We “Simpsons” fans are a nerdy, nerdy, contentious bunch. Getting us all to agree on the best episodes of what was, in its heyday, the smartest and funniest TV show ever broadcast is harder than getting Beatles fans to agree on the best Fab Four album, Woody Allen aficionados to see eye to eye on the Woodman’s best film, or Kurt Vonnegut lovers to concur on the author’s best novel. (“Revolver,” “Love and Death” and “Cat’s Cradle,” respectively.) It simply can’t be done.
So of course picking a definitive list of the top 10 “Simpsons” episodes will elicit howls of outrage from dissenting fellow fans — “Worst. List. Ever.” — and of course they’ll all be on the Internet within minutes, registering their disgust throughout the world. No matter. In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “If you agree, signify by getting indignant.”
10. “The Boy Who Knew Too Much”
Bart skips school and witnesses the supposed beating of a French waiter by Mayor Quimby’s nephew, Freddy. At the ensuing trial, Bart is the only one who can testify to Freddy Quimby’s innocence.
Here’s the perfect example of the show’s hilarious randomness: the scene in which Bart reads his father’s mind in the courtroom and hears the Meow Mix catfood theme song: “Meow, meow, meow, meow …” And then there’s the moment in which Homer, who has been called to serve on the jury in the case, discovers that if the jury’s deadlocked, they’ll be sequestered in a luxury hotel. He justifies his decision to be the lone dissenting voice by saying, “I’m only doing what I think is right. I believe Freddy Quimby should walk out of here a free hotel.”
9. “Bart’s Inner Child”
Homer brings home a free trampoline, which irks Marge. After Marge realizes she nags too much, she and Homer take the advice of self-help expert Brad Goodman, a “Ph.D. in pain.” Goodman comes to town for a lecture, and Bart becomes a surprise role model for the town, thanks to his willingness to “do what I feel like.”
The episode brilliantly skewers new-agey self-help gurus with Goodman’s “feel-bad rainbow” and its talk of “shame spirals” and “life scripts.” It’s also noteworthy for clever pop-cultural references — a shot of dozens of kids who have been injured on the trampoline that is straight out of “Gone With the Wind,” and the Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote-cartoon moment when Homer throws the trampoline off a cliff.
8. “Homer Loves Flanders”
Homer becomes friends with Ned Flanders after the latter treats him to the big Springfield vs. Shelbyville football game.
This one features a classic example of the self-referentiality that made the show so smart. Lisa: “Don’t worry, Bart. It seems like every week something odd happens to the Simpsons. My advice is to ride it out, make the occasional smart-aleck quip, and by next week, we’ll be back to where we started from, ready for another wacky adventure.” Also, keep an eye out for references to both “Terminator 2” and “Vertigo.”
7. “Secrets of a Successful Marriage”
Cast of characters
Meet the major characters from The Simpsons Movie
falsefalsefalsefalsetrueH6falsetrue1Homer teaches an adult education class on how to maintain a successful relationship, revealing secrets of his life with Marge that get him kicked out of the house.
At some point in the show’s history, the writers hit the perfect tone for Homer: stupid, good-natured and mildly pathetic. This episode showcases all of those qualities, from his conversations with his brain — Homer: “All right, Brain, it’s all up to you. If you don’t think of what (to do), we’ll lose Marge forever.” Brain: “Eat the pudding, eat the pudding, eat the pudding, eat the pudding” — to his final proclamation that the one thing he can give Marge that no one else can is “complete and utter dependence.”
6. “Itchy and Scratchy Land”
The family heads to Itchy and Scratchy Land, “the violentest place on Earth,” for their annual vacation, only to be stuck there after dark when the animatronic robots go on a rampage.
Though the Disney parodies are spot-on, one of the most interesting moments comes when the family fights the killer robots. After a Schwarzenegger-worthy quip to one of the dying machines, Bart says, “With dry cool wit like that, I could be an action hero.” Moments later, Homer emerges from a pile of robots and utters the same “dry cool wit” line … only to have Bart talk over him in the foreground. It’s perhaps the first time a show has intentionally buried a joke under other dialogue and had that be the joke.
5. “Team Homer”
Homer starts a bowling team with Apu, Otto and Moe with money Mr. Burns gave him during an ether hallucination. When Burns finds out, he unexpectedly decides to join the team.
Burns’ physical infirmity is the brunt of several great gags, from needing ether to have his nails filed to his difficulties in getting a bowling ball down the lane. Then, near the end of the episode, it’s Burns’ evilness that leads to a classic Homer line: “I guess some people never change. Or, they quickly change and then quickly change back.”
4. “Deep Space Homer”
Because of struggling TV ratings for its shuttle launches, NASA decides to send average Joes into space. Homer and Barney compete to be the lucky “average-naut,” and Homer wins by “De-fault. The two sweetest words in the English language!”
The best (and oft-quoted) moment of a great 22 minutes happens during the NASA press conference announcing the new program. Homer is asked by a reporter about the risks of sending civilians into space: “The only danger is if they send us to that terrible Planet of the Apes. Wait a minute … Statue of Liberty … that was our planet! You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! Damn you all to hell!” Pure genius.
3. “Homer the Great”
After stalking Lenny and Carl, Homer discovers the secret society of the Stonecutters. Homer joins, then is kicked out of and finally becomes the chosen one of the heavy-drinking club. Though the episode as a whole is (almost) unsurpassable, two near-throwaway gags are worth mentioning: Upon joining the group, Homer is told not to call 911 anymore; the real number is 912. Later, Homer has convinced his Stonecutter brethren to do good deeds by repainting a building covered with graffiti. If you look closely, you’ll see that all the graffiti consists of the word “graffiti.”
2. “Lisa the Vegetarian”
Lisa becomes enamored of a cute little lamb, which leads to her decision to become a vegetarian. Homer can’t fathom her disgust with his meaty ways, particularly after Lisa ruins his pork- and beef-riddled barbecue.
It’s a testament to the writing of this episode that the interpretation of one of the more memorable lines — Ralph Wiggum’s “Oh, boy, sleep! That’s where I’m a Viking!” — was recently the subject of an extensive online debate (does he mean he’s great at sleeping or that in his dreams, he plays a Viking?). At another point, Homer tells Lisa, “You don’t win friends with salad,” which leads the family to form an impromptu conga line, repeating the line in singsong. It’s one of those archetypal “Simpsons” moments, one in which the writers hit a joke so long that it goes from funny to unfunny and back to funny again.
1. “Last Exit to Springfield”
When Lisa needs braces, Homer becomes the head of the power plant’s union to keep the dental plan. Burns tries to freeze out the union, resulting in a strike.
Simply unbeatable, from the scene in which Homer fears Burns may be coming on to him to his “Godfather”-esque daydream (“Mmm … organized crime …”) to the sadistic orthodontist who hooks Lisa up with braces that “predate stainless steel, so you can’t get them wet.” It’s also got the requisite drug sequence when Lisa gets nitrous oxide, along with cleverly integrated references to everything from “The Grinch” to “Batman” and “Yellow Submarine.” This is the episode that every self-respecting “Simpsons” geek must be able to recite verbatim.
Patrick Enright is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in MSNBC.com, Mr. Showbiz, Wall of Sound, Movies.com and Seattle Weekly.