Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, there wasn’t a doubt in anybody’s minds across the globe that The Simpsons and its satirical plotlines and yellow-skinned characters were the very best that television had to offer. It was widely accepted to be the greatest TV show ever made. Time magazine declared the show the best TV series of the 20th century. That was the century in which television was invented – a century that gave us The Twilight Zone and The Honeymooners and Seinfeld and so many other great shows that could compete for that title. The AV Club declared The Simpsons to be “television’s crowning achievement, regardless of format.” However, in recent years, as both the community of television critics and the general public alike have noticed a steady decline in the quality of the show, its status as the best TV show of all time has been threatened. Fans and viewers fondly remember what has been termed the “golden age” of The Simpsons. Maybe it’s not so great anymore, but with a backlog of the funniest jokes, gags, storylines, and characters that have ever hit the television airwaves, let us not forget that The Simpsons is the greatest series ever made. Here are 10 fiercely brilliant “golden age” episodes to jog your memory.
10. Homer Badman
“Homer Badman” is one of the most fiercely satirical episodes of The Simpsons – and it’s even more socially relevant now in today’s climate of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements. The plot of the episode sees Homer drive the kids’ attractive young babysitter home and get mistaken for a pervert when he peels off a piece of candy that is stuck to her butt. The episode satirizes how the media responds to cases like this, and we saw exactly how they respond to these cases in the latter part of 2017 – as soon as someone is accused of sexual harassment, the media paints them as a monster without bothering to hear their side of the story. Obviously, in almost all cases, the allegations are true – but in this case, they’re not, and the media doesn’t want to hear it. Another brilliant moment of satire in the episode comes when the bear Gentle Ben is shown as the host of his own talk show. This might seem like a wonderfully absurd sight gag, but it’s also a jab at the fact that anyone with a microphone who can appear in front of a camera can host a talk show – it doesn’t take any real skill or talent.
9. Homer’s Barbershop Quartet
It might seem like there’s never been a definitive biopic made about the rise and fall of the Beatles, but the season 5 premiere episode of The Simpsons, “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet,” is more or less that. Sure, it’s about the rise and fall of the Be Sharps – a barbershop quartet consisting of Homer, Apu, Barney, and Skinner – but the writers based all of the milestones in their career on that of the Beatles, including Barney becoming a hippie and dating a Yoko-esque Japanese conceptual artist, as well as ending on the band’s final live performance on the roof of Moe’s Tavern (although for the Beatles, it was on the roof of their company’s headquarters in London). Every parody of a celebrity icon or a famous musician in the episode is bang on target, and there are so many great lines that satirize pop culture and show business, like when Homer explains to his kids how the Be Sharps became such a sensation: “Rock and roll had become stagnant. ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ was seven years away – something had to fill the void. That something was barbershop.” Also, it was a nice touch to have George Harrison, one of the original Beatles, appear in the episode as himself. He even gets the final laugh of the show, as he drives past the Be Sharps’ rooftop reunion concert and simply says, “It’s been done.”
8. Lard of the Dance
Sitcom episodes have two storylines in them. These are referred to as the A-plot and the B-plot, and it’s rare that you’ll find an episode of a TV comedy where both the A-plot and the B-plot are timeless classics, but it does happen. The Family Guy episode where the A-plot sees Peter and Lois battling Mel Gibson and the B-plot sees Brian and Stewie acting as foster parents to Chris is an example of this – and so is The Simpsons episode “Lard of the Dance.” The A-plot sees Lisa competing with the new girl, played by brilliant guest star Lisa Kudrow, for everyone’s attention, while the B-plot sees Homer and Bart following some half-baked scheme to become rich by selling stolen grease. Each of these stories on their own would make a great episode, but together, they make one of the very best. The two plotlines converge at a school dance at the end, as Homer and Bart tangle with Groundskeeper Willie and Lisa makes one last ditch effort to win her friends back. This episode came in the back end of the “golden age” of The Simpsons, in its tenth season, but it is a laugh-out-loud must-see for any fan of the show.
7. Lisa Gets an A
One of the few sure-fire formulas for a great Simpsons episode is to take something that’s a trait of a character or their relationship with another character – one that is so ingrained in the viewers’ perception of them that it couldn’t possibly change – and then change it and see what happens. For example, they once did an episode where Homer and Flanders became good friends, and that was a great episode. They did one where Principal Skinner screwed up and got fired, and that was a great episode. And, with “Lisa Gets an A,” they did an episode where Lisa starts to slack off and ends up neglecting her school work and having to cheat on a test. Lisa being Lisa, she ends up doing the right thing – but it’s a lot of fun to watch her descent before then. Meanwhile, Homer follows yet another one of his half-baked schemes, as he buys a young lobster with the intention of raising it to be big enough to make a fruitful dinner for the family, when he will “eat the profits.” This plan goes awry when he grows fond of his lobster, which he has named Pinchy. The crowning moment of the episode is when Homer first brings Pinchy home, puts him in the fish tank, and balances out the fresh water with the salt water – it’s a beautifully animated moment of pseudo animal cruelty.
6. The Boy Who Knew Too Much
Many of the best Simpsons episodes play on the idea of morality, and None address it better than this one. The plot of the episode sees Bart playing hooky from school, and as he flees from Principal Skinner, he ends up at a fancy party in honor of Mayor Quimby’s nephew. As the nephew and a waiter go into the kitchen and the waiter ends up horribly injured, everyone in town suspects the rich, privileged Quimby boy of assaulting him. Bart is the only witness who can testify that Quimby is innocent, but to do that, he’ll have to admit to everyone that he skipped school. Obviously, we know what the right thing to do is, but we’ve also been in Bart’s shoes, where you’ll do anything to avoid getting into trouble at school, so you really feel the weight of his decision. What’s great about the storytelling is that the trial goes on for so long, allowing Bart to have a long think about his options, because of a totally unrelated reason – Homer’s on the jury and he wants the court to pay for his food for as long as possible. There are also some really great gags in this one, too, like Kent Brockman trying to illegally sneak in to film the trial for television and Skinner crossing a river on his own two feet without once flinching – and of course, there’s Quimby’s nephew’s immortal pronunciation of the word “chowder.”
5. Homer Loves Flanders
The very best Simpsons episodes are the ones that have one gag that works after another, firing jokes and sight gags and quotable lines and slapstick moments at you like a comedy assault rifle. That’s exactly what “Homer Loves Flanders” does. There’s Homer receding into a bush that has become one of the most popular GIFs the internet has to offer, there’s the sermon entitled “What Ned Did,” there’s Homer climbing through the window and tasting all of the Flanders family’s meals, there’s Homer chasing after Ned’s car like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, there’s Homer’s riff on “Macho Man” entitled “Nacho Man” as he eats from his tortilla sombrero at the ball game, there’s the waffle stuck on the ceiling that Homer believes is God – so many classic gags. The episode also has some great meta moments, courtesy of Lisa, who observes that every week, some new wacky situation besets the Simpson family, and by the end of the week, it’s resolved and things are back to normal. At the end of the episode, as Homer and Flanders are still friends, Lisa gets really deep and philosophical as she muses on the idea that maybe things will change for the Simpsons and there will be new stories and new experiences. And then, lo and behold, a week later, Homer hates Flanders again.
4. Last Exit to Springfield
In the episode “Last Exit to Springfield,” we get an insight into how Homer’s mind works when the A-plot and the B-plot of the story converge. Within a short space of time, he discovers that Lisa needs to get braces from the dentist and that his co-workers at the nuclear power plant are considering a strike, since Mr. Burns is threatening to cut their dental plan. In his mind, he tries to connect the two for a very long time. “Dental plan!”…“Lisa needs braces!”…“Dental plan!”…“Lisa needs braces!”…“Dental plan!”…“Lisa needs braces!”…“Dental plan!”…“Lisa needs braces!” – it goes on for what seems like an eternity, but it just keeps getting funnier. That’s one of the most memorable and beloved moments in the whole series now. And then, as soon as Homer has realized that he will need to go on strike in order to secure the dental plan that’s needed to get Lisa her braces, we’re treated to a brilliant episode. We’re also treated to some of the show’s finest pop culture references: Batman, Citizen Kane, Yellow Submarine (or rather, for legal reasons, “purple submersible”), How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Moby Dick, The Godfather, tons of great homages. Oh, and “Dental plan!”…“Lisa needs braces!” isn’t the only classic moment to come out of this episode – there’s also the moment after Lisa plays a powerful song about workers’ rights, when Lenny says, “Now, do Classical Gas.”
3. Homer Goes to College
When Homer Simpson is found not to have the education required to be a nuclear engineer (no surprises there), he’s required to go back to college and earn his degree. The humor in this episode comes from the fact that Homer expects to come into some sort of Animal House scenario where he butts heads with the stuffy dean and ditches class to get into depraved antics with his dorm buddies. Instead, his dorm is full of nerds who want to get a good education and the dean is a reasonable and cool and lovely guy. Still, that doesn’t stop Homer from jeopardizing his friends’ education and terrorizing the poor dean. With gags like Homer chasing squirrels with a stick and spot-on pop culture references to The Untouchables and Monty Python and Star Wars and Richard Nixon, this is a hilarious episode that is not to be missed. Also, fun bit of trivia about this episode: the now classic scene in which Homer burns his high school diploma (and the house) and sings, “I am so smart! S-M-R-T…I mean, S-M-A-R-T!” was not actually written that way. Dan Castellaneta made a genuine mistake in the recording studio and the producers decided to leave it in, since it seemed like something Homer would do – and it was really funny. And now, it’s a fan favorite moment from the show.
2. Home Sweet Homediddley-Dum-Doodily
The Simpsons episode “Home Sweet Homediddley-Dum-Doodily” addressed an issue that had long gone unaddressed on the show. It’s not that Homer and Marge are bad parents, but due to the absurd situations they find themselves in, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie would probably be better off in another home. The opening of the episode sees a series of misadventures making the Simpson home look totally unsafe, and so the kids are taken into foster care and Homer and Marge are forced to attend parenting classes. Bart, Lisa, and Maggie end up in the care of Ned and Maude Flanders, who arrange for the kids to be baptized when they discover that they never were. The episode reflects on religion and the family unit – all the while providing us with some of the most hilarious jokes and gags in the show’s history, which is saying a lot. The ending sequence of the episode, as Homer and Marge rush down to Springfield River to stop the baptisms in time, is genuinely exciting viewing. You’re actually held on the edge of your seat, unsure as to how it’ll turn out. And then the ending, as Maggie comes back to her real parents and the Simpson family is reunited, is a typically sweet ending for an episode of the show.
1. Mr. Plow
Remember that iconic jingle that goes, “Call Mr. Plow / That’s my name / That name again is Mr. Plow?” This is the best episode of The Simpsons, hands down. It’s hysterically funny – it moves from gag to gag at a rapid rate and keeps you engaged in the overall story. The episode is full of conflict – the basis of all storytelling – as two best friends, Homer and Barney, go head to head with their competing snow plow businesses. Season 4 is often cited as the greatest season in the three decade history of The Simpsons and there’s a good reason for that – it’s filled with episodes that are as funny and memorable as this one. Well, this one’s the very best, so they’re not quite as funny and memorable as this one, but they are great. The pop culture references in “Mr. Plow” are on point, from the kids pelting Bart with snowballs like Sonny Corleone getting shot at the toll booth in The Godfather to Kent Brockman’s newscast about Barney’s accident mirroring Walter Cronkite’s reporting of the Kennedy assassination. The resolution in “Mr. Plow” ties things up as beautifully as any other episode – Homer and Barney become friends again and agree to work together before getting screwed over by God and Mr. Plow is forgotten about by everyone – except Marge. So, everything’s back to normal and Homer and Marge are as in love with each other as ever.