Time hasn’t been kind to America’s most beloved nuclear family. Despite not having aged a day throughout the show’s 33-year run, many of the members of the Simpsons clan are showing the effects of time’s relentless march in a host of equally noticeable ways.
The Simpsons has been hobbling along for years now, its halcyon days a mere memory preserved and beloved by ardent fans who still cite the show’s ‘golden years’ as some of their favourite television of all time. There are, however, some great episodes to be found within the hundreds of post-golden duds, even if finding them is a little like trying to pan for gold in a river clogged increasingly with raw sewage and discarded dreams.
Because the definition of The Simpsons’ ‘golden period’ varies depending on whom you ask, we’ll be looking at episodes that are quite definitively outside the confines of that era, meaning that anything from Season 12 onwards is fair game. Otherwise, it’d just be a lot of episodes from the rather decent Season 9.
1. 24 Minutes (Season 18)
‘24 Minutes’ is responsible for pretty much single-handedly saving the rather bland and uninvolving effort that is Season 18. Viewers’ full appreciation may be enhanced by having a familiarity with the structure and setup of a typical episode of 24, but novices can still enjoy the episode for its excellent construction and razor-sharp execution. A far lighter affair than its Kiefer Sutherland-led counterpart, ‘24 Minutes’ focuses on Principal Skinner’s race against the clock to foil Jimbo, Dolph, and Kearney’s plans to set off a stinkbomb at the Springfield Elementary bake sale.
The episode represents a prevalent trend in post-Season 10 episodes wherein full-blown parodies or experimental episodes would go on to be highlights of increasingly dreary seasons, evidenced, as we’ll see, by ‘Barthood’, ‘Eternal Moonshine of the Simpsons’ mind’ and ‘Trilogy of Error’. Coming up with new narratives has clearly been a perennial problem in more recent years, but there are clearly some writers who know how to pull together a decent parody, if nothing else.
2. Barthood (Season 27)
It’s not fair to say that The Simpsons is completely reliant on parody for much of its best material in the post-golden era, but ‘Boyhood’ is hardly helping the case to the contrary. Whereas ‘24 Minutes’ takes the format of a typical 24 episode and transposes it to a suitably ludicrous situation, ‘Barthood’ is a less throwaway affair that feels sincere and more reverential to the source material on which it leans.
Based on 2014’s ground-breaking exploration of one boy’s passage from childhood to full-grown maturity, ‘Barthood’ is a rare chance to see Bart break out of his eternal 10-year-old chrysalis as he develops from innocent nipper to disaffected teen to somewhat functional adult.
‘Barthood’ might centre on Bart (obviously), but his formative interactions with the rest of the family shine a light on most of the Simpsons’ own inner struggles or actions: Lisa’s difficulty in coping with Bart’s constant blaming of her for his failings, Abe’s role in nurturing his grandson, and ultimately Homer’s revelations that he was himself in a state of arrested development when Bart was born. “I’m just like you” he admits, “A misunderstood guy who wants his family to love him”.
3. Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind (Season 19)
Following from the example set by ’24 Minutes’ and ‘Barthood’, ‘Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind’ illuminates a rather lifeless collection of episodes by leaning into parody and playing with the show’s established format. More of a Memento rip than it is a pastiche of the Jim Carrey classic, the plot follows Homer attempting to recall the events of the night before via a series of flashbacks and half-formed memories.
There are also some decent gags in and among the high concept time-bending. Krusty’s desire to have his memory erased due to “doing a Mel Gibson about Mexicans” as opposed to a “Don Rickles about Arabs”, only to forget and go straight back to hosting the Latin Grammys, feels like a joke from the good old days. Old Jewish Man’s reminiscing about “My first Christmas. Such great Chinese food!” while sampling Professor Frink’s memory exploration device also feels like a true Simpsons gag.
‘Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind’ is most notable for its experimental narrative, but there are enough laughs to keep things moving along. A light within Season 19’s darkness.
4. HOMR (Season 12)
For all of his faults, Homer has actually never been a true idiot, more a sort of bumbling savant capable of genuine acts of inventiveness and talent tempered constantly by raging alcoholism and a reckless disregard for his own safety. Up until Season 12’s ‘HOMR’, however, the show had failed to fully explore the idea of a world in which Homer is actively what one would consider ‘smart’.
Upon having a crayon removed from his brain, Homer learns that the attainment of intelligence often leads to spiritual and emotional turmoil, something which ultimately brings him closer to the daughter he has so often struggled to understand. ‘HOMR’ might superficially be about Homer’s struggle to fit in as “the man with the 105 IQ”, but it’s as much about Lisa’s temporary relief from the isolation and disillusionment that she feels as an intelligent, sensitive individual in a world of uncaring idiots.
Funny and heartfelt, ‘HOMR’ harks back to a time when the show was skilful at balancing both. The explanation for why nobody has ever noticed the errant crayon, meanwhile, being that Dr. Hibbert had been placing his thumb over the offending implement on Homer’s brain scans, is so self-consciously terrible that it’s just about worth suspending one’s disbelief.
5. Hungry Hungry Homer (Season 12)
Later Simpsons seasons often tend towards cheap laughs and storylines of little consequence, but ‘Hungry Hungry Homer’ excels by showing the Simpson patriarch resolutely staging a gruelling hunger strike to prevent the Springfield Isotopes from moving to Albuquerque. Homer may have had stints in nearly every profession known to man, most of which end in abject failure, but it’s rare to see him see through his own crusade with such resolute conviction.
‘Hungry Hungry Homer’ doesn’t skimp on the laughs, ending up as arguably the funniest episode of Season 12 and representing a small glimmer of hope amid the show’s trajectory of decline. The machinations of the devious owner Howard K. Duff and of course the perennially underused Duffman (“Duffman is thrusting in the direction of the problem”) contrasted with Homer’s naïve refusal to back down make this a Swartzwelder classic.
6. The Seemingly Never-Ending Story (Season 17)
Season 17 has some absolute stinkers in its ranks. ‘The Bonfire of the Manatees’ and ‘My Fair Laddy’ are unfunny and aimless duds, while the disastrous ‘Homer Simpsons, This is Your Wife’ proves that putting together two brilliant creations does not necessarily render brilliant results, like having Cypress Hill playing alongside the London Symphony Orchestra. Except terrible.
If later seasons are inferior in almost every way to their earlier counterparts, one area in which they have occasionally excelled has been via taking narrative or structural risks. ‘Trilogy of Error’ already proved that mixing things up could pay comedic dividends, a trick which ‘The Seemingly Never-Ending Story’ also manages to great effect. A story within a story within quite a few others are recounted, revolving predominantly around the recovery of a cache of stolen treasure. Truly layered and immensely satisfying, ‘The Seemingly Never-Ending Story’ is always engaging despite its convoluted setup.
It also shows flashes of the humour that would become so scarce as the show’s run wore on, including Homer’s “silly Indians, our God made their God” gag and Mr. Burns’ revelation of his birthplace as “Pangea”. Thank God for Al Jean and Ian Maxtone-Graham.
7. A Serious Flanders (Pts 1 and 2) (Season 33)
Trying to parody the sort of sprawling, prestige productions of heavy hitters like HBO or Netflix is something of a gamble for a show hardly riding on a crest of goodwill. ‘A Serious Flanders’, a Simpsons rarity in its presentation as a two-parter, spoofs the miniseries format of shows like ‘Fargo’ by subdividing its plots into a number of smaller ‘chapters’, recruiting the considerable voice talents of Brian Cox, Chris O’Dowd and Timothy Olyphant to add to the episode’s prestige, grandiose feel.
The gamble, thankfully, paid off. Reception to ‘A Serious Flanders’ has been almost universally positive, and despite its chronological distance from the Simpsons’ halcyon days, it’s already receiving the sort of reverence reserved for episodes three decades in the past.
The real pleasure of ‘A Serious Flanders’ is that it allows its characters to subvert their usual roles, both parts exhibiting the grittier, darker tone of the genre to which they owe a debt. It’s still a Simpsons episode at heart, but the prestige two-parter is surpirsingly effective in both spoofing and leaning into many of the tropes of that which iit pastiches.
To delve too deep into ‘A Serious Flanders’ would give too much away, but the episodes have certainly done most of the heavy lifting in silencing calls for the termination of America’s longest-running cartoon. It may be dark, violent and utterly non-canonical, but ‘A Serious Flanders’ is well worth a full investigation.
8. Skinner’s Sense of Snow (Season 12)
Does ‘Skinner’s Sense of Snow’ count as a bottle episode and a Christmas special? It certainly has many of the hallmarks of both, as Skinner and his students are trapped at Springfield Elementary after a heavy downfall of snow during the festive period. Chaos ensues as Skinner attempts to keep order through militaristic discipline only to lose control of his pupils and send for help via the school’s resident hamster, Nibbles.
School-bound chaos aside, ‘Skinner’s Sense of Snow’ is a great excuse to see Homer and Ned’s floundering attempts at rescuing their stranded kids, allowing one of the best dynamics in the show to really flourish. Just as the children are stranded in Springfield Elementary, the two adults end up dealing with their own form of wintry entrapment, confined to Ned’s car after Homer crashes into a fire hydrant and the vehicle becomes encased in ice.
Chief among the episode’s highlights is Skinner’s 1938 version of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas entitled ‘The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t But Then Was’, a gloriously downmarket production featuring cut-out reindeer and a Christmas hobgoblin’s two-hour serenade of an entranced Bo-Peep. Majestic.
9. Treehouse of Horror XIII (Season 14)
Even as the episodes and seasons decline in quality, it seems that The Simpsons can usually be relied upon to grind out a pretty decent Halloween special. The cracks were certainly beginning to show by the time Season 14 aired in 2002, but the season’s Halloween anthology is an undoubted high point.
‘Send in the Clones’ has immense fun riffing on the idea of multiple cloned Homers, a lightweight but enjoyable lead into ‘The Fright to Creep and Scare Harms’, an oddball and utterly nonsensical caper involving Springfield being besieged by the reanimated corpses of many of America’s most notorious outlaws (and Kaiser Wilhelm II). It doesn’t make sense even by the standards of a Simpsons Halloween Special, but it’s still fun to see Lisa’s good intentions backfire so spectacularly as Springfield renders itself defenceless to the outlaws by discarding their beloved firearms.
Rounding off the trilogy is the darkest instalment, ‘The Island of Dr. Hibbert’, a surprisingly macabre parody of The Island of Dr. Moreau which sees most of Springfield’s inhabitants turned into strange animal hybrids as a result of Hibbert’s deranged genetic experimentation. It’s about as weird as The Simpsons gets, but it feels deservedly creepy after its two more lightweight predecessors.
10. Trilogy of Error (Season 12)
It’s fair to say that some of the entries in this list could be accused of merely looking strong in comparison to their subpar contemporaries, but there are no qualifiers to be made for ‘Trilogy of Error’. Had it been drawn from Season 18 or 8, I would still be singing its praises as one of the best Simpsons episodes of all time.
Based in part on Doug Liman’s cult film ‘Go’, ‘Trilogy of Error’ builds its story by interconnecting three seemingly distinct narratives from the perspectives of its three central protagonists of Homer, Lisa and Bart, the various strands finally coming together to form one fully cohesive picture as each plotline collides and reveals more about that which preceded it. Very clever and immensely satisfying, ‘Trilogy of Error’ can be watched endlessly purely for the joy of its construction.
Quirky narratives episodes are nothing without decent joke writers, but Season 12’s standout doesn’t become overwhelmed by its plot(s) to neglect its audience. The episode features the classic West Springfield Elementary French class, Europe’s worst cereal import ‘Mueslix’ and of course Linguo, the suspiciously sentient grammar robot designed to detect faults in spoken English.
If you find yourself disillusioned by Season 12, I urge you to watch ‘Trilogy of Error’ if only to marvel at the slickness of its execution and boldness of its ambition.
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