With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series or genre, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about—without having to watch the whole thing.
If FXX’s “Every. Simpsons. Ever.” marathon accomplished one thing, it was giving viewers a reason to tune into FXX between seasons of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. If it achieved anything else, it was this: Placed one episode after the other, 220-plus hours of Simpsons episodes doesn’t look like a steady rise through the early years, a pleasant plateau from seasons six through 10, and then a precipitous drop. Viewed in this context, with the filters of nostalgia and goosed-up memories removed, The Simpsons maintains a remarkable consistency through its 25 years on the air. Yes, it’s produced a few genuine clunkers over the years, but between the truly great moments and the truly regrettable ones, there’s a midrange of Simpsons episodes that any other series would be proud to claim.
When, exactly, the show started to lose steam is a topic of much debate; just as you could populate a whole television channel with nothing but Simpsons reruns, you could probably build a sub-Internet out of people arguing over what season, episode, showrunner, or single joke marked the beginning of the show’s decline. The founders of the website Dead Homer Society opted to put the debate to bed entirely, drawing a line in the sand at season 12 and committing themselves to destroying the show as it now exists. As of this writing, they have been unsuccessful.
No matter the inspiration or stated motivation, the root cause for these arguments is always the same: To admit that the “good” version of The Simpsons couldn’t last for 26 seasons is to admit that the greatest TV show ever made is also just another TV show. The Simpsons was so transcendently good for so long, but that doesn’t mean it’s immune to the vagaries of inspiration and production that every other show deals with. Writers come and go, talent becomes less available, producers shift their priorities. But despite all that, people still want to see The Simpsons. Ratings for first-run episodes rise and fall, but viewership for the FXX marathon was enough to put that network on the map. (Somewhere between Ogdenville and North Haverbrook.) And the deal that made that marathon possible was potentially worth billions of dollars. Quality be damned, the show remains a cultural force.
And it also still puts out a few good-to-great episodes every season. Longevity can be cruel to a TV show, but it hasn’t eroded the core of The Simpsons: the Simpson family, the city of Springfield, the satirical eye that both honors and ridicules American culture. As evidence that these elements of the show remain intact, The A.V. Club presents these 10 episodes chosen from seasons 17 through 25 of the show. (Some of which overlap with this Inventory of great Simpsons that aired between seasons 15 and 20, but hey: A good episode is a good episode, no matter when it aired.) If any of the episodes below contradict what has happened in your ideal version of the show, remember Bart Simpson’s sage words to Comic Book Guy: “None of these things ever really happened.”
Even the bellboy from “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” can tell you that an award statue isn’t a true mark of quality, but it is worth noting that “The Seemingly Never-Ending Story” took home the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program (for Programming Less Than One Hour). But even without that honor, the narrative derring-do exhibited by the episode would still impress. Ensnaring some of Springfield’s most prominent citizens (plus Moe) in stories-within-stories-within-stories, the episode gets ambitious with what would otherwise be B-plot diversions for a half-dozen other episodes. And if the thought of Mr. Burns-as-bartender or Snake-as-archaeologist is too much for your canonically focused mind to handle, there’s the comforting thought that all of these tales are being told from memory, so maybe the details got jumbled somewhere along the line. (The Emmy votes definitely didn’t get jumbled, even in the face of strong competition from South Park’s big Scientology episode, “Trapped In The Closet.”)
“Haw haw! I touched your heart!” So ends the brief period in which Bart is best friends with Nelson Muntz, their unlikely pairing taken to the next level after Marge forces her son to attend the bully’s birthday party—and he winds up having a lot of fun. So many of the latter season’s best moments come from explorations of secondary Simpsons characters, and “The Haw-Hawed Couple” is no different, expanding on the sympathetic side of Nelson previously glimpsed in “Bart On The Road” and “Lisa’s Date With Density.” In a side story (one that dovetails with Nelson’s gangster-like protection of his new buddy), Homer struggles mightily to safeguard Lisa (and by extension, her childhood innocence) from an upsetting turn in her favorite book series. Those books, starring the Harry Potter surrogate Angelica Button, would become a recurring element in the Simpsons mythology for years to come, but here young Angelica serves the more important role of helping Homer deal with his kids’ budding maturity (even though they haven’t aged a day since 1989).
Six seasons passed between “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire” and “Marge Be Not Proud,” but later years suggest that the show shouldn’t have avoided Christmas for so long. The visually inventive “Eternal Moonshine Of The Simpson Mind” gives a nod toward It’s A Wonderful Life without giving in to sitcom cliché, while the flash-forward “Holidays Of Future Passed” (written as the potential series finale) would’ve served as a fine capper to the show. Christmas also provided an episode-long excuse to visit with one of The Simpsons’ best supporting players: Born loser Gil Gunderson. Taking advantage of a little Christian charity (and then taking and taking and taking some more), Gil makes himself at home on Evergreen Terrace for the better part of the year, forcing Marge to realize she’s just no good at disappointing people. A showcase for The Simpsons’ deep bench, “Kill Gil” is also the rare “holiday” episode that lives up to its vaguely defined tag, checking in on Gil’s couch-surfing safari through Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and International Literacy Day, too.
Beauty is an undervalued quality in The Simpsons, which can appeal to the heartstrings and play to the funny bone with the same level of skill. Perhaps as a corrective for the last time the show used The Prince Of Tides as source material (“Fear Of Flying,” one of the lesser entries from the show’s golden age), “The Wife Aquatic” makes haunting use of Camille Saint-Saëns “Aquarium” over Marge’s recollections of happy summers at Barnacle Bay, an orchestral quote that gains added poignancy when the Simpsons discover that Barnacle Bay has since devolved into a seaweed-covered rathole. After his first attempt to rebuild Marge’s childhood paradise burns down the boardwalk, Homer proves the lengths he’ll go to for his beloved by braving a perfect storm in order to revive the town’s fishing industry. It doesn’t exactly work out, but “The Wife Aquatic” still forms a hearty tribute to one of TV’s finest on-screen marriages.
The thing about “A Milhouse Divided”—the season-eight installment that details the twin disasters of the Van Houten divorce and Kirk Van Houten’s singing career—is that it doesn’t really deal with the impact the split has on the title character. To get a longer look at Springfield Elementary’s biggest dweeb (but his mom says he’s cool) under traumatizing pressure, seek “Little Orphan Millie,” in which the Van Houtens remarry—and promptly get lost at sea. Recognizing that grief has turned him into the “world’s oldest baby,” Milhouse reinvents himself as a world-weary, leather-clad loner, moving him ahead of Bart in the fourth-grade popularity poll. It’s nice to see Milhouse win for once, especially when that win makes Bart quit taking his best friend for granted. (As an added bonus, “Little Orphan Millie” features a hysterical sequence in which Homer tries to take Milhouse’s mind off of his parents’ potentially watery fate with the use of products that can’t help but make him think of the sea.)
Here’s an episode for countering the argument that The Simpsons has become too dependent on big-name guest stars: “Husbands And Knives” gives Comic Book Guy an arch nemesis with trendier facial hair, a girlfriend, and the voice of Jack Black, but the real star attraction of the episode are the three comic-book creators who form The League Of Extraordinary Freelancers. Alan Moore, Art Spiegelman, and Daniel Clowes make the most of their limited screen time, with Moore launching a very Alan Moore tangent about comics properties being “sucked dry” by Hollywood (inspired by Milhouse’s Watchmen Babies: V Is For Vacation DVD) and Clowes imagining a Batman who needs to carry change on his utility belt, “in case he needs to take the bus.” The rivalry between Comic Book Guy and Black’s Milo provides a decent framework for the A-story—a standard issue “Homer worries Marge will leave him” plot—but in the end, it’s The League Of Extraordinary Freelancers who save the day.
The Simpsons has a way with Martin Scorsese remakes: Just as “Cape Feare” sprung from Scorsese’s redux of Cape Fear, “The Debarted” drops Bart into a schoolyard version of the director’s spin on Infernal Affairs. “The Debarted” is proof that The Simpsons hasn’t been drained of its direct-parody powers, with the episode gaining much of its strength from the suspense of Donny (guest Topher Grace) shielding his true identity from new friend Bart. The mob-movie structure keeps “The Debarted” from falling prey to nonsensical tangents, sloppy conclusions, and other narrative pitfalls that can hamper latter-day Simpsons episodes, and the sense of betrayal Bart expresses within the episode feels earned. (Not bad for a feeling that’s instilled by a character who’s only around for this one episode.) And in the episode’s major jab at The Departed, the show makes a major contribution to the Simpsons lexicon. Quoth Ralph Wiggum: “The rat symbolizes obviousness.”
“Any Given Sundance” (season 19, episode 18)
After the “Angry Dad” saga portrayed in “I Am Furious (Yellow)” and “Angry Dad: The Movie,” you’d think the Simpsons would be more wary of being depicted on-screen. But in “Any Given Sundance,” Homer, Marge, and Bart nonetheless consent to appearing in a documentary helmed by budding filmmaker Lisa, with Capturing The Simpsons turning out only slightly less horrifying than its Oscar-nominated namesake. (Maggie really has no choice in the matter, but the baby’s still right to be offended when a Capturing The Simpsons audience member demands her death.) 2008 was pretty late for a sendup of the independent film gold rush and its famed boomtown (Park City, Utah, home to the Sundance Film Festival), but “Any Given Sundance” succeeds because its satirical targets are what Sundance came to symbolize in the 2000s: abandoned ideals, corporate sponsorship run amok, and flash-in-the-pan films that go from talk of the town to yesterday’s news before the final credits even roll. Itself a renegade that eventually became part of the establishment, The Simpsons has firsthand knowledge of this trajectory, and it has great fun mocking it through the rocket ride in branded snowsuits that Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers take to the top of the indie-movie mountain.
A major story for a minor character, “The Saga Of Carl” finds its smallest accomplishment in its explanation of Carl’s jokey last name: The nuclear-power-plant employee and best friend of Lenny Leonard was raised by adoptive parents in Iceland, hence “Carl Carlson.” More significantly, the episode takes a good, hard look at Homer, Moe, and Lenny’s friendship with Carl, who escapes to his native land with a suitcase full of lottery winnings in order to clear his family’s name. In line with the episode’s setting (and its tender subject matter), the proud Icelandic sons of Sigur Rós provide the soundtrack for “The Saga Of Carl,” used to tremendous effect in a montage illustrating the type of “guy stuff” Carl does with his pals: drinking at the bar, going to the barber, seeing The Hangover, drinking at the bar, seeing The Hangover Part II. You know, guy stuff.
Apparently, Lego is the antidote to all skeptical dismissals. A month before “Brick Like Me” premiered in 2014, the Clone High/21 Jump Street duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller demonstrated that their Lego Movie wasn’t just a cynical cash grab perpetrated by a Danish toy manufacturer. Likewise, “Brick Like Me” appeared to be a stunt episode pandering to both interlocking-brick nostalgists and Simpsons fans—and yet Springfield’s plastic makeover made its citizens feel more human than they’d been in years. It didn’t hurt that the episode drifts off of The Lego Movie’s themes of family and creativity, applying those notes to the most finely realized relationship on the show: the father-daughter connection between Homer and Lisa.
Next time: Before he hosted The Nightly Show and ran Black-ish, Larry Wilmore created The Bernie Mac Show. LaToya Ferguson looks back on 10 episodes of that sitcom that tell it like it T-I-is.