This article originally ran on February 17, 2012. We are re-running it today, as a marathon of every Simpsons episode kicks off on FXX.
After 22 years The Simpsons has been running longer than some of its viewers have been alive. We thought about doing the four zillionth “greatest episodes ever” list, but decided that with a series this long-lived, it’s more revealing to study entire seasons; this gives a better sense of what’s changed and stayed the same long-term. So that’s what we’ve done here, ranking seasons one through fourteen of The Simpsons in qualitative order, from least to greatest. We restricted ourselves to the first half of the show’s run because most viewers consider them the essential canon, and because the absence of seasons fifteen through nineteen from DVD makes it harder to argue for or against their quality — with evidence, at least.
This season kicked off with one of the best “Treehouse of Horror” anthologies, which included “Send in the Clones” (best…slap at Family Guy …ever) but sort of stumbled along from there, producing one good to great episode for every couple of so-so ones. Keepers include “Large Marge” (in which Marge accidentally gets breast implants); “The Great Louse Detective” (which features a terrific callback to season 8’s Frank Grimes); “Special Edna,” in which Ms. Krabapple is nominated for Teacher of the Year and Disney’s Epcot Center gets mercilessly skewered; “How I Spent My Strummer Vacation,” in which Homer goes to rock and roll camp and meets Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Elvis Costello and Tom Petty; and “Mr. Spritz Goes to Washington,” which sends Krusty to the kapital to battle the re-routing of Springfield Airport’s flight path over the Simpson home.
The show’s eventual descent into random weirdness isn’t quite complete, but it’s getting there. Some of the weaker episodes (notably the Forrest Gump parody “Gump Roast”) feel almost Family Guy-desperate. The better episodes include “Homer the Moe” (in which Homer takes over for his bartending buddy); “A Hunka-Hunka Burns in Love” (with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Gloria, the object of the rotting billionaire’s affection); “Half-Decent Proposal” (one of the better, later Marge episodes); “The Blunder Years,” in which Homer recovers a repressed traumatic memory; and “She of Little Faith,” in which Burns acquires the Springfield Community Church and tries to make it profitable. The latter includes “Homer’s Flossing Song,” which should be hummed whenever food particles are dislodged by waxy string.
Not as haphazard as seasons 14 and 13, but still pretty hit-and-miss, this season finds the show growing increasingly shameless, doing anything for a laugh. But substandard Simpsons is still pretty remarkable, and there are some gems here: “Homer vs. Dignity” (Homer becomes Mr. Burns’ “prank monkey”); “The Computer Wore Menace Shoes” (Homer becomes a muckraking blogger); “Skinner’s Sense of Snow,” a wonderful take on claustrophobia; “HomR”, a gloss on “Charly” with Homer becoming smart after a crayon is removed from his brain; and “Worst Episode Ever,” in which Bart and Milhouse take over the Android’s Dungeon from a heart attack-stricken Comic Book Guy and nearly run the place into the ground.
Kicking off with a disappointing (and now inadvertently creepy) Mel Gibson-driven episode, Season 11 is heavy on very broad sight gags and light on memorable character bits, though some episodes hold up very well: “Eight Misbehavin” (in which Apu’s wife gives birth to octuplets); “E-I-E-I-(Annoyed Grunt)”, in which Homer invents a nuclear-fed tomato-tobacco hybrid plant called “ToMacco” ; “Days of Wine and D’Oh’Ses” (in which Barney gets sober!); “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Marge” (with Parker Posey as Becky, the sinister boarder who drives Marge mad) and “Brother’s Little Helper,” in which America’s scalawag is driven mad after being put on a behavioral modification drug.
Wobbly overall, and surprisingly slow and quiet compared to most other seasons, this is, in retrospect, a classic example of a work in progress; voice actor Dan Castellaneta hasn’t even licked Homer’s voice yet, playing him as a Walter Matthau type. But the show displays a certain jaunty inventiveness as the season wears on, though: “Bart the General,” “The Call of the Simpsons,” “The Tell-Tale Head,” “Life in the Fast Lane” (with Albert Brooks as Jacques the flirty bowling instructor) and “Krusty Gets Busted” (introducing Kelsey Grammer as archvillain Sideshow Bob, who engineers Krusty’s downfall and airs his own “Cavalcade of Whimsy”).
By consensus, it’s right around here that The Simpsons definitely started to lose its mojo and become less consistent from week-to-week – but judging from this season’s best stuff, all shows should suffer such quality declines. High points include “Viva Ned Flanders,” “Simpsons Bible Stories,” “Mom and Pop Art,” “Wild Barts Can’t Be Broken,” “Mayored to the Mob,” “Lisa Gets an ‘A’”, “When You Dish Upon a Star” (which includes Homer’s Yogi Bear dream), “Marge Simpson in ‘Screaming Yellow Honkers’” (featuring the Canyonero), and “D’Oh-In’ in the Wind,” where Homer becomes a hippie.
Although it starts with a slightly off-putting, anything-goes, Slapstick-o-Rama episode (“The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson”) this is a brilliant season, perverse and substantial, with a deft mix of character-driven and concept-driven installments. Pick of the crop includes “The Last Temptation of Krust,” “Das Bus”, “Bart Carny”, “All Singing, All Dancing,” “Lisa the Skeptic,” “The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons,” “Trash of the Titans” (featuring the song “The Garbageman Can”), and the gun-craziness sendup “The Cartridge Family.” (Cashier: “Sorry, the law requires a five-day waiting period. We’ve got to run a background check.” Homer: “Five days? But I’m mad now!”)
The Simpsons was still in low-key mode in Season 2, practically King of the Hill compared with later seasons, but there were some classics here: The very first “Treehouse of Horror” (which introduced Kang and Kodos), “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge”, “Bart Gets Hit By a Car,” the poignant flashback-driven episode “The Way It Was”, “Principal Charming” (in which Skinner is fixed up with Selma but falls for her sister Patty), “O Brother Where Art Thou?” (guest starring Danny DeVito as Homer’s half-brother and the inventor of the baby translator), “Bart’s Dog Gets an ‘F’”, the beautifully designed “The War of the Simpsons”, and “Three Men and a Comic Book” (in which Bart descends into covetous insanity over a copy of Radioactive Man #1).
One of the sweetest of all Simpsons seasons, this is also the one in which the writers and performers started to edge away from the somewhat gentle, subdued tone of the earlier seasons and into something more energetic and pointed. Includes “Stark Raving Dad” (featuring an uncredited Michael Jackson and one of Alf Clausen’s most infectious songs, “Happy Birthday, Lisa”), “When Flanders Failed” (featuring Ned Flanders’ Leftorium), “Bart the Murderer” (one of the most visually striking early episodes), “Like Father Like Klown” (with Jackie Mason as Krusty’s rabbi dad), “Flaming Moe’s,” “I Married Marge,” “Dog of Death” (a tour de force of acting by Santa’s Little Helper) and “Bart the Lover”(the greatest of all Ms. Krabapple episodes).
Madness of the very best kind, this season boasts episodes with some of the series’ most hilarious concepts: “Lisa the Vegetarian,” “Bart Sells His Soul,” “Mother Simpson,” “King-Size Homer,” “Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming,” “Team Homer,” “Lisa the Iconoclast,” “The Day the Violence Died.” This season also saw the show branching into some almost purely concept-driven episodes that were more clever than funny (“22 Short Films About Springfield”). “Two Bad Neighbors,” in which former president George H.W. Bush moves to Springfield, is the first episode in years that’s pretty much a misfire. This might be the season in which Homer starts changing from a lovable lout into a raging narcissist and menace to the planet.
The Simpsons’ descent into surreal madness continues; weirder and more scattered than season 7, this season marks the point where the show became less a gag-laden but essentially heartwarming meta-sitcom and more of a “throw it at the wall, see if it sticks” weekly gagfest. Luckily an astonishing number of the gags are brilliant. Keeper episodes include “The Homer They Fall” (starring Mike Tyson manqué Drederick Tatum); “Burns Baby Burns” (with Rodney Dangerfield as Mr. Burns’ long-lost son); the burlesque house episode “Bart After Dark” (featuring the song “We Put the ‘Spring’ in Springfield”); “The Twisted World of Marge Simpson,” and the brilliant “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” which amounts to The Simpsons’ revenge against network suits, ungrateful fans, and TV itself.
A perfectly formed season, though less adventurous than the next few, with some of the series’ cleverest and most character-driven pop culture parodies. Keeper episodes include “Mr. Plow,” “Kamp Krusty” (with Barney imitating the titular, AWOL klown); “A Streetcar Named Marge” (a great episode for music superivor Alf Clausen); “Homer the Heretic” (featuring the Almighty); “Itchy and Scratchy the Movie” (featuring a snippet of “Steamboat Itchy”); and “Marge Gets a Job” (in which Willie beats up a wolf and makes peace with it over Scotch, telling it, “Don’t feel bad for losin’. I was wrestlin’ wolves back when you were at your mother’s teat”).
“Homer’s Barbership Quartet,” “Homer Goes to College,” “The Last Temptation of Homer,” “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy,” “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song,” “Rosebud,” “Homer and Apu”, “Marge on the Lam,” “Cape Feare” – every episode is a keeper. An extraordinary number of quotable lines come from this season, which perfectly balances warmth, showmanship and madcap creativity. Composer Alf Clausen is on fire this year: “Who Needs the Kwik-E-Mart,” the collected discography of “The Be Sharps.” And the quotes! “I for one welcome our new insect overlords.” “Have the Rolling Stones killed.” “It’s German for ‘The Bart, the.’” “If elected mayor, my first act will be to kill the whole lot of ya, and burn yer town to cinders!”
A pivotal season for the show – one that saw The Simpsons edging ever-deeper into absurdity, but rarely at the expense of character consistency or likability. “Another Simpsons Clip Show,” “Bart of Darkness,” “Lisa’s Rival”; “Treehouse of Horror V” (including “The Shinning”); the Walt-Disney-goes-to-Hell brilliance of “Itchy & Scratchy Land.” “Homer Badman,” “Lisa on Ice,” “Bart’s Girlfriend,” “Homer the Great,” the touching flashback episode “And Maggie Makes Three.” This is the season that brought us “The Stonecutters’ Song” and that extraordinary moment in “Bart’s Comet” where the camera pans across the faces of Springfield residents packed into the Flanderses’ bomb shelter while the exiled Ned sings “Que Sera Sera” from off-screen. Nearly every minute is perfection, although, for all its genius, the “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” cliffhanger finale does hint at future desperate gimmickry to come.
Photo: ?1995 FOX BROADCASTING