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27 Short Blurbs About Springfield
A Simpsons syllabus, in response to D.W.
I both enjoyed and endorse this Simpsons syllabus laid out by D.W. and I legitimately could not have prevented myself from formulating my own list if I’d tried. I accepted the original constraint of a single episode per season and asked myself: which selections would best convey the evolution of the show’s sensibilities over time, while also being solid in their own right? Here’s what I came up with, along with tasting notes on the historical characteristics.
Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire — It’s nice that this happens to be the series premiere, but more than that you get a solid declaration of the show’s initial ambitions: a blend of class conscious satire and sincere familial emotion, undercut by sloppy-silly cartoon visuals.
Bart the Daredevil — This episode encapsulates how the show felt when it started really clicking. You get a taste of what made Bart such an ascendant figure in the early years, underscored by the fact that they debuted the video for "Do the Bartman" right after this episode's original broadcast. You can also feel a more distinct and absurd comedic voice coming out in e.g. the drawn out sequence of Homer's successive injuries.
Homer at the Bat — Generally considered one of the classics, this was also the first episode where The Simpsons beat out its fierce time slot competitor The Cosby Show. So many big name cameos being deployed to such ridiculous premises feels like a flex, or at least an indulgence, made possible by the show’s success.
A Streetcar Named Marge — While the monorail episode is the more obvious choice for this season, I felt this filled more gaps in the overall syllabus: a deeper conception of Marge and the marriage from her perspective, a great showcase for the show's trademark musical capacities, plus both Hartman and Lovitz.
Deep Space Homer — Among the most iconic episodes in its own right — “I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords” — but I'm selecting it here because it feels like a turning point. As a fan I loved how big the swings could get in any given episode, but to get there the writers are clearly drifting away from their grounded, Roseannic origin point.
Treehouse of Horror V — D.W. and I agree that this is the best Treehouse episode, and you gotta have a Treehouse somewhere here. I first think of the phenomenal parody of The Shining, and I forget how solid the other two segments are: time-traveling Homer altering the future, and the school staff eating the students. This was a time in the show where only Treehouse episodes would depart drastically from the real world, a restraint that weakens in the later seasons.
22 Short Films About Springfield — By this point in the show you're seeing the writers room show off what brainiacs they could be while still remaining thoroughly low brow, and I think this episode is one of the best realizations of their ambitions. This episode includes the beloved “steamed hams" sequence that really only became iconic after the Internet rediscovered it.
You Only Move Twice — I think this one demonstrates the eigthth season's dual energy: it’s one of the funniest moment-to-moment episodes they've ever done and the emotional stakes in the family remain basically convincing. Yet, it also feels like the beginning of the end of the golden age as the episode extracts a lot of its humor from Bond parody with a tenuous connection to the Simpsons themselves, or even ordinary life.
The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson — D.W. and I also agree that season 9 is the drop off point, so I'm also ending my list here. I chose this episode because it's still pretty good, but it also points to one of the major downfalls of this era. Travel episodes on any show feel like gimmicks and the reason is often that the jokes become about New York, rather than being jokes about the characters that merely arise from placing them in New York. In my reading, the show began to lose its original magic as this turn towards external reference and parody took hold.
After assembling this list it struck me that I’d never actually propose someone start with these nine if they were first checking it out. This is more of a dorky lens for metafreak converts like me and there are too many iconic episodes missing, so I selected another nine to round it out:
In this case I asked myself: which episodes would most likely trigger the fan reaction, “You like The Simpsons but you've never seen _____?!?” The most iconic/referenced/beloved. I removed the episodes already covered in the above list, and I’ll eschew descriptions as I list them for their quality evident on watch and not any context:
Marge vs. The Monorail, Season 4
I Love Lisa, Season 4
Last Exit to Springfield, Season 4
Cape Feare, Season 5
Itchy & Scratchy Land, Season 6
Lemon of Troy, Season 6
Radioactive Man, Season 7
El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer, Season 8
The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show, Season 8
Two perspectives on a syllabus, but neither surfaced my personal favorite episodes! What sort of friend would I be to this fictional person who made the admittedly massive mistake of asking me for this syllabus? So: a final nine, my personal go-to comfort watches that were not yet covered, ordered by how often I put them on:
A Milhouse Divided, Season 8 — The scene where Kirk gets fired is possibly my favorite scene in the entire show’s history.
Homie the Clown, Season 6 — Just straight up one of the funniest episodes to me, nothing deep to say here. I love Fat Tony.
$pringfield, Season 5 — Lisa's Florida costume and Robert Goulet's cameo occupy a very special shelf in my heart.
Bart on the Road, Season 7 — I just adore the mix of fantasy and banality that the boys’ adventure becomes, much closer to the actual best memories with friends than when things go to plan.
Like Father, Like Clown, Season 3 — I feel such innate warmth towards Jackie Mason's performance that this episode is just pure comfort for me, YMMV.
The Twisted World of Marge Simpson, Season 8 — "Wow this is uh... This is a black day for baseball.”
Lisa’s Rival, Season 6 — I relate to Lisa most when she's in crisis, most of all here when her fragile ego crashes with her class anxiety.
Homer Badman, Season 6 — I could list this just for all the great jokes at the candy convention, but the parody of Hard Copy and the Dennis Franz TV movie are incredible.
Bart Sells His Soul, Season 7 — I wasn’t able to get a good religion episode in the above lists, which is a shame given how important that is to the early show, and this episode had an intense spiritual effect on me as a child.
I wanted to embrace the numerological momentum I had at this point and I attempted to make 9 total lists of 9 items each, but the desperation really set in while trying to crack the eighth list so instead I’ll simply end with a final nine, my nine favorite bootleg Bart shirts: