Warning: The following article contains potential spoilers.
“The Simpsons.” Ask anyone from Gen Z about it and they’ll tell you it’s the show with all the internet memes. Recall, for instance, Homer disappearing into a bush, Lisa giving a presentation, and Homer instructing Bart about the “worst day of his life…so far”. They may also tell you that it has allegedly predicted the future (e.g., Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential win, Lady Gaga at the Super Bowl, and the invention of Face Time). Ask anyone over 35, though, and they’ll tell you something completely different. Long before the “Golden Era” of television (The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Crown) “The Simpsons” was one of TV’s greatest shows. The first ten-twelve seasons defined an era, creating zany visuals that elegantly blended humor and heart.
There are many hilarious and impactful episodes. Bart leaps over a chasm on his skateboard, Homer’s softball team at work hires famous major league players, and Lisa challenges a bill while visiting the nation’s capital (a la Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Marge rallies against a monorail initiative in a send-up of The Music Man, and Apu faces potential deportation. Homer discontinues attending church, gets in a fight with George H.W. Bush, and travels to space, and Ned Flanders loses his sanity after a hurricane totals his home.
Dozens of episodes satirized famous films (including Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction, Rear Window, The Shining, and Cape Fear). Some episodes produced controversy (e.g., “Bart vs. Australia” from season 6, and “Blame It on Lisa” from season 13). Despite that, “The Simpsons” has gracefully tackled every issue you can think of. “The Simpsons” has done episodes about alcoholism, divorce, infidelity, immigration, homophobia, bullying, and so on.
In “Homer Badman” (sixth season), a gummy-bear mishap leads to a backlash of sexual harassment allegations (essentially predicting #MeToo). In one episode (alluding to the roaring twenties), alcohol is banned and then decriminalized. Homer finishes the episode with one of his most famous quotes: “To alcohol…the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.” “The Simpsons” are experts at their satirical soundbites. Another one occurs during “Lisa the Skeptic” (ninth season), when Homer reminds Lisa: “The reason we have elected officials is so that we don’t have to think.”
Let’s focus on a few specific episodes, though. The series premiere really set the tone for the decades to come. In “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” Homer doesn’t receive his Christmas bonus. The family has saved up money, but Bart blows it on a tattoo. Unable to afford Christmas gifts, a despondent Homer moonlights as a mall Santa. When that falls through, though, he and Bart bet on races at a dog track. When that also falls through, they adopt a greyhound that one of the owners angrily abandoned. They name him “Santa’s Little Helper.” In the end, Santa’s Little Helper saves Christmas! At the core of this episode is Homer’s persona as “the holy fool.” He’s a bumbling, laughable sort of oaf. But his devotion to his family is honorable and it is what gives the show its soul.
We see a poignant nod to Homer’s loving family-man persona in “And Maggie Makes Three” (sixth season). Homer quits his job at the nuclear power plant and pursues his dream of working at a bowling alley. Marge becomes pregnant with Maggie (the youngest Simpson), and so Homer is forced to return to the power plant. His boss (Mr. Burns) plasters on the wall in front of him: “Don’t forget. You are here forever!” Homer tells his family (who cannot find any baby photos of Maggie) that he keeps the photos where he needs the most cheering up. In his workstation, the photos cover Burns’ message, spelling out “Do it for her” instead.
In “Mother Simpson,” the creators explore the reverse dynamic. Homer reconnects with his mother, Mona Simpson. Mona fled her family one night 26 years ago and never contacted them. It turns out she was a hippie protestor on the run. After she and a group of people detonated Mr. Burns’ germ lab (and he identified her), she hightailed it out of Springfield. She catches up with the family (including Homer’s father, Abe). However, she must then go on the run again. Homer watches as she leaves. Out on the country road, Homer lingers on the hood of his car. He stays up all night- forlorn- gazing up at the starry sky.
In “One Fish, Two Fish, Blow Fish, Blue Fish” (second season), Homer and his family go out to a Japanese restaurant. Homer eats a potentially poisonous blowfish and is given 24 hours to live. He has a man-to-man chat with Bart, listens to Lisa play her saxophone, and makes a video for Maggie. Homer reconciles with his father, enjoys a final drink at Moe’s Tavern, and tells off his boss, Mr. Burns. However, he’s also arrested for speeding (which eats into his final day). It’s another heartwarming episode that reflects on the classic brevity-and-fragility-of-life theme.
The comedy is perhaps at its most whimsical and wild in “Lisa the Vegetarian” (seventh season). Lisa decides to give up meat after bonding with a lamb at a petting zoo. She faces significant backlash, though, from everyone around her (including her family). At school, the principle forces the kids to watch a video on the food-chain. This occurs after he receives too many “independent thought” alerts. In the video, a dog catches a Frisbee, a shark leaps out and snatches a gorilla, and an eagle picks an adult sheep off the ground with its talons. Later, Lisa expels a spit-roasted pig from her dad’s barbecue. The pig blocks up a dam, which then sends it soaring through the air.
In “Homer’s Enemy,” a hardworking nuclear scientist- Frank Grimes- begins employment at Mr. Burns’ power plant. Frank Grimes struggled his whole life. He has nothing to show for his efforts but his “tie, briefcase, and apartment [allegedly located ‘above one bowling alley and beneath another’].” He resents Homer for exceeding in life despite all his incompetencies. In the episode’s climax, which is both disturbing and hilarious, Grimes suffers a nervous breakdown. He thoughtlessly grabs onto “high voltage” wires and shocks himself to death. Homer snores through his funeral as the town laughs endearingly (“That’s our Homer!” they remark).
The show’s most memorable episodes were its cliffhanger(s) (spanning the sixth and seventh season). “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” was a two-part episode that parodied Dallas. Mr. Burns blocks out the sun and the whole town is out for blood against him. A pistol shot goes off at the end of the first episode. The viewers wait on pins and needles to find out who did it. Who really shot him? The answer is quite the amusing twist!
“The Simpsons” has a golden history that long predates its oracular aura or its presence on social media. If you ever do get around to watching- or rewatching- it, though, stick to the first decade or so. Those seasons are the best!