, and the fan outcry is swift and passionate, leading to Comic Book Guy coining the phrase “Worst. Episode. Ever.” When he says he feels like the show owes him something for being a loyal viewer, Bart serves as the writers’ surrogate. “What? They’ve given you thousands of hours of entertainment for free! What could they possibly owe you? I mean, if anything, you owe them!” The episode stumbles when it hits that preposterous last line, which Lisa echoes later: “We should thank our lucky stars they’re putting out a program of this caliber after so many years.” “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” reveals the strain that had begun to develop between the show and the passionate fans that had made it a hit, but The Simpsons would take its biggest swipe at those fans the following season.
“The Principal And The Pauper” (season nine, episode two)
“I can’t remember who came up with the idea of destroying the series,” says writer Ken Keeler on the commentary track for this episode. He and showrunners Josh Weinstein and Bill Oakley—also on the commentary track—decide to call it a “group effort,” because they were all leaving The Simpsons and wanting to do as much damage as possible on their way out. The irony comes fast and furious on the “Principal And The Pauper” commentary track, and with good reason: When it aired in the fall of 1997, the episode drew a swift, overwhelmingly negative reaction. Nine seasons in, The Simpsons experienced its jump-the-shark moment, at least in the eyes of some viewers. Fifteen years later, other episodes have vied for that title, but “The Principal And The Pauper” wounded the faithful first and hurt the most. Why? Because it told them everything they knew about a key character was wrong: During an event to celebrate his 20 years as an educator, Principal Skinner is revealed to be a fraud, a troubled youth named Armin Tamzarian who assumed the identity of his mentor, Seymour Skinner, who went missing and was presumed dead in Vietnam. The real Seymour Skinner (voiced by Martin Sheen) turns up and assumes the life his imposter had built, while Tamzarian attempts to return to his troubled past. In the end, the town rejects the real Skinner, and Judge Snyder confers the name, “past, present, future, and mother” of Seymour Skinner onto Tamzarian. According to Keeler, “The Principal And The Pauper” is about a community of people who like things just the way they are—only it never dawned on those people that the episode was about them. It was an amplified version of the themes in “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” though this time fans didn’t get it (or rejected it). Keeler confesses on the noticeably defensive commentary track that the point was “much clearer” in his original draft, which had two speeches that were cut for time. Regardless, he maintains that he’s prouder of “The Principal And The Pauper” than anything else he’s written for television. (He also wrote the similarly ire-inducing season eight episode “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase.”) He’s probably the only person whose favorite episode is “The Principal And The Pauper,” but even if the half-hour doesn’t succeed, it’s representative of where The Simpsons was headed at the end of its first decade, and it’s indicative of the types of stumbles it would make down the road. For years, The Simpsons had enjoyed an enviable hit-to-miss ratio; “The Principal And The Pauper” heralded an era of more misses and established a precedent for dramatically changing characters’ storylines.
“Behind The Laughter” (season 11, episode 22): The Simpsons has a long tradition of stunt episodes, dating back to the second season with the original “Treehouse Of Horror,” which used the Simpsons as characters in three different horror-themed segments. “Treehouse Of Horror” has become an annual tradition on The Simpsons, just as stunt episodes have become commonplace, from using the world of The Simpsons as a setting for Bible stories to episodes that parody TV shows like 24 and films like Run Lola Run. When these episodes miss the mark, it shows the strain of the writers grasping for something different. When they work, they seem like natural extensions of the Simpsons world. No stunt episode suited The Simpsons' predilection for meta-references better than “Behind The Laughter,” which copied the format and graphics of VH1’s popular Behind The Music series—with that series’ full cooperation—to tell the salacious story of the Simpsons’ rise and fall. Behind The Music was immensely popular in the late ’90s, and by the time “Behind The Laughter” aired in May of 2000, its setup and themes were well-known to the kind of people who watched The Simpsons. “Behind The Laughter” even used Jim Forbes, who narrated Behind The Music, to turn out histrionic assessments like, “The Simpsons’ TV show started out on a wing and a prayer, but now the wing was on fire, and the prayer had been answered—by Satan.” “Behind The Laughter” nails Behind The Music, and it smartly comments on The Simpsons’ place in a media landscape that had shifted considerably over 11 years. There’s a dig at “The Principal And The Pauper,” a clip of which plays as Forbes describes how the show came to rely on “gimmicky premises and nonsensical plots,” and it also mocks the “The Simpsons are going to…” trope in the final scene, when Homer announces “The Simpsons are going to Delaware!” (One season later, they did—in the stunt episode “Simpsons Tall Tales”). “This’ll be the last season,” Homer says to the editor who’s assembling the episode. In reality, The Simpsons was just reaching its halfway point.
And if you like those, here are 10 more: “When Flanders Failed” (season three, episode three), “Burns Verkaufen Der Kraftwerk” (season three, episode 11), “Mr. Plow” (season four, episode nine), “Whacking Day” (season four, episode 20), “$pringfield” (season five, episode 10), “Bart Gets Famous” (season five, episode 12), “Itchy & Scratchy Land” (season six, episode four), “Homer The Great” (season six, episode 12), “Wild Barts Can’t Be Broken” (season 10, episode 11), “The Regina Monologues” (season 15, episode four). Or just watch all 22 episodes of season four. For a few standout recent episodes, check out this Inventory.
Availability: Seasons 1-14 are available on DVD (the 15th comes out in December), season 20 (the first in HD) is available on Blu-ray, and seasons 1-3 and 20-24 are available on Amazon Instant. A handful of episodes from the current season are also available on Hulu.
Next week: Laugh your cares away with Myles McNutt, as he heads down to Fraggle Rock.