Five of the Best… and Five of the Worst
Steve Williams and Ian Jones on the best and worst of The Simpsons
First published May 2002
Five of the Best…
1. LAST EXIT TO SPRINGFIELD
(Season 4; writers: Jay Kogen, Wal Wolodarksy; TX: 11/03/93)
From a time when almost every episode of The Simpsons bubbled constantly with sharp gags, ace ideas, brilliant characterization and overwhelming self-confidence. The twin plots blend seamlessly (Lisa’s braces/Homer leading the power plant on strike), and there’s some of the greatest fantasy sequences ever; best of all, though, here’s Mr Burns doing what he does best: not actually causing mayhem and chaos, but trying to cause it. And not understanding why he keeps failing. You’ve got classic moments of surrealism where the images and music meet in sublime montages – Burns and Smithers “running” the factory by themselves; Lisa under the anaesthetic. The usual sequence of “episodic” humour – variations on a theme – is fantastic: Burns trying to break up the protesters first by employing strike-breakers (“The ones they had in the ’30s”), then with a runaway hose, then by employing robots, then switching off the town’s entire power supply – all to no avail. The overall pacing is perfect, the development and dénouement spot on, the payoff (“And that’s the tooth … “) superb.
2. HOMER GOES TO COLLEGE
(Season 5; writer: Conan O’Brien; TX: 14/10/93)
In some of the more freewheeling and plotless episodes of The Simpsons there’s a fine line between smugness and genius. Somehow this one falls firmly in the latter camp, despite it being, at its most basic, just non-stop visual jokes and ridiculous one-liners. It’s one of those shows where the whole plot can be summarized from the title, and so it just spends the next 22 minutes simply seeing how many jokes can be crammed in. Some of the throwaway gags here are funnier than whole episodes: Mr Burns attempting to send the inspectors through a trapdoor is one, as well as Homer nicking breezeblocks to create student-style furniture (“There’ll be no hospital, I’ll tell the children”). It also features both Homer and Mr Burns at their best; the scene where Burns chairs a meeting (and his chair, with snarling dogs strapped to it, is the funniest drawing in the world) sums up exactly why we like him (“I’m giving you the beating of your life! Resistance is futile!”) and every one of Homer’s lines is a gem. “Woo-hoo, a flyer for a hardware store!”
(Season 5; writer: John Swartzwelder; TX: 21/10/93)
Just seven days later came this, Swartzwelder’s best ever episode. They pulled out all the stops for this one; here’s Oakley and Weinstein’s every-line-a-joke strategy employed to perfection (“Hey – no-one termers”) and matched with exceptional visual innovations and direction. Burns is at his very best: ruthless, pathetic, trying too hard. It’s a classic example of the show working perfectly on different levels – the elaborate Citizen Kane parody one of many ways of engaging with and enjoying the gags, storylines and action. The Simpsons family are folded into the story effortlessly (right from the start: “I meant Lobo – Sheriff Lobo, they never should have cancelled that show/Lobo, Lobo … “), with Homer then performing his legendary stand-up at Burns’ party (“I said, are you ready to laugh???”), before going on to link seamlessly into the chief revelation over the owner of Burns’ teddybear: “Mouldy? Old? I’m gonna get something to eat!” The action builds towards a real, gripping climax, via the repeated attempts by Burns and Smithers to abduct Bobo (each more witty than the last – “64 slices of American cheese … “) leading to their infiltration of network TV and their own utterly bizarre but wonderful sitcom. The people of Springfield are shown in another ugly mob; while Marge’s persistent attempts at rationalizing everything are given a gentle lampooning as one last twist. Class from start to finish, this was when The Simpsons was easily the best show on TV.
An obvious choice, maybe, but this episode is pulled off with so much love and respect for the series it simply has to be included. The “what if … ?” plot could have been the cue for in-jokes and cheap thrills, but it works because the story is milked to its full potential. It really is fun to see what happened to all the characters (“If only they could find a cure for 17 stab wounds in the back”) and how they cope in the future; there’s a great throwaway joke with Lenny and Carl that shows the amount of care that has gone into the show. Unlike other episodes Lisa comes over as a sympathetic character rather than a hectoring bore, there’s exactly the right mix of story and jokes, and the throwaway gags (“Hi Bart, I am weaving on a loom!”) are consistently funny and warm. Goddammit, it’s just lovely, OK! And bizarrely, the BBC first screened it in the afternoon of New Years Day 2000 – billed as a repeat!
5. BART AFTER DARK
(Season 8; writer: Richard Appel; TX: 24/11/96)
This merits inclusion because it features the best example of Homer/Bart bonding ever. The scenes when they’re at home together alone are truly brilliant, and what’s fantastic about both those and the whole episode is that it shows Homer and Bart in a great light throughout – Homer’s almost responsible and sensible, while Bart is consistently witty, meaning that for once Marge is in the wrong. There’s also one of the strongest and cleverest songs in the whole series, a great town meeting (“Oh, er … Barney!?”) and Lisa’s best line ever (“Playing with my peach tree!”) By this point in the series we’d long since lost the idea that the Simpsons are The Worst Family In The World, and with the dynamics of the characters now more complex and satisfying, this proves that when the show’s on form, it soundly beats everything else.
…and Five of the Worst
1. WAR OF THE SIMPSONS
(Season 2; writer: John Swartzwelder; TX: 02/05/91)
Back when no description of The Simpsons was complete without the word “dysfunctional”, this shows off the early episodes’ greatest failings – the family acting out of character and a plot based around a situation that didn’t previously exist. The idea of Homer and Marge going on a marriage guidance weekend is annoying because in the previous 32 episodes the series had gone to pains to demonstrate that their relationship was rock-solid. Hence when Homer misbehaves at their dinner party, it seems odd of Marge to snap because he’d already done much worse, and Marge’s big long list of all of Homer’s problems just makes Marge look petty and unappealing. Worse still, Homer is ignorant throughout, and his efforts to go fishing don’t ring true because he’d previously shown no interest in that activity, or indeed anything that involves any sort of effort whatsoever. Furthermore, it’s one of those sitcom episodes where the relationships are threatened with permanent change, but it’s obvious that they’ll get back together at the end because otherwise there wouldn’t be a series.
The Simpsons have ventured beyond the confines of Springfield on numerous occasions, resulting in episodes just as witty and imaginative as those set on home turf – consider “Kamp Krusty” or “Itchy & Scratchy Land”. But it seems whenever the family are sent abroad the end product is just a mess. Way back in the first series the lesson should’ve been learnt with “The Crêpes of Wrath”: a badly executed stumble through the laziest of French stereotypes, self-satisfied name-calling at its worst, and a singular lack of any redeeming invention or innovation. It seemed for a while the show’s writers were either warned off, or were disinclined, to repeat the idea; but then came the sixth season and the whole family were packed off to Australia for a snide and charmless rehashing of every third-rate Oz cliché possible. If there’s a message in this episode it gets lost amidst emotional grandstanding (we see Bart cry, which isn’t right) and jokes about toads. It feels like the production team strained hard to reference every obvious possible example of Australian culture and use up their stock of patented Oz jibes; consequently the pace and plot are all over the place, and establishing scenes fight for attention with character gags. There is only one decent joke (Bart dialling Antarctica – and even that doesn’t involve speaking or visuals). “We didn’t know anything about Australia,” Groening later confessed. “We knew we were going to get it wrong, so we decided we’d get it wrong in every single way.” Later episodes set in Japan (“30 Minutes Over Tokyo”) and Rio (“Blame It On Lisa”) were just as woeful; the only amusing thing about the last one being that it prompted the city’s tourism bureau to threaten Fox with a civil lawsuit.
3. A STAR IS BURNS
(Season 6; writer: Ken Keeler; TX: 05/03/95)
This is the episode that Matt Groening removed his name from, and it’s not surprising, because this is the show at its all-time worst. It’s based around an aspect of American television that we don’t get in the UK – the crossover episode with another series (in this case, The Critic) which here means that there’s almost an entirely different production team involved, and it’s one which appears to have no knowledge of, or respect for, the characters at all. What’s particularly irksome about this show is its smugness – we’re supposed to think that Barney’s film is brilliant and moving, which in itself would leave a nasty taste in the mouth, but is not helped by the fact that the film blatantly isn’t brilliant; it’s unfunny and inconsistent, veering wildly from taking the piss out of him to trying to paint him as a complex, three-dimensional character. This is simply self-indulgent and insulting to the audience – the writers are saying, “Only an idiot doesn’t like this.” Furthermore, Barney acts completely out of character, given that he’s previously shown no remorse for his present state at all. What also rankles is that Homer is painted as the villain for refusing to vote for his film, when in every other episode he’d been Barney’s best friend but here he acts as if he’s never met him before. And since when has everyone else liked Barney anyway? Mr Burns is simply thrown away, with his plot going absolutely nowhere, and in the end Barney simply becomes a pathetic alcoholic again, a thoroughly nasty conclusion, so the whole episode has been a complete waste of time. The worst of the lot, by a long way.
4. HOMER’S PHOBIA
(Season 8; writer: Ron Hauge; TX: 16/02/97)
What’s always been great about Homer is that while he’s incredibly stupid, his stupidity is always harmless and non-threatening. Even in “The Cartridge Family”, when Homer buys a gun, you know he’s never actually going to use it and doesn’t mean any harm. That’s why this episode leaves such a nasty taste in the mouth, because here he’s quite simply a bastard. The point of the episode is that Homer is shown that homophobia is wrong, but to do this he has to spend most of the episode being nasty and unlikeable. His adventures with Moe are simply horrible, and that’s basically not what you want to see. The denouncement is faintly unsettling too – seemingly Homer only accepts John when he saves Bart, rather than learning to like him thanks to his personality. It also contains a series of sequences that are seemingly supposed to be “delightfully politically incorrect” but are in fact fairly sneery. This is a side of the show we’d not seen before, nor particularly wanted to see.
5. THE PRINCIPAL AND THE PAUPER
(Season 9; writer: Ken Keeler; TX: 28/09/97)
Continuity is usually the preserve of the ultra-obsessive. It’s even considered a badge on the part of certain fan groups, to be worn without shame. We’re not hugely bothered with continuity as far as The Simpsons is concerned. But whereas for the most part the show plays with established history with verve and wit – a classic example being “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” – or just factors changes into the plot almost nonchalantly (Bleeding Gums Murphy dies, Lisa becomes a vegetarian, Milhouse’s parents split up) this bit of revisionism is really atrocious. First off it’s really contrived: it advances the show nowhere, and restoring things to how they were at the outset makes for one of the worst episode endings ever (“I further decree that everything will be just like it was.”) With Skinner unmasked as an impostor, he loses some of that weird charm that, like Burns, made him one of the most affecting characters. He isn’t even given a funny new name (Armin Tanzarian); there’s a pointless patronizing”recap” half way through from Kent Brockman; other characters, notably Homer, are shoehorned into the plot with none of the usual slickness; and again, the only decent gag is non-verbal (the school sign: “Tonight, Surprise Tribute To Seymour Skinner”). A waste of time; even as an exercise to wind up continuity buffs it’s lame, smug and deeply unimaginative.