15 hidden gems from the last 15 years of The Simpsons
Mark counts down 15 great episodes of The Simpsons from its often-overlooked past 15 years...
Last week, we counted down our list of the top 50 episodes of The Simpsons ever made. It's a tough list to make, picking out less than 10 percent of the 552 episodes broadcast to date, to select the very best of the best. This is despite the off-hand consensus of some viewers that the series has been total rubbish since season 10.
We don't hold much truck with this assumption. The Simpsons is an institution and to suggest that more than half of it is garbage is more than a bit reductive. Admittedly, there's much to support the argument that few episodes produced in the twenty-first century can quite stand up to the genius of the earlier canon, but anything would suffer in comparison to that golden age of the show.
If you're one of the people who stopped watching the series after the nineties, then perhaps this selection of 15 episodes will convince you that there are still more than a few diamonds in the rough to be uncovered after that point.
There are a couple of qualifiers here. Given how we're trying to shed light on some of the underrated episodes of latter-day Simpsons, we haven't included episodes that still spawned memes or have entered the pop culture surrounding the show since airing. So we're not including New Kids On The Blechh with its subliminal “Yvan Eht Nioj” message, or I Am (Furious) Yellow with its Stan Lee cameo, or last season's Lego episode Brick Like Me. We've also left out The Simpsons Movie, which is funnier than a lot of the stuff in the seasons preceding it and seemed to provide a shot in the arm to seasons which have come along since.
These are episodes you might not have seen if you tuned out after season 10, which you should keep an eye out for on your EPG during the endless repeats shown on Sky One and Channel 4. Moreover, if you're in the States, you've got the “Every Simpsons Ever” marathon going on FXX, so it'll be all the easier for you to track these down in the coming weeks.
If you disagree with our choices or think that we've missed one out, then please do share your thoughts in the comments. We've celebrated the pinnacle of this series, but it'd be nice if we could have some appreciation for the best of the rest.
15. The Ned-liest Catch (S22)
AKA, the one where Ned Flanders and Edna Krabappel start dating.
“I guess this is gonna have to be decided... by a higher power.”
This is an odd one to include, which is partly why it's so low on the list. But frankly, if you're only going to watch 15 of these, then it's worth paying attention to one of the bigger, sweeter plot developments in the series' recent history.
Ned and Edna haven't had many interactions over the years, which gives the writers the opportunity for a nice meet-cute. Ned soon finds out about Edna's romantic history, (including a callback to Joey Kramer's guest appearance in Flamin' Moe's) and has second thoughts about the relationship. And that's where things get weird.
The episode ends with Homer and Marge directing viewers to TheSimpsons.com to vote on whether or not the couple should stay together in the next season. Everyone collectively shuddered a few years ago when TV executives were saying that the future of television was in viewers' hands. Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps pulled this shit too.
However, up until that point, there's a lot to recommend this one, not least in seeing how Homer can't handle Ned giving him the silent treatment. As much as he hates “stupid Flanders”, he does need him on side.
Ending on such a BBC Three move brings it down a notch or two, but if you're interested in the more recent seasons, check out season 23's Ned 'n' Edna's Blend for the outcome. Neither of these episodes is perfect, but between the two of them, it's the start of something sweet, even if it's something that was sadly cut short by the tragic passing of Marcia Wallace last year.
14. Sweet And Sour Marge (S13)
AKA, the one where Springfield bans sugar
“Oh, what gave me away? Out of curiosity, was it the "hoyven," or the "maven," or was it the whole guh-HOYVEE... thing... that I do?”
In his ambition to achieve a world record, Homer winds up outing Springfield as the world’s fattest town. Marge is disgusted by the obesity in the town and when she gets to the bottom of a conspiracy orchestrated by the Motherloving Sugar Company, she successfully files a class action lawsuit against “big sugar” and inadvertently gets sweet products banned in Springfield for good.
The sight gag rate is pretty high in this one, from the “people ball” that rolls through the town, (which is one of the most impressively animated sequences in the series’ history) to the control panel on Homer’s boat full of sugar at the end, with a handy choice between “Drop Cargo” or “Obey Bad Guy”.
The bad guy in question is evil CEO Garth Motherloving, a memorable one-off character voiced by Ben Stiller. He’s a dick who revels in being untouchable on account of his wealth, leading to one of the show’s better court scenes since Lionel Hutz was retired, with Motherloving openly threatening to kill a witness, the judge and his own lawyer as his evil deeds are shown up.
But our favourite gag from this one comes when a mysterious anonymous caller blows the whistle on the sugar company’s “Operation Hoyven Maven!” You can't beat a good bit of Professor Frink.
13. You Don't Have To Live Like A Referee (S25)
AKA, the one where Homer referees the World Cup
“If I die, I'll be doing the thing I love the most: trying not to get killed.”
Lisa substitutes her dad for Marie Curie in a presentation about the person she admires the most, which moves the townspeople to appreciate Homer a little more. When another wacky job opportunity arises, (World Cup referee) Homer vows to live up to Lisa’s expectations of him, in the face of corruption and intimidation from the mafia.
Yes, it’s a hell of a leap to get from “Homer thinks Lisa admires him” to “Homer becomes a world-famous referee”, but such leaps are not uncommon for a series that has run for over 500 episodes. The real core of this episode harkens back to the very best family dynamics of the early episodes.
The dynamic between Homer and Lisa crops up a few times on this list, but there’s an affecting story to be had because we seldom see him so motivated as he is here, when he believes she looks up to him. Some great laughs arise from the more typically high concept story, but it’s their relationship which makes this stand out.
One of the best gags in this episode comes during the World Cup final. An incorruptible Homer refuses to give a penalty when El Divo, a Brazilian player famous for diving, is injured. The gag is taken to the utterly illogical extreme and comes back at the end of the episode for a killer punchline.
12. I, (Annoyed Grunt)-bot (S15)
AKA, the one that's Real Steel before Real Steel
“Bart, if this robot doesn't prove that I love you, then you can both go to hell."
Richard Matheson's short story Steel was adapted for the big screen in the 2011 Hugh Jackman movie Real Steel, but The Simpsons beat them to the (robot) punch with this episode.
In an effort to impress Bart, Homer decides that they should enter a Robot Wars-style contest as a father-son team. Lacking any actual prowess in building robots, he risks his own safety by climbing inside a metal shell and taking on robots himself under the name Chief Knock-a-Homer. Elsewhere, Lisa mourns the death of Snowball II, only for every replacement cat to die in increasingly morbid fashion as well.
As mentioned, you can't beat Professor Frink, which is exactly what Homer discovers when he tries to take on Smashius Clay, Frink's very own version of ED-209 from Robocop in the championships. The pop culture references come thick and fast in this one, but it's another episode in which the depths of idiocy to which Homer will sink to be a good father provide more sweet and funny moments.
11. The Dad Who Knew Too Little (S14)
AKA, the one where Homer hires a private eye
“From the moment you walked into my office, I had a feeling I'd kill you in a Hall of Mirrors.”
A lousy birthday gift once again shows up how little Homer really knows about Lisa, leading Moe to suggest that he hires a private detective, Dexter Colt, to investigate her interests and hobbies. It works perfectly, but when Homer welches on the bill, Colt pledges revenge, framing Lisa for a crime at an animal research lab.
Like a few of these hidden gems, we’ve seen variations on this theme before, most notably in season 3’s Lisa the Greek, but this one has the benefit of a great one-off character in the Robert Mitchum-esque private eye character, voiced by Hank Azaria.
Special mention goes to Ralph Wiggum, who has a few good moments in this one, including a fruitless interrogation by Colt, (“Somebody’s worked this kid over already”) and aiding the police in their pursuit of Lisa. (“Hi, can Lisa come out with her hands up?”)
10. The Debarted (S19)
AKA, the one where the rat symbolises obviousness
“Unlike love, respect can't be bought.”
The last time The Simpsons really took on Martin Scorsese was in the all-time classic Cape Feare, a masterpiece of spoofiness that cast Sideshow Bob in the role Robert DeNiro overplayed so memorably in the 1991 Cape Fear remake.
As the title suggests, it's The Departed that's up for lampooning here, as Skinner embeds a mole in Bart's circle of friends in order to combat his reign of terror at Springfield Elementary. Could it be faithful Milhouse, new best friend Nelson, or a seemingly rebellious new kid called Donny. Spoiler alert- it's Donny.
Episodes in which Skinner and Chalmers get sneaky at the school are usually good value and this one's no exception, with some well judged pot-shots at the paranoia of Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning mob epic thrown in for good measure.
Elsewhere, Marge totals Homer's car while driving the kids to school, leading Homer to discover the wonder of loaner cars, driving a much swankier Cadillac around instead of his beat up pink sedan. There's an almost touching moment when he realises he misses his old car at the end of the episode and it's a pretty good Homer-centric B-plot.
But after a stunt involving huge amounts of Diet Coke and Mentos, the final word in the mob spoof goes to Ralph Wiggum, perfectly skewering the obvious motifs in Scorsese's remake. Let's see if they go after The Wolf Of Wall Street next.
9. The Boys Of Bummer (S18)
AKA, the one where an entire town turns on a 10-year-old boy
“Are you Bart Simpson? The kid who dropped that easy fly ball? You stink like a Dutchman's throw-up! Talking to you was the biggest error of my life!”
This is about as dark as The Simpsons has gotten since the early days, since the episode where Homer loses his job and plans to throw himself off a bridge. Similarly, the people of Springfield drive Bart to tag the whole town with “I Hate Bart Simpson” and then almost throw himself off a water tower out of self loathing.
Before that, Bart is the hero of the Springfield Isotots baseball team, catching a fly ball that gets the team into the championships. When he misses a much easier catch in the final, the town's hopes are that much higher, leading them to pour scorn on Bart in a sustained campaign of mockery.
Part of what makes this one so darkly funny is how harsh the Springfielders are towards Bart. From the start, he's run out of the stadium and seemingly rescued by Chief Wiggum in his squad car. Wiggum then drives back into the stadium and lowers the roof so that the angry fans can pelt Bart with beer on a pathetic lap of the diamond.
Once everyone is made to feel appropriately terrible about making a pariah of a 10-year-old, they agree to take part in a do-over game to raise Bart's self-esteem. He misses the same easy catch, prompting another do-over, and another, and another. It goes on for 87 turns, with the town coming up with increasingly tenuous reasons why the latest failure didn't count and making for one of the more memorable comic setpieces in the series' recent history.
8. Penny-wiseguys (S24)
AKA, the one with Dan the mob accountant
“This is America. Anyone can eat what they want as long as they eat too much.”
The series has such a large number of rich characters, many of whom have taken centre stage at various points in the last 25 years, so it's difficult to think of any new characters who have really come to prominence in more recent years. That said, we wouldn't mind a return for Steve Carell's Dan Gillick.
Introduced as a new member of the Pin Pals from S7's Team Homer, the episode mainly takes place from his point of view as we discover he's an accountant for the Springfield mob. When Fat Tony is called up for jury duty, Dan's left in charge of making budget cuts. In his line of legitimate business, that inevitably means whacking a couple of the employees.
Carell is a talented voice actor, as evidenced by his role in the Despicable Me movies and it's no mean feat to make a guest character feel so immediately at home in this series as he does with Dan. Whether wringing his hands over being too wimpy to keep order, or eventually giving into his repressed rage and planning violent cutbacks, he fits right in. It would be a shame if we never saw him return to his criminal ways in future episodes.
The B-plot's a good one too- Lisa discovers her vegetarianism has led to her having an iron deficiency, leading to a brief dalliance with chomping on insects. She soon becomes too guilty to continue, but her swarm of grasshoppers inevitably cross over into the main plot towards the end.
10. The Heartbroke Kid (S16)
AKA, the one where Bart has a heart attack
“Bart, please take this seriously. When people used to ask me how you were doing, I'd say, at least he's got his health. Now you've got nothing!”
Here's one that starts out comedic and turns a little darker. When Principal Skinner signs away the school's catering to a vending machine chain called Scammer and Z-Dog, the kids quickly become addicted to the processed crap, which counts partially de-weaponised plutonium and monosodium poisonate amongst its ingredients.
Bart fares worse than most of his classmates, gaining a huge amount of weight. Within three weeks, he can't even make the journey home from school that we see in the opening credits every week without causing accidents, culminating in a heart attack.
This spurs the family into sending him to a fat camp, ran by Tab Spangler. Albert Brooks' camp counsellor would be reason enough to seek out this episode, as The Greatest Simpsons Guest Actor ever is let off the leash for more Hank Scorpio-esque tangents. “Every sign is wrong!”
There's also a sub-plot in which the Simpsons are forced to take in German students in order to pay for Bart's treatment, once again demonstrating how no other show gets away with poking fun at stereotypes than this one.
6. The Bart Wants What It Wants (S13)
AKA, the one where Bart dates Rainier Wolfcastle's daughter
“Remember when I told you I would eat you last? I lied.”
Isn't it a bit messed up that Rainier Wolfcastle wasn't the president in The Simpsons Movie? The series has its own purpose-built Schwarzenegger, perfectly voiced by Harry Shearer. Anyway, he at least takes a little more prominence in this episode, when his daughter Greta falls for Bart.
It's one of a number of other “Bart's love interest” episodes, but it's the McBain star who really makes this one stand out, stealing scenes away from the brewing rivalry between Bart and Milhouse with Arnie-esque one-liners and scenes from his upcoming movie, Undercover Nerd.
As for Bart himself, Lisa notes that he only reciprocates Greta's affection when she might get together with Milhouse instead. Before that, he's distracted easily enough by Skinner's utterly pathetic stand-up comedy routine. He's even introduced to the stage by Krusty saying “I know that guy, he's not funny” and only goes downhill from there. “Seymooour. Seymooour.”
5. The Book Job (S23)
AKA, the one where young adult fiction takes a kicking
“I got the idea from every movie ever made.”
Lisa is confronted with the truth that her favourite YA author T.R. Francis’ tragic backstory is a marketing ploy: “Everybody knows you got the idea for the series after the explosion of a crumpet factory knocked you off a double decker bus. How could that be made up?”
And so, a dream team of Lisa, Bart, Homer, Patty, Moe, Skinner, Frink and… Neil Gaiman (just go with it) club together to create the next big fantasy novel for children, but have their idea railroaded by the publishing company. Together, they plan a heist to replace the rewritten version of their masterpiece with the original before publication.
If this had only been a pointed satire of YA fiction and cynical marketing practices in publishing, it would have been a nice change of pace. But it’s also a heist spoof with tonnes of killer jokes and a hitherto unforeseen combination of characters interacting with one another and working together, which marks it as a highlight of The Simpsons in the 2010s so far.
Elsewhere, Gaiman’s guest role stands out as the best recent example of a celebrity playing themselves on the show by far, especially with the notion that he’s actually an illiterate master burglar, whose writing career is based on “heisting his way onto the bestseller list”.
4. 24 Minutes (S18)
AKA, the one that's a bit like 24
“The following takes place between 2:34 p.m. and 3:04 p.m. Or maybe it's a.m. Whichever one is the morning one. It's not that one.”
Springfield Elementary's CTU (Counter Truancy Unit) drives the 400th episode, when Lisa learns that the bullies are planning to sabotage a bake sale with a stink bomb made from an out-of-date yoghurt.
She recruits Bart to help prevent the attack while Marge struggles to bake a raisin sponge cake in time for the sale and Homer winds up trapped in a runaway dumpster with Milhouse as the following half an hour unfolds in (near enough) real-time.
The series has seldom been so overt in its parodies as it is here, but it's not like 24 left the writers wanting for material. Split-screen, double crosses and Jack Bauer himself are all fair game in what turns out to be a spot-on spoof of Fox's big show at the time.
There may be better ideas for episodes on this list, but the hit rate for gags here is almost as high as any episode from the series' heyday, from the implausibly high-tech practices of Skinner's CTU to Bart prank-calling Jack claiming to be “Ahmed Adoudi.” Even if you've never seen 24, the gags stand on their own.
3. Eternal Moonshine Of The Simpson Mind (S19)
AKA, the one that could have been a series finale
“The mother of my children with the reason for my children!”
Probably the most critically lauded episodes of the last few years, this one is set apart from every other one on the list in that it's more densely plotted than it is funny. Like The Boys Of Bummer, there are good gags and quotable lines all the way through, but the main goal is to confront Homer with his worst fear- that his family might finally leave him for good.
Moe fixes Homer up with a Forget-Me-Shot in order to help him wipe the previous day's memories from his brain, but he wakes up alone and disoriented. For the rest of the day, he tries to piece together his lost memories and figure out what it was that appears to have ruined his life.
The result is an often moving tour of Springfield and Homer's life that plucks the heartstrings a lot more than it pokes at the funny bone. If I, (Annoyed Grunt)-bot pre-empted Real Steel, then this pre-empts The Hangover, but supplanting the gross-out jokes with a more human story than we're used to seeing around Homer.
The absence of Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie for so much of the episode only shores up Homer's isolation and makes the gradual reveal of what really happened (we won't spoil it if you haven't seen it) more of a relief.
Still, there are plenty of laughs, especially in the limits of Homer's imagination as he travels through his memories- Bart beats him up at ages 10 and 20 and he can't conceive of a world where he wouldn't have to wait for 35 minutes for pizza. We also get a lot of great moments from the various residents of Springfield, from Groundskeeper Willie to Duffman.
If anything, it feels like a dry run for a series finale, right down to “The End?” at the close of the episode. After 25 seasons, we're surely closer to the end of the series than the beginning and when Matt Groening and co finally call time, we'd be happy to see it go out as sweetly and artfully as this.
2. The Father, The Son And The Holy Guest Star (S16)
AKA, the one with Liam Neeson
“I was laying in the gutter, pickin' up me teeth when St. Peter himself appears before me. “Sean, you wanker,” he says. “Repent of your wicked ways or sod off.” Then he gobbed in my face and turned back into a streetlight.”
When Bart gets expelled, he winds up being sent to a Catholic school for financial reasons, but he's quickly won over by the religious side of his studies when hip Irish priest Father Sean takes an interest in saving his soul. Homer's also converted by the promise of bingo and pancakes, leading Marge, Flanders and Reverend Lovejoy to try and win him back to the one true faith of the Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism.
This one's chock-full of memorable lines, from Homer's assessment of US foreign affairs (“Anything's possible with with Commander Koo-Koo-Bananas in charge!”) to Marge's worries over her family converting to Catholicism, (“All that standing and sitting and kneeling. It's like Simon Says without a winner”) but that's not why it's so high on the list.
With its critique of denominations in organised Christianity, it feels like a much younger show, recapturing some of the edge of earlier episodes. The ending is a perfect example, with Bart telling the feuding Christians, “It's all Christianity, people! The little stupid differences are nothing next to the big stupid similarities!”
Flash forward one millennium later, where Bart's words are the basis of a huge denominational holy war. Mostly though, it's just a really funny episode, with a title-worthy guest turn from Liam Neeson as Father Sean.
1. The President Wore Pearls (S15)
AKA, the one where Lisa becomes Student President
"Based on the advice of our lawyers, we swear we have never heard of a musical based on the life of Eva Perón.”
Martin Prince takes the fall for a disastrous casino night at the school, prompting a student council election which Nelson is highly tipped to win, despite Lisa's ideological stance. At the debate, however, she sings a song about fighting for student rights and wins her classmates' hearts.
Realising that she'll be tougher to control, the teachers set Lisa up to take the blame for their plans to cut all of the fun subjects- music, gym and art- from the curriculum in order to save money. When Lisa finds out, she quits her role and joins the students in a strike. Musical rules still apply, so she also wins over the police and various other unionised grown-ups.
It's a big, ridiculous flight of fancy that's perfectly punctured before the credits roll, when Homer tells Lisa that she won't be transferred to her dream school for the gifted and talented, as Skinner intends, because he can't be bothered driving her. It's an episode that makes a musical mountain out of a molehill, escalating the stakes of a petty budget dispute to a rhapsodic and hilarious scale.
Aside from any of these reasons, you've gotta love a musical. This technically borrows all of its songs from another musical, even Nelson's electoral anthem, (“I aaam Iron Man, do-do-do-do-do-do-do, vote for me!”) but it's an impeccably written episode and perhaps the best The Simpsons has been in the last 15 years.
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