Despite being the longest running animated sitcom in TV history, The Simpsons has been met with overwhelming criticism since the turn of the millennium. Amidst rumours that the series’ unprecedented 25th season will be its last, it’s easy to forget how acclaimed, imaginative and downright hilarious the show was in its prime. Sam Holden and Jake Wardle take us through five of the very best Simpsons outings to remind us how the show should be remembered.
‘Last Exit to Springfield’ – Series 4
First Broadcast March 11 1993
This episode is near-perfect on a number of levels, perhaps better than any other. It highlights how brilliantly The Simpsons once used cultural references to compliment a story while maintaining a timeless quality.
Compare this to a lazy over-reliance of more recent episodes – usually full of trite popular culture references that become obsolete immediately after broadcasting. The episode features nods to the Beatles, The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Batman and, when Mr Burns decries his employees’ ability to sing without “flunjers, capdabblers and smendlers”, The Grinch.
Every scene is immaculate, from Mr. Burns discovering a stray dog in the rickety control room of the Nuclear Power Plant after going through numerous levels of high-tech security, to the cyclical repetition of “Dental Plan” and “Lisa needs braces” in Homer’s brain.
The episode premise is simple: Homer is unknowingly thrust into a battle between his union and his employer over a cancelled dental plan, yet it is the superb execution which sets this episode apart from a definitive series.
The episode ends with Mr. Burns realising that perhaps Homer Simpson was not the brilliant tactician he once thought; modern episodes of The Simpsons induce a similar feeling of disappointment after watching an episode such as this.
‘Homer the Heretic’ – Series 4
First broadcast October 8 1992
In a world full of touchy subjects, there are few more contentious than religion. So an episode in which the lead character decides life without church is simply too good to ever return, and then precedes to disown his religion entirely, was always going to be a hard sell. But not when it’s handled with such humour, affection and a healthy appreciation.
No one side of the argument is ever given more credence than the other. Never too critical, never too preachy, ‘Homer the Heretic’ tackles a potentially explosive subject with such characteristic charm and insight that it has been reportedly screened in schools as part of religious studies courses.
But it’s more than just ‘the religion episode’. In fact, ‘Homer The Heretic’ is one of the very best. Not because of its subject, nor because it contains some of the best jokes in the show’s history, but because Homer is so perfectly exemplified in those first few scenes. The lovable combination of good nature and stupidity has made him this show’s most popular character, and he is put across so perfectly in this episode that it could never be anything other than perfect.
This was the show at its peak, never putting a foot wrong and tackling any subject and any idea with such grace. That is why I believe The Simpsons was the greatest television show in history, and I don’t see that changing for a very, very long time.
‘And Maggie Makes Three’ – Series 6
First broadcast January 22 1995
What always set The Simpsons apart from its imposter rivals was its ability to connect on an emotional level, and this episode embodies fully the axiom that a truly brilliant programme has the capacity to make us both laugh and cry.
This episode shows Homer at his absolute best; his imaginary battle with terrorists (and his victorious announcement of “Simpson 10 – Terrorists 8”), playing Mr Burns’ head like a bongo after quitting his job and his detailed re-enacting of Maggie’s conception.
Homer’s shortfallings as a parent are well documented, yet this episode displays the sacrifices he is willing to make to his own life to provide for his family. Although resentful at first, seeing his daughter for the first time (initially mistaking her for a son due to the umbilical cord) makes him realise that his child is more than just another mouth to feed.
The closing scene where it is shown there are no pictures of Maggie in the family photo album as Homer keeps them at work is exemplar of The Simpsons at its most touching. For anyone who needs reminding why The Simpsons at its best renders modern episodes so groin-grabbingly disappointing and why it will be eternally greater than Family Guy, ‘And Maggie Makes Three’ serves as a forceful reminder.
‘Homer at the Bat’ – Series 3
First broadcast February 20 1992
Celebrity guest appearances in episodes were once something to be revered in The Simpsons, a far cry from episodes of late when virtually anyone who constitutes as a celebrity is so often clumsily and lazily thrust into a story which simply doesn’t concern them.
No less than nine then-professional baseball players guest star in this episode, but it pays dividends as their cameos perhaps set a benchmark for future guests.
They manage to maintain their individual identity without sacrificing any of the integrity of the episode, and provide many fantastic moments, from Daryl Strawberry informing Homer of his superiority over him despite having never met, to Mr. Burns’ bewildering qualms with Don Manningley’s hair.
The outlandish circumstances in which the players fall victim to separate misfortunes and the corresponding ‘Softball’ song at the end are endemic of how The Simpsons, at the height of its powers, could flirt with surreal ideas yet stay grounded in reality.
‘Deep Space Homer’ – Series 5
First broadcast February 24 1994
One of my central criticisms of post-millennium Simpsons is its near total reliance on zany antics -a zany main plot, a zany side-plot; zany characters, invariably voiced by zany celebrities. Writing seems to be based entirely around a gimmicky “what if?” mentality.
“What if Homer became an opera singer?” “What if Lisa went on American idol?”But it’s easy to forget that, even in its prime, the show was still occasionally guilty of this.
So what’s the difference? If you really need to answer that, then look no further than ‘Deep space Homer’. It’s ridiculous.
The premise, essentially, is that in an effort to boost TV ratings for its launches, NASA starts a search for a blue collar American to send into space; a search ending with two men from the same town, obese drunks, entirely unfit for space flight. And yet, despite this complete abandonment of logic, the episode is brilliant.
The movie references are brilliant; the guest spots (including one Buzz Aldrin) are brilliant. It’s just brilliant. The recurring joke of Homer constantly being overlooked in favour of an inanimate carbon rod is fantastic.
It can be silly without being lightweight, unfeasible while still making you care and, most importantly, it can be plot-heavy but still funny.