When the “Every Simpsons Ever” mega-marathon of The Simpsons began last Thursday on FXX, it renewed interest in a show that will go down as one of the all-time greats—but has nevertheless been struggling commercially and creatively for awhile at this point. The show’s unimpeachable heyday in the ’90s is rightfully heralded, and as the marathon got going, it was those episodes that created the most excitement. Sure, they’ve been out on DVD for some time, but rebroadcasting them in order emphasized how great the show was at its peak.
Precisely when The Simpsons began to descend from that peak has been fiercely debated for at least 15 years—but no one argues it hasn’t happened yet as the show heads into its 26th season. Many diehard fans of The Simpsons’ heyday have fallen out of touch with the show by this point, which is a shame. Even if it misses more than it hits, The Simpsons is still The Simpsons: sharp, occasionally biting, and emotionally resonant in ways that can still be surprising.
As the FXX marathon reaches the back half of The Simpsons catalog this week, plan to check out these episodes, which prove that the gulf between that halcyon era and The Simpsons today isn’t always so wide.
1. “The Bart Wants What It Wants” (season 13, Wednesday, 5:30 a.m.)
In this gem from 2002, Bart begins dating Rainier Wolfcastle’s daughter, but quickly loses interest. He does a 180 when she starts dating Milhouse, leading to a funny confrontation in Canada, where Wolfcastle is shooting a movie. The opening scene—an event at a tony prep school—scores, as do the many, many jokes at Canada’s expense. But the best moments come from watching Principal Skinner try his hand at stand-up comedy. The episode was written by John Frink and Don Payne, who have scripted many of the better episodes of The Simpsons since 2000.
2. “Blame It on Lisa” (season 13, Wednesday, 7:30 a.m.)
The disappearance of Lisa’s Brazilian pen pal prompts the Simpsons to travel to his home country, where Homer is quickly kidnapped. Ever since season six’s “Bart Vs. Australia,” “The Simpsons are going to ______!” has been a regular plot point; usually it finds the family, particularly Homer and Bart, behaving as Ugly Americans. When the Simpsons went to Brazil, the joke seemed to be more on the country—filled with pick-pocketing street urchins, rampant crime, hyper-sexualized pop culture, monkey attacks, and man-eating snakes. (Brazil still fared better than Australia, though.) Rio’s tourism board was not amused and vowed to sue; even the nation’s president complained that the episode “brought a distorted version of Brazilian reality.” Producer James L. Brooks apologized, but the Brazilians should’ve known better than to antagonize The Simpsons: The very next year, the show mocked Brazil again in “The Regina Monologues.” As the family discussed its next trip, Bart said, “Well, I’d like to return to Brazil, but I hear the monkey problem is even worse now.”
3. “The Regina Monologues” (season 15, Thursday, 12 a.m.)
Speaking of “The Regina Monologues,” it’s an episode that stands among the show’s all-time best. It’s the last one credited to John Swartzwelder, the reclusive Simpsons mastermind who played a critical role in the development of the show and penned too many classic episodes to list here. “Regina” feels like old-school Simpsons, as it’s crammed with references to film and TV (James Bond, My Fair Lady, Trainspotting, more), biting social commentary (from the video game Bart plays, Hockey Dad, to Iraq War references), whimsical goofiness, and an impressive cast of guest stars—including J.K. Rowling and Tony Blair, who was prime minister of England at the time. (Says Homer after meeting him: “Wow, I can’t believe we met Mr. Bean!”)
4. “ ‘Tis the Fifteenth Season” (season 15, Thursday, 1:30 a.m.)
The Simpsons has done a number of Christmas-themed episodes over the years, beginning with the show’s very first special (“The Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” which aired in December 1989). This edition finds Homer buying himself an extravagant gift at the expense of his family, only to learn the error of his ways thanks to a Mr. Magoo version of A Christmas Carol. (The episode has a bunch of excellent animated sequences depicting how other shows milk A Christmas Carol, including an awesome California Raisins parody.) He sets out to teach the rest of Springfield the true meaning of Christmas, which naturally escalates into an angry mob calling for his head.
5. “Kill Gil, Volumes I & II” (season 18, Friday, 11 a.m.)
Another holiday episode finds the Simpsons taking in perennial sad-sack Gil, who loses yet another job after he helps out the family. He ends up staying with them for almost an entire year, pushing the Simpsons past their breaking point (even the accommodating Marge). One of the highlights is a recurring gag with the Christmas Grumple, a homicidal knockoff of the Grinch who says stuff like “Grumply grumply goo, your blood will make my stew!”
6. “24 Minutes” (season 18, Friday, 5 p.m.)
Yes, the 24 parody ”24 Minutes” could be the product of Fox’s shameless corporate synergy—but so was “A Star is Burns,” and that’s an all-time classic. Kiefer Sutherland and Mary Lynn Rajskub only have cameos; the episode focuses on Springfield Elementary’s “Counter Truancy Unit,” with Bart as the Jack Bauer and Lisa as the Chloe O’Brien. The episode mimics 24’s look and thematic beats as Bart tries to prevent bullies from detonating a stink bomb at the school, but some of its best moments come from the lesser gags, like Homer and Milhouse riding in a dumpster.
7. “E Pluribus Wiggum” (season 19, Saturday, 12:30 a.m.)
Springfield moves up its presidential primary to be the first in the nation, and the attendant media circus soon overtakes the town. Somehow, air-headed Ralph Wiggum becomes the frontrunner. The episode, written by Michael Price (who also did “Tis the Fifteenth Season”), smartly mocks presidential campaigning and the media that make it unbearable, also aiming digs at two of the show’s favorite targets: the GOP and Fox News.
8. “All About Lisa” (season 19, Saturday, 5:30 a.m.)
It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to make your season finale an homage to a film that’s over 50 years old, even if it’s a classic like All About Eve. This episode, another by John Frink, puts Lisa in the Eve Harrington role, marking one of the few instances when the character gives in to her dark side. In this case, she usurps Krusty’s role on his own show, with Sideshow Mel the only hope to bring her back to reality.
9. “The Book Job” (season 23, Sunday, 5:30 p.m.)
Part send-up of heist movies (particularly the Steven Soderbergh Ocean’s variety), part satire of the book-publishing industry, “The Book Job” zips along like the movies it references with breezy ease. At its heart is Homer’s scheme to get rich writing YA books, a task for which he enlists a team of experts including Bart, Principal Skinner, Patty Bouvier, Moe, Professor Frink, and eventually Lisa. Guest cameos from Neil Gaiman and Andy Garcia round out one of the strongest Simpsons episodes of the past few years; it’s a shame writer Dan Vebber hasn’t written any more of them.
10. “The Day the Earth Stood Cool” (season 24, Monday, 5 a.m.)
Mocking hipster culture is such comedic low-hanging fruit that it barely qualifies as a challenge, but writer-producer Matt Selman expertly satirizes the artisanal fussiness of hipsterdom with an assist by guest stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein of Portlandia. They play the Simpsons’ cool new neighbors, who settle into Springfield and make it a cool haven—which naturally causes a culture clash.
11. “Brick Like Me” (season 25, Monday, 10:30 p.m.)
This standout episode of the most recent season was a stunt, but a highly successful one: It reimagined The Simpsons’ world as created by Legos. And just like The Lego Movie, it was better than it had any right to be. Turns out the Lego world is all in the imagination of Homer, who escapes to it when he grows anxious about Lisa growing up. The Simpsons has gone to the Homer/Lisa well many, many times, but seldom with such affecting results.