The hardest part of writing about the best Simpsons episodes is that for the first ten years, the show was consistently at the top of its game. There are so many moments, quotations, and references – both epic and obscure – that helped turn the Simpson family into the cultural icons that they remain to this day. When I think of the best moments from The Simpsons, it’s difficult to pin down single episodes; it’s certain moments and gags that remain embedded in my head.
For years, my brother and I would fill up eight hour VHS tapes with Simpsons repeats during the weekdays and new ones on Sundays. We made it up to about thirteen volumes. We have, of course, started collecting the DVDs as they’ve been coming out, but strangely enough, I haven’t revisited the show on DVD nearly as much as I used to watch our old tapes. Nevertheless, I can still quote the best lines word-for-word.
Season 1, Episode 7 – February 18, 1990 – “The Call of the Simpsons”
The first season or two of The Simpsons has a vastly different tone from all the following seasons. Somewhere in between the shorts on The Tracy Ullman Show (1987-1990) and the surreal sitcom it settled into, the show was a humble animated version of an average TV comedy. While creator Matt Groening was laying out the basic framework for all the characters, things were not overly fantastical at first. Bart was an underachiever, Lisa was smart for her age, Marge was the moral center, Maggie was the cute baby, and Homer was just kind of dumb—a far cry from the collosal moron he would soon become. In this episode, even Homer’s long-standing feud with Ned Flanders, which compels him to buy an RV and take the family camping, is not so removed from reality. Then again, this episode does feature Homer and Bart surviving a waterfall and Maggie making friends with a family of bears, before it ends with Homer being mistaken for Bigfoot. The best moments come when the family members separate and each have to deal with the wilderness on their own. By far the funniest bit is when Homer’s animal trap ends up flinging an animal across the skyline before it lands with a loud thump.
Homer: What am I gonna do? I’ve murdered us all!
Homer’s Echo: I’ve murdered us all! I’ve murdered us all!
Homer: Shut up!
Homer’s Echo: Shut up! Shut up!
Homer’s Echo: D’oh! D’oh!
Season 2, Episode 9 – December 20, 1990 – “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge”
As Marge has typically been the moral center of the Simpson family, her efforts to protect her kids from the cartoon violence of Itchy & Scratchy are highlighted in this episode, which also showcases trademark satire of The Simpsons, when Maggie literally re-enacts everything she sees on TV. After watching one Itchy & Scratchy episode, she hits Homer on the head with a mallet in a sequence that parodies the shower scene from Psycho (1960). After Marge’s protest of the show succeeds and a re-imagined Itchy and Scratchy spend whole episodes drinking lemonade on a porch, she immediately offers Homer a glass of lemonade. The satire of violence in media and censorship throughout the episode is best summarized in two scenes: the one in which all the kids of Springfield lose interest in cartoons and instead spend their free time outside playing in a Norman Rockwell-stylized way, and the one in which Marge falls out with other outraged mothers over an exhibition of Michalangelo’s David (1501-1504).
Lisa: But Mom, if you take our cartoons away, we’ll grow up without a sense of humor and be robots.
Bart: Really? What kind of robots?
Season 3, Episode 24 – August 27, 1992 – “Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?”
Following the previous season’s introduction of Homer’s half-brother, Herbert Powell (voiced by Danny DeVito), this episode allows Homer to redeem himself in an effort to help Herb regain his riches. The previous Herb-centric story saw Homer singlehandedly bankrupt his brother’s car company by designing a car no one would ever buy. Herb’s genius idea to rebuild his empire is to use Maggie to invent a baby translator. Unfortunately, neither this revolutionary invention nor “Unky Herb” are ever seen again in the rest of the series, except for small cameos.
Herb: “This is what you get. I forgive you. You can call me brother, and I can do the same.”
Homer: “That’s it?”
Herb: “That’s it.”
Homer: “I see your point – brother.”
Herb: “Give me a hug – brother.”
Homer: “All right, but I’ve never really hugged a man before.”
Season 4, Episode 22 – May 13, 1993 – “Krusty Gets Kancelled”
Due to his declining popularity in the face of a competing children’s icon, Gabbo the puppet, Krusty’s show goes off the air – and it falls on Bart and Lisa to organize a celebrity-filled comeback special. The featured cameos are some of the best in a long tradition of celebrity cameos throughout the series. Indeed, it may have even contributed to the decline in quality of the later seasons. Johnny Carson, Bette Midler, Barry White, Elizabeth Taylor, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers represent the early-90s’ setting perfectly. Other great highlights include the Soviet Itchy & Scratchy replacement, which is entitled Worker & Parasite, and the crazy old man dancers.
Krusty: Ugh, thirty-five years in show business and already no one remembers me, just like what’s-his-name and whose-it, and you know that guy, always wore a shirt?
Season 5, Episode 11 – January 6, 1994 – “Homer the Vigilante”
This episode features Sam Neill as the cat burglar Molloy, who manages to steal something from just about everyone in Springfield. Lisa’s saxophone, one of Marge’s many necklaces, Bart’s secret stamp collection, and Ned Flanders’ shroud of Turin beach towel are all among the pilfered goods. Homer’s neighborhood watch group uses protection from the cat burglar as an excuse to beat people with sacks filled with doorknobs. After Homer fails to protect Springfield’s cubic zarconium, Jimbo Jones bemoans that he doesn’t believe in anything anymore, and instead he decides to go to law school. Movie and TV references abound, as Homer imagines himself riding an atomic bomb a la Dr. Strangelove (1964), Homer and Principal Skinner incessantly nod at each other while Dragnet (1951-1959) music plays, and an echo of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), plays out when the residents of Springfield scramble to find millions of dollars buried under “a big T.” Springfieldians panic as they look for various T-shaped buildings and even a tea factory.
Flanders: “Welcome, neighbors. Since the police can’t seem to get off their dufferoonies to do something about this burglarino, I think it’s time we started our own neighborhood watch… eroony!”
Although it might be a cheat to name this two-parter the best of both Season 6 and 7, it’s just too epic of a story to neglect both parts. Still the only two-part episode in the series, Season 6 ends with a cliffhanger, and Fox even held a contest for fans to submit their best guesses on the story’s outcome. Outdoing his many previous evil schemes, Mr. Burns manages to turn the entire town against him, mainly because of his new Slant Drilling Company, which steals oil from under the elementary school. Hatred is inspired by the loss of funds to the school, the closing of Moe’s due to oil fumes, the destruction of Bart’s treehouse, and the closing of the retirement home – to name just a few incidents. Even those not directly affected by the oil drilling still want Mr. Burns dead after his plan to block out the sun, which he figures is the number one competitor to his power plant. “Part Two” opens with a great reference to Dallas (1978-1991) and J.R.’s mysterious shooting, with Mr. Burns walking out of Smithers’ shower as if it was all a dream. Lisa later appears in a Twin Peaks-inspired (1990-1991) dream with “backwards talking and flaming cards” informing Chief Wiggum of potential clues. Towards the end of the episode, evidence piles up to incriminate Homer, who resents Burns for never being able to remember his name. As it turns out, Maggie accidentally shot Mr. Burns during his (yet another) dastardly plot to steal candy from a baby.
Mr. Burns: There has been a sharp decline in the quality and quantity of your toadying, Waylon! You are to apologize right now!
Smithers: No! No Monty, I won’t! Not until you step back from the brink of insanity!
Mr. Burns: I’ll do no such thing!
Jasper: You shot who in the what, now?
Season 8, Episode 2 – November 3, 1996 – “You Only Move Twice”
This episode features one of many in a long series of cameos by Albert Brooks and quite possibly his best as James Bondesque villain, Hank Scorpio. Homer even takes down a Bond-like spy after he escapes from an elaborate torture device of Scorpio’s. Homer begins working for Scorpio after receiving a job offer at a new nuclear power plant in the idealic Cypress Creek. After saying, “So long stink town!” to Springfield, Homer falls in love with his new job, while the rest of his family slowly begins to resent him and miss Springfield. Bart is placed in a special ed class, Lisa is allergic to everything, and Marge is bored at the prospect of a house that automatically cleans and maintains itself. Homer somehow excels at his job, mainly by making simple suggestions such as installing hammocks, even while he remains completely unaware that Scorpio’s ultimate plan is world domination. And at the end of the episode, Scorpio gives Homer the parting gift of the Denver Broncos.
Scorpio: Your job will be to manage and motivate them. Give ’em the benefit of your years of experience.
Homer: Don’t worry, that won’t take long.
Season 9, Episode 1 – September 21, 1997 – “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson”
When Barney, after a night of drinking, is forced to be the designated driver, he disappears with Homer’s car for two months. Homer is then given notice that his car is illegally parked in New York City, right next to the Twin Towers. The Simpson family takes this as an opportunity to go sight-seeing, while Homer is more concerned with leaving before dark when the crazies come out. In his mission to have the boot taken off of his car, Homer deals first with hunger, than thirst, and then an overwhelming urge to pee. After climbing to the top of one tower only to see the bathroom is out of order, he goes all the way up the other tower just in time to see the cop he was waiting for put yet another ticket on his car.
Homer: Alright New York, I’m comin’ back! But you’re not gettin’ this! (throws his wallet into the fireplace)
Lisa: Dad, our baby pictures were in there!
Homer: Don’t you start!
Season 10, Episode 21 – May 2, 1999 – “Monty Can’t Buy Me Love”
In a surprising effort to get more people to like him, Mr. Burns enlists the help of Homer, Professor Frink and Groundskeeper Willie to help him catch the Loch Ness Monster. The dynamic between these four characters absolutely makes for a great episode in the season in which, according to many, the show starts to go sour. The first half of the episode, featuring a competing billionaire named Arthur Fortune opening a supermall in Springfield, has its moments, but many more great moments occur in the second half. Willie’s parents briefly show up, and he even points out the pool table that he was conceived, born, and educated on. In a typically evil plot, Burns finally drains the lake and has Nessie lifted by helicopter back to Springfield. After a final change of heart in a scene that mimics King Kong (1933), Burns brings Nessie to Vegas to give her a job at a casino.
Homer: Well, if you wanted people to love you, you sure blew it with that insane rampage. But, you know what? To be loved, you have to be nice to people, every day, but to be hated; you don’t have to do squat!
Mr. Burns: You know, perhaps you’re right! I got so swept over the notion of being liked; I completely forgot who I am…I’m a selfish old crank.
(Simpsons wiki for various quotes and references)