Ten Defining Episodes

I feel the avalanche of Zombie episodes has kind of tainted the spirit of this blog a bit, and my resurrection of the blog to continue through season 21 surely didn’t help. Sure, those episodes deserve to get taken down every peg possible, but through it all, we can’t forget the amazingness that is the show in its prime, The Simpsons as it is, the greatest TV comedy to have ever aired. And so, in what may be this blog’s final post (for real), I’ve decided to do… a list. Yeah, real original. Now, I didn’t want to do a top 10 best, and certainly not a top 10 worst. This is a little different. It may shock you to hear this, but there are some people out there who… have never watched the show before. It’s true, I’ve met them. Now surely everyone has heard of the show, and can identify a few of the main characters, or at least the Simpson family. Also, I think everyone has at least seen a small bit of at least one episode in their lifetime of channel surfing. But in terms of sitting back and seriously watching an episode? We take that luxury for granted, but some people aren’t so fortune. So how does one introduced another to The Simpsons? Can you even imagine it? Where do you start? What episodes would you show that can fully illustrate the show’s utter genius? Well, that’s what this list is: the ten episodes that represent the greatness of The Simpsons.

1. I Married Marge (season 3, episode 12)
This episode serves almost like a prologue to the Simpson family, and the bumps and sacrifices taken in order to create the semi-stable household that it is in our series proper. As their younger selves we can profile Homer and Marge perfectly, the former a loving husband who tries to do right despite his crippling idiocy and short attention span, and his lovely wife, who is sweet, gentle, and who he’d do anything for. This is also one of the sweetest episodes of the series, with multiple moments that pack an emotional whollop, but also we’re shown that the funny never stops, and more importantly, doesn’t interfere with the tone of a scene. We can be touched by Marge reading Homer’s simple, yet truly heartwarming proposal paper, and laugh as we see his buttcrack in her face as he continues to fish around the seat for it. Now needing to support a pregnant wife, Homer’s arrested development is shaken as he strongholds his way into an adult job; he was thrust into responsible adulthood, which explains his sometimes childish outlook. This episode sets up a lot, and given that everyone at least has a cursory knowledge of the series, is not alienating as a prologue, and is my ideal start.

2. Dog of Death (season 3, episode 19)
This is my idea of a “normal” episode, as we watch the family as they manage through a true-to-life situation, in this case what to do when the dog falls ill and his operation comes with a high price tag. After the emotion-heavy introduction, this is to show the series’ strongest asset: humor. In my opinion, this is one of the funniest episodes ever, with so many absolutely hysterical bits. All the lottery hysteria at the beginning feels very real, but then you also have crazy shit like the insane frenzy the town gets whipped up in, and Homer’s gold giant dream, perhaps the best dream sequence of the whole series. Doggie heaven, Burns training Santa’s Little Helper to be a bastard, Brockman becoming a smug asshole after winning the lottery, the laughs keep coming hard and fast. But the foundation of a solid, relatable story is still constant, and while we feel good when Bart and SLH are reunited, we then laugh at Homer scoffing at the idea of petting the cat (“What’s the point?”)

3. Three Men and a Comic Book (season 2, episode 21)

After those two as a set-up, I figure we’d examine each Simpson on their own adventure, and their role in the show. First up is Bart; to me, the best Bart episodes are when he’s just a precocious, devious youngster, be it struggling in school, playing pranks, or engaging in idol worship with his TV hero Krusty the Clown. In this episode, a limited edition comic book is like manna to our favorite spiky haired ten-year-old… but unfortunately he’s got to work for it. This episode also shows how the tone of a show can turn on a dime, but still feel like a cohesive story; we open with the big comic book expo spoof, rich with satire, then we have Bart working under Mrs. Glick, then by act three it turns into a Treasure of the Sierra Madre parody with heightened action and drama. But even through all that, the plot seems to flow and nothing seems like it’s coming out of left field. It’s like a twenty-two minute roller coaster, and it’s one hell of a good ride.

4. A Streetcar Named Marge (season 4, episode 2)
Now it’s Marge’s time to shine in this show, which also further examines her relationship with her husband. From the start we see Homer is forgetful and inattentive to Marge’s new creative and social venture, but never do we feel his rude behavior comes from any sort of malice. In one of the most telling lines ever, when Marge asks him why he never told her he never had any interest in her hobbies in the past, he responds, “You know I’d never say anything to hurt your feelings.” That sums it up right there; he occassionally may say hurtful things, but he never knows he’s saying them. Meanwhile, Marge proves to be a powerhouse performer in the “Streetcar” play, channeling her anger at her husband, and also showing off her own talents, which gives her some sense of identity outside of the house. Also critical is the music; one of the great pillars of this show is its amazing songs, and this episode, turning the ultimately somber Tennessee Williams play into a rousing, show-stopping musical, is the king of them all. The upbeat “You Can Always Depend on the Kindness of Strangers” may be the most brilliant thing this show has ever done ever. And remember, a stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met. You haaaaven’t meeeeet… Streetcar!

5. Lisa’s Substitute (season 2, episode 19)
I see this one a lot on people’s top episodes lists; I don’t know if I’d put it amongst my absolute favorites, but in terms of illustrating Lisa’s character, it’s the perfect representation. She’s the eternal big fish in a small pond, trapped in a town of idiots and a family that may support her, but will never truly be able to reach her on an intellectual or emotional level. Since by nature of her character, she must remain somewhat miserable in the status quo, most Lisa episodes involve her finding happiness and it being taken from her, in this case the enter and exit of the brilliant and sensitive substitute teacher Mr. Bergstrom. He’s everything Lisa could ever want in a teacher, nay, a human being, and their emotional connection only makes it tougher to see them part ways. Also through this is seeing Homer’s disconnect with her daughter; if anyone in the family has less of a chance reaching her, it’s him. But we once again see the critical element of Homer in that he loves his family, in an ending where he attempts to make amends, and succeeds, in his own simple-minded way.

6. Homer’s Triple Bypass (season 4, episode 11)
Last up is the big man himself, in a hysterical episode involving a father of three suffering a heart attack and needing to undergo serious surgery. A big part of Homer is his incredible gluttony, and here we see it finally come around to bite him in the ass. This episode is a crowning example of the show dealing with truly devastating subject matter, but remaining consistantly funny with absolutely no clash in tone. We go right from Lisa hugging her father and sobbing when he announces his operation, to Homer saying how Abe Lincoln sold poisoned milk to school children within three seconds, and you can still laugh. We get our fill of great moments, with the always hilarious Dr. Nick, Homer’s penchant for his adjustable hospital bed, and visits from Moe, Barney and Krusty (“This ain’t make-up!”), but we also can truly appreciate the tender moments of Homer’s nighttime prayer, and his perhaps final words to his children, which again is peppered with great moments of humor with Bart telling him what to say (“And Lisa, I guess this is the time to tell you… that I’m adopted and I don’t like you. …Bart!!“)

7. Brush with Greatness (season 2, episode 18)
Another Marge show, kind of in the same vein of “Streetcar” in showing her talents apart from her normal housewife identity. It’s a bit more prominent in this one, showcasing her artistic talents, a trait that’s continued through a few token episodes. There’s a lot more great stuff here though, like the Mt. Splashmore opener and Homer attempting to lose weight. But more importantly, this episode illuminates one of the greatest members of our supporting cast, C. Montgomery Burns. He’s at his most fiendish here, but we also see a more vain, vulnerable side to him (I love his earnest “Can you make me beautiful?” to Marge). As despicable as he is, he’s still human, as explained in the final reveal of Marge’s painting, one of the show’s best examples of blending outrageous humor with a genuine meaning. This series certainly wouldn’t be the same without its supporting cast, and the finale to this show almost acts as Mr. Burns’ thesis statement.

8. You Only Move Twice (season 8, episode 2)
In terms of its emotional core, this episode kind of complements “I Married Marge” and the other flashback shows, in showing that in the thick of it, Homer will always choose his family over himself. He finds himself in a cushy job, great house and a boss that seemingly respects him, but finds he can’t be truly happy if his family isn’t. But on top of all that is mountains and mountains of humor, with Hank Scorpio at the top of them all. Albert Brooks has voiced many memorable characters over the series, but Scorpio tops them all, the elaboration on the great premise of what if a James Bond villain were the world’s greatest boss? Every line of his is hysterical, thanks to the sharp writing and Brooks’ own ad-libs. This episode is to show off the series’ ability to create one-off characters that truly stand the test of time, and Scorpio definitely is at the front of the line.

9. Bart vs. Australia (season 6, episode 16)
This is a show that skewers every facet of American life and culture, but that’s not even enough; nowhere on Earth is safe from ridicule. There seemed to be a lot more travel episodes in later seasons, all of which were mostly toothless, and at worse possibly culturally offensive, but this episode rules because of tackling a foreign country and foreign policy simultaneously. The United State and Australia end up both coming off like idiots, attempting to calm an international incident accidentally caused by a ten-year-old. We get Phil Hartman playing his best one-off role as the American ambassador (“Then it’s agreed: during the bargaining session, we each get two candy apples… all right, one candy and one caramel,”) the immortal game of Knifey Spoony, and Bart mooning the highest ranking Australian officials, only to be escorted out by helicopter in a shot resembling American troops retreating from Vietnam. What more could you want out of an episode?

10. Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily (season 7, episode 3)
At its core, The Simpsons is about… well, the Simpsons, this family whose members never seem to find real acceptance or happiness out in the world, but remain a strong unit in themselves. Sure, they bicker and squabble, but deep down Homer and Marge love their kids, and vice versa. Nowhere is this better displayed than this episode, where parents and children are separated thanks to an avalanche of misunderstandings. Playing amongst the humorous bits of bizarre life at the Flanders house and the morons at the proper parenting course, we get amazing scenes of Homer and Marge sadly walking past their kids’ empty rooms, and Bart and Lisa in bed reminiscing about great moments with their parents. For better or for worse, as broken as their family may seem, they all belong together. The shot at the end is a perfect encapsulation of this, a beautiful shot of Marge cradling her baby (“Maggie, you’re a Simpson again.”) Followed by Maggie removing her pacifier and belching. As crude and dysfunctional as they may be, the Simpsons are happy just as they are.

Whelp, I guess that’s it. For real this time, I can conclude I have no interest in anything from season 22 on. I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to read and comment throughout my journey. Hopefully you enjoyed my exuberance and my suffering, and I hope I’ve inspired some of you to go back and revisit great moments from this truly tremendous series. Smell you later!

So, what have we learned?, or Thank God it’s over (again)

simpversaryI watched the 20th anniversary special that Morgan Spurlock made, which aired in early 2010. I had made the decision the previous fall to finally stop watching the series, so seeing this special was kind of bittersweet to me, celebrating 20 years and the future of this show that I had just decided to give up on. The special was not so much about the show itself, but the global phenomenon it spawned, and how it affected all of us as people, a society… hell, the entire world. We got to see the Simpsons-inspired donuts of Portland, Oregon, a pretty damn good Homer impersonator at San Diego Comic Con, an English fan with over 30,000 pieces of Simpsons stuff over every inch of his cramped house, blowhard Bill Donahue continue to make a public fool of himself, Dr. Ruth discussing Homer and Marge’s sex life, and Conan O’Brien hypothesizing a wonderfully grim end to the series that I almost wish would actually happen (“Marge is going to take a good long look at Homer, and say, he’s so stupid, and he’s screwed us over so many times. It’ll be humorless, it won’t be funny, it’ll just be her looking at Homer, and saying, you are such a stupid son-of-a-bitch, you’re endangering my children, you’ve destroyed the town six hundred thousand times, you’re a threat to mankind. I’m leaving you forever.”) The show’s “alleged” decline in quality is touched upon very briefly, with two writers dismissing any and all criticism, but hey, the special is neither the time nor place to bring up this topic. After I watched it the first time… I dunno, I enjoyed it, but I certainly remained steadfast with my decision. And watching it again, I pretty much feel the same way.

So here’s the million dollar question: what caused one of the greatest, if not the greatest, television show ever to slowly but surely become one of the worst? Well, surely, if you ask that off the bat, you haven’t been paying attention to this blog at all. There’s so many answers and contributing factors to this inquiry, but there’s one point I want to elaborate on as what will probably be my final statement. Episodic TV comedies are really hard to keep going. What I’ve noticed is very, very few of them get past five seasons and remain as good as ever, so the fact that we got eight untarnished seasons of The Simpsons is miraculous enough. But over time, things happen; situations get crazier, characters more exaggerated, the show starts becoming ridiculous, and starts losing its humanity. But there’s no reason a show with such a strong foundation as The Simpsons couldn’t still be great today. With so many characters and locations established in the great, wide world of Springfield, the stories that could be told are endless. But the show, for whatever reason, seemed to stop trying. I think with a long-running comedy, you need to shake things up and try new things, explore new places and new avenues for your characters to go down. But this show seemed to do the opposite; rather than have the cast grow, they retracted, becoming more one-note props than actual people. I feel if I continue elaborating, I’ll just be repeating points I’ve made through this whole blog, but I feel the biggest disservice of the show is its degradation of its characters, and the town as a whole. What once seemed so full of life was now just going through the motions, spit out the catchphrases, do the same old schtick, cash your paychecks and move on to next Sunday.

Many fans cry about how the last decade or so of the show will tarnish the legacy of the series. Well, The Simpsons  will certainly be remembered for running long past its luster, and every article written on it will surely include some sort of asterisk, but just take a look at the special. Every clip, every reference, everyone interviewed, everything that is shown or mentioned comes from the classic era. It’s a special celebrating twenty years, yet 95% of all the material shown comes from the first half. The fact of the matter is that the latter episodes are just incredibly unmemorable, and this just further emphasizes it. Frank Grimes, Mr. Plow, the Land of Chocolate, Mother Simpson, Whacking Day, the Babysitter Bandit, all of these classic moments, and so many, many more will be remembered and cherished forever. But what’s a noteworthy bit from the last decade that you can honestly say will stay with you… and in a favorable way? Even episodes that pissed you off will eventually fade away, and in time, only those sweet sweet golden years will remain. The systematic tarnishing of The Simpsons used to bother me, but now it really doesn’t matter anymore, even after having just suffered through hundreds of sub-par episodes. We can remember and honor the show in whatever way we choose, and nothing the show does now or into the future can taint my fond, fond memories of our favorite yellow family.

So there’s the retrospective. Wednesday, one last post. Probably.

464. Judge Me Tender

judgemetenderOriginal airdate: May 23, 2010

The premise: Moe discovers an impressive talent: being able to scathingly judge things, to hilarious effect. The crowds love him, eventually leading to him being on American Idol. Meanwhile, with Moe gone, Marge finds herself smothered by Homer being stuck in the house all the time.

The reaction: Wherein the Simpsons staff willfully presents and takes it in the ass in the name of FOX synergy. Way, way back, the show did an X-Files crossover, but its focus was on telling an interesting story, managing to skewer and honor the sci-fi show in the process. Here, it’s just Moe does American Idol. The show even already did a sort of Idol parody when Krusty had his Star Search rip-off in season 16 or something, and even that had a helluva lot more teeth than this. We have all our judges and Ryan Seacrest do voices, and the show feels even more dated since Ellen and that other broad aren’t on the show anymore. But their characters are just themselves doing the things they do in real life, and such cutting jabs like making fun of Simon for always wearing a black shirt! And Ellen dances a lot! Ooooooh! No satire about themselves or the show, it’s just whorish cross promotion, as plain and simple as can be. Since there’s not enough plot to fill with that, we have the Homer-Marge thing… like…… whatever. I’m reminded why I’m ending this blog with this episode.

Three items of note:
– So two shows ago we had Moe’s being the hippiest bar in town, and now we’re back to people being so disgusted with him, they’d rather burn the chair next to them than allow him to sit next to them. So forget inconsistency from show to show, we can’t get consistency within the same scene. Moe heckles Krusty twice, to big laughs from the crowd. Then when Moe is offered to get on stage, everyone applauds wildly. Boy, what an easily swayed group. The scene ends with the crowd cheering his name and Moe scoring with Lindsay Naegle. What?
– The agent listing off all the fake reality show names probably took up a good chunk of time in the writer’s room. Time well spent, guys!
– I’m pretty sure Homer’s “They charge you for parts and labor! Pick one!” joke has been done a good four times at this point.

One good line/moment: Nothing.

463. The Bob Next Door

bobnextdoorOriginal airdate: May 16, 2010

The premise: The Simpsons get a new neighbor, and Bart suspects that he might be Sideshow Bob in disguise. But when none of his plans to expose him work, and Marge takes him to confirm that Bob is indeed still in prison, his concerns are placated… but it turns out that he was right all along.

The reaction: As I’ve said many times before, season 8’s “Brother From Another Series” feels like the final Bob episode to me. But beyond that, season 19’s “Funeral for a Fiend” also felt like a second capper, where Bob fakes his own death, and ends with his wife, son, brother and parents all behind bars. But there’s still more of that dead horse to beat yet! So the idea of Bob assuming his prison cellmate’s identity when he was up for parole and posing as him isn’t that bad, I suppose; a lot of the episode just plays out by-the-numbers, checking off all of the Bob staples. But the faces peeling off… my God… and between the operation and both characters having their faces fall off, it’s just relentless grossness. I guess it’s trying to be shocking, but it ends up feeling like a Treehouse of Horror bit with no punchline. Wrap it all up with an irony-free Bob scheme to ultimately do Bart in which makes no sense, and we have yet another completely lifeless Bob outing.

Three items of note:
– Bart’s flashbacks to previous Bob episodes where he recognizes his neighbor’s memorable voice are kind of odd, since they’re fullscreen and not in HD. Also, it, of course, makes me wish I was watching those other episodes.
– The guard instigating the prisoners lewd cat calls felt kind of awkward considering Marge had Bart in tow with her. The convicts immediately backing off when Marge announced she was married made me smirk, but it’s a joke that was executed a lot better in “Marge on the Lam.” (“Listen, baby, I always get what I want.” “I said no!” “Oh, did you? I completely misunderstood, please accept our apologies.”)
– Bob’s scheme of police jurisdiction not being able to cross at the five corners already doesn’t make any sense, but then at the end, the cops that cuff him just walk across two lines. It really does feel like no one’s paying attention at all when they’re making this show, which I guess they expect no one in the audience is either.

One good line/moment: Marge criticizes the clarity of Walt/Bob’s warnings on the prison wall, to which he replies, “I’m not a writer.” Homer follows it up, “And I’m not a locksmith!” and proceeds to pry a door open with a shovel.

462. Moe Letter Blues

moeletterbluesOriginal airdate: May 9, 2010

The premise: Whilst on a getaway cruise with their kids, Homer, Apu and Tim Lovejoy receive a mysterious letter from Moe, who announces he will be leaving town forever with one of their wives in tow. The three men must think back to figure out what made their significant others so discontented that they would fall into the slovenly bartender’s open arms.

The reaction: I’m hesitant saying I think the writers were trying to make this a somewhat serious episode… but with all the “tense” moments and the attempts to link all of the flashbacks together in some way, it feels that way to me. Of course it’s all nonsense and none of it is emotionally impacting whatsoever. I mean, what am I supposed to feel, exactly? I know none of their wives are going to leave, and especially not with Moe; this might be believable with literally any other character but him. Plus, Homer and Apu’s family life we know, but we’ve barely seen any of Helen Lovejoy for many many seasons (and Jessica randomly appears?) But in the end, turns out it was Moe’s plan to help these three idiots save their marriage, but arranging incredibly nice things for all of them. Why in the ever loving fuck would he do this? So not only is he incredibly, cripplingly lonely, but he’ll go extremely out of his way to help the married folk of Springfield? This shit don’t make no sense to me.

Three items of note:
– The Homer/Patty and Selma dynamic has felt really, really off for over a decade at this point; the two sisters are much better making snidey comments that chip away at Homer then just blatantly insulting him to his face. Also, Homer’s retort in this show is calling them “penis-curling she-devils.” I never want to hear him say that ever again.
– Funtendo Zii returns at Moe’s, but this time with their DDR ripoff, Dance Dance Evolution. And apparently Moe had enough money to purchase the game system, dance pad and a giant flatscreen TV. I guess he’s got the money since Moe’s is so damn popular, as we see from the first scene, completely crowded with our regular characters, including those who make no sense to be there, like Burns and Quimby. Moe’s is a fucking dive bar that’s falling apart where sadsack losers like Homer go to waste their lives away. What is this shit I am watching?
– My God, the ending is so fucking tedious. Such unbelievably phony “tension” as we arrive at each house to see… that marriage is safe. We see the husband relief scene play out in its entirety all three times, and it does nothing but kill time, since we know nothing was going to happen anyway. Also, Marge’s mother understanding Homer was “innocent” because she knows Patty and Selma are “evil”? What?

One good line/moment: The boat smashing into the dock at Weasel Island and exploding. Random and stupid, but it was the only thing I smirked at the whole show. Also, it was a moment where something actually happened.