Watch + Listen: Top 50 Simpsons Episodes – The Top 10

by Kevin on July 1, 2011

Click here for #50-31.

Click here for #30-11.

10. “Homer the Heretic”
(Season 4, Episode 3)
My own views on religion notwithstanding, Homer’s struggles with his faith in “Homer the Heretic” are quintessentially American: it’s not so much belief in God that he finds difficult, just the part about getting out of bed on Sundays. Homer works best when he plays the Everyman, simplifying our existential dilemmas for the purposes of entertainment. In “Homer the Heretic” we see a man having the greatest day of his life watching football, making waffles (his “patented, space-age, out-of-this-world Moon Waffles,” no less), and finding a penny. This childlike joy in simple pleasures makes the questioning of his faith all the more forgivable, even as the cautionary tale reaches its inevitable conclusion.

What truly pushes “Homer the Heretic” into the top 10 is the way Homer owns his introspection. Like his son in “Bart Sells His Soul,” external forces can only guide him so far; ultimately, Homer must make the decision to come back to his faith by examining what truly matters for his own benefit as well as for his family’s. He decides that religion isn’t about hearing your sins and feeling bad about yourself, it’s about fellowship and setting aside differences for the sake of a greater good, whether you’re Christian, Jew, or miscellaneous.

9. “You Only Move Twice”
(Season 8, Episode 2)
After Phil Hartman, Albert Brooks is perhaps the greatest recurring Simpsons guest star, and “You Only Move Twice” is easily his most essential contribution. Brooks plays Hank Scorpio, an impossibly charismatic Bond villain whose ad libbed exchanges with Dan Castellaneta’s Homer are among the most side-splitting in the show’s history. Brooks’ Scorpio steals this episode the way he steals the entire East Coast, and Homer’s obliviousness to his new boss’s true motivations is brilliantly absurd.

Once again, Homer must make the decision to return to the soul-crushing nuclear plant, this time giving up a job with better pay and more responsibility with the Globex Corporation. Unfortunately the move to Cypress Creek makes his family miserable, and he has no choice but to return to Mr. Burns’ employ. But as we’ve seen throughout this list, particularly in the flashback episodes “The Way We Was” and “I Married Marge,” Homer is in his situation exclusively because of his family. It’s obvious that he wouldn’t do anything to change that permanently, but it would have been nice to see him get a break for a change. At least there’s always the Denver Broncos. (Whatever happened to that, by the way?)

8. “Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk”
(Season 3, Episode 11)
Speaking of C. Montgomery Burns, “Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk” is an exceptional teaching moment for the nefarious ogre of The Simpsons. Depending on the needs of the writers, Burns can range from a cantankerous old millionaire to a diabolical supervillain; this allows Burns to create fear and inflict punishment on those around him, either for perceived misdeeds or simply to amuse himself. In “Kraftwerk,” he learns that the exclusive source of his power over others isn’t his millions or his lifetime of evil, it’s his ownership of the nuclear plant. His position of authority over his employees keeps him on top of the world (where Springfield is “the world”), and when that dynamic changes, he finds himself completely powerless, millions or no.

The best character moment in the episode comes when a recently unemployed Homer, the sole employee terminated by the new German owners of the nuclear plant, stands up to an astonished Mr. Burns in Moe’s Tavern. Nothing could have prepared Burns for the way the blue collar patrons mock him, and he is taken aback when Homer asks whether his money ever says “I love you.” Burns slinks away to Homer’s jeers of “Nobody loves you” and vows on the spot to take back his plant, no matter the cost. After all, what good is money if it can’t inspire terror in your fellow man?

7. “22 Short Films About Springfield”
(Season 7, Episode 21)
After a few seasons, the writers fell into something of a pattern. They knew they’d have roughly 23 episodes, 1 of which would be a “Treehouse of Horror,” 1 which might be a clip show, and 1 nontraditional episode—that is, something that broke the standard Simpsons format. “22 Short Films About Springfield” was an idea they had tossed around for a while, and when it eventually aired they were unsure what the reaction would be. After all, the episode itself is a mess, a jumble of cutesy theme songs, meta jokes involving Professor Frink, and a lengthy, kind of disturbing Pulp Fiction parody. But somehow the end result is incredibly special.

The premise is that Bart and Milhouse are wondering, in the midst of their animated hijinks, whether anything interesting ever happens in Springfield. This launches a series of vignettes starring some of The Simpsons’ most essential peripheral characters: Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers, Bumblebee Man, Chief Wiggum and Snake, and the official introduction of Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel. The segments are blended together seamlessly, and the previously mentioned Pulp Fiction sequence ends at just the right time (you know, before it gets really weird). “22 Short Films” is experimental television of the highest form.

6. “A Streetcar Named Marge”
(Season 4, Episode 2)
As this list indicates, I have a weakness for episodes with musical numbers. Like the Planet of the Apes musical from “A Fish Called Selma,” The Simpsons has a knack for giving us parodies that are completely ridiculous but still eerily plausible. (Hey if there can be a Spiderman musical, why not Streetcar?) Marge’s Blanche DuBois serves as a deliberate commentary on her relationship to her family, particularly to her husband, and gives them both a chance to observe and reflect, and perhaps even to grow.

What damns “A Streetcar Named Marge” now, unfortunately, is that the writers draw from the “Marge is under-appreciated” well far too often. Episodes like “Some Enchanted Evening,” “The War of the Simpsons,” and “Homer Alone” had already covered this ground, and the show continues at least once every season. There are only so many ways to say “Homer isn’t a very attentive husband and father” before fans grumble at the prospect of another episode about a troubled marriage. What separates “Streetcar” from, say, “Homer Alone,” is that Marge finds a creative outlet for her frustration, which is a more inspired approach than she usually takes. It’s a shame she never returns to the stage, her point perhaps lost after all.

5. “Treehouse of Horror V”
(Season 6, Episode 6)
The “Treehouse of Horror” series has probably overstayed its welcome, but I remember the eager anticipation I felt before the annual episode during the first few seasons. To this day my wife and I watch our favorites every Halloween, a tradition I’m sure we share with many others. “Treehouse V” features three of my all-time favorite segments: “The Shinning,” a parody which needs no introduction; “Time and Punishment,” a strange but hilarious send-up of time travel stories; and the dark, bloody “Nightmare Cafeteria.” The giddy, gruesome “Treehouse” episodes seem to have waned (or perhaps become less potent), and I doubt we’ll ever see an episode as good as this ever again.

Compared to the other “Treehouse” episodes on this list (all from seasons 3-6, not surprisingly), “Treehouse V” is a gluttonous celebration of animated carnage. Groundskeeper Willy gets killed with an axe three different times, once by Maggie in a parallel universe. Springfield Elementary children are eaten by their teachers. And a dystopian reality ruled by Ned Flanders? “Treehouse V” is the standard by which I judge all subsequent “Treehouse” episodes, but sadly, nothing since has come close. “No beer and no TV make Homer something-something” indeed.

4. “Last Exit to Springfield”
(Season 4, Episode 17)
Of all the “Homer has a different job” episodes, “Last Exit to Springfield” remains perhaps the all-time greatest. As I’ve mentioned before, Homer is grotesquely underqualified for basically every conceivable job, so head of the local union of nuclear power plant employees is certainly among the list of jobs he should never, ever have. But in “Last Exit to Springfield” we get to see just that: as Homer attempts to take on the powers of corrupt capitalism on behalf of his fellow workers, and somehow comes out on top.

Homer’s success in “Last Exit” reminds me of the accidental victories of Charlie Chaplin, or Jacques Tati, or Inspector Gadget. Although his stupidity is obvious to us, it somehow manages to elude Mr. Burns, who treats him as a wily adversary capable of bringing down his empire with his demands for fair pay and equitable treatment. In reality, Homer just wants to come out unscathed and, if possible, save the plant’s dental plan, lest he have to pay for Lisa’s braces.

3. “Cape Feare”
(Season 5, Episode 2)
There’s a reason Sideshow Bob regularly returns with another diabolical plan for revenge on Bart Simpson (besides Kelsey Grammer’s Emmy-winning performances). Of all Bob’s schemes, none were as chilling as in “Cape Feare,” his determination to “disembowel” Bart with a machete forcing the family into protective custody as the Thompsons. Naturally, Bob’s genteel passions are his constant weakness, which our working-class protagonists use to their advantage in each encounter.

In “Krusty Gets Busted,” Sideshow Bob sees crime as a means to an end. His bitterness toward his employer and constant public humiliation is a catalyst that drives him to pursue his ultimate dream: to replace Krusty’s demented, low-brow show with a celebration of art and culture. The writers are quick to associate elite with evil, and eventually Bart reveals the truth and makes a lifelong nemesis. In the class war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the bourgeoisie always gets a rake in the face—at least on The Simpsons.

2. “Homer the Great”
(Season 6, Episode 12)
“Homer the Great” is such an essential and hilarious episode that it’s easy to forgive that neither the Stonecutters (now called The Ancient Mystic Society of No Homers) nor Homer’s prophesied birthmark are ever mentioned again in the series. Homer so often finds himself an outsider looking in—on families with more money and perceived happiness, on those with successful jobs, on the more intelligent — so when he finally finds himself the center of everyone’s attention it’s only natural that he would have difficulty fitting in.

Lisa persuades Homer to use his newly found power as the leader of the Stonecutters to do good, including volunteer work and social projects. Unfortunately, the true goal of the Stonecutters isn’t to help the less fortunate, it’s to sit around and drink beer, which is something Homer should be perfectly happy with. But as “Homer the Great” points out, the truly great can’t find happiness in a rut, they must eventually reach for the more spiritually fulfilling. And because this is The Simpsons, Homer’s realization of this is a bittersweet one.

1. “Marge vs. the Monorail”
(Season 4, Episode 12)
Before I lavish too much well-deserved praise on “Marge vs. the Monorail,” a complaint: Lyle Lanley’s comeuppance falls completely flat to me. Lanley successfully bamboozles the gullible Springfieldians, only to have his fate sealed by the denizens of another previously swindled town in the most rushed, implausible way (they somehow see him through the window of his plane when its diverted to their town). Lanley deserved better.

Nitpicking aside, “Marge vs. the Monorail” is perfect. It has a memorable musical number, great guest appearances by Phil Hartman and Leonard Nemoy, and perhaps one of the funniest, most consistent scripts the show has ever produced. It’s also one of the great Springfield-as-character episodes, prominently featuring not only peripheral characters but the town itself. By the fourth season, The Simpsons was as much about the town of Springfield as the Simpsons themselves, and so, like Lyle Lanley, we knew what to expect when the town found itself with a few million dollars on their hands: they’d waste it.

While The Simpsons’ best days are certainly behind it, episodes like these remind us that the show is capable of rich storytelling, three-dimensional characters with unique qualities and motivations, and some of the greatest, most rewarding moments in television history. These are my favorites—what are yours?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Common_Knowledge October 5, 2012 at 12:04 pm

I fully expected to see the following 5 episodes listed in your Top 10:

“King-size Homer” (Season 7, 3F05)
“Cape Feare” (Season 5, 9F22)
“New Kid on the Block” (Season 4, 9F06)
“22 short films about Springfield” (Season 7, 3F18)
“The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson” (Season 9, 4F22).

King Size Homer, New Kid on the Block and The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson did not even make your Top 50. Why?

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