There used to be no question that The Simpsons was the greatest show on television. It had all the best jokes, the best characters, the best storytelling – it was just the best thing on the box, period. But it’s been going for almost thirty years now, so it’s only natural that the high benchmark of quality the show set for itself has started to dip. The show is sadly no longer as great as it once was and it probably never will be. But it’s not all bad. Here are 10 episodes from recent seasons of The Simpsons that are as good as the show ever was.
10. The Day the Earth Stood Cool
This episode was originally conceived when former Simpsons writer Bill Oakley moved to Oregon and had the idea for the Simpson family to visit the hipster-infested city of Portland. However, then Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s brilliant Portlandia debuted and defined the city in a satirical way and became a big hit (and hired Oakley as a writer), so the episode was scrapped. Instead, they had Portlandia come to them. Armisen and Brownstein guest star as the Simpson family’s hip new neighbors. Homer’s realization that he’s not cool is one of the highlights of the episode: “I’m not cool. I was never cool. I didn’t go to college. Every CD I have, I bought at a car wash. Black and white films make me angry. I can’t pronounce ‘artisanal.’ I only know David Cross from the Chipmunks movie. Not only do I like Van Halen, but I think they keep getting better.” Considering the whole episode is just a lampoon of an American subculture, “The Day the Earth Stood Cool” has a surprisingly focused plot, with barely any detours into throwaway gags, and it makes for a classic episode of the show – much better than any season 24 episode has any business being.
9. The Saga of Carl
There are many periphery Simpsons characters who the writers have never properly explored, but there are few characters that have remained as two dimensional and unexplored for so many years as Carl Carlson. Homer, Lenny, Moe, and Carl all go in on lottery tickets and end up winning big on the jackpot, but then Carl takes off with their winnings and disappears off to Iceland, where his family is originally from. We didn’t know that Carl had this side to him – or that he was from Iceland! So, the guys chase him there, wondering why he would do this to them. The episode even delves deep into the relationships between all those characters. When they do track down Carl, he says those guys aren’t even friends. They barely know each other. They just hang around the bar together and live out their days, but they’re not true friends. It really hits you deep down. What is friendship? It’s as heartbreaking as the message of T2 Trainspotting. You get old and realize that your whole life is essentially pointless and meaningless and insubstantial. But as with all episodes of The Simpsons, this one has a very sweet ending that restores your hope in humanity.
One of The Simpsons writers’ finest abilities has always been crafting great parodies of movies and TV shows. For their season 25 premiere episode, they decided to take on Showtime’s hit terrorism drama Homeland, with Homer in the Brody role as he returns from a nuclear power convention with a lot of unusual personality changes. This wasn’t just a parody of a popular TV show for the sake of it. It was interesting to see a Homer who has converted to Islam, because the religion’s teachings go against all his favorite things. When he stops eating pork and stops drinking alcohol and starts using a napkin, the family are all horrified. What the hell happened to Homer? And the animators and Dan Castellaneta do a great job of conveying the chilling calmness of Nicholas Brody that Damian Lewis plays so well on the show. There have been a lot of parodies of Homeland over the years, thanks to its racist portrayal of terrorists, its predictable plot turns, and its over the top soap opera drama, but The Simpsons’ “Homerland” is one of the few Homeland spoofs that actually makes a comment and brings something new, rather than just a lazy rehash. All in all, it’s a terrific season premiere.
7. You Don’t Have to Live Like a Referee
This episode, which takes its title from a parody of the lyrics of the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song “Refugee,” stands out, because it’s one of those great Homer/Lisa episodes where we get to see Homer actually trying hard as a father. He wants to make Lisa proud, after seeing an impromptu speech that she gave naming him as her hero. Little does Homer know, she only delivered that speech after Martin used her original choice, Marie Curie. The speech goes viral and Homer is hired by to be the referee of the World Cup in Brazil. After all, they’re looking to rebrand as an honest and reputable organization following revelations of corruption and bribery. Thanks to how long it takes the Simpsons crew to make episodes, they don’t usually get to tackle current issues like their peers at Saturday Night Live and South Park. But this episode managed to satirize the corruption within FIFA one whole year before it become a widespread issue covered by the media. Homer is constantly being offered bribes to lie in his refereeing, so that gangsters can profit from the games, but his desire to be a hero in his daughter’s eyes is greater than his desire for money, which is awfully sweet.
6. Brick Like Me
Much like The Walking Dead, The Simpsons has gone on for so long that it has run out of steam and started to rely on gimmicks. Still, some of those gimmicks lead us to episodes that are a lot of fun. One such example is “Brick Like Me,” which is entirely animated with Lego. It would’ve sucked if it was just another Simpsons episode animated with Lego in order to give Fox a chance to promote the 550th episode (like that’s even a milestone worthy of celebration). But no, this is a special episode in every sense of the word. Homer knows that he’s in an alternate Lego reality and he wants out of it. He has flashbacks to his own reality, and those scenes are what make this a great episode, because that’s where the emotional Homer/Lisa hook comes from. The episode’s plot is a little similar to The Lego Movie, but that’s not their fault. The episode aired like three months after that movie was released, so they were already well into the production process before the movie came out with its own very similar surprise twist. Al Jean explained, “None of us saw the movie until very late in the process – long after our story was set.” Matt Selman added, “Any similarities are completely unintentional. We didn’t even know there was a movie. Nobody at Lego told us about it until after the point of no return.” Still, after the fact, just before the episode aired, they managed to slip in a little nod to the movie.
5. The War of Art
Episodes of The Simpsons can be hilarious and brilliantly plotted and really clever, but they are rarely as driven by plot and character as “The War of Art” is. Most Simpsons episodes are just a string of absurdist non-sequiturs and sight gags and smart, satirical lines, which is usually great, but with “The War of Art” (a play on the title of Sun Tzu’s seminal book The Art of War), it’s interesting to see what happens when the writers actually explore their characters and their relationships deeper than usual and tell a story that could actually happen in real life. Homer and Marge see their friendship with the Van Houtens tested after they buy a painting from them at a yard sale that turns out to be super valuable. The episode explores the topic of art in a really in-depth way as it goes into the value of artworks, the problem of art forgery, what constitutes art, what constitutes property – it’s all very, very interesting. “The War of Art” even begs the question of whether or not there is some real value and beauty in the forgery of artworks. Suffice it to say, this episode is much deeper than your average Simpsons episode.
4. Steal This Episode
The Simpsons episode “Steal This Episode” is a brilliant satire of movie piracy. Homer realizes how much easier and cheaper it is to just stream movies online illegally and decides to share it with the town. And to be fair, he’s right about movie theaters. They’re rammed with commercials and they’re getting more and more expensive and people talk during the movie and it’s just a horrible experience. Meanwhile, the FBI are on his case as the writers satirize the fact that the authorities seem to care a lot more about people pirating movies than they do about sex trafficking or serial killers. It’s the same joke that South Park made a few years earlier about the music industry and illegal MP3 downloads and how little of an impact they have on the fortunes of the rich and famous. But it’s still funny, and The Simpsons gets bonus points for having the likes of Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow and Channing Tatum and Leslie Mann not only appear on the show to play themselves, but also make fun of their movies. When all is said and done, “Steal This Episode” is the ideal Simpsons episode. It’s timely and satirical and funny and clever
3. How I Wet Your Mother
A lot of the lazier recent Simpsons episodes have just taken the premise of a popular and current movie and rehashed it with their characters in the roles. But their take on Inception goes the extra mile by using it to explore the subconscious and hidden childhood memories of Homer. A traumatic and forgotten moment from Homer’s past is causing him to wet the bed, so Professor Frink sends the family into his dreams to find out what that moment is. Of course, this opens the episode up to some really inventive animation and some terrific sight gags, but it’s the more emotional side that makes this a modern classic episode. As it turns out, Homer was traumatized by the thought that it was his fault that his mother Mona left when he was a kid. But in reality, Mona felt comfort in leaving with the knowledge that her son would be in safe hands being raised by Abe. It’s a touching moment. Anything involving Homer and Mona is going to be sweet and heartfelt, and it seemed as though we’d seen the last of her when she died, but she came back in his dreams and it was beautiful.
2. Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind
In “Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind,” Homer wakes up with no memory of the night before and finds that Marge and the kids have all left the house. He discovers from Moe that he asked for a special shot that he mixes that will erase memories of the previous day, so then it becomes a quest to find out why he wanted to forget the day before. As fragments of his memories start to come back, it looks like Marge is gone for good. We later learn that he wanted to forget a surprise party in his honor, the planning of which he had accidentally walked in on. But along the way, we get a deep character study of Homer Simpson. One particularly affecting scene is the parody of “Noah Takes a Photo of Himself Every Day for 6 Years,” which highlights how sad Homer’s childhood was and what a great life he’s had with Marge. Everything you need to know about Homer is in that montage – it’s not just a shallow, insubstantial gag, like Family Guy’s parody of the same video. “Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind” deservingly won an Emmy Award, is cited by many critics as being the best episode of season 19, and was selected by showrunner Al Jean as one of the five essential episodes out of the show’s run of over 600 episodes.
1. A Totally Fun Thing That Bart Will Never Do Again
In the episode “A Totally Fun Thing That Bart Will Never Do Again,” the Simpsons go on a cruise, which already opens them up to some wacky antics. It starts out with Bart realizing he’s stuck in a rut in his life. Every day is the same and he’s grown disillusioned with it, so he begs Homer and Marge to take the family on a cruise to pump some excitement back into his life. But while they’re on the cruise, Bart realizes it won’t last forever and they’ll eventually have to go home and he’ll have to go back to his mundane life, so he fakes an apocalypse to keep them stranded at sea on the cruise ship. The story ends with a great lesson, too. Nothing fun ever lasts forever, so you just have to enjoy it in the moment. The family tell Bart this after they’ve been banished from the ship and they’re stuck in Antarctica with the penguins. They make the most of it by joining the penguins on the ice slides and the narrative has come full circle with a new equilibrium. The final moments really get you in the feels. We see elderly Bart in a retirement home, looking at a series of framed pictures that start with the ice slides in Antarctica and end with pictures of Bart having fun with his own son, reflecting on what a great ride he’s had. It’s a great episode.