Last week, cable network FXX finally launched its highly ambitious Simpsons World, which, with an ever-expanding list of other features, allows cable subscribers to stream every episode of The Simpsons, Fox’s cartoon sitcom about a family from the town of Springfield. The unveiling of Simpsons World, which came about eight weeks after FXX’s unprecedented twelve-day marathon of the show, is a significant moment in media history, as the line between television and the internet became even blurrier, and the entire catalogue of one of television’s most beloved shows became instantly and infinitely accessible for those fortunate enough to have the fledgling FXX station.
On the Eve of the Return, WFNY (OK, Kirk and I) thought readers would enjoy a distraction from the incessant anxiety and nervous excitement created by the looming Cavs opener on Thursday. We thought readers would enjoy something to preoccupy them enough to stop from muttering “Ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygodohmy—” over and over like a teenage girl before a Taylor Swift concert for the next thirty hours in anticipation of the game/party/celebration that has spawned its own commercials and ad campaigns. If you’d rather continue to debate Manziel vs. Hoyer, we got you covered there, too. Otherwise, sit back, relax, take deep breaths, and let’s see if we can’t find something else to argue about while having some fun and easing your pre-game jitters for Thursday.
The Simpsons, a few episodes into its awe-inspiring twenty-sixth season, is one of the greatest television shows of all time by any measure.
The best way to discuss The Simpsons is through a list of great episodes that illustrate the finer aspects of its excellence. This will also give new and old viewers alike something to watch when their cable providers are throttling their Netflix and the Cavs have a day off. Such an approach also allows for fun detours into the show’s funniest lines and most hilarious moments. Unlike attempts to rate the “best episodes” of The Simpsons that preceded this one, we introduced a grading system that strives to be slightly beyond arbitrary and not exclusively subjective. Our methodology used prior “best of” lists in the media, viewer ratings, and our own personal selections, to determine as objectively as possible the most definitive Ten Best Simpsons Episodes list complied to date.2 We welcome objections, though do not direct them at us—for we only had a minor impact on the outcome. Direct them at Sir Isaac Newton for inventing science and Neil deGrasse Tyson for making it seem so cool.
10. “Homer Badman.” Score: 11.1
What Happens: Homer and Marge Simpson hire a co-ed graduate student to babysit their children Bart, Lisa, and Maggie, while they visit a convention devoted to candy and the state of the candy industry. After smuggling as much candy as possible from the convention, Homer drives the babysitter home. As she exits the car, Homer plucks away a gummy replica of the Venus de Milo—carved by the finest gummy artisans in the world—that had become stuck to the babysitter’s pants. The babysitter accuses Homer of sexual harassment, and a media circus explodes to demonize Homer.
Moment Inspiring the Most Childhood Nostalgia:
Bart (pouring his imitation-Lucky Charms cereal): “Damn FDA! Why can’t it all be marshmallows.”
Lisa: “Bart, don’t put the non-marshmallow pieces back in the box! They go in the trash.”
Best Question: Homer-“So, [you’re] a graduate student, huh? How come they can send a man to the moon but can’t make my shoes smell good?”
Oddly Prophetic Line: Lisa-“The media’s making a monster out of you because they don’t care about the truth. All they care about is entertainment.” This was before Twitter and the modern twenty-four hour news cycle, mind you.
Best Quote Out of Context: “I saw that report on Sasquatch. I thought it was very fair and even-handed.”
Why Does Grampa Simpson’s American Flag Have Only 49 Stars?
9. “Treehouse of Horror V.” Score: 11.7
What Happens: This is the only episode in the top twenty to be a Treehouse of Horror, the annual Halloween tradition started in season two where the entire episode is a series of horror or sci-fi vignettes. “The Shinning” is a run-of-the-mill Shining parody. “Time and Punishment” involves Homer altering and un-altering the past and future with his hand lodged in a time-traveling toaster. In “Nightmare Cafeteria,” Principal Skinner turns the cafeteria into a final destination detention hall where students are the lunch delicacy.
Overarching Gag: Groundskeeper Willie takes an axe in the back in every segment while trying to save at least one member of the Simpson family.
Signature Moment: Homer’s Jack Torrance doesn’t mind “all work and no play,” but “no beer and no TV”? Well, that’s another story.
Best Quote Out of Context: “Hmm, perhaps. Tell you what: We come back and everyone’s slaughtered, I owe you a coke.”
7. (tie) “Marge vs. the Monorail.” Score: 12.1
What Happens: In one of the most widely-known Simpsons episodes, the EPA fines Mr. Burns millions of dollars for dumping nuclear waste in a local park. At a town meeting to decide what to do with the money, Marge pushes for fixing the potholes on Springfield’s main street. Enter Lyle Lanley, the sweet-talking salesman to appeal to Springfield’s hopes and dreams with a fancy-sounding monorail: via one heck of a friendly tune.
Great Cameos: Leonard Nimoy (as himself) and Phil Hartman (as Lyle Lanley) have excellent cameos in this all-time episode.
Moral of the Story (If You’ve Never Seen The Music Man): Never trust strangers who try to sell you something with a catchy song. “Sorry, Mom, the mob has spoken!”
Best Quote Out of Context: “Pffft … what if. What if I’m taking a shower and I slip on a bar of soap? Oh my god, I’d be killed!”
7. (tie) “Homer the Heretic.” Score: 12.1
What Happens: After missing church one Sunday, Homer has a fantastic day. This motivates Homer to swear off church for the rest of his life, much to Marge’s consternation. He spends most of the time pretending he’s a cinnamon bun in bed, watching football (perhaps a hint that the Simpson family lives on the west coast), smoking cigars, and drinking.
We’ve All Thought This Before After Winning Our Fantasy League:
Why It Works: Homer questions religion in a way that most people do at some point in their lives, but it’s not with the disdain and dismissive attitude most comedies would now-a-days.
Best Quote Out of Context: “There you go again, always taking someone else’s side. Flanders, the water department, God…”
6. “Rosebud.” Score: 12.7
What Happens: Mr. Smithers is worried about his boss and head of the local power plant, Mr. Burns, who is filled with discontent on his birthday despite his wealth of riches and treasures. The cause of Burns’ sadness is the absence of his cherished childhood teddy bear Bobo, which he lost when he left his impoverished family to live with a billionaire. Sixty-some years later, after an incredibly journey over the world and through history, Bobo lands in the possession of young Maggie Simpson. Homer is forced to decide whether his child’s happiness is worth enduring the wrath of Springfield and foregoing a reward from his boss for a million dollars and three Hawaiian islands.
Bizarre Cameo: The Ramones sing “Happy Birthday” at Mr. Burns’ birthday party. For their rude behavior, Mr. Burns orders the Rolling Stones killed, confusing them with The Ramones.
Best Quote Out of Context: “My old man can’t get a beer because his old man won’t give a bear to another old man. Let’s get him!”
Screw the Subtext: The title, “Rosebud” is a tribute to Citizen Kane, considered by pretentious film critics to be the best movie of all time. In the movie, Rosebud was Kane’s childhood sleigh. Here, the metaphor is obliterated in the first minute by Mr. Burns’ biological father: “Wait you forgot your bear, a symbol of your lost youth and innocence!”
Surprisingly Tender Moment: Mr. Burns, the most frail and selfish man in all of Springfield, attempts to reason with Maggie Simpson for Bobo after failing to overpower the infant for the teddy bear. As is often the case, the child is capable of more compassion than most people.
4. (tie) “Lisa’s Substitute.” Score: 13.2
What Happens: When Lisa’s teacher Miss Hoover has to take a leave of absence, Lisa’s class is assigned a charismatic traveling substitute teacher, Mr. Bergstrom. Lisa quickly grows to love the charming Mr. Bergstrom, who she begins to favor as a father figure over Homer, her bumbling, oafish, imperceptive father.
Entertaining B-Plot: Bart runs for class president, promising to raise hell for the entire third grade class. Bart loses 2-0 to fellow classmate and overachiever Martin Prince when Bart and his supporters blow off voting because it’s “for geeks,” leading to a recreation of the iconic Harry Truman victory photo from the 1946 election.
Genuinely Touching Moment: This may not be one of the funniest Simpsons episodes, but it’s one of the timeless episodes that elevates it over all its peers. Although Homer’s normally a willfully negligent father, his sincere and misguided efforts to connect with his daughter are familiar to anyone that’s struggled to relate to someone they love. Homer’s at a loss to console his daughter Lisa after Mr. Bergstrom leaves town, when he uses Lisa’s music box to inspire him, and has a breakthrough with his daughter. “Now, you you lost someone special to you, and it hurts. I’m lucky, because I never lost anyone special to me. Everyone special to me is right under this roof.” Must…not…care. (Googling “Ben Roethlisberger.”) Whew, feelings gone. That was close.
Best Quote Out of Context: “Dear Miss Hoover, You have Lyme Disease. We miss you. Kevin’s biting me. Come back soon. Here’s a drawing of a spirochete. Love, Ralph.”
4. (tie) “Homer’s Enemy.” Score: 13.2
What Happens: The nuclear power plant hires new employee Frank Grimes, who’s toiled his entire life to achieve what little he has after re-learning how to hear and feel pain following an injury from a silo explosion. Grimes immediately despises Homer, who he views as an imbecile and a danger to everyone at the power plant. He notifies Homer that they are officially enemies and becomes obsessed with exposing Homer as an idiot and a fraud, with dark and tragic consequences. Oh, and Mr. Burns hires a dog to be vice president of the power plant.
Best Quote Out of Context: “I don’t know. Pigs tend to chew. I’d say he eats more like a duck.”
Funniest Moment: In response to a five-thirteen alert from his safety inspector station, Homer silences the alarm by dumping a bucket of water over his computer terminal.
Legitimately Subversive Moment: After Homer’s attempt to reconcile with Frank “Grimey” Grimes goes disastrously wrong, Grimes goes on an impassioned diatribe in the Simpson household. Grimes denounces Homer as “everything that’s wrong with America,” and is disgusted by his “palace” of a home despite his “lifetime of sloth and ignorance.”3 Grimes is driven mad by the fact that Homer has “everything,” while Grimes lives above a bowling alley (and below another bowling alley) and has worked hard his entire life with so little to show for it. That Grimes’ rant can be simultaneously scathing, discomforting, thought-provoking, and hilarious is proof of some truly spectacular writing. It’s last great episode from The Simpsons’ prime.
3. “Lisa the Vegetarian.” Score: 15.2
What Happens: After a trip to a local petting zoo, her compassion for adorable animals somehow turns off Lisa to the idea of eating them. This causes friction between Lisa and the Simpson family, especially when Homer wants to host a neighborhood barbecue. With the world around her pressuring her to eat meat, Lisa considers retreating from her vegetarian stance.
Funniest Quote: Principal Skinner-“Uh oh. Two independent thought alarms in one day. The students are overstimulated. Willie! Remove all the colored chalk from the classrooms.”
Signature Moments: The classroom movie “Meat and You,” a documentary the school forces the third graders to watch explaining why it’s morally acceptable to eat meat. It’s one of the funniest moments in the entire series. Just ask this scientician. There’s also the “you don’t win friends with salad” dance.
Why You Shouldn’t Make Promises:
Best Quote Out of Context: “When I grow up, I’m going to Bovine University.”
2. “Cape Feare.” Score: 15.7
What Happens: Bart lives in constant fear after his nemesis Sideshow Bob sends Bart letters threatening to kill him. The Simpson family enters witness protection and moves to Cape Feare (adjacent to Terror Lake and New Horrorfield), with Sideshow Bob in hot pursuit and recently paroled. When Bob confronts Bart on the family’s new houseboat, he appeals to Sideshow Bob’s vanity by making his dying request to hear Bob sing the entire score of the H.M.S. Pinafore.
Best Quote Out of Context: “We object to the term urine-soaked hellhole.”
Why It’s a Great Episode: It’s not one of my personal favorite episodes and is a little overly whacky. But it’s commitment to parodying the iconic 1991 thriller Cape Fear is just one example of the liberties cartoons have over traditional live action shows. However, it’s most remembered for the next item….
Classic Physical Gags: After riding on the underside of the Simpsons’ car for miles of highways and cactus patches, Sideshow Bob emerges in obvious pain, only to repeatedly step on rakes that swing up to hit him in the face, taking the physical gag to its most absurd conclusion. There’s also Bob’s German language tattoo easily misunderstood as a death threat.
1. “Last Exit to Springfield.” Score: 16.2
What Happens: In what is no doubt a surprising number one episode to most fans, the Simpson family learns that Lisa needs braces following a trip the dentist. Soon after, Mr. Burns attempts to have the power plant workers union ditch their dental plan in exchange for a keg of beer at union meetings. Unable to afford braces without the union’s dental plan, Homer reluctantly takes charge of the union. Mr. Burns mistakes Homer for a brilliant tactician, and a union strike leads to a blackout of the entire city.
Signature Moment: When Mr. Burns is demonstrating the extent of his resources to Homer, the two of them wander into his room dedicated to writing the greatest novel of all time, complete with a thousand monkeys, at least one of whom is smoking a cigarette.
Best Annoying Chant of All Time:
Most Appropriate Pop Culture Reference: When the citizens of Springfield are undeterred, and respond to the city-wide blackout with marches and joyous singing, Mr. Burns has a very Grinch-like experience: “Look at them all through the darkness I’m bringing! They’re not sad at all, they’re actually singing! They sing without juicers! They sing without blenders! They sing without flunjers, capdabblers, and smendlers!”
Best Quote Out of Context: “The important thing was that I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time.”
Why It’s the Greatest: “Last Exit” appears on virtually every “best” Simpsons list out there, and earned an eight of a possible twelve bonus points. It also scored a relatively high IMDB rating. Obviously, anyone is entitled to disagree, but it would be challenging to watch “Last Exit” and not enjoy it from start to finish. It has some classic bits and killer jokes in every scene, along with equal-opportunity social critiques reminiscent of the series’ best work. Homer overcoming his own inadequacies to ensure that his family can afford Lisa’s braces is a relatable problem for all middle class Americans typical of Northeast Ohio.
Most Disappointing Omissions (scores)
Hurricane Neddy (10.8);4 The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson (10.8); Two Bad Neighbors (10.8); Summer of 4 Ft. 2 (10.6); Homer the Smithers (10.3); Deep Space Homer (10.3); Bart Sells His Soul (10.2); Homer’s Phobia (10.1); Homer at the Bat (9.9);5 Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk6 Homer vs. the 18th Amendment (8.7); Bart After Dark (8.6); Bart’s Comet (8.6); Everything with Lionel Hutz.
Go Cavs. Enjoy Thursday, Cleveland.
- One could argue there are nearly as many “great” episodes of South Park as The Simpsons now, which took a dive after the late 90s. Also, FXX’s Simpsons World is trying to duplicate the success of South Park Studios, the episode/clip streaming site for South Park that has greatly enhanced viewer access to the show. [↩]
- Nerd Alert! To be more specific, we used an equation specially developed to determine a score for every episode. The base scores were equal to IMDB user ratings. The average episode had nearly seven hundred user ratings, with 18.1% exceeding one thousand ratings. Each episode received one bonus point (nearly two standard deviations of IMDB scores) for each “best Simpsons episodes” list in which it appeared in the top ten. The outside lists we consulted were from Complex, Entertainment Weekly (from 2003), The Guardian readers, Simpsons creator Matt Groening’s own list (from 2000), Grantland (not actually a “best of” list, but a collection of signature moments), IGN, Rolling Stone, Slate, UPROXX (season-by season best list), and Vulture. A bonus point was also given for inclusion on either Kyle or Kirk’s own top ten list, as the WFNY’s resident Simpsons nerds. The lists chosen were intended to be a respectable cross-section of media outlets, credible pop culture critics, and “experts” like ourselves. There were a total of 120 additional points for the taking. The thinking was that viewer scores provided a good starting point, but critical approval was crucial. Although inclusion on a list was essential, a high IMDB viewer rating was a huge boost, and a low one could lead to an episode being excluded. Is it perfect? By no means. But it’s one of the best attempts out there to quantify the greatness of classic Simpsons episodes. [↩]
- Kirk: Grimes points out what’s evident to him and no one else: that Homer is an idiot and doesn’t deserve all of the good graces he’s been afforded in life. [↩]
- Flanders is one of my favorite characters and one that is often overlooked despite his huge role in the series. This one may be the best as we see the unbreakable Ned finally crack. [↩]
- Kirk: The best Simpsons sports episode. Period. I could listen to Bart and Lisa chanting “Daryl, Daryl, Daryl” on loop for hours. Whether it’s Don Mattingly unable to get rid of his sideburns to Burns’s liking, Roger Clemens thinking he’s a chicken, or Ken Griffey Jr. suffering from gigantism from too much nerve tonic, this off-the-wall celebrity-laden episode is pure comedic gold. Mr. Burns is hilarious in this episode, from his kooky managerial signs to his decision to pinch-hit Homer for Strawberry. [↩]
- Kirk: From Homer’s vision of the “Land of Chocolate” to Burns buying back the power plant at a significant discount, it doesn’t get any better than Burns taunting the Germans playfully with Smithers. “Oh no, the Germans are coming after me!” [↩]