If you’ve read (and hopefully enjoyed) part one of my top ten list, then I have no doubt you’ve been eagerly waiting for part two. Well, you need wait no longer; below the cut you’ll find the conclusion to this odyssey in the form of what is technically, I suppose, my personal top five episodes of The Simpsons. These are the big hitters.
5. Last Exit To Springfield (Season 4, Episode 17)
When I first wrote down the list of episodes that were going to be featured in these blog posts, I had little hesitation in including this one. When it came time to write its entry, however, I was struck by the fact that I didn’t really know why I’d included it beyond the fact that it’s regularly hailed as one of the finest that has ever been. Being the dedicated researcher that I am I decided to take the only appropriate course of action; I sat down and watched Last Exit to Springfield again to try and discern what it is that makes it so beloved by so many. It didn’t take long for me to understand. This is an episode included not for a fun story or any particularly deep thematic considerations, but rather because it showcases The Simpsons at its finest during an era when every episode was knocking it out of the park. No light praise indeed, but with Last Exit the plot (Homer becomes union leader to try and save the dental plan) is very much of secondary importance to some of the best writing the show has ever seen, as the episode leaps triumphantly from joke to brilliant joke, each one landing with aplomb. There are no ‘swing and a miss’ attempts at humour here.
Indeed, the true beauty of Last Exit To Springfield lies not in its narrative but in the breadth of its jokes. Whether it’s the sharp and incisive commentary on union politics or the more frat boy-esque double entendre of Homer and Burns’ first negotiation, each and every scene is positively dripping with big laughs building up towards a satisfying – if predictable, but this is a family sitcom after all – conclusion that manages to combine a terrific musical number with a nod to The Grinch to brilliant effect. Indeed, the Dr Seuss shout-out is just one of a great many pop culture references littered throughout this episode. Their subject matter ranges from iconic movies – the Burns-headed bird in a brief homage to Citizen Kane, for example – to the wildly speculative conspiracy theories surrounding the disappearance of real-life union kingpin Jimmy Hoffa which, given this episode’s subject matter…Well, of course.
All told this is an episode I’ve elected to honour as it harks back to a time when the show didn’t rely on weak celebrity guest appearances, overly-fantastical plots or – shudder – doing a crossover with Family Guy to try and make people laugh. It was a time when the show was better, simply because it was funnier, and I guess that’s all there really is to it with this one.
- “All right, let’s see: ‘It was the best of times, it was the BLURST of times!?'”
- “Oh, if only we’d listened to that young man instead of walling him up in that abandoned coke oven…”
- And, because how could I not… “DENTAL PLAN!” “LISA NEEDS BRACES!” “DENTAL PLAN!” “LISA NEEDS BRACES!” (Repeat ad infinitum.)
4. Who Shot Mr Burns? Part 1 & Who Shot Mr Burns? Part 2 (Season 6, Episode 25 & Season 7, Episode 1)
Is it cheating to include both parts as one list entry? No. It’s my blog and I say it’s fine; to examine these episodes individually is to completely rob them of an impact that can only be appreciated when they’re viewed as a single entity (and besides, who in their right mind only watches Part 1 and not Part 2, or – perhaps even more unforgivably – vice-versa!?). My reasoning behind their inclusion is grounded almost entirely in the writing, and the way that Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein constructed a puzzle that, despite being solvable, left a nation of viewers on tenterhooks for 3 months (The AV Club recently ran a great piece on the making of these episodes, so by all means take a brief interlude from this list and check it out. But make sure you come back!). Indeed, the delicately-placed clues are so well done that any outrage one might feel after the big reveal – and I mean, at that time, after waiting so long, I can kind of understand – is immediately dispelled once the subtle hints are pointed out.
However, that the writing staff were able to craft such a legitimately perplexing mystery with a wholly justifiable solution is almost (but not quite) secondary to the fact that they managed to keep the secret under wraps until the time came for the big reveal. The sheer heft of the promotional campaign behind this brief narrative arc (lest we forget, for all the bluster, the two parts together run at a brisk 40-odd minutes) meant that it went without saying that any kind of leak would have seen a lot of heads rolling, but the team managed to keep it quiet under what was undoubtedly some intense pressure. I mean, think about it. Today we’re living in the age of the spoiler – with an army of loose-lipped web sleuths seemingly on active duty 24/7, if Who Shot Mr Burns? were done today the killer’s identity would barely remain secret for 3 days, let alone the improbable 3 months it managed back in 1995 (hey, these episodes are 20 years old this year! Neat).
I guess I’d have to consider this episode (or pair of episodes, if you’re feeling particularly pedantic) as something of a unique entry on the list given that it’s probably the only one of the whole ten on here that I feel actually has a legitimately great story. As someone who loves a good mystery but lacks the patience to wait out an entire season (as fans of Dallas, the show whose Who Shot J.R? arc provided the inspiration, had to do. I mean, come on.), it’s pretty much perfect.
- “Man alive! There are… men alive in here!”
- “I’ll kill that Mr Burns! And… Uhh.. Wound that Mr Smithers!”
- “You know those guitars that are… like… double guitars?”
3. Treehouse of Horror V (Season 6, Episode 6)
Yeah, that’s right. First I include a two-parter as one entry, and then a Halloween episode makes it into the top 3? As somebody who, generally speaking, absolutely loathes holiday-themed episodes there is part of me that is willing to acknowledge the incongruity of this choice, but then I remember the sheer brilliance of the three tales told within and all is forgotten. For those whose knowledge of Treehouse of Horror stories by episode is lacking all that really matters is that this is the only collection you need to be aware of; The Shinning is, obviously, a yellow-skinned send-up of one of the most influential scary stories ever written, Time and Punishment (inspired by Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder) sees Homer zig-zagging through various periods both past and future, and Nightmare Cafeteria (which is an admittedly terrible name – I much prefer Jimbo Burgers for this one) posits a grim reality wherein hungry teachers fatten up their students for later consumption in an homage to Soylent Green.
I’m a lover of affectionate parody and when they’re done as well as they are in this episode it’s not at all difficult to justify to myself why an episode I should categorically despise has somehow managed to bag a place this high in the top 10. Given the revered nature of the source material, an episode like this had to knock it out of the park and the writers and animators certainly managed to achieve it – each one of these stories expertly honours its inspiration, combining a respectful retelling with that distinctive Simpsons touch to craft three entirely distinctive micro-episodes that could comfortably hold up against contemporary full-length offerings; I’d quite happily watch Time and Punishment (in my opinion the weakest of the three) on a loop over an entry from the dreaded ‘Zombie Simpsons’ period any day of the week.
As with any great work of pop-culture parody, Treehouse V excels even when you’re not familiar with the reference work. I was watching and loving this episode a long time before I knew who Stephen King was, merely appreciating The Shinning for what it is, whereas now with the blessings of (at least some semblance of) adulthood I can watch it back and enjoy it even more so, for completely different reasons. It’s a sentiment that holds true across all three parts of The Simpsons’ finest collection of scary stories, and as such I feel pretty justified in putting this episode at number 3.
- Willie dying in all three stories will never not be hilarious to me. “Hold on kids, I’m comin’ to rescue the lot of you! — Argh, oh I’m bad at this.”
- “Bart, isn’t it strange that Uter is missing and suddenly the cafeteria is serving this mysterious food called ‘Uter-braten’?”
- “It’s hard to scrub this giant pot from the inside when you keep spilling meat tenderiser all over me…”
2. Marge vs The Monorail (Season 4, Episode 12)
In my humble opinion, The Simpsons was at its finest during those golden years between season 3 and season 8, and within that specification I unreservedly feel that in terms of sheer episode-by-episode quality, season 4 is the pinnacle. Of those 22 episodes, it is Marge vs The Monorail that narrowly misses out on the coveted top spot on my list. When the town unexpectedly comes into a large sum of money, they look set to spend it on some much-needed renovations to the battered Main Street before a charming stranger (voiced by the inimitably brilliant Phil Hartman) swoops in and convinces them to fund a new monorail instead. As is so often the case in Springfield, hijinks ensue.
There’s just so much to love about this one that I don’t even really know where to begin. Conceptually speaking, it’s another terrific exploration of the pitfalls associated with a misplaced sense of small-town pride; all it takes for Hartman’s character Lyle Lanley to sell the residents on his ill-fated monorail scheme is to imply that it might be better suited to the people of Shelbyville. “Now wait just a minute,“ comes Mayor Quimby’s response. “We’re twice as smart as the people of Shelbyville. Just tell us your idea and we’ll vote for it!” That shining endorsement is all it really takes, and before too long the entire town is swept up in monorail fever, a combination of short-sighted territorial egotism and the hype generated by Lanley’s gift of the gab ensuring they remain blind to the fact that they’re quite obviously being taken for a ride.
The script – written by Conan O’Brien, no less – is strong throughout, and Lyle Lanley is up there with Hank Scorpio at the very top of the “one shot character” stakes. Couple that with one of the show’s finest (and certainly most catchy) musical numbers and toss in a superb cameo from the late great Leonard Nimoy, and the overall result is an episode well and truly cemented as my second-favourite episode of all time. A dubious honour, perhaps, but even the utter majesty of Marge vs The Monorail can’t match up to the impossibly high standards of the final entry on this list…
- “We’re too late!” “I… Shouldn’t have stopped for that haircut. Sorry.”
- “Can it outrun The Flash?” “You bet.” “Can Superman outrun The Flash!?”
- “Are you on your third beer of the evening?” “Does whiskey count as beer?”
1. Homer Badman (Season 6, Episode 9)
Well, here we are. Nine entries, nearly four thousand words, and a whole heck of a lot longer than I had initially planned on cranking this out in (sorry) later, we finally arrive at the number one spot on the list. This esteemed prize goes to an episode that, way back when I was initially planning this list, came to mind in a fraction of a second and is one I come back to time and time again as an example of what not just good Simpsons but good satirical comedy in general should look like. Whilst driving the babysitter home after a shift watching the Simpson kids, Homer notices a piece of treasured candy stuck to the back of her jeans. While most of us, as rational and level-headed individuals, would have asked for it back (or perhaps more likely just ignored it given that, you know, someone had been sitting on it) Homer goes a different route, reaching out for the “precious Venus” and finding himself branded a pervert as a result.
Like all the best episodes of the show, Homer Badman works because it functions as an effective commentary on issues with real world resonance. In yet another testament to the quality of writing offered by the show’s early seasons, this episode’s views on mass media and its impact on both the life of the individual and the perceptions of the many rings true even more than twenty years later. With the current furore surrounding the hunting of Cecil the Lion, it’s hard not to draw a parallel between Homer and Walter Palmer, with both finding themselves the subject of widespread derision and scrutiny based on an act that they considered fairly innocuous until mainstream media got hold of it. Taking this idea further, I feel that in spite of the time (and alleged progress) between the two there’s a definite link between this episode and the absolute headfuck that was this year’s Rolling Stone-UVA rape hoax fiasco; although the take is perhaps a little one-sided in terms of how accurately it reflects our society (notably absent from Homer Badman are the hordes of dudes foaming at the mouth and falling over themselves to call the babysitter a liar) the two are nonetheless united as lessons in ensuring that your bid to break the next big story isn’t hindered by such trivialities as “the truth”.
In years gone by I would have found it a lot tougher to name an outright favourite Simpsons episode, but the more times I watch Homer Badman the easier it becomes. The script is strong, the candy convention setup is an effective lead-in to the main story without obviously flagging what’s about to happen, and the final throes – wherein Rock Bottom, despite having been forced to issue a host of retractions, continue unabated in their flimsily-supported “journalism” – jab at Big Media™ one more time for good measure. A winner all round, in my book.
- “Now this technology is new to me, but I’m pretty sure that’s Homer Simpson in the oven, rotating slowly. His body temperature has risen to over 400 degrees – he’s literally stewing in his own juices.”
- “Simpson Scandal Update: Homer sleeps nude in an oxygen tent which he believes gives him sexual powers!” “Hey, that’s a half truth!”
- “I’m sorry, I can’t go on.” “That’s okay – your tears say more than real evidence ever could.”
And that, my friends, is that! A definitive ranking of my all-time top ten favourite episodes of The Simpsons that turned out to be longer than most of the coursework I submitted during the course of my English degree, which should speak volumes about just how much I care about (the early seasons of) this show. Now that I’ve got this monkey off my back, I’m hoping that this blog should see content posted more regularly, but, uh, don’t quote me on that. Until the next one, thanks for reading!