Friday, October 18, 2013

The Simpsons Challenge, part five

This is the final installment of a five-part series listing my favorite 25 "Simpsons" episodes in chronological order.  Click here to start at the beginning of the list.

"Lisa the Iconoclast"
Category: Social commentary
Back when Jebediah Springfield was little more than a statue for Bart to saw the head off of, who would have guessed the amount of world-building "The Simpsons" would get out of him? Part of why I love this episode is that it taps into my own teenaged indignation at realizing the history taught in school was essentially a lie. But I also love that the show takes a challenging thematic turn and sides with the "print the legend" philosophy, with Lisa coming around to the fact that there's value in the fictions we tell ourselves.

"Summer of 4 Ft 2"
Category: Kids being kids
I'm a sucker for a good summertime story, and this episode has it in spades. Lisa's attempt to become a different person may be similar to her "Bart of Darkness" storyline; but whereas she sought popularity there, she's looking for nothing more than simply to have a friend here. Bart's strategy to turn Lisa's new friends against her is so devastating because it's so real, and we can immediately see how effective it will be. This episode also contains some of the best Milhouse-getting-shit-on the show has ever done.

"The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show"
Category: Social commentary
Like any good comedian, "The Simpsons" is never more coldly critical of any target than it is of itself. The writers take the opportunity to vent about bad network notes, the inherent flaws in market testing (particularly when the test subjects are children), industry greed, and their own laziness. The whole concept of "Roy" mirroring for "The Simpsons" what was happening in "Itchy & Scratchy" was brilliant. Wish they could have gotten June Foray to be in this episode, rather than substituting the character "June Bellamy." Interestingly, this episode debuted Comic Book Guy's catchphrase "Worst. Episode. Ever." The writers took that critique from an early online message board. The criticism was lobbed against the episode "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie," which was an episode I liked so much that it made my list here.

"Homer's Enemy"
Ah, the controversial Frank "Grimy" Grimes episode. I love it. I love the fact that this mainstream, primetime show was willing to go so completely dark. I think the people who hate this episode think it was being too cynical about humanity. It's really not. There's a genuine lesson here: Grimes doesn't die because the universe was against him; he's done in by his own deep-seated rage. If Homer hadn't brought it out of him, someone else would have.

"Wild Barts Can't Be Broken"
Category: Kids being kids
How I love this episode! Instantly takes me back to that childhood mindset of thinking every adult is against you, and it's unfair that they have all the power. That the kids sneak out for a horror movie at a drive-in is such pristine americana, as is the stage-musical finale.


Well, that does it for my top 25 favorite "Simpsons" episodes of all time.  It still hurts my soul a little bit, the episodes I had to toss aside.  It ain't right, I tell ya.

Some stats from my list:
  • The earliest episode on my list, "Lisa's Substitute," is from the end of April 1991, meaning that season two barely made the cut
  • This list spans seasons two through ten, but has no episodes from season nine... awkward!
  • The most-represented season on this list is season six, with seven episodes earning a spot on my top 25
  • Coincidentally, the first episode I ever disliked was also from season six: "Sideshow Bob Roberts" aired on October 9, 1994, directed by Mark Kirkland and credited to the writing team of Bill Oakley & Josh Weinstein (who are credited with one of my top 25 episodes, "$pringfield," and were show runners on two damn fine seasons: seven and eight)
  • Far and away, the most-represented writer on this list is John Swartzwelder, which will come as no surprise to hardcore "Simpsons" fans; with seven episode credits on this list, he wrote 28% of my favorite episodes
  • The director category was more competitive; Jim Reardon is the most-represented director on the list with five episodes, just topping Wes Archer's four
So what are your favorite "Simpsons" episodes?  Post your answers in the comments!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Simpsons Challenge, part four

Read the previous five by clicking here. Episodes are listed in chronological order.

"And Maggie Makes Three"
Category: Heart
I always loved episodes with well-earned poignant moments. This episode mines a surprising amount of material out of Homer's "dream job" of working at a bowling alley. When Homer is forced to return to the power plant, the show lets you feel the defeat without overplaying it. But they really bring it home with that beautiful transformation of Burns' de-motivational plaque.

"Bart's Comet"
Category: Kids being kids, Heart
I had a paper route when this episode originally aired, and the sequence involving Bart joining Skinner in the wee hours for an amateur astronomy session felt authentic to the predawn, humanity-devoid early morning experience. I think I generally enjoy stories where a large group of people are thrown into unusual circumstances. The town coming together at the end for a round of "Que Sera" -- though meant to be humorous -- just plain works as an emotional moment. The episode smartly dodges the deus ex machina of the town's salvation by setting it up early in the episode with Homer's prediction.

"'Round Springfield"
Category: Heart
How I learned to do the perfect Bad Cosby Impression. Bleeding Gums Murphy's death has genuine emotion behind it (even if all you really need to do is go down to the pound and get a new jazzman), and it was a smart decision to let him go halfway through the episode -- rather than build up to it at the end -- and turn the third act into Lisa's quest to pay tribute to him.

"Lemon of Troy"
Category: Kids being kids
Possibly the best "kids being kids" episode of them all. Fun shenanigans as Bart expresses his recently-discovered town pride. Springfield is, need it be said, a part of us all. A part of us all. A part of us all!

"Mother Simpson"
Category: Heart
"The Simpsons" answers a question we didn't really know we had -- what about Homer's mom? -- and does so exquisitely! The reunion fills us in on what kind of person she is, where she's been all this time, where Lisa fits into the family, and mines startlingly raw abandonment issues in Homer. As the joyful reunion turns bittersweet, the episode ends on a quietly poignant moment. It still amazes me that such a fast-paced and joke-filled series is willing to go out on a moment of quiet solitude like that.

Click here to read the final five!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Simpsons Challenge, part three

My list of the 25 best "Simpsons" episodes of all-time (in chronological order) continues. Click here for the previous five.

"Bart Gets Famous"
Category: Social commentary
More incisive observation of our obsession with pop culture. "The Simpsons" earned credibility by repeatedly aiming its pointed satire at itself. And, of course, I love this episode now more than ever because repetitiveness has become my job. My job. It's my job to be repetitive.

"Bart Gets an Elephant"
Sadly, many shows can't even write their lead characters with as much nuance and depth as "The Simpsons" gave Stampy. His final scene is a bittersweet goodbye wherein we're simultaneously happy for him, regretful for losing him, laughing with him, and shaking our heads at what an awful jerk he is.

"Bart of Darkness"
Category: Kids being kids
The film geek in me loves the full-on reenactment of Rear Window. But what really brings this episode home is the role reversal of Bart and Lisa, and what they each learn from their new perspectives.

"Lisa's Rival"
Category: Kids being kids
Lisa has met her match several times throughout the series, but none have hit as close to home as Allison Taylor. As far as interests and personality go, she's virtually the same person as Lisa Simpson... except one click better at each of Lisa's defining traits. That the lesson learned at the end of the episode is "sometimes people are just better than you" is remarkably challenging for a prime time sitcom. And as stupid as it is, I really enjoy the subplot with Homer's sugar, especially when it leads to his monologue about never being one of the bluebloods. Also, Ralph bends his Wookiee.

"Itchy & Scratchy Land"
Category: Social commentary
This episode exemplifies what made peak-era "Simpsons" so worthy of the infatuation and devotion of its many hardcore fans. It's working on so many levels and squeezing in so many cultural references simultaneously, while still managing to be true to its characters, tell an original story, and have something original to say no matter how slight that may be. And in this episode, it's pretty slight. The primary objective of this episode is to satirize amusement parks in general, and the culture that both creates them and supports them. Most obviously, we have a parody of then-recent Jurassic Park. Aspects of Westworld (also a Michael Crichton story) are blended into that. There are direct references to Disney rides and attractions, as well as Walt Disney himself. There are also throwaway references to The Birds, Terminator, Saturday Night Fever and more. But at the end of the day, the episode is an original take on crass consumerism, entitlement, and the foolish presumption of safety we put in these amusement parks. Even when not saying anything particularly deep about the human condition, this show could pack in so much rumination about modern society, as well as countless jokes.

Read the next five...

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Simpsons Challenge, part two

After much struggle, I came up with a list of my 25 favorite "Simpsons" episodes of all time. Read about the previous five.

"Homer's Triple Bypass"
Category: Heart
A strong emotional core that doesn't sacrifice humor. Gained personal relevance to me when, a mere two years after it originally aired, my own dad would have a triple bypass. One of the best punchlines in the history of television is Lisa's description of what it feels like for the "MTV generation" to feel neither highs nor lows.

"I Love Lisa"
Category: Heart
Another signature episode of the series. So iconic that the whole shebang is brought to most people's minds by intoning five simple syllables: "I choo-choo-choose you." This episode is the only reason I know that William Henry Harrison died 30 days after becoming president... and that he was a president at all.

"Last Exit to Springfield"
So many memorable set pieces in one episode. "Dental plan/Lisa needs braces." Lisa in the sky, without diamonds. Burns' Grinch-like awakening. And, of course, the sitcom-skewering ending that goes out on all the characters sharing a laugh... due to some medical assistance.

Category: Heart
Here's how brilliant "The Simpsons" is (was): This episode first aired when I was 13 years old. I hadn't seen Citizen Kane, hadn't heard much of The Ramones, and had a sub-basic knowledge of Charles Lindbergh (some kind of dancer?)... and none of that mattered! It's still a great, hilarious, original story perfectly understandable to that 13-year-old kid. This gets to the heart of why "The Simpsons" in its prime was far superior to the countless imitators springing up in its wake. Too many shows and movies learned only part of the lesson that "The Simpsons" was teaching: that it can be hilarious to reference and make fun of other cultural things. The important part of the lesson should have been: do it because it integrates naturally with your characters and your story. 13-year-old me didn't know from Charles Foster Kane. All I knew was Mr. Burns had this stuffed animal he loved (something we can all relate to), and now he had a chance to get it back. Suggesting a familial relationship to George Burns, for example, would be shoehorned in forcibly on other shows. Here, it's a throwaway gag that works naturally with the timeline.  Brilliant.

Probably the best treatment the series has ever given to Marge. But what really clinches this episode for me is Burns' descent into Howard Hughes-ian madness.

Read the next five...

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Simpsons Challenge, part one

"do you dare take the simpsons top 25 challenge?" came the text from my friend, completely out of nowhere, related to nothing else that was going on.

I asked her to elaborate.  "list your top 25 fave episodes of all time."

This is quite possibly the most difficult task I've ever been asked to undertake.  Even after hatcheting off everything post season 11, you've still got over 200 golden-era episodes to winnow down to your top 25.  Going through the list with a hyper-critical eye, my "shortlist" still ended up 66 episodes long!

But, as I had hoped, this was a great exercise in rejuvenating my love of "The Simpsons."  Going through the long list of episodes, remembering the stories and jokes from each, resulted in so many "oh yeah! that was so great!!" moments.

By the end of the list-making process, a pattern had emerged.  The episodes that made the cut had a little bit extra to make them special.  The three categories they most commonly fell into were: Heart, Kids Being Kids, and Social Commentary.

My top 25 list begins below.  It goes without saying that every episode listed here is extremely funny, so I'm not going to bother mentioning it in my write-ups.  Episodes are listed in chronological order

But first, if you'll allow me a moment to cheat, here are some honorable mentions:

"Lisa's Substitute"
Category: Heart
A situation everyone can relate to: being a child and having a crush on an adult.  How wonderful for Lisa that her adult crush not only avoided embarrassing her, but was able to build her up in the process.

"Like Father, Like Clown"
Category: Heart
Long before I would have known what The Jazz Singer was, this episode used the outlines of that story to delve deeper into the personal life of Krusty.  Great world-building.

"Flaming Moe's"
A signature episode; the type you used to show to people to demonstrate the strengths of the series, including but not limited to: pop culture references that aren't there merely for their own sake but to build on the characters and the situations they're in; guest star appearances that don't merely grab ratings but have a purpose within the story; utilizing animation to do more than an average sitcom can do while retaining a balance with realism; characters learning and growing from their experience.

"Itchy & Scratchy: the Movie"
Category: Social commentary
Keen insight into the entertainment industry's propensity to exploit a property to its fullest, and to market something into an "event."  This, a full decade before "The Simpsons" followed the same path to a theater near you.  And all of that is merely background for the true focus of the episode: the story of a young boy who needs discipline and his reluctant disciplinarian father.  All these years later, you still can't get decent Soylent Green at the cineplex.  Also a nice jab at the celebrities who had done uncredited voice work on "The Simpsons," Dustin Hoffman ("Lisa's Substitute") and Michael Jackson.

"Mr. Plow"
Such a tightly constructed story, and so many avenues for humor all well explored.  I think what rocketed this episode to one of my all-time favorites was the "sure-footed as a mountain goat" joke.

Onto the next five episodes...