Saturday, February 24, 2018

Reviewing The Simpsons (seasons 1-9)

At what point did The Simpsons stop being good? I didn't hang around long enough to find out, bailing out of the nostalgic 25th anniversary rewatch as soon as the cracks started to show, so I could part with fond memories rather than frustration. I didn't want this to be another X-Files.

This is one series I really didn't need to watch again again again, but it was an enjoyable waste of time that I'll doubtless do again again again.

O-key-ly do-key-ly:

Bart episode
Homer episode
Lisa episode
Marge episode
Sideshow Bob episode
Flashback episode
Halloween episode

Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire (1x01) ****

Here's one episode in particular I never really needed to revisit in my lifetime, due to it being among the most overplayed VHS tapes of my childhood. It was nostalgic to watch it again though, for what might be the first time since the 90s - it's likely I would have quickly changed channels if I tuned in for a random episode and it was this one.

Because the entire point of this mammoth Simpsons chronicling task is to rekindle the experience of watching the series for the first time, I'm being a stickler for watching these in the 'correct' order... which meant watching this after the seven episodes produced before it (I'm still writing these reviews in the broadcast order though, just to confuse everyone including myself). Shoved ahead in the schedule for various reasons - one of them being the happenstance of Christmas being around the corner - it's actually a great introduction to the premise and the characters by focusing on such as family-centric occasion.

As well as the core family members, Marge's bitchy sisters are introduced and are already spot on. No awkward season one growth for those two. That isn't the case for Ned Flanders, who's introduced merely as the more irritatingly successful father next-door, and Barney is shown with what's either an unrealistically attractive wife or a prostitute he's just picked up with his race track winnings. That certainly wasn't an ambiguity when I was seven. Does he call her "Diarrhoea" too?

This is primarily a Homer episode though, and it's great to see the caring, struggling father of the early seasons before he turns into a self-serving moron (I'll try to reign in most of my scathing criticism of late period Simpsons for when it finally arrives). Bart's also pretty perfect, whereas Lisa gets a completely bizarre introduction with a semi-naked fire dance. At least there's some damage control later when she defends her father as a role model against Aunt Patty's onslaughts.

If you go back and watch these early episodes with the later seasons fresh in your memory, I'm sure you'd be distracted by the shaky animation and off voices. I can't say I've even noticed, I've been away a long time.
"There's only one fat guy that brings us presents and his name ain't Santa" - Bart Simpson

Bart the Genius (1x02) ****

An episode I'm even more over-familiar with than the last one, this was paired with 'Call of the Simpsons' on the first Simpsons tape brought out in the UK in 1991 and it got watched to death. Do you ever catch your brain unconsciously running through scenes and dialogue you've watched so many times that it's permanently ingrained in your memory? Or do I need to talk to some sort of specialist? Anyway, this is one of those. Because we've already established I'm weird, I spoke along for the first couple of scenes and only got tripped up a couple of times, by Lisa's wordy dictionary definition and Martin's erudite explanations.

While the majority of this is probably funnier to a child, there are a couple of things I never really identified as jokes back then that were nice surprises 20 years later, like the child psychiatrist's dismissal of heredity as a cause for Bart's (fraudulent) genius and Homer's childish handwriting, bless him. The complex maths still goes over my head though, if it's even supposed to make sense.

As the first school-based episode and one of the first to go out, this seemed to be a major source for Simpsons-related quotes and imagery. When my younger brother's Bart T-shirt got mixed with other colours in the wash, I comforted him that the sickly-looking figure could represent "Green Bart" from this episode, like that was an established part of pop culture folklore. Maybe it was? I think it worked, anyway.

Homer continues to impress by being sweet rather than just dumb; Principal Skinner is a stern authority figure, with no suggestions that he lives with his domineering mother yet; and Martin Prince has more of an attitude than later on, which makes him less innocent in his adherence to the rules when he snitches on classmates. Still, I always felt sorry for him not getting moved to that other school, where he would apparently be the smartest student of them all - I guess the moral is you don't mess with Bart or he'll screw you up for life.
"There's nothing wrong with a father kissing his son... I think" - Homer Simpson

Homer's Odyssey (1x03) ***

Here we go, an episode I didn't have on over-priced VHS video in the early 90s and have actually hardly seen at all. Actually, it's possible I never even saw it and only remember a couple of scenes from later clip shows. That's what I was hoping for - maybe this Simpsons odyssey will be more than a trip down unforgotten memory lane after all!

It's a bloody weird episode, shifting in tone considerably from being a straight-up kid's show at the beginning as Bart and his classmates take a tour of the nuclear power plant and ending up as a genuinely depressing drama with a father trying to commit suicide. It's darkly funny to see the unemployed, resurgent alcoholic Homer throw himself into an obsession with safety signage (it reminded me of Hank and the minerals in Breaking Bad), and this early incarnation of Homer actually has principles, even if he lacks the comforting warmth of the Christmas episode. Let's not overlook the fact he was prepared to widow Marge and orphan his kids.

Another sign this was produced before the Christmas episode is that Bart evidently hasn't learned his lesson about tattoos yet. That's a great introduction for Otto, who's portrayed as an even more dangerously reckless candidate for a school bus driver than I remembered, though the introduction for Mr. Burns isn't as intimidating as he'd go on to become. Yes, this is the episode where Smithers is black too - when you're primarily rewatching the early years to see how the characters and series gradually developed, major glitches like that are fun Easter eggs (Lou's yellow in the next one too).
"There's only one thing we can do: take advantage of the old guy" - Bart Simpson

There's No Disgrace Like Home (1x04) **

One of the legendary first season episodes, it's another I probably hadn't watched since the mid-90s when the show was still fresh (for a non-satellite UK viewer anyway), or I would certainly have picked up on how out of character most of these characters are. The roles of Marge and Homer are basically reversed as Homer goes to extremes to teach his family to respect each other - even pawning their beloved TV! - while she rolls around drunk half the time. Lisa's more competitive and mischievous than she'd become almost instantly after this, when the writers presumably realised they already had Bart.

Most early Simpsons merchandise centred around the notion of the dysfunctional family, which is at its most exaggerated here - the origin of that over-used "nice, normal family" quote. I never really considered the Simpsons to be that unruly, but I guess I'll have to wait and see.

Since I seem to be mostly complaining, I'll point out that the sycophantic Burns/Smithers dynamic is firmly established here, which was always one of my favourite things about the series. Itchy & Scratchy make their first appearance too, but it's fair to say I'm not as crazy about those bits as when I was a comic-gore-obsessed kid. As I haven't watched the series for a good while, it hasn't really struck me how small the supporting cast is compared to later on, but seeing Marvin Monroe again rubbed it in. Based on his face showing up in all the early Simpsons video games and things, you'd expect him to have gone on to greater things, but I don't remember ever seeing him again after this season.
"Be normal! Be normal!" - Homer Simpson

Bart the General (1x05) **

Another school episode, I didn't enjoy these as much as the family/Homer-centric episodes even when I was the age these characters are supposed to be, and watching back as someone approaching 30 it does feel uncomfortably like an adult deliberately tuning into Rugrats or something. At least Homer and Grampa are around to dispense irresponsible advice and guide these children on the inevitable path to destruction.

Since these episodes are clearly making me overly sentimental, my favourite scene was Bart sticking up for Lisa in front of the bullies. That was just nice. The rest was pretty silly - I can't imagine many adults tuning into this episode in 1989 based on the hype and deciding to stick with the series.
"You can push them out of a plane, you can march them off a cliff, you can send them off to die on some godforsaken rock, but for some reason you can't slap 'em" - Abraham Simpson

Moaning Lisa (1x06) ****

I mentioned last time that these episodes are making me overly sentimental, and this is probably the best example there'll ever be, unless they made some bereavement episode that's so tragic I've blocked it from memory. While Homer's suicidal depression stood out as overly dark and reckless a few episodes previously, Lisa's "sadness" is treated much more sensitively, without actually making the audience depressed. As her confidante Bleeding Gums Murphy points out, she doesn't really have any problems, it's just one of those things. I wouldn't be surprised if the BBC screens this episode with one of those "if you have been affected by issues discussed in this programme..." helpline banners.

I didn't expect one of my favourite episodes of the season to focus on Lisa, but maybe she was always one of the most well-defined characters (I remember 'Lisa's Substitute' being great too), before they turned her into an angry activist caricature later on. Her bonding with Marge is borderline tear-jerking, and if you're too manly for such sappy things, there's a funny sub-plot where Homer dedicates himself to whooping Bart's ass at Atari boxing, going so far as to have nightmares about it. While last week's episode could have theoretically put me off for good if I'd watched it back in the day, this one would have seen me stick around.
"I think the saddest day of my life was when I realised I could beat my dad at most things. And Bart experienced that at the age of four" - Homer Simpson

The Call of the Simpsons (1x07) ***

If you weren't a child in the early 1990s, you might not appreciate just how massive a deal The Simpsons was, and in the UK it was the exclusive privilege of rich kids with satellite TV. I can't say for sure whether the first episode I saw of this enticing series was this one - bought on over-priced VHS twinned with 'Bart the Genius' with no regard for the already lax continuity - or 'Treehouse of Horror' at one of those rich kids' Halloween parties. That party was my first exposure to Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Bros 3 too, you could say it was formative. Lucky only-children.

A prized VHS possession over-watched even more than 'Bart the Genius,' I already knew exactly what happened and what everyone said in every single scene despite (probably) not having watched it for 20-or-so years, but there were a few things I could appreciate more now that I've experienced both sides of the child/parent age spectrum and understand why my mum used to enjoy watching these with us. Things that went over my head as a kid but were much more enjoyable now include Homer's casual revelation that he opens Flanders' mail, the smart vultures opting to follow the clueless Homer rather than the more responsible Marge, and the ridiculously over-the-top sales patter of the RV salesman who flat-out compares Homer to a god. Actually, that whole scene was confusing to me as a seven-year-old, I preferred it when they got to the woods and fell off waterfalls.

Having now established itself as an animated series striving for realism (with the occasional dream sequence), this is the first episode to go completely nuts. The whole family is placed in life-threatening danger, some of them on several occasions, and the whole thing is squarely Homer's fault. It's mostly a Homer-Bart episode, with some nice back-and-forth wisecracking, but this time around I enjoyed Marge and Lisa's intentionally dull domestic scenes showing where the sanity lies in the family.
"I've murdered us all!" - Homer Simpson

The Telltale Head (1x08) ***

Another action-oriented episode, the framing device of Bart telling the story makes it more intriguing, I don't care if it's a cheap gimmick improvised in the editing room. There's nothing like a torch-wielding vigilante mob to bring people together, and this is the first real mixing of various supporting characters from back when the cast was still manageable.

This is another episode for the temporarily sensationally popular Bart, in the couple of years before everyone realised they liked Homer best, and it's another great negative example of parenting as Homer's terrible advice encourages Bart to walk the dark path. Alright, Jimbo and his gang had some influence too.

There's another early-first-season oddity in the brief, silent appearance of a primitive Sideshow Bob and a few familiar images for any vintage Simpsons fans who persuaded their parents to buy the relatively poor cash-in video game Bart Versus the Space Mutants.
- "I love you, Smithers."
- "Feeling is more than mutual, sir" - Burns and Smithers

Life on the Fast Lane (1x09) **

I'm trying not to be overly generous to these formative episodes, keeping in mind what the show will become, but there's really nothing wrong with this one - it's just a little simplistic and lacking the diverting sub-plots that have already been established for viewers who aren't gripped by the main feature. There sadly isn't much of that here, we just see Homer left in charge of the home while Marge is out dallying and he isn't as amusingly incompetent as you'd expect.

This is the one I recall seeming the most risque and adult of the early episodes I saw as a kid, and with Marge seriously considering infidelity it is pretty serious. Although the character's purpose is largely that of a sensible contrast to her ridiculous husband, we've seen some of Marge's flaws before - most notably in the family therapy episode, but everyone was out of character in that one, so maybe it doesn't count.

If the studio tried to squeeze more money out of rich fans by releasing character-specific box-sets, this would be the first episode on The Essential: Marge. But really, would anyone buy the Marge one? Let's find out.
"I'm going to the back seat of my car with the woman I love and I won't be back for ten minutes!" - Homer Simpson

Homer's Night Out (1x10) ***

Another fairly heavy-handed morality tale, this pairs up nicely with the previous one, though it was supposed to go out first and Marge's anger at Homer's straying is less hypocritical that way. I'm going to make the effort to keep clear of reference material after this season and remind myself it's just a TV show. They're just drawings.

This episode introduces Lenny and Carl, though without much characterisation beyond Blokes. It also confirms a couple of things: Springfield is a cess-pit of sleaze and Barney doesn't have a girlfriend after all, making that woman in the first episode even more suspicious. (It's just a TV show).

I always liked the justice in Bart's squid scene (what did he expect when he ordered that?), but it's fair to say his 'miniature' spy camera has been overtaken by advances in technology and now looks ridiculously non-stealthy. And even in spite of all the strip clubs, this is actually quite an innocent portrayal of the pre-internet world, where an entire community can be titillated and aroused by a photo of a fat man dancing with a clothed woman.

Supplemental: I'm pretty sure Homer's "oh no" from this episode was sampled in the low-budget Amiga game Intruder Alert for the appearance of the 'Homer' homing robot.

Supplemental 2: What is going on here?

"Why are all the good things so tasty?" - Homer Simpson

The Crepes of Wrath (1x11) ***

I'm surprised this one's from so early on - it might be the first episode that doesn't have that distinctive season one feel, but I'm not sure exactly why. Has Dan Castellaneta settled into Homer's voice now? Are the characters drawn better? (Certainly compared to 'Bart the Genius'). Even Skinner's acting more like Skinner, which is largely thanks to his mother showing up.

I didn't see this one until the BBC started showing the series embarrassingly late in the mid-to-late 90s, but Bart's slave labour predicament is still just as depressing as I remembered. More light-hearted is his foreign exchange partner's suspicious enthusiasm for the nuclear power plant and Homer's bumbling, accidental treason. He means well.

This has the dubious honour of being the first international / ironic racism episode too. I know they crack out a few great ones, but it also heralds some of the worst excesses to come. I finally get the joke in Homer's "Albanian" mistake now.
"Your paper thin commitment to your children sends shivers down my spine" - Lisa Simpson

Krusty Gets Busted (1x12) ****

So this is probably the best episode of the first season, unless you catch me on a rainy, miserable day when I might favour 'Moaning Lisa.' As a child, it was a great introduction to the sleuth genre as Bart and Lisa piece together subtle clues that only the most eagle-eyed/eared viewers would have spotted without prodding, several years down the line. This also means the writers and animators shot themselves in the elongated foot by making future continuity slip-ups all the more apparent to their attentive viewers.

Krusty is one of the weirdest characters they've thrown out thus far, so it's comforting to get some back story that makes him more credible. As a kid, I might not have picked up on some of the darker aspects of Krusty's media and merchandising empire - selling dolls that advertise cereal, encouraging the child audience to commit to killing themselves if he went off the air. They even circle the abyss of self-referential meta-humour as Marge takes issue with the violence of Itchy & Scratchy, but they don't fall in yet. That godforsaken 'Behind the Laughter' episode is still a good way off.

I don't need to describe what happens in this episode, which is probably one of the best known and explains the plot in the title if you haven't seen it for a while ("honey, which one is 'Bart Gets an Elephant' again?") So instead I'll stick to highlighting more things that struck me 20-something years on - the brilliant gag that concludes Patty and Selma's slideshow; Chief Wiggum's ethnicity switching between plain yellow and mustard; and Sideshow Bob's ridiculous outfit that he persists in wearing even when he has a say in the matter.

The Simpsons has truly shaken off its shaky roots now and is on a roll... until the next episode.
"I would have gotten away with it too if it weren't for these meddling kids" - Sideshow Bob

Some Enchanted Evening (1x13) ***

It was unfair to bump this to the end of the year, as it's a bit of a shock to go back to the wobbly style of the early season after the writers, voice actors, artists and animators have settled into their respective styles.

It was intended to be the first episode before it got monumentally screwed up and needed to be re-worked, and that much is obvious from the basic introductions to the characters to the remake of the original Simpsons short at the beginning as the family tucks into breakfast. I'm not going to pretend I ever watched The Tracy Ullman Show, not being American and not being born until the mid-80s, but I have YouTube, I know these things.

It's visually awkward in the same way as 'There's No Disgrace Like Home,' but at least the characters largely act like themselves this time, especially Marge the unappreciated housewife, and it's so down-to-earth and domestic that it feels weird to put the kids in actual danger towards the end. Personally, my biggest disappointment is that traffic reporter Arnie Pye's predecessor (Brother? Cousin?), Bill Pye, is unamusingly aware of the pun potential of his surname. Featuring my all-time favourite Simpsons joke would have lifted this one considerably, but I still have it to look forward to.
"If you raise three children who can knock out and hogtie a perfect stranger, you must be doing something right" - Marge Simpson

Bart Gets an F (2x01) ****

This is The Simpsons you know - the classic opening sequence is in place and the characters' facial proportions don't change with every scene (only sometimes), but the focus is still more fairly split between the Simpson generations than it would become. Because it was 1990, they chose a Bart episode to start the season, and it surprisingly goes against the grain of what parents whose only knowledge of the show came from their children's T-shirts thought Bart was all about.

I didn't expect to have my emotions played with when watching this fun 25-year-old cartoon show, which shows how little I took in the blatant moral messages back when I was Bart's age and technically more susceptible to his slacker attitude and temporary turnaround here. That's alright, I was more of a Martin Prince character anyway, literally reading books on the school playing field by myself and befriending bad kids to improve my credentials.

This is probably one of the best Springfield Elementary episodes - I'm sure my view on that will change after I'm through with a few more classic seasons - and it feels a lot like a sequel to 'Bart the Genius,' though with the characters acting more like themselves and being rendered correctly. Dr. J shows up again, maybe for the last time, and we once again gain insight into where Bart's attitude and failings come from as Homer fails to take in a word that's being said. Hopefully this caused a few of those complaining parents of Simpsons viewers to take a look at themselves and see what's really affecting their kids.

There are some very memorable scenes, both in and out of Bart's unconscious, and you can't help feeling for the little guy as he genuinely tries to learn something, anything. Those people who complained about Bart being a negative role model for struggling kids really missed the point - there were already enough sickeningly successful characters on TV, it's only fair that the underachievers of the world got representation too.

The biggest sign that we're no longer in formative Simpsons territory is that there aren't any odd details like race-changing characters to point out this time. The main curiosity is the heavy reading that seems to be required of these fourth grade kids - my school books still had large text and colourful pictures by that point. I enjoyed the gullible school nurse too, she can't last long.
- "As God is my witness, I will pass the fourth grade!"
- "And if you don't, at least you'll be bigger than the other kids" - Bart and Homer

Simpson and Delilah (2x02) ****

That's two episodes in a row they've bothered to animate a new couch gag for - seeing that kind of unnecessary effort makes me more inclined to rate favourably. As it turns out, this is another great episode anyway, which might annoyingly mean we're now into an era where the writers can never go wrong. If I wanted to watch something that was reliably magnificent every week I'd watch Breaking Bad again, give me something to poke fun at! Alright, I guess the tip-toeing around stating Karl's obvious sexuality does look a little coy when you've been spoiled by gay romping scenes in mainstream network TV for a few years, and it helps to put these episodes in their historical contexts when they neglect to show Bart's cutting-edge video games.

You know the story, it's the one where Homer grows hair and is suddenly treated like a king. If you were born in the 90s or later, you know that Family Guy where Peter has cosmetic surgery and everyone treats him like a king? Imagine a funny version of that. While Homer's anxiety about his baldness may be a plot-specific issue that's never really addressed again, his general naivety and down-to-earth honest stupidity is all true to character, and Smithers is fleshed out as the scheming, unwaveringly devoted lackey we love.

The subtle visual gags keep getting better too. Homer receiving delighted waves from a funeral party cracked me up - his belief that he's the centre of the universe is so powerful, that makes it so.
"I am nature's greatest miracle!" - Homer Simpson

Treehouse of Horror (2x03) *****

One of the true classics, I was so pleased to see this is still as funny and subversive now I'm not pre-pubescent. I might have got more of a kick out of cartoon blood back then, but I enjoy the vintage horror tropes even more now I've seen the types of films, read the types of comics and watched the types of HBO adaptations they're paying tribute to. It all looks fantastic.

True to the horror anthology format, these unrelated tales of a haunted house, alien abduction and a surprising, extended literary homage are connected in only the most tenuous ways, from the linking segments of Bart and Lisa telling stories in the treehouse to James Earl Jones voicing various characters and the repeating trend of the Simpson family pissing off superior entities so much that they eventually decide they're better off without them.

'The Raven' is still one of the weirdest things this show ever did, and the hardest one of these terror tales to judge. When I was a kid, it was just a lot of archaic language and visuals of Homer chasing a Bart-bird, but now it feels more like that Romeo + Juliet film where elegant stanzas were angrily spat out by juveniles. It might be pompous or it might be brilliant, I still prefer the other two.
"Eat my shorts" - The Raven

Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish (2x04) ****

I didn't remember this being a Monty Burns episode, and it's fair to say the extended Citizen Kane homage/parody/theft went over my head in the years before I forced myself to watch that, largely for the purpose of getting references.

Burns was pretty well established in the first season, but this is a welcome chance to spend more time getting to know the delightfully despicable despot who doesn't even recognise the concept of smiling and has his safety net taken away when he discovers not every problem can be solved with a generous bribe. It's extremely satisfying to see him hoist by his own triclops trout at the end as an angry housewife destroys all the hard work of his slimy campaign team. We don't see the aftermath - I guess he coughed up for the plant improvements after all? A few measly million would be water off a duck's back. Plus, you know, it's a cartoon.

Conservative viewers are advised to put on their liberal caps to enjoy this scathing satire of the American election process. I was going to write 'democratic' rather than 'American,' in an attempt to avoid knee-jerk stereotypes, but subsequent election campaigns have only got more obscene. I guess enough people just don't watch The Simpsons.
"Don't take my word for it - let's ask an actor portraying Charles Darwin what he thinks..." - Charles Montgomery Burns

Dancin' Homer (2x05) ***

You don't have to like baseball to enjoy this episode, but it probably helps. At least the jokes don't rely on familiarity with the sport and its weird mascot tradition, but I just don't get the same cosy feeling from the Simpsons visiting stadiums and heading to the big city as I do from the more domesticated episodes. Another reason I won't keep watching into the jet-setting / historical re-enactment years.

After some fun but brief bonding between Simpsy and Burnsy again, which the frail overlord will instantly forget again, the story gets going as Homer's impromptu dancing bags him his second supplementary job for plot purposes (Mall Santa was #1) as the mascot of the Springfield Isotopes team. He then deals with the rise and fall of celebrity and Marge makes a self-referential joke about Simpsons T-shirts before everything conveniently returns to normal in time for the next episode.

There are still plenty of decent gags and character moments - Homer being inordinately impressed by street crime; Lisa realising she doesn't really have friends to leave behind - but this is my least favourite episode for a while. I don't understand how the sluggish Homer can suddenly backflip now (outside of him being an animated character who can do anything, I mean), and the brief tour of Capital City landmarks should have put a rest to that tedious debate over the Simpsons' home state long ago. It is a fictional one!
"I wonder why stories of degradation and humiliation make you more popular?" - Homer Simpson

Dead Putting Society (2x06) ****

It's the long-awaited debut of everyone's favourite zealot-next-door Ned Flanders. For real I mean - after a few scenes previously established Neddy as little more than Homer's residential rival, here he gains a family, a distinctive personality and fairly serious religious conviction, to the extent that he has the Reverend's home phone on speed dial. Thanks to Homer's long-term disinterest, we get to explore the Flandereses residence in his company for the first time, where he promptly makes an angry ass of himself and brings out the worst in Flanders too, who presumably calms down in the later seasons due to fatigue.

When Homer has the typically irresponsible idea to demonstrate his superiority over Flanders through their respective sons this becomes another sports episode, but crazy golf is more my kind of sport - a crazy one - so it gets a pass. While Flanders' fair and sympathetic approach is clearly the correct one, he's so plain ridiculous that you can't help rooting for Homer.
"Why do I get the feeling that some day I'll be describing this to a psychiatrist?" - Lisa Simpson

Bart vs. Thanksgiving (2x07) ****

I have to face the probability that there won't be a single episode from the next eight or so seasons that I haven't seen multiple times, but it's been long enough for dementia to keep most of the details fresh. Sometimes all I can really remember is the plot outline, so I didn't expect 'Bart runs away from Thanksgiving to teach his family a lesson, but he's back in time for dinner' to be so funny and touching. Yeah, they're making me soppy again.

There are lots of interesting details here that help to flesh out the wider world, from the introduction of Marge's disapproving mother to Bart's wanderings onto (literally) the wrong side of the tracks. I liked the knowing '"massage" parlour' particularly. Maggie even gets some rare characterisation and some dialogue, albeit in dream form.

As far as minor details though, I think Bart climbing out of his bedroom window via the treehouse formed the basis of the animated intro to the old Bart vs. the Space Mutants video game (it was the only good part) and we get the first real fourth wall breaking visual gag with a brief glimpse of a Bart Simpson parade balloon. How about that? A Thanksgiving episode that non-American viewers can enjoy too.
"I have laryngitis and it hurts to talk, so I'll just say one thing: you never do anything right" - Jackie Bouvier

Bart the Daredevil (2x08) *****

What's with all the great Bart episodes? I thought Homer was the funny one? There's still plenty of Homer in this one thankfully, once again serving to demonstrate where the little scamp gets it all from and making it clear that he'll never grow out of it. Yes, this is the one where Bart's inspired by a daredevil to perform life-threatening stunts, but it's Homer that puts the whole family at risk when he drives right into the destructive path of Truckasaurus.

The nature/nurture battle for Bart's development has been one of the series' main themes so far, and those Simpson women really have their work cut out battling Homer's genes. These episodes don't need to be psychoanalysed to be enjoyed though - look, Homer fell down the gorge again!
"I never realised TV was such a dangerous influence" - Marge Simpson

Itchy & Scratchy & Marge (2x09) ****

So this is where Lisa's activist streak comes from. Another one for the theoretical Marge Collection box set, her responsible parenting is taken to a logical and self-referential end point as she starts a successful protest movement against violence in cartoons.

It's one of their first really preachy episodes, but is at least commendably fair by presenting both sides of the argument. While creative liberty is preserved by the end, cartoons are shown to be holding kids back from enjoying more 'fulfilling' activities in a sequence reminiscent of Snow Day. Presumably, Kite Day was declared the second funnest day in the history of Springfield.

I guess the writers were taking on the burden of the burgeoning adult cartoon industry rather than responding to specific complaints here, as I don't remember The Simpsons being received as particularly controversial when I was a kid. My parents had no problem buying us the videos - unlike the more controversially titled South Park videos of a few years later that my grandparents weren't very impressed by! - but their heavy-handed arguments through opposing characters and self-aggrandising parallels with Renaissance sculptures will put off casual viewers who didn't want to be encouraged to think. Still, there's plenty of graphic cartoon violence for those people to enjoy.
"I never knew mice lived such interesting lives" - Homer Simpson

Bart Gets Hit by a Car (2x10) ****

Bart's near-death experience is an excuse for some supernatural antics in the afterlife, culminating in a refreshingly down-to-Earth portrayal of the Devil. Either that particular gimmick hadn't been overused in cartoons by this point or I just saw this one first.

Bart's enthusiastic response faced with his own death might be the funniest thing in the episode, which is impressive considering it sees the introductions of both the unqualified "Doctor" Nick Riviera and shady injury lawyer Lionel Hutz, who literally chases ambulances. Burns and Smithers get more screen time that's always welcome, and there's even miniscule development for another character who'd go on to become one of my favourites with Moe's reluctant and stingy 'generosity' at the end.

It's yet another certified classic that merits rewatching for the details. This could even work as an introduction for many young viewers about how the legal system works, its vulnerabilities and how two parties can remember the same events very differently. With some exaggerations, admittedly. It can be philosophical sometimes, but you shouldn't really get all your life lessons from The Simpsons.
"Remember: lie, cheat, steal and listen to heavy metal music" - The Devil

One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish (2x11) ****

The borderline racism of the sushi restaurant is excused by hiring actual Japanese(-American) actors to portray the characters and speak real words rather than yell random sounds. Most notable is George "Sulu" Takei, the first of several Star Trek actors to grace this animated series since their own animated series is best forgotten.

Even with the knowledge that Homer has endless seasons and careers lying ahead of him, it's still quite a bleak episode as he learns he 'might' have 24 hours to live (Dr. Hibbert isn't much of an improvement over Dr. Nick in truth) and seeks to fill his remaining day with meaningful activities. He takes it inspirationally well though, and I'll break out that dreaded word "sweet" again for Homer's bonding with his father. It's fitting to the series that Homer's own efforts to bond with Bart are less poignant.
"Goodbye Bart... I like your sheets" - Homer Simpson

The Way We Was (2x12) ***

It's flashback time, though thankfully not a clip show quite yet as we dive back into Homer and Marge's courtship and how it all began. While I prefer episodes grounded in the here and now, and the repetitive gags about Homer's ensuing baldness, weight gain and other twists on the downward spiral are overdone, this story strengthens the foundations of the fictional Springfield universe and is done very well.

While I'm not sure quite how they reconcile all the dates in future seasons when Bart and Lisa should technically be in their 30s, at this point the continuity is pretty water tight, and even confirms a point I picked up on in the previous episode that the conception of Bart, and Homer and Marge's ensuing shotgun wedding, weren't exactly according to plan.

While Homer's mainly a cute goofball, Marge feels very true to her future character and to Lisa's, getting a late start in bra-burning activism thanks to the more conservative society she was brought up in. If the episode does make you think too much, just enjoy the McBain.
"Son, don't overreach! Go for the dented car, the dead-end job, the less attractive girl" - Abraham Simpson

Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment (2x13) *****

This is one of the first real classics, though even at this early point I've probably started to forget what I've seen so far. With its epic Biblical intro and extensive discussions over the comparatively trivial crime of stealing cable, it's another story smart-arse kids can play to their parents who dismissed the show as immoral based on Bart T-shirt catchphrases.

I'm not bothering to keep track of production order vs. broadcast order any more, but Bart's excitement about Hell is consistent with his brief astral voyage down below, and the Simpsons getting cable is an excuse to poke fun at the types of terrible shows lurking lower down in the channels list. Speaking of terrible, this is also the welcome introduction of washed up actor Troy McClure, whose film credits are among my favourite one-liners in the show.

Bart even reveals an entrepreneurial spirit as he charges his school mates to come over and watch the adult channel. He even bothers with a top hat and everything, I like this kid. They might have attempted a modern remake of this plot with Bart downloading mp3s or something, it won't have been as good.
"Bart, you're no longer in Sunday school, don't swear" - Marge Simpson

Principal Charming (2x14) ***

It feels odd to get another episode focused on secondary characters so early, and I was surprised they managed to make me care about Patty and Selma, characters I used to be indifferent to at best. We also get to find out more about Skinner and his absence of life, and the last traces of that authority he commanded back in 'Bart the Genius' are eroded forever as he becomes Bart's bitch.

There are plenty of film references here if you like that sort of thing, from Hitchcock to Terminator. Even for films that don't exist with the continuity of the Space Mutants franchise: Space Mutants IV was showing back in 'The Tell-tale Head,' and here we see the fifth instalment, which looks to be exactly the same but with unnecessary Australian stereotypes. It's such a minor point and not worth dedicating an entire paragraph to in a review that hasn't even mentioned the episode's secondary plots of Bart's vain vandalism and Homer gorging at an all-you-can-eat restaurant (no, not that one), but it's these sort of details that impress me.
"Since I'm sure you'd only resent the pity of an eight-year-old niece, I'll simply hope that you're one of the statistically insignificant number of 40-year-old single women who ever find their fair prince" - Lisa Simpson

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2x15) ****

So few of these episodes aren't memorable classics. I wonder how many people of my generation have an intrinsic lexicon of Simpsons plots and quotes. It's more fun than knowing a religious text off by heart at least.

This is the episode where Homer finds out he has a half-brother, who also turns out to be the millionaire owner of a car company until he crosses paths with the Simpsons and loses everything. It would be utterly depressing if it wasn't so funny, and the presence of Danny DeVito as Herb really helps. Sideshow Bob's already a distant memory by this point - it feels like the series just spawned its first recurring villain, even if that isn't exactly how it pans out.
"She did things your mother would never do. Like have sex for money" - Abraham Simpson

Bart's Dog Gets an F (2x16) ***

They're referencing their own episode titles as established pillars of pop culture this early on - that's confidence! So is devoting an episode to a character that can't even speak (despite Homer's attempts to swindle prospective new owners over the phone), but really this episode about Santa's Little Helper provides a lot of funny and sad moments for the other members of the family. Except the baby, I guess one mute character was enough for one week.

I can imagine this being an affecting episode for any viewers who'd been through the experience of having to let a badly behaved pet go, but personally I don't have feelings either way for that mutt. If he was run over and replaced with Santa's Little Helper II at some point it wouldn't make a practical difference, this is his only centric episode I can remember and it's not one my favourites in the season.

Getting the dog trained out of this behaviour he'd never been shown to exhibit before and never will again is a neat way of avoiding having to add that piece of continuity to the growing writers' bible. What I like best is how each character's story ties in to the destruction - Bart's compassion, Lisa and Marge's quilt bonding and of course Homer's flashy trainers and big cookie being the biggest sacrifices of all.
"We never had a problem with a family member we can give away before" - Homer Simpson

Old Money (2x17) ***

A Grampa episode now - I guess they filled this season's Bart quota early - I feel Abe's one of those secondary characters who works better in the background, and in a year that's already had its share of sentimental episodes, this one didn't move me as much. Especially as the budding romance plot and observations on treatment of the elderly soon become a baser tale of greed that brings out the worst in the characters.

And do we get a lot of characters! This is Professor Frink's first appearance, portrayed as oddly eviller than he'd become (I guess Grampa's words of wisdom had a profound impact) and a nice, stupid scene with Moe and a treasure map that adds no depth to his character but makes him more likeable all the same.

The Simpsons getting trapped overnight in the wild felt like that episode where they got trapped overnight in the wild. My favourite part was Abe and Bea's unpleasant erotic pill popping, I can safely say it affected me more powerfully than the emotional scenes this time around.
"Grampa smells like a regular old man, which is more like a hallway in a hospital" - Homer Simpson

Brush with Greatness (2x18) ****

Some of these second season episodes have surprised me by coming earlier in the run than I expected, but this one went the other way - I was sure it was bundled on one of those season one VHS tapes we rented in the early 90s.

The disconnected plot elements could be seen as either a stream-of-consciousness demonstration of how real life has unpredictable twists and turns, or could mean they had stories about water slides, Homer's meagre weight loss and Marge painting Mr. Burns so they shoved them together. There is some overlap, but it basically becomes a different episode when Ringo Starr shows up on screen and old-school viewers let out a collective "oh, it's that one."

It's a better Marge episode than her others so far, while Homer's weight loss is basically played for laughs. I don't know why he adds so many pounds when he takes off his shirt, was that cotton really all that was holding the belly back? Meanwhile, I never realised how much of a despicable shill Krusty was when I was a kid, and the one-sided homoerotic interplay between Burns and Smithers takes on epic proportions here. We learn that Smithers considers Burns to be his best friend, while Burns thinks of Smithers as more like a doctor. The last line's a cracker.
"Once again the wheel has turned and Dame Fortune has hugged Montgomery Burns to her sweet, perfumed bosom" - Charles Montgomery Burns

Lisa's Substitute (2x19) *****

I don't remember Lisa episodes being this good, but so far she's probably the most reliable character in that regard. It's not that I like her the most - I find her a bit annoying even before she turns into a perpetually smarmy activist in later seasons - but the writers make it easy to feel for her as she deals with various life issues for the first time, especially when the people surrounding her are half insane.

Her substitute teacher and episodic crush, Mr. Bergstrom is one of the most memorable and well-rounded guest characters of the early years, from his irresponsible entrance firing off toy pistols to his immodest exit as he admits he probably is the best teacher around. Some of Lisa and Bart's classmates get a little more development too, especially Ralph, though his intelligence doesn't seem to be especially below par for his age just yet.

Bart's B-story where he runs for class president is less captivating, as it should be. I was a bit disappointed to see his clowning antics gaining such appreciation from his classmates, I always suspected he was something of a weirdo with a niche group of friends. The scene near the beginning where he shows the class a home movie of a cat giving birth is the best part, even if I still have no idea why it's been allowed to happen.

It wouldn't be a truly great episode without some Homer antics too, and here we're treated to his self-loathing internal monologue (for the first time?) and heightened emotional instability that means he needs as much mothering as his kids do. One of the best episodes so far - I'll try to keep track of things like that while it's still possible, before the sheer quantity of episodes engulfs me.
"I always knew you had personality. The doctor said it was hyperactivity, but I knew better" - Homer Simpson

The War of the Simpsons (2x20) ****

This was one of my favourites as a kid, and it still stands up. There's lots of joy to be had in the main story of Homer and Marge's one-sided marital problems and the kids taking advantage of Grampa while they're away, and it's another episode that gives every character something to do. Even Maggie helps to cover up an incriminating stain at the end.

There might be the most controversial innuendo in the show so far as Homer daydreams about the fun that can be had in bed - the reveal is a mighty sandwich, but for a second there it seems they're hinting at a non-reproductive sexual act. The flashback to Bart terrorising the babysitter even as a toddler is fun too, and a lot more insane than many of their imaginative flashback scenes.

Snake gets his first appearance here, as Otto irresponsibly invites him to the second, more boisterous Simpson house party; there's some surprising attention to continuity as Barney remembers his brief date with Patty (even if it was actually with Selma, but I don't blame him there); and the one-time estranged/besotted couple John and Gloria make a memorable contribution, especially for contradicting Reverend Lovejoy's optimistic prediction that marriage reconciliation can be achieved in a single weekend by performing the magic in less than a minute.
"I gave up fame and breakfast for my marriage" - Homer Simpson

Three Men and a Comic Book (2x21) ***

Before being a nerd was acceptable and Comic-Con was legitimate subject matter for motion pictures, this episode doubtless introduced the world of conventions to many younger viewers. It also introduced Bart's 'alter ego' (if you can even go that far), Bartman, whose appearance is solely an attempt to save three dollars on the ticket price but who spawned an entire sub-genre in the Simpsons media empire. Playing any of those bad Simpsons video games of the early 90s, you'd be forgiven for thinking Bartman played a more crucial role in the series. I even had a poster in my bedroom.

From Bartman and the very title onwards this is drowned in references, many of which veer into the sci-fi nerd spectrum so I have the chance to understand them for a change. I don't get the explicit reference with Bart's adult voice-over, but it's enough to know it's a reference to something. I like it a lot.

Comic Book Guy gets his first appearance, and there's little sign that he'll be so hard to get rid of in future episodes. I'm not really a fan. My favourite part was Homer applauding Bart's attention to detail as he admits that bugging him relentlessly usually succeeds in getting the kids what they want. His turning the tables on Bart is sweet justice for anyone who was a little irked by the likes of "will you take us to Mount Splashmore?" ad nauseam.
"Filthy, but genuinely arousing" - Mrs. Glick

Blood Feud (2x22) ****

I-Don't-Know Burns looms over more of these early episodes than I realised, and after being stripped and ridiculed in 'Brush with Greatness' he regains his villainous presence here, to the point that even the pathologically loyal Smithers has a moral crisis and goes against orders. There are less homoerotic undertones this time around, and they're missed.

This has one of the show's best endings as the characters try to work out what moral lessons have been learned through this tale of generosity, greed and bitterness, ultimately concluding that there isn't one and some stuff just happened. While some of my favourite episodes have been those with thoughtful messages and character development, it's nice to take a break and just enjoy watching Homer get angry now and again.

One time I had a dream I was taking a bite of a big baguette and woke up chomping the pillow like Homer does here. Any time you see comparisons between yourself and the Simpson patriarch is a cause for concern. I only just noticed Doctor Hibbert's colour discrepancy in that screenshot too, I was more interested in Burns' arse at the time.
"Hey there Mr. Brown Shoes, how about that local sports team?" - Charles Montgomery Burns

Stark Raving Dad (3x01) **

It feels as if this episode was contrived around the Michael Jackson guest spot, whether that was the case or not, and despite a few pseudo-cheeky jokes it's essentially the type of extended reverential cameo I never enjoyed in this series. But who knows, maybe I'll feel differently when the likes of Mulder and Scully show up in the future and it's someone I like? They at least came up with a more creative and plausible reason for the cameo here than most.

The MacGuffin of Homer getting sectioned for wearing a pink shirt feels pretty contrived too, and Bart being kind to Lisa is a bit out of character. The One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest references are some of the most blatant and laboured they've shoehorned in so far, though that could just be because I get them this time.

Season one had a couple of stinkers, but you can forgive season one. This is the first episode that actually disappointed me.
"You're a credit to dementia" - Lisa Simpson

Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington (3x02) ***

The Simpsons gets political, but only in a general anti-corruption way, this isn't a South Park level of specific satire. It's also one of the first episodes of The Simpsons Go Somewhere, which was never one of my favourite sub-genres, but I'm keeping an open mind.

This one was pretty good, and it helps that I can relate to the characters' delight about the simple touches in hotels and Bart pissing off the guy with the laptop by tilting his plane seat back. I am that guy with the laptop.
"Cartoons don't have any deep meaning, they're just stupid drawings that give you a cheap laugh" - Homer Simpson

When Flanders Failed (3x03) ***

Another early instalment in the entirely one-sided Homer/Ned rivalry, the Flanders family is reduced to sleeping in a car eating lighter-heated marshmallows after Ned's unwise investment in a left-handed store predictably fails to succeed.

Whether you take the stance that Neddie's bad luck was down to poor business skills or really was Homer's bitter wish coming true, everything turns out okay when it transpires that practically the entire supporting cast is left-handed. At least for the purposes of this episode, I doubt it ever comes up again.

Meanwhile, Bart fakes attending a karate class to squeeze arcade money out of Homer, a less harrowing sub-plot that throws out plenty of classic lines, including Lisa's apt description of her brother as a "scavenger of human misery." The biggest surprise watching these early years back is that Lisa might be the best character, I didn't see that coming.
"Affordable tract housing made us neighbours but you made us friends" - Ned Flanders

Bart the Murderer (3x04) ****

This is a great Bart episode, as the exaggerated misfortunes of the worst day of his life culminate in a load of loaded guns being pointed at the little menace. His luck soon changes however as he falls in with what could be optimistically called 'the wrong crowd,' and learns the hard way that crime doesn't pay. Apart from all the riches and everything, but you have to be a back-stabbing arsehole to get it.

It gets a little madcap towards the end as the insanity surrounding Bart's trial is more far-fetched than his dream sequence. There's a surprising cameo from Sideshow Bob as Bart's strangely silent cell mate that works as a call-back to season one but is very oddly uneventful in the context of his later vengeful appearances. I guess he was silently plotting or something.
"Thank god we live in a country so hysterical over crime that a ten-year-old child can be tried as an adult" - Charles Montgomery Burns

Homer Defined (3x05) **

This might be a first - an episode I'm not sure if I've ever seen before. At least that was what I thought most of the way through, until Milhouse's forced estrangement from Bart started to feel familiar. It's a candidate, at least - I wonder how many other episodes won't have been relentlessly burned into my retinas from Sky One marathons on teenage summer holidays when I should have been out having formative experiences.

Sadly, it wasn't the undiscovered gem I was hoping for, with one of the most over-dramatic Hollywood plots yet as Homer saves two towns from nuclear meltdowns through fluke and achieves fame as a meme. Everyone instantly forgets they ever heard of him before next week's episode, of course - there was no one asking "wasn't that the Dancing Homer mascot guy?" or "is he related to Bart Simpson, who achieved temporary notoriety on a false murder charge last week?" Imagine if all of these wacky episodes actually had consequences.
"'Meltdown,' it's one of those annoying buzzwords. We prefer to call it an unrequested fission surplus" - Charles Montgomery Burns

Like Father, Like Clown (3x06) ***

It's odd that they chose Krusty of all the various supporting characters to grant this level of expansion and personal insights, when he worked perfectly well as a freakish, outmoded entertainer. But 'Krusty Gets Busted' revealed the man behind the make-up and this one gives him a father, a difficult career ladder and a religious background.

Not only does Krusty resemble Homer (to a lazy extent), but he's just as emotionally unstable and prone to break down in public. He's an apt symbol for screwed-up kid's TV presenters, though hopefully they never planned going down that route at any point.

It's nice to see Bart putting his mind to something as he and Lisa exhaust all avenues to reunite Krusty with his estranged Rabbi father, but this is one of the episodes that favours sentimentality over gags (unless some of the Jewish jokes just went over my head), though it doesn't qualify for my soppy hall of fame alongside various Lisa episodes.
"A man who envies our family is a man who needs help" - Lisa Simpson

Treehouse of Horror II (3x07) ****

The novelty value of the first Halloween special is already gone by the time this sequel rolls around, but it's still a fun gimmick and as a fan of those old horror anthology films and series, these are a welcome break from the domestic norm. They'll presumably stand out less in the years to come, when every other episode sees the characters daydreaming about Bible stories and other literary parodies.

The titular concept of the treehouse has already been abandoned, with this season's terror tales being the candy-induced nightmares of Lisa, Bart and Homer. Lisa's story is a riff on 'The Monkey's Paw,' a classic horror short that many people in my generation came across in horror story anthologies and realised "oh, that's what they were doing." The return of Kodos and Kang feels superfluous (and will only get more so in the years ahead), but the writers use the non-canon freedom to take pot shots at The Simpsons' over-the-top merchandise empire.

Bart's story is the most entertaining, this time taking on the classic Twilight Zone episode 'It's a Good Life' (another one I wouldn't discover until later life) as Bart has Springfield and possibly the world under his thumb due to his ability to read thoughts of dissent and basically do anything else he wants. Some of Bart's creations are repulsive, and his nonchalance to the whole thing is very sinister (just look at the screenshot).

The final tale is basically a Frankenstein plot with the delightful duo of Mr. Burns and Smithers searching for a suitable brain to power Burns' metal monster, and settling for the brain of Homer instead. The scene where Burns operates and briefly wears Homer's brain as a Davy Crockett hat redeems this episode an awful lot.
"I'm a stupid moron with an ugly face and big butt and my butt smells and I like to kiss my own butt" - Moe Szyslak

Lisa's Pony (3x08) *****

This is much more a Homer episode than a Lisa one, again proving his fatherly credentials under pressure as he works two jobs to pay for the pony he purchased Lisa's affection with. If you don't remember a pony trampling around the Simpson house in future episodes that's because things inevitably return to normal by the closing credits - something they later parody in that episode where Snowball II dies and gets replaced with an identical cat for ease of continuity (hey look, I gave credit to something from post-millennium Simpsons!)

There are plenty of laughs along the journey to the reset button ending though, especially Homer's dream sequence behind the wheel that miraculously doesn't end in disaster. It's fun to see Homer working under Apu's thumb at the Kwik-E-Mart too, even though Homer's episodic employment would become a symptom of the show's declining originality later. And as much as Lisa's sax solo would have been improved if Homer hadn't let her down and delivered the reed on time, there's no way she would have won the contest after the twins' knife-throwing act, so maybe that's some consolation.
"First you didn't want me to get the pony, now you want me to take it back. Make up your mind!" - Homer Simpson

Saturdays of Thunder (3x09) ***

This is another kid-centric story in the vein of 'Bart the General' that felt at times uncomfortably like I was watching a channel I'm too old for, but fortunately Homer's still around. Still, I would have enjoyed this tale of father-son bonding more if 'Bart the Daredevil' hadn't done it first and better, if it didn't come so hot on the heels of the similar 'Lisa's Pony' and if soapbox racing felt like a real thing kids would actually do in 1992. It's more like a plot from a (U.S.) Dennis the Menace cartoon.

Thankfully, McBain comes to the rescue with what might be the most entertaining clip we've been privy to from that movie. For chronology nerds (watching the series in order means I can be one too), this is clearly supposed to be the same McBain movie that received a high-profile box office release the previous season, now available on video. These details help considerably to make this two-dimensional jaundiced world all the more real.
"It's my dad. Lying there on the couch, drinking a beer, staring at the TV. I've never seen him like that" - Bart Simpson

Flaming Moe's (3x10) ****

It's Moe's turn in the limelight and you'll come out the other end loving or hating the back-stabbing barkeep. He's one of my favourites, finally gaining some depth to his character beyond thriftiness.

It's also another chronicle of Homer's gradual slide into insanity. He may have the protection of that Not Insane certificate from the season opener, but after forced sleeplessness led to him falling asleep at the wheel in the last episode, here his bitter jealousy sees him hallucinate Moe's name and face everywhere. Their reconciliation at the end might be a bit of a cop-out, but it's a relief.

Another character who's developed down a different direction is Edna Krabappel, who was revealed as an aggressive cougar in 'Lisa's Substitute' but here goes all-out. The appearance of the real Aerosmith is another step towards the bandwagon-jumping of later years but is less contrived than Michael Jackson's at least, and I especially liked Bart's prank phone calls to Moe's Tavern reaching their logical conclusion as a bona fide Hugh Jass takes the call. Does that mean that gag's being put to rest now? I seriously doubt it.
"It's like there's a party in my mouth and everyone's invited" - Moe Szyslak

Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk (3x11) *****

This is the best and funniest episode so far (a sure contender for my top ten), partly for presenting the latest chapter in Homer losing his grip on reality as he takes an imaginary trip to the Land of Chocolate, one of the all-time best cutaways. For an episode featuring German caricatures, this is also impressively light on cheap Nazi jokes. Monty Burns is permitted a few, since he's an old-timer.

It could be the best episode for Burnsie too, from his consolation by Snappy the Alligator to the Burns-and-the-bees symbolism as he finds a new means of presiding over drones in his free time. The queen bee being called "Smithers" made me laugh harder than anything in the series so far.

It would have been interesting if Burns had left the plant for good, just to shake things up (though probably to the show's detriment), and we can share the joy of his payback at the end. The episode has impressive elements of continuity - stating that Homer's held his position as safety inspector for two years - and elsewhere flagrantly disregards it, as the plant's employees cash in their shares and become temporarily stinking rich until the ad break when everything's back to normal including Lenny's face.
"What good is money if you can't inspire terror in your fellow man?" - Charles Montgomery Burns

I Married Marge (3x12) ****

I never realised these pre-season-one flashback episodes were presented in such a linear fashion. I wasn't a big fan of Homer and Marge's high school days last season, but this instalment covering their shotgun wedding, the birth of Bart and Homer's career trajectory is a lot more entertaining.

For continuity nerds like me, the specific on-screen dating of 1980 firmly grounds these characters' origins, which makes their agelessness an issue if you're the type of person who thinks about these things too seriously. Even if I cut off my viewing after season nine to avoid the steep decline, Bart and Lisa's late 90s references are going to start pushing the credibility. The presence of a growth-stunting nuclear power plant nearby can be a continuity comfort at times like that (it might also explain why they're yellow).

It's soppy in places as you'd expect from these relationship-heavy episodes, but there are still plenty of fun moments, from Homer spoiling The Empire Strikes Back (nice in-universe continuity with a poster for the first Space Mutants movie too) to Burns delighting at the ironic twists of Ms. Pacman and Bart mooning the ultrasound. Does this episode confirm that those spikes are actually the shape of his scalp then...?
"Listen to me, Mister Big Shot. If you're looking for the kind of employee that takes abuse and never sticks up for himself, I'm your man! You can treat me like dirt and I'll still kiss your butt and call it ice cream! And if you don't like it, I can change!" - Homer Simpson

Radio Bart (3x13) ***

This is the point I've finally given up trying to make sense of continuity in this series, as Bart who claimed to be 10-and-a-half in the second season has a birthday and remains 10. They also mention a recent Christmas that isn't the one we saw at the start of the show, plus they celebrate Halloween every year. Have I finally accepted this is just a cartoon?

That's an easy task today as this is one of the more traditional plot-over-character episodes, in which Bart cultivates the hoax that a little boy is trapped down a well only to get trapped there himself. There are stabs at the monetising of causes to sell tribute records and merchandise that still resonate (pick your noteworty natural disaster and you'll see), and Sting's guest appearance is at least a little more self-mocking than Michael Jackson's, though still doesn't go as far as it could. But they'll never go too far in pissing off the celebrity guests - remember when Tony Blair showed up only to be respectfully fawned over? I wish I didn't.
"There's so many things I'll never get a chance to do. Smoke a cigarette, use a fake ID, shave a swear word in my hair..." - Bart Simpson

Lisa the Greek (3x14) ***

I'd like to say this is another episode I'd never seen before, but there's still that nagging sense of forgotten familiarity. It could always have been something I saw on a clip show, so I can't really count it - I think there's only been one so far.

It's another episode with Homer-Lisa bonding, which have a great track record, but it doesn't have the depth of 'Lisa's Pony' or 'Lisa's Substitute.' Still, the duo is more successful than Marge-Bart in their B-story of making Bart dress up like a young Doctor Who fan.

Lisa's strong sense of ethics continues to develop as she gives away her ill-gotten gains and forces her father to choose between her love and her uncanny football predictions. Fortunately, Homer doesn't go down the full Heisenberg route in his comparatively tame equivalent of Breaking Bad.
"Money comes and money goes, but what I have with my daughter can go on for eight more years!" - Homer Simpson

Homer Alone (3x15) ****

That's a bit of a misleading title, as this is primarily a Marge episode - even if it's her absence at a health spa that drives much of the story. I'm mostly just disappointed that it wasn't the one I expected, where Homer skips church (I have that to look forward to at some point), but this was still a really good one.

While the recent run of episodes has been pointing to Homer's inevitable breakdown, they hit us out of left field with the stresses of domestic life sending Marge over the edge. The fact that I identified Marge with my own mother here more than in any other episode means I probably have some belated apologising to do there.

Attempts to establish Homer as a decent parent break down here too, as he loses Maggie in a sequence that could have easily have turned horrific if this was a different show. The musical sting as Homer's put on hold by the Department of Missing Babies ('Baby Come Back') was one of my favourite bits, but can only take second place to one of my all-time favourite Simpsons gags as traffic reporter Arnie Pye introduces his segment 'Arnie in the Sky.' I remember watching this at a friend's house some time in my teens and that cracking us up well past the end credits. You'd think someone would have pointed it out to Arnie.
"I'm Troy McClure. You might remember me from such movies as Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die and Gladys the Groovy Mule" - Troy McClure

Bart the Lover (3x16) ****

Another misleading episode title, this isn't the one where Bart falls in love with the new neighbour, it's the one where he fakes a love interest for his teacher. Edna Krabappel is finally granted characterisation beyond desperately horny divorcee ('Flaming Moe's'), even if that's still the main focus of her story.

This overly personal prank is handled well, with a sweet resolution that sees the whole Simpson family trying to control the emotional damage their son has created, but it can't help being upstaged by the time-padding B-story where Homer starts a swear jar and is subsequently cursed to endure more pratfalls and rake impalings than ever before in an amusingly painful montage.
"Fiddle-de-dee, that will require a tetanus shot" - Homer Simpson

Homer at the Bat (3x17) *****

This episode surprised me on two counts - for being an episode about sport and packed with celebrity guests that turned out to be one of the best of the year. It doesn't matter that I have no idea who any of these baseball 'superstars' are, and can't appreciate how accurate their caricatures or amusingly out-of-character their behaviour, the ensemble helps to make this episode stand out and they all have distinctive flair. I especially liked Darryl Strawberry sucking up to Burns throughout only to be replaced with Homer at the end. What's Strawberry been up to recently?

The closing minutes are so dense with visual treats that there isn't time to recover between Homer scratching himself, Burns' brain massage and the world's least coordinated peanut vendor. There are also more anti-life-lessons as Homer teaches Bart not to bother trying at anything because there will always be better people than you - unless they all suffer random and unexpected misfortunes just before the big game and you get your chance to shine by pure fluke. We learn there's always hope.

I really loved The Springfield Mystery Spot too, despite it being the most credulity-stretching thing they've ever presented outside of the Halloween episodes. What is it?
"Can't... lift... arm... or... speak... at... normal... rate" - Mike Scioscia

Separate Vocations (3x18) ****

Back down to Earth with a role-reversing Bart and Lisa episode where he gets a taste of authority and becomes a snitch for Principal Skinner and she loses faith in a successful future and breaks bad. This is exactly the sort of episode third seasons are for, when even casual viewers are able to sum up your regular characters in a concise sound-bite that you temporarily break down.

Lisa's story is less entertaining than Bart's, though it probably has resonance with viewers who went through similar situations, as her antics tend to. Bart's isn't especially true to his character, though the notion of someone like him becoming a police officer in the future doesn't stretch plausibility. Not as plausible as him becoming a drifter, though in his daydream he seems content enough with that outcome.

I remember my class doing one of these terrible vocation questionnaires at some point in the late 90s. I don't remember what mine said, but it definitely wasn't anything as suitable for my interests and laziness as 'freelance writer.'
"You've got the brains and the talent to go as far as you want, and when you do I'll be right there to borrow money" - Bart Simpson

Dog of Death (3x19) ****

Another episode about Santa's Little Helper, I forgot about this one when I arrogantly predicted that character had outlived his usefulness in 'Bart's Dog Gets an F.' This will definitely be his last episode though, because no others sprang to mind in the two seconds I just spent thinking about it. He'll probably be back soon.

This isn't only the one where the dog needs an expensive operation and runs away to be trained by Monty Burns, though the seriousness of that common domestic plight is mined for lots of laughs. It's also the one where Springfield goes temporarily lottery crazy, presumably to rub in the cost of the veterinary treatments more, though it's basically two separate stories.

I especially liked 'chub night' (is that really a thing? Google could spoil this lifelong mystery, but I won't let it) and the writers self-referentially playing with our emotions by ending an act on the dog's apparent death. The Simpson household might also be more successful at reducing its outgoings if Homer stopped impulse-buying unhelpful books that end up on the fire.

Basic plot synopses aside, the dialogue and gags in this episode and 'Homer at the Bat' feel somehow more 'modern' than the other episodes of this season. This insubstantial, impossible-to-quantify, possibly imaginary quality likely indicates we've entered the show's golden age now. And I was enjoying it quite a lot already.
"No dogs were harmed in the filming of this episode. A cat got sick, and somebody shot a duck, but that's it" - Disclaimer

Colonel Homer (3x20) ***

These potential infidelity episodes always make me uncomfortable, which is probably the point, but Homer storming off after a minor altercation with Marge is completely unjustified in light of what he puts her through. See 'The War of the Simpsons' for a partial list.

I'm not a big country music fan, so I didn't enjoy the songs or the stabs at the business and hallmarks of the genre as much as other people would. I liked the overly specific lyrics at least.
"If you don't watch the violence you'll never get desensitised to it" - Bart Simpson

Black Widower (3x21) ****

The return of Sideshow Bob, back when that felt like a good idea and not a flogged horse corpse, presents a fun murder mystery exercise as Bart unravels his new uncle's nefarious plan to kill Selma (or is it Patty?) and explains it to Homer in patronising detail before giving in and telling Marge so they actually have a chance to save whichever one of her sister's lives it is.

It's strange to think back over the plot and realise it had nothing to do with Bob getting revenge on Bart, as most subsequent episodes were motivated by (I may be remembering wrong). I guess it took the double conviction to really push him over the edge, though he was already venting the anger in those license plates. So it really was just a coincidence that Selma/Patty was related to the boy who put him behind bars, he can't have found that out until much later.

Overall, Homer's the only character who comes out of this on top, consuming a wealth of canapes, though it was satisfying to see Krusty get a vengeful ass-kicking in there too. There are early 90s references to MacGyver, which I didn't watch and know entirely from The Simpsons, and Dinosaurs!, which I did watch and tried to be entirely The Simpsons, but if they were prehistoric reptiles.
"Enclosed is a photo of us on a tandem bike... I forget which one I am" - Selma Bouvier (I told you!)

The Otto Show (3x22) ***

I was fooled by Spinal Tap the first time around - this show had already featured the bona fide Aerosmith at this point - but watching again after having seen the rockumentary a few times it was fun to get a little more material from the fictional "ageing supergroup," which lived up to the style of the original as much as a non-improvised, animated, jaundiced version could be expected to. If I wanted more I could check out A Mighty Wind, but why spoil things?

The first part of this episode has so many memorable scenes and gags - most notably Homer's hearing loss and everyone forgetting Milhouse (the character becomes defined at that point) - that I had no memory of it turning into an Otto-centric episode after. It might be the only time he got an episode, which is for the best as he pissed me off beyond the excuse of being a cartoon character. His life goes down the toilet and he deserves it, but then there's a fluke turnaround and everything can be as it was.

This is either the second or third time they've tried to fool us into thinking Homer's having sex but he's just really enjoying food. I don't know how Bart's electric guitar works when it isn't plugged in, but I enjoyed the continuation of his deadbeat daydreams as he cuts right through the dreams of success to envision himself suffering the pitfalls of a rock and roll lifestyle. I like that kid.
"Goodnight Springdon, there will be no encores!" - David St. Hubbins

Bart's Friend Falls in Love (3x23) ****

Reference humour may be completely tedious in the wake of Family Guy, but the opening parody of Indiana Jones here still feels like a classic. I have no interest in seeing the Griffin family superimposed on Star Wars characters regurgitating a slightly modified script, but crafting this meticulous pastiche without shattering the plausibility of the Simpsons universe makes it more than justified. I like that I don't get why Homer's yelling in an unknown language at the climax.

There's loads of good stuff in this one actually, which was a surprise as from the pre-teen-angst-conjuring title it's probably one I'd skip if I was watching these non-compulsively. Beyond developing Bart's insecurity around girls and giving Milhouse something to do (and raising the question of his incestuous parentage, at least visually), this episode also gave us a dark side of Skinner as he reminisces about 'Nam; Ezekiel and Ishmael, the extreme Rod and Todd who'll never be seen again; Fluffy Bunny; the death of Santa; Space Mutants VII and an unrelated sub-plot about Homer trying to lose weight and unintentionally developing his vocabulary. It's that one too.

I'll never judge an episode by its title again. Unless it's 'Bart Gets an Elephant,' I'm pretty sure I remember what happens in that one.
"Don't you worry, most of you will never fall in love and marry out of fear of dying alone" - Edna Krabappel

Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes? (3x24) *****

This is a real feel-good finale that also serves as damage control to remedy the bleak ending of Uncie Herb's previous appearance when his new-found brother completely destroyed his successful life. Forsaking bitter vengeance, he gives Homer a second chance and gets back on his feet in a more satisfying sequel than Sideshow Bob's. I don't remember if Herb ever shows up again, but this is the best send-off he could get as it won't make you want to kill yourself this time.

Even before Herb rejoins the family there's a more-or-less self-contained story in which Mr. Burns goes to extreme lengths to avoid having to pay Homer compensation for the nuclear plant rendering him sterile. That scene felt extremely edgy to me as a kid who'd just learned about those things. This time round it felt more like the 'Crimson Permanent Assurance' skit in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life that bore no relation to the rest of the film apart from a momentary cameo later, as we get the same brief reprise of Homer's lazy sperm being jolted around by the Spinemelter 2000 at the end. The 2001 homage is another excellent one by the way. I like that they've started referencing films I actually know.

Season two was very good, but season three was properly good. This series keeps getting better - I wonder how long I can keep saying that?
"I want what the dog's eating" - Maggie Simpson

Kamp Krusty (4x01) ****

Rumour has it that this was considered as the basis for an unproduced Simpsons film, back in the days when that prospect would have actually been something to get excited about, and it could have been a good foundation. Everyone's at their most stereotypical, the standard domestic and school settings are reintroduced before moving onto the plot, and it's mostly about Bart. I guess the demands of an ongoing series kept everyone pretty busy.

The kid-centric episodes have a harder time to win me over than the Homer episodes they put out every other week, but the summer camp setting is mined for all its worth, including more blatant parodies now the writers have given up being obscure in their references. Still, my favourite aspect was seeing how much Homer's life and general health improves when he doesn't have to deal with the kids (let's be fair: Bart) on a daily basis. This could be a useful viewing for anyone considering procreation. Just so you're seeing all sides of the argument.

Like many episodes, the gags that made me laugh the most weren't directly related to the action, but were throwaway lines I'm glad they didn't throw away. I especially liked Homer's fireworks and Randall's insulin. Just watch the episode.
"I never lend my name to an inferior product" - Bart Simpson

A Streetcar Named Marge (4x02) ***

There are some types of viewers who are easily won over by musical episodes. I'm the type that's prone to get irritated when sitcom writers think they've got what it takes to take on Broadway.

Thankfully, the lyrics are up to the reliable standard of the dialogue in this golden era of the series, so I'm content to sit through ensemble singalongs deliberately dumbing down Tennessee Williams' messages and informing me how terrible New Orleans is. Apparently, Channel 4 in the UK broadcast this episode in 2005 as part of its repeat run mere days after Hurricane Katrina struck and some people weren't best pleased. That must have been tense viewing.

As a Marge episode, this does the same thing all of her episodes do as we see her suffering under the demanding duties of an unappreciated housewife before gaining some minor appreciation by the end. So far this season (in all two episodes) there's a running theme of Marge's baked goods not being all they're cracked up to be. If this was Doctor Who or something, these hints would all be building to an epic brownie-themed season finale, but it's probably nothing.

Maggie's Great Escape B-story is more memorable, even if the strict daycare bitch is basically the same as the strict dog training bitch from season two. They could have re-used the character.
"There's the ol' face-shredder!" - Ned Flanders

Homer the Heretic (4x03) *****

This is one of my favourite episodes, or at least one that comes to mind when I try to think of my favourite episodes. It feels like a sequel to the similarly great 'Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment' as he compounds his sins by giving up church, enjoying the best morning of his life while his family suffers through a freezing sermon.

But before atheists can get too celebratory, there's a feel-good moral ending where the heretic is saved by a Christian, a Jewish clown and Misc., so having faith can apparently make you a better person. Oh well, at least the script takes a few decent shots at sacred cows (no offence, Apu), such as Homer's uncharacteristically insightful "What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week we're just making God madder and madder." These are the sort of questions religious people should ask themselves once in a while but don't always feel the need to, as I know from experience. Marge telling Homer she couldn't choose him over her god rang painfully true.

I could sign up to religion if there was confirmation that God was like this, He seems pretty down to earth. Though we're supposed to infer that these divine visitations are taking place in Homer's dreams, otherwise he's got something unpleasant waiting six months down the line. Just in case, it's a good thing the normal laws of time don't apply in Springfield - even by this point, Maggie should have been in school and Bart would have become a squeaky voiced teen.
"When the fire starts to burn,
There's a lesson you must learn.
Something, something, then you'll see:
You'll avoid catastrophe" - Homer recalls a helpful song

Lisa the Beauty Queen (4x04) ****

Lisa/Homer bonding episodes thus far have a tradition of being among the best. This one doesn't make that grade, partly because her pre-adolescent crisis this time is more superficial, as she worries about her appearance and only reverts to smart, opinionated Lisa right at the end.

Come to think of it, 'Lisa's Pony' was pretty damn superficial too, and that was great. Maybe I'm just getting bored of her, especially as my favourite scene was Homer teaching Bart the benefits of flattery, before admitting his knowledge of women doesn't extend any further.

The same thing with the unimaginative sketch artist happened to my brother on a childhood visit to Paris, when the illegal immigrant asking him whether he liked football ignored the negative response and went ahead and painted him playing football anyway, because that was the only thing he could draw (to give him more credit than is due).
"In the area under 'do not write in this space' he wrote 'okay'" - Kent Brockman

Treehouse of Horror III (4x05) ***

The Halloween special format already feels like obligatory fan service rather than a genuine desire to craft some terror tales, and they're not even trying to make them scary any more. These three stories are still funny and a nice excuse to go completely mental for a week, but it's only the third zombie segment that would earn a place among my favourites - especially Homer shooting zombie Flanders ("Flanders was a zombie?").

The other tales both conclude with surprisingly light-hearted romantic endings. In one, Homer buys Bart a murderous Krusty doll that tries to kill him, until he finds the convenient off switch. The other is an extended and slightly tedious King Kong parody transposing regular characters into the narrative, a gimmick that would wear extremely thin in the years ahead.
"I think women and seamen don't mix" - Waylon Smithers

Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie (4x06) ***

I have a clear memory of this episode airing for the first time on BBC Two when I was 12 and instantly deciding it was the best Simpsons episode ever. Bart's over-the-top menacing japes cracked me up, and I was still at the age when the prospect of a genuine Itchy & Scratchy movie would have got me giddy.

Watching again almost two decades later, and with less devotion to Itchy & Scratchy now that absurdly violent deaths in a cartoon have lost their edgy appeal, it's definitely lost that magic. But it's nice to see that different generations can respond to these episodes in different ways, even when these different generations are the same guy.

This time around, I was more amused by the digs at the show's own outsourced Korean animators working in sweatshop conditions, and it's great to see Bumblebee Man for the first of countless times too. He's one of those characters you don't realise you miss.

If there's one gag that unites the generations and still makes me laugh as hard 17 years on, it's the extremely contented man falling to his death. He's an inspiration to us all. Now I can't wait for the Escalator to Nowhere.
"Mmm... Soylent Green" - Future Homer

Marge Gets a Job (4x07) ***

It's probably indicative of a cynical personality that I'm desperate to find faults in these classic episodes, just for some variety, but even less memorable plots like this one where Marge temporarily works at the nuclear plant are well worth watching thanks to all the gags they cram in.

The secondary plot in which Bart learns the moral of the Boy Who Cried Wolf despite misinterpreting the meaning of that story is pretty fun, but better still is the continuing exploration of Smithers' infatuation with Mr. Burns, from the celebratory song and dance number to his romantic dream. I think those are supposed to be his legs under the blanket, but maybe they were trying to push things.
"Thou shalt not horn in on thy husband's racket" - The Bible

New Kid on the Block (4x08) ****

After being grossed out and confused by Milhouse's girlfriend, Bart falls in pre-adolescent love for the first time and is adorably clueless about the whole thing. Seeking advice from his father doesn't exactly help.

The Simpsons are getting very litigious this season, which is welcome as it means crooked lawyer Lionel Hutz shows up every other episode. This time, Homer's disappointment at the Frying Dutchman's all-you-can-eat promotion provides the excuse for the adults needing a babysitter so Bart can engineer the downfall of Jimbo Jones and win his girl back, courtesy of a brilliantly homicidal Moe.

It's another classic episode. Just take that as read for all of them from the next few seasons unless noted otherwise.
"As usual, a knife-wielding maniac has shown us the way" - Bart Simpson

Mr. Plow (4x09) *****

It can be hard not to seem like a Simpsons fanatic when you're familiar with every episode courtesy of vegetative watching and endless repeats. It must be one of the easiest shows to be passively obsessive about, with these plots, quotes and cutaway gags getting fixed into your brain more than the shows you thought were your all-time favourites but now find it a chore to sit through.

There can't be many casual Simpsons viewers who don't instantly know this episode from the title, but oddly it doesn't happen to be one of the many I've over-watched in my life. This might only have been the second time I've seen it since the 90s, which meant I got to enjoy most of the jokes fresh, and might be influencing my judgement when I say it's up there with my favourites.

Homer and Barney go head to head as snow-clearing entrepreneurs before everything's nicely resolved at the end, apart from the Simpsons still not having replaced their cars. Never mind, I'm sure the old ones will be back in time for the opening credits next time and Homer will be back at his station in the plant, despite not seeming to have a day job here.

This is one of Barney's best episodes, as we see his tragic origin tale where Homer introduces him to beer for the first time and the depths he's capable of sinking to. Should we even be laughing at him? It's hard not to when he's chasing after his wind-swept nappy in a giant baby outfit.

The extended cameo from Adam 'Batman' West is one of the best in the show's history too, avoiding the pandering compliments that usually go with the territory and having no qualms about making him insane. His later roles in things like Family Guy doubtless owe a debt to his sporting self-mockery here.

Other minor points I like include Homer's incomprehensible arty commercial, the increasingly strained relationship between KBBL Radio's Bill & Marty and the live 'dummies' used in shady crash tests, that was fantastic.
"My prices are so low, you'll think I've suffered brain damage" - Mr. Plow

Lisa's First Word (4x10) ***

The third instalment of Simpsons flashbacks (after 'The Way We Was' and 'I Married Marge' if you like trilogies), they're still just about getting away with stretching the established continuity to match Lisa and Bart's ages to the present. Unbelievably, these episodes date back to 1992 - the show's come so far so soon.

The kind of nerds who like to look out for things like that also get confirmation that Lisa's starfish head is just her hair when Bart snips it off, though Marge's birth canal can't be in great shape after delivering two of those.

As these flashbacks inch gradually towards the present, it's the subtle modification of characters that interests me more than all the references to early 80s American TV and sports that I wasn't alive to be nostalgic for. Homer's hairline is receding at a rapid pace, no doubt a symptom of having to deal with toddler Bart, some other guy's doing Kent Brockman's job and Sideshow... who is that? It seems like an obvious excuse for a Bob cameo, but I guess they spent their guest star budget on Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie.

I enjoy these episodes more as background filler than classics in their own right, but there's still plenty of great stuff - from Homer building Bart a needlessly scary clown bed to the Flanders kids delighting at their Good Samaritan board game. Presumably the 1992 Rod and Tod have hours of fun playing those horrendous Sega bible games.
"Hello, Joe" - Grandma Flanders (so that's where that's from)

Homer's Triple Bypass (4x11) ****

This is quite a dark episode, from the foreboding build-up as Homer finally faces the consequences of his lifestyle to his heart attack in Burns' office and the impending operation handled by a quack. They still manage to lighten the tone with the usual excellent dialogue and daft asides, some of which are technically even more harrowing, like Homer forcing Moleman off the road to a fiery death (he got better).

The show is more firmly grounded in comedy than realism than it used to be, so it doesn't surrender to sentimentality like some of the earlier episodes. Still, there have doubtless been many Homer-like viewers who were at least prompted to question their dietary habits by this episode, and it isn't beyond the realms of possibility that it may have saved lives. The writers aren't obligated to use their substantial platform as a soapbox, but occasionally it's welcome.

Elsewhere in the plot, Homer is replaced in his decreasingly pivotal job with a brick on a rope, Patty and Selma try to hook Marge up with a sleazeball before her husband's even dead and Dr. Nick's instructional video is taped over by 'People Who Look Like Things.'
"They say the greatest tragedy is when a father outlives his son. I have never fully understood why. Frankly, I can see an upside to it!" - Abraham Simpson

Marge vs. the Monorail (4x12) *****

Like 'Mr. Plow,' this is among the most memorable Simpsons plots (Springfield gets a monorail), but it's always worth watching again for the great jokes you may have forgotten. This episode is full of funnies, from the Flintstones opening to the fortuitous separation of conjoined twins. At least some good came from all this.

Ostensibly a Marge episode, she's sidelined into the responsible role and mainly serves as the voice of reason against the fickle Springfield mob, who we previously saw rallied to battle over the Jebediah statue outrage and Michael Jackson disappointment. Leonard Nimoy makes a memorably cryptic guest appearance (he'll be back) and monorail crook Lyle Lanley is among the most notable one-time characters the show produced.

One of the best episodes? Probably, though the whole monorail concept is symptomatic of the gradual shift in the show's tone to favour the wacky over the domestic, and I'm getting strangely nostalgic for those first couple of seasons.
"A solar eclipse. The cosmic ballet goes on" - Leonard Nimoy

Selma's Choice (4x13) ***

Another seldom seen episode for some reason - it was presumably in the same rotation as the others around this period that I've seen more times than necessary - this is another chronicle in Selma's unhappy single life, which is a bit repetitive after the earlier 'Principal Charming.' This time, the source of her angst is baby-shaped, but fortunately a day spent with Bart and Lisa puts her off the idea for good. Like I've said before, this show could be an effective remedy to population growth if viewing was made mandatory.

There's some surprisingly unflinching cadaver humour at the funeral of one of Marge's relatives, Homer and Marge are thwarted in their erotic adventures once again and the episode is packed with amusing brand names - from the unimaginative Buzzing Sign Diner and frank Low Expectations Dating Service to the Lucky Stiff Funeral Home ('we put the "fun" in funeral!') and Springfield Sperm Bank ('put your sperm in our hands').

I wonder if Jub Jub ever shows up again?
"Anything this bad has to be educational" - Selma Bouvier

Brother from the Same Planet (4x14) ***

I think I've confused huge-eyed orphan Pepe with international spy Adil from the first season's 'The Crepes of Wrath' in the past, which might explain why I felt that earlier episode came further down the line. Homer's bond with Pepe is less emotional and treasonous this time around though, his motive to spend time with this unfortunate kid primarily being revenge for Bart seeking an alternative father role model.

Homer's a sympathetic buffoon most of the time, but here he gets what he deserves, after forgetting to pick up Bart and leaving him in the rain, then trying to shift the blame. There's no lack of episodes proving that Homer isn't the World's Greatest Dad, but this is one of the more depressing ones, even if his exasperated British accent is funny. Even his inner monologue has enough of him and walks out.

There's a less substantial B-plot with Lisa being addicted to the insipid Corey hotline and Ren & Stimpy make a surprising cameo. Ahh, nineties.
"You're not the only one who can abuse a non-profit organisation" - Homer Simpson

I Love Lisa (4x15) ****

Lisa's background classmate Ralph Wiggum is fleshed out and given a father and emotions here, as Lisa ticks off another crisis by finding herself the object of unwanted affection. Ralph's general stupidity and good nature work to his advantage in getting over the bad news, as he doesn't hold a grudge by the end and Lisa apologises for breaking his tiny heart on national TV. It's only Homer who comes off badly, exploiting the infatuated eight-year-old by making him work on the roof. Why am I disliking Homer these days?

Skinner's been heading in an increasingly deranged direction over these last couple of episodes too, flashing back to Vietnam and living under the paranoid tyranny of his vigilant mother. Hopefully this is all heading to some sort of breakdown. This is the series' first Valentine's episode, but I like how they deliberately avoid being cloyingly festive by omitting any romantic music in favour of the inappropriate 'Monster Mash.'
"Do you like... stuff?" - Ralph Wiggum

Duffless (4x16) ****

This is a comfortingly old-school type of plot, where Homer goes on the wagon after being caught driving under the influence while Lisa tries to get revenge on Bart for destroying her science project. Neither plot ends with the sort of clear-cut moral that tended to characterise the early seasons (before the carefree ending of 'Blood Feud' anyway), so take the references to beer causing rectal cancer and destroying lives as seriously as you want to, they're not really preaching.

It's another episode from this otherwise highly-repeated season that I somehow didn't see too often, but the level of great gags is as consistent as ever. We find out Hans is still alive after Homer ran him off the road to a fiery death a few episodes previously, and learn that thanks to the ageing effects of alcohol he's only 31 years old.

Homer converses with his inner monologue and they manage to trip each other up, and he even lends his voice to an ode to his life with beer. It doesn't feel like one of the classics, but that might admittedly have a lot to do with some episodes being more nostalgic than others.
"For a school with no Asian kids, I think we've put on a pretty damn good science fair" - Seymour Skinner

Last Exit to Springfield (4x17) *****

This is one of the more obscurely titled episodes - if they'd called it 'Dental Plan' or 'Lisa Needs Braces' I would have been more excited going in, but then I wouldn't have had the delight of realising which episode it was after the opening McBain bloodbath concluded and we launch into another villainous Burns plot. His episodes are generally the best, that's definitely something I've noticed.

The plot itself is a solid Simpsons story as Homer leads the nuclear plant union to strike in protest of Burns taking away their dental plan (because Lisa needs braces), but the main reason this is such as classic is that absolutely everything in it is killer.

There's convenient caricature Gummy Joe, Lisa's inspiring union ballad and the Droopy-voiced voice of opposition; Burns and Smithers frolicking in the plant and hiring killer robots; Painless Dentistry (formerly Painful Dentistry) and The Big Book of British Smiles; Skinner telling Quigley to uncross those eyes; Grampa rambling tediously on about onions and belt buckles; Homer needing to pee and misinterpreting Burns' attempt at bribery with coming on to him (and admitting his slight curiosity), and Homer being so terrified by the prospect of the lumbering dinosaur of organised labour that Kent Brockman is instructed not to talk to him any more.

It's all gold and they don't even rely on celebrity guests. I think it's my favourite so far - maybe of all time - but there's still a long, long, long way to go.
- "Dental plan!"
- "Lisa needs braces!" - Lenny and Marge

So It's Come to This: A Simpsons Clip Show (4x18) ***

The fact that the creators are so apologetic and transparent about cutting corners this week and recycling old material means this first clip show gets away with it, and has become a classic of that sub-genre in its own right.

That's not to mention the many great clips taken from the first three seasons of the show (season one looks noticeably out of place), including some of the more bizarre cutaways that work almost as well here as they did in their original context - namely Homer asleep at the wheel, exploring the Land of Chocolate and the extended Indiana Jones parody. There's even a pre-YouTube compilation of Homer's annoyed grunts from various episodes.

But I can't rate it as highly as the 'proper' episodes, even if it contributes at least one classic scene of its own, in the form of Barney overreacting to Homer's hospitalisation and breaking out like the Chief in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.
"Me lose brain? Uh-oh!" - Homer Simpson

The Front (4x19) ***

Another episode heavily featuring Itchy & Scratchy and another excuse for meta jokes at the expense of the cartoon industry, I especially liked the digs at Filmation's toy commercial series with Action Figure Man.

There's a completely unrelated B-story where Homer and Marge attend their high school reunion and Homer has to pass remedial science for his delayed graduation. Artie Ziff makes a brief appearance, but it isn't the present day follow-up to 'The Way We Was' that I was expecting.

Then there's the 'Adventures of Ned Flanders: Love Thy God' segment tacked on at the end in a transparent attempt to fill time, which takes less time to watch than it does to read this sentence but is probably the highlight of the episode regardless.
"That's right, I did the Iggy" - Abraham Simpson

Whacking Day (4x20) ***

The snake-whacking plot doesn't even start until five minutes in, the first act bing dedicated to setting the scene with Bart getting expelled and beginning excruciating home tutoring with his mother so this can be tenuously tied into the other plot at the end somehow. Come on, season four was pretty excellent - they're allowed to run out of steam now it's approaching the end.

The mob mentality of Springfield's residents has really been highlighted this season, as whacking fever descends on all aspects of life only to be ultimately thwarted by an eight-year-old conservationist with a little help from the bass tones of Barry White, one of the better celebrity appearances that actually goes somewhere.

This is the second episode in a row to put Grampa Simpson in unflattering drag for laughs. The Itchy & Scratchy installment jokingly directed by Oliver Stone unknowingly foreshadows The Simpsons inviting guest directors to helm its opening sequences in whatever supercentenarian season that was.
"Ach der Liebe, das ist not eine Booby!" - Adolf Hitler

Marge in Chains (4x21) ****

Despite undeniably improving each year, the series has now reached the point where clouds of germs can fly around Springfield's streets stopping at traffic lights and Bart's personified antibodies surrender to the invaders to help him stay home from school without us questioning this too much. Just a season ago I noted that the Springfield Mystery Spot pushed the fantastical envelope, and it has come at a cost to the domestic realism I enjoyed the earlier episodes for. Never mind, the writing's still great.

This is another episode supposedly about Marge that gives all the best lines to other characters, this time Lionel Hutz of I Can't Believe It's a Law Firm Inc. who's more fleshed out than ever before, and not only because he forgets to wear trousers to court.

It's another chance to see how inept Homer is at managing the household when his wife's locked up for a month, avoiding laundry chores by digging out Marge's wedding dress and old Halloween costumes. I like Homer, but he makes me strangely angry at times for a fictional drawing. Even Monty Burns doesn't have that effect.
"He's had it in for me ever since I kinda ran over his dog ... Well, replace the word 'kinda' with the word 'repeatedly,' and the word 'dog' with 'son'" - Lionel Hutz

Krusty Gets Kancelled (4x22) **

Another episode I can't remember having seen since its original BBC airing in the late 90s, it's another chance to see Krusty down on his luck which is always enjoyable, before the second half gets overtaken with annoying celebrity cameos I wouldn't have cared about even if it was still 1992.

There are a few classic scenes, like the Soviet import Worker & Parasite animation replacing Itchy & Scratchy and the singing old man who unintentionally upstages Krusty on every occasion, but on the whole I'm glad the season has finished so the writers can restore their energy and ideas ready for a fresh one.
"This old gray mare, she ain't what she used to be, ain't what she used to be, ain't what she used to be..." - Singing Old Man

Homer's Barbershop Quartet (5x01) ***

My biggest problems with this episode are all succinctly addressed at the end, as Bart and Lisa question how any of the yarn Homer's been weaving over the previous 20 minutes can possibly relate to their established lives. His dismissive answer would have been all I needed a season ago, but they've relied on that gimmick a few times too often now. If only Bart's admission that TV has permanently damaged his memory was true for the audience. Admittedly, I have just watched four years' worth of episodes in a few weeks.

More than the vanishing fame and fortune, I'm annoyed that Homer apparently has history with Apu and Skinner, when previous episodes have shown them meeting for the first time. The 1985 setting further complicates the already sketchy back-story episodes too, but you know what? Sod it. This is all from Homer's memory anyway, and that hasn't been established to be especially reliable. Looks like I found my continuity safety net at last, so I can get on with appreciating the episode.

I quite like the Beatles, but despite having detailed knowledge of the latter half of their career and discography and knowing most of the songs, that's more down to inquisitive browsing than dedicated fandom. It's enough to appreciate most of the references here, the Yoko ones being especially great, though George Harrison's brief guest spots don't add much to the episode as they don't dare treat him with anything other than reverence.

Outside of the weird flashback, I also enjoyed Homer sending Marge off to get a replacement tyre across 12 miles of inexplicable desert wasteland (they're driving home from a local garage sale) while he blathers on. Still, it doesn't feel like a classic episode to me, and only has that virtue thanks to its position in the series which all the 90s ones all have by default.
"We need a name that's witty at first, but that seems less funny each time you hear it" - Seymour Skinner

Cape Feare (5x02) ****

I'm not a big fan of Sideshow Bob episodes, but I see the appeal of recurring characters to provide a backbone to the series. This one's apparently extremely popular with fans, but it's all a bit wacky for me, especially the over-the-top cartoon violence that breaks free from its Itchy & Scratchy confines. Maybe the wackiness is something I'll have to get used to if that's the way the show's headed.

Sideshow Bob is released on parole thanks to the general incompetence of Springfield's judiciary and law enforcement, and the Simpsons are forced to adopt new identities to escape Bart's would-be murderer. It's actually satisfying to see Bart terrified for his life, the little brat, especially as his paranoia is heightened by some very unfortunate power tool demonstrations that make Homer and Flanders look like 80s horror villains.

The rake scene is funny too, but personally I don't think they took it far enough. Maybe my sense of comic timing has been warped by the likes of Stewart Lee, but there would need to be at least 20 rake thwacks for it to get tedious and then a further 20 for it to become chair-wettingly hilarious.

I've never seen/read Cape Fear, whatever it is, so I have no idea what they were doing there and how successful it was. I didn't know there would be such extensive background reading to get the most out of this cartoon.
"No one who speaks German could be an evil man" - Juror

Homer Goes to College (5x03) ***

Another episode centred on Homer's incompetence and dangerous unsuitability for his job, they've done this angle so many times now that there's no danger of everything not being back to normal by the end.

Along the way, Homer gets to apply his inaccurate expertise of TV college life to the real world and learns to love nerds for their handy IT support. The nerd stereotypes are pretty basic, in the days before geek culture was socially acceptable, but not entirely inaccurate. The fact that one of them reminded me of Eric from Bananaman grown up reveals that the biggest nerd here is the one reviewing every episode of a dated animated series in order. Like that wasn't obvious already.
"I am so smart! S.M.R.T!" - Homer Simpson

Rosebud (5x04) *****

It hasn't been a surprise watching this series again after so many years that the episodes focusing on the tyranny of Mr. Burns are highlights of every year. They've pushed the Burns/Smithers homoerotic angle so far now, I don't know where it can go from here, apart from all the way.

As well as humanising Monty Burns to an extent as he craves the mouldering fur of his childhood teddy bear, this is also a great episode for Homer, where he's finally able to demonstrate that he isn't such a lousy parent after all by putting Maggie's feelings above fortune. His brief stand-up comedy career is less inspiring - so he can write now?

I keep reminding myself of the lesson they taught at the top of the season: it doesn't have to make sense. And sometimes an ending is just an ending, that's enough.
"Go to hell, you old bastard" - C. J. Ramone

Treehouse of Horror IV (5x05) ***

These Halloween specials still feel like treats when cracking open each new season, though the quality has generally been on the decline.

Of these three non-terrifying tales, the one that could conceivably come closest to scary is the second, based on the classic Twilight Zone where William Shatner sees/hallucinates a creature on the wing of a plane, and they make the cramped confines of the school bus on a stormy morning feel suitably sinister. It's also mildly satisfying that Bart's proven correct at the end, though he's shipped off to the nuthouse regardless.

In other stories, Homer signs a pact with the Devil - now played by Flanders, I miss the old guy - selling his soul for a donut, and we get some colourful scenes of the torments of Hell that are a far cry from Dante, Bosch or Barlowe. The ending is pretty horrific, to be fair, as the police bide their time for donut-headed Homer to leave the house, and even he can't resist taking a bite of himself.

My least favourite is the time-bound parody of Bram Stoker's Dracula, one of the less compelling adaptations of Stoker's story in the first place. The meta jokes just get annoying after a while, and what could be the best line - Grampa announcing that they have to kill the boy before he even learns that Bart's a vampire - is just a rip-off of last year's classic "Flanders was a zombie?"

To their credit, the writers throw in some twist endings that no one will see coming due to them coming straight out of the blue and deliberately not having been foreshadowed anywhere in the plot. I can imagine these episodes making a five-year-old cry. Happy out-of-season Halloween everybody!
"Lisa, it's not nice to call people vampires. Did everyone wash their necks like Mr. Burns asked?" - Marge Simpson

Marge on the Lam (5x06) ****

This is probably the best Marge episode yet, if you're not counting 'Marge vs. the Monorail' as a Marge episode because it really wasn't. The Simpsons' neighbour Ruth makes a welcome re-appearance as the neighbourhood's feminist single parent divorcee, and recruits Marge for friendship so they can both put their non-babysitting evenings to good use learning how to enjoy themselves recklessly and responsibly.

This isn't the first time we've seen how put-upon Marge is, and we didn't need to be reminded of Homer's dangerous incompetence as a father and all-round human being, but with Homer's vending machine dilemma, Lionel Hutz's child-minding moonlighting, Chief Wiggum's fear of ghost cars and male sex doll confessions, these characters still have plenty of surprises left.

Even the Springfield locale gets several new additions with its hilltop sign, criminal hangout Badlands and Grand Chasm landfill. This is one remarkable, unlikely town.
"Everything before the high speed chase was just lovely" - Marge Simpson

Bart's Inner Child (5x07) ***

This is something like the third episode so far that I don't remember ever seeing before in my life. Considering the next one is burned into my memory through repeat viewing, I can't explain it - maybe Sky One and the BBC just liked to broadcast their favourites.

Like many other episodes, the first five minutes have practically nothing to do with the rest. Homer picks up a free trampampoline from Krusty which proceeds to maim the town's entire child population and sees The Simpsons degenerate into a Roadrunner cartoon by the end of the act. Then Marge decides she nags too much and it becomes an extended satire of the 90s self-help industry.

Springfield's fickle residents embrace Bart's rebellious spirit as the role model for their society, and it doesn't take long for things to get seriously out of hand, but they head off to have some cider at the end and presumably calm down. There aren't too many stand-out moments, which I don't think is only due to a lack of nostalgia on my part, but I enjoyed Homer and Bart's very slow escape from the spectacularly lazy mob, and no-nonsense cop McGarnagle's introduced too.
"Hi, I'm Troy McClure. You might remember me from such self-help videos as Smoke Yourself Thin and Get Confident, Stupid!" - Troy McClure

Boy-Scoutz 'n the Hood (5x08) *****

I remembered this episode vividly, but it took a re-watch after however many years to decide whether I rated it as a good one or not, as it's ingrained in my personal canon regardless. I can report that it's another certified classic, another contender for the top 10, and the best (so far at least) of the Simpsons' adventures in the great outdoors. Things have come a long way from 'Call of the Simpsons' in year one.

This is the one where Homer and Bart reluctantly attend a junior campers rafting trip together. Oh good, you remember it. But there's a lot more to it than that, most of it lying firmly in the Homer camp. There's his inner monologue over the function of money, falling for the floor pie trap, daydream dances with ice creams and finally his deadly incompetence in waterborne survival situations, earning some level of forgiveness at the end when his appetite leads them to safety.

There's also lots of fun with Flanders, Bart and Milhouse's musical squishie bender and the moment that made me laugh painfully, where Lisa explains that cartoons don't have the responsibility of being realistic. It's the clear set-up to a visual punchline and they could have gone in all sorts of directions, but the one they choose is just perfect.

I hope that Borgnine guy's okay.
"Weaselling out of things is important to learn. It's what separates us from the animals... except the weasel" - Homer Simpson

The Last Temptation of Homer (5x09) *****

This is a welcome return of character focus and domestic disturbances that brings the show back to its roots. It betters 'Colonel Homer' as Homer's answer to Marge flirting with infidelity back in season one, and like that earlier companion piece it has a rare happy, moral ending, which is something of a rarity these days. I appreciate these things.

I forgot to mention it's really funny. From the crisis at the nuclear plant that exposes Burns' cost-cutting measures (a painted on emergency exit; hiring Stuart) and Homer's unhelpful daydreams and attempted unsexy thoughts to the whole universe conspiring to put him and Mindy together through the mediums of ghostly visitations, infomercials, horny bellboys and the world's sexiest Chinese restaurant.

The story works because Homer and Mindy are so perfect for each other (though you wonder how she keeps her figure), and Michelle Pfeiffer adds a touch of class. There's a less vital B-story in which the universe conspires to make Bart resemble a nerd, but then he gets better.

There are the usual disposable/nonsensical gags that hit their marks too, like Lionel Hutz being irritated to find Homer in his "office," the familiar-sounding vacuum cleaner and Moe's criticism of Homer's unimaginative pseudonym reducing Joey Joe Joe Junior Shabadoo to tears. I don't know what's going on with the power plant elevator. I guess this is up there with my favourite episodes, but it's been a strong season.
"I love my wife and family. All I'm gonna use this bed for is sleeping, eating and maybe building a little fort" - Homer Simpson

$pringfield (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Legalized Gambling) (5x10) ****

Another in-depth look at Springfield, the opening scene where Abe and Jasper observe the town's decline sets the scene for its descent into sleazy casino depravity.

There's some satisfying continuity as the Springfield sheeple anticipate Marge's objection to the casino plan that doesn't occur, and even Homer fails to remember what happened despite his otherwise impeccable photographic memory. Marge's own descent into temporary gambling addiction gives the character another chance to let her substantial hair down for once, it's been a good year for her.

Homer's left in charge of the house and the kids again, and copes even worse than usual after Lisa introduces the notion of the Boogeyman. He gets his act together enough to help Marge conquer Gamblor so she can return to her nest and stop him acting dumb - not with the help of therapy, mind, as it's too expensive - and as for Springfield's casino... I don't know what happened there. Though I can't imagine it lasted too long under Mr. Burns' sleepless and increasingly insane vigil.
"Joblessness is no longer just for philosophy majors. Useful people are starting to feel the pinch" - Kent Brockman

Homer the Vigilante (5x11) ****

Yet another memorable episode, there isn't even a B-plot about the kids to distract from this exciting crime caper. The Springfield Cat Burglar (Sam Neill) may be careless in his activities to get caught by an old man and his dim-witted son, but Springfield's real adversary is its sheer incompetence.

This isn't one of my favourite episodes though, mostly because of Homer's descent from neighbourhood watcheroonie to a tyrant with plans of world domination. This is the second episode in a row where he's brandished a shotgun, which steals some thunder from that later episode where he buys a handgun and Marge makes a big deal. Doesn't he have a job too? Not his job at the casino last time, I mean his regular job?

Like seemingly every episode there are loving homages to plenty of films - notably It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Dr. Strangelove, but if I listed them for every episode it would only take up time and reveal my general lack of film knowledge. I also enjoyed Kent Brockman's overly sensationalist newsageddon editorialising and Wiggum's instruction to "dig up." It's a fun one.
"There was something strange about the way he walked. Much more vertical than usual" - Abraham Simpson

Bart Gets Famous (5x12) ***

Unlike Homer-centric episodes that are usually classics unless proven disappointing, Bart episodes can have a harder time winning me over now than when I watched these the first time around. This one works as an accurate, inside look at flash-in-the-pan, catchprase-based celebrity (from a show that isn't ashamed to expose its own reliance on catch-phrases and one-dimensional characters from time to time), but it's more like a single, extended joke and lacks a few distracting non sequiturs and character moments around the edges after Lisa's escapist daydream of adulthood.

I was disappointed at the reveal of the Bumblebee Man's refined British accent and calm demeanour, I liked to imagine his antics were some sort of zany reality show (wasn't he always on a different channel to Krusty anyway?) They've also done the joke about Bart merchandise before, and it would have been more satisfying if his lame MC Hammer rip-off was more overt in berating the franchise's own cynical hit singles from a few years previously.

Still, there's plenty of stuff to like, including Bart's hastily published cash-in autobiography that isn't even about him and Krusty forgetting the key role Bart's played in significant events of his life as easily as Burnsie forgets Homer. We also get our first glimpse of Futurama cryogenic head domes - maybe I'll watch that show some day, but for now there are plenty of seasons to go.
"...Woozle wozzle?" - Bart Simpson

Homer and Apu (5x13) ****

The first real Apu episode, he carries the weight better than Otto did, and there's an abundance of potentially dodgy concepts and dialogue that I'm sure would be taken in the spirit intended by our Hindu friends.

The chance to spend more time with Apu really rubbed off on me, as I strangely feel affection for the underhanded Kwik-E-Mart owner even after seeing him change the labels on expired ham and dust floor debris off hot dogs before selling both to Homer. Maybe it's because he's one of the relatively few secondary characters in this hellish town who actually has a conscience, moving into the Simpson home to pay his karmic debts.

I'm normally not a fan of songs in this show, but the Kwik-E-Mart number is one of the better ones, partly because it's performed in that outrageous parody accent. I have no idea who James Woods is, but his extended cameo made me like him regardless. Other things I liked were the Christians bothering Hare Krishna tourists at the airport; the inconvenient convenience store; Homer wasting Apu's three questions on the same question (and still not being satisfied by the answer), and Apu's hummingbird crisis.

I'm looking forward to more one-dimensional caricatures being fleshed out with focal episodes in the days ahead. I don't feel they've dug as deep into Moe's ugly, despairing soul as I'd like them to.
"Apu friend me good" - Homer Simpson

Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy (5x14) ***

Lisa crusades against a sexist doll; Grampa fails to recapture his youth.

Lisa's a fully established activist by now (building on the likes of 'Lisa the Beauty Queen' and 'Whacking Day' - I love continuity, alright?), but it still feels odd that she'd be so swept up by commercialism. Everyone has their weakness, I guess.

Angry Lisa is less endearing to me than sad Lisa, so this isn't up to the level of 'Lisa's Pony,' 'Lisa's Substitute' or even 'Moaning Lisa,' even if it adds substantial fuel to the Smithers/Burns flame, which is by now far from ambiguous though still entirely one-sided. Burns' comment in season two that he thinks of Smithers like a doctor is still my favourite, Smithers' screensaver here is a bit too much.

Grampa's story doesn't amount to much, though his voice is always funny enough to carry scenes whether he's trying to recruit teenage co-workers in rebellious antics or droning on about how literally every aspect of the modern world pales in comparison to his youth. In a strange way, I'm glad not every episode of the season is a complete belter, as we need the middling ground to appreciate how good the good stuff is.
"Don't ask me, I'm just a girl" - Malibu Stacy

Deep Space Homer (5x15) ****

I totally get how some people could view this as the moment The Simpsons jumped the shark, as once you've sent Homer into space, where can you go from there? I expected not to like it very much, but they impressively manage to reign it in from complete insanity by keeping the focus squarely on Homer's efforts to impress his family, with superb book-ending by the inanimate carbon rod. Still, I'll be happy when the memory of Homer dangling out of an airlock in the vacuum of space has been buried under 20+ further seasons.

This is full of great Homer moments, almost all of which are at the expense of his intelligence. Trying to see the back of his own head; his delayed reaction to the ending of Planet of the Apes; dialling Marge while they're already talking (the second time was even better). It's all up there with the best of Homer, so I can't hate on the episode too much for being CRAZY.

Other characters get their chance to shine too, from further evidence of Barney's alcohol-drowned potential to Kent Brockman's premature allegiance with the insect overlords. And while many of the series' film references feel shoehorned in (the ones I get, anyway), I loved all the 2001 stuff here. Those maniacs finally really did it, and they got away with it.
"In a way you're both winners. But in another, more accurate way, Barney is the winner" - NASA Scientist

Homer Loves Flanders (5x16) ****

We're right back down to Earth and domestic troubles in this enjoyable installment in the Homer/Flanders saga. For any boring viewers like me who appreciate continuity, this is a good follow-up to 'Dead Putting Society' and 'When Flanders Failed' in Homer's gradually softening feelings towards Flanders that handily revert back to irritation and dismissal by the end. Lisa's observation that strange things happen to their family on a weekly basis is one of the series' better fourth-wall-breaking moments.

I was worried this was going to be another sports-based episode, but the big game is just an excuse for Neddy to demonstrate his boundless generosity to his literal neighbour and for Homer to finally bloody appreciate it. Seeing Homer be even more destructive as a friend than an enemy is more inspired writing in this classic season, even if it's a bit disturbing just how far he takes it, even binning his wedding photo and deciding that a Marge-style wig would be a suitable replacement for the real thing. Never mind, it'd just take her having another night out and leaving him in charge for him to remember just how much his life depends on her.

Some of my favourite Flanders family moments are in this one, including Rod and Tod's sugar-fuelled violence and inane Bible shows. There's also some extremely out-of-character insight into Moe's charitable side, which would have bothered me if I wasn't still confused by trying to work out what the possible appeal of a nacho sombrero could be.
"Mmm, sacrelicious" - Homer Simpson

Bart Gets an Elephant (5x17) ****

I'm glad this one's over with, as it's been one of my reference points from the start as one of the series' early descents into unrealistic plots. Obviously I didn't realise it came after the likes of 'Deep Space Homer,' and like that episode it tempers its ridiculous concept with strong plotting and plenty of great character moments. I still prefer The Simpsons as an animated domestic sitcom, but they haven't gone too far yet. There's plenty of time for that later.

The show has an established environmental conscience by now, and you can't help feeling touched by Stampy's longing for home and horror as Homer considers selling the elephant to an ivory dealer. Homer's too mean again, which I never really like, but he makes up for it by being a buffoon, most notably his unhelpful solution to freeing himself from tar.

Several background characters get the chance to spread their wings here, with in-the-flesh appearances from Bill and Marty (I wish those guys were in it more often) and my favourite moments of the episode, as the Simpsons' overlooked cat and dog compete for affection against their hefty rival. Elsewhere, Ned is eager for the apocalypse, Barney sets himself on fire and one proud writer inserts a Beatles joke that's bound to go down in history as one of the show's finest. Even my dad appreciated that one.
"With ten thousand dollars we'd be millionaires!" - Homer Simpson

Burns' Heir (5x18) ***

Burnsy's been showing a more sentimental side this year and I don't like it, though his evil nature is redeemed by his terrifying burial plans for Smithers and his recruitment of Bart as a foster son, believing the scamp to be a kindred spirit. It would have been interesting to see just how much of a corrupting influence living with Burns would have on Bart over an extended time, but this is a 20-minute cartoon, not a harrowing AMC drama.

As usual, even a middling story can be saved by some great gags. My favourites are the THX exploding heads, the reliably terrible Lionel Hutz managing to lose the factual case over Bart's biological parentage and Hans Moleman being unintentionally conditioned to think he's Bart. I also enjoyed how that characted changed race within the same episode, which is an impressive continuity lapse even by this show's standards.
"You tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try" - Homer Simpson

Sweet Seymour Skinner's Baadasssss Song (5x19) ***

I've noticed a tendency for these seasons to run out of steam towards the end, which is forgivable when there's been such consistent quality elsewhere.

This feels like a conscious attempt to be low-key and character-driven after some of the year's more outrageous antics (see 'Deep Space Homer'), but unlike Homer and Flanderes'es brief friendship a few episodes earlier, Bart and ex-Principal Skinner getting along just doesn't feel right. I wanted to see Skinner looking miserable and down-and-out, not contented and writing the great American novel, though that was worth it for Apu's extensive criticism.

Other notable character moments include Flanders' beatnik dad; Marge's thing for potatoes; Maggie's nemesis; Martin in a cage, and the unpleasant sight of a greased-up Scotsman.
"There's nary an animal alive that can outrun a greased Scotsman!" - Groundskeeper Willie

The Boy Who Knew Too Much (5x20) ***

True to form, any progress made in Bart and Skinner's relationship last time has been completely reset here as the restored principal tracks his truanting student across Springfield's implausibly varied landscape before he becomes the sole witness to a crime. Both characters are much truer to form here, reset buttons are so refreshing.

Bart carries most of the episode, but Homer still manages to sneak in and steal the show towards the end as he's called up for jury duty and delays the proceedings so he can spend time in a hotel. His Odd Couple scene with Skinner cleaning up after him is depressingly reminiscent of a flat I shared once.

Honourable mentions for tangential funny things go to Homer's 'awake' glasses and need to have the word "if" explained; the horrific Free Willy director's cut; everything about McGarnagle, and Springfield Elementary's non-ergonomic chairs. All that and more in a comparatively middling episode.
"I know they seem a little uncomfortable right now, but eventually your bones will change shape" - Edna Krabappel

Lady Bouvier's Lover (5x21) **

This is the first episode in a long, long time that I didn't really enjoy. Maybe it's the focus on senior characters making it drag on as Abe courts Marge's mother, or a lack of any really memorable cutaway gags. Even the B-story of Bart's disappointing Itchy & Scratchy animation cell doesn't go anywhere.

It feels like Mr. Burns should be saved up for episodes where he's the central focus rather than a third wheel, and his agility is as inconsistent as ever, though there is one good line where he thinks his infernal secret has been discovered.

Even in a sub-standard episode you can usually depend on Homer, and here we learn that Marge can't bake a cake without preparing a second cake especially for her husband to ruin. It must have been a long and frustrating learning process, but she has damage control down pat now.
"Old people don't need companionship. They need to be isolated and studied so it can be determined what nutrients they have that might be extracted for our personal use" - Homer Simpson

Secrets of a Successful Marriage (5x22) *****

A brilliant return to form, this is The Simpsons at its very best - Homer's latest blunder straining his relationship with Marge and his road to repentance, culminating in his discovery that the one thing he can offer her over other men is complete and total dependence.

This is one of the defining Homer episodes, maybe his best ever, as he starts an evening class to gain acceptance from his peers and ends up spilling personal secrets about his wife's hair dye and turn-ons. Their temporary estrangement never feels as serious as it would have done in the earlier seasons - the hit rate of jokes is just too high now for sadness to stand a chance - but this move away from realism gives the writers creative freedom to take ideas as far as they can, resulting in the dishevelled Homer going insane and creating a plant wife substitute in the space of 24 hours.

We also get the reveal that Smithers was married once, which stretches plausibility even more. And just as I was trying to imagine what was going through the heads of everyone involved in establishing Painful Memories Party Supplies as Marge drives by, we get one of the best reveals of the entire series as it turns out Homer's providing his own voice-over in the back seat. This was a really strong episode to go out on for what might be the best year of the show ever.
"I need closure on that anecdote!" - Squeaky Voiced Teen

Bart of Darkness (6x01) ***

Since the film being parodied is Rear Window, shouldn't the title have been a pun on that? You're right, Bart doesn't fit.

I've been trying to observe this series' changing style as it develops, like the increasing focus on wackiness from late season three onwards, and this might be the point where the characters start to lose their own personalities when the script requires it. Bart's always been fond of inexplicable impressions, but actually writing a historical play is something I can't even imagine being played for laughs in earlier years. I know he's a yellow drawing, I'm trying to treat this cartoon seriously over here.

Being hung up on continuity at least meant I got to enjoy seeing characters learn from their mistakes, even if some of their solutions - like Martin's excess underwear - are doomed to be failed experiments. At least he's trying. Bart and Lisa are more successful at persuading Homer to buy them a pool by rationally explaining that he'd otherwise have to put up with months of nagging, and he wisely concedes. But where did he get the money?

With five years under its belt, a lot of plot elements are starting to feel familiar - Bart has been witness to potential murders before, and the over-incriminating signs pointing to Flandereses' guilt is a joke they've done many times (which I still like), but his girlish scream is a new one to add to the canon.
"Kippers for breakfast, Aunt Helga? Is it Saint Swivven's Day already? 'Tis, replied Aunt Helga..." - Bart's rubbish play

Lisa's Rival (6x02) ****

Here's an obvious idea they forgot to do back in season two. I enjoyed the retro feel, even if Lisa's rival/friend Allison (Winona Ryder apparently. I didn't notice) will never show up again, at least not that I can remember. Ralph steals the show anyway.

Lisa-centric episodes were weirdly among my favourites of the first three seasons, but since then they haven't impressed me as much, and I don't just think it's because the general quality of the surrounding episodes has exceeded them. I found her really unlikeable during her brief flirtation with evil pranks, but that was the point wasn't it? She caved in to her guilty conscience and was redeemed, but she didn't really learn anything. It's like she's my own daughter and I'm annoyed that they're neglecting her development or something... what if it is that?

No need to dwell on serious matters, as there are three subsidiary plots competing for our attention. Homer embarks on a career as a stolen sugar salesman, and finally gets the call from his real job demanding that he stop taking time off to shut up pedantic viewers like me (point taken). Marge tries to read erotic literature, and Milhouse is pursued by the authorities for no reason. It was quite a funny gag the first time, but when they carry on with it later it gets even better. Then he's wearing his jerry-rigged glasses at the end, back in school like he didn't just get chased off a waterfall. It's gotten a lot sillier, but this is still a great show.
"My cat's breath smells like cat food" - Ralph Wiggum

Another Simpsons Clip Show (6x03) **

This was never going to be one of my picks of the season, and it's much lazier than the first clip show, which they actually bothered to animate quite a few new scenes for. This one flagrantly re-appropriates domestic scenes with a new, bored-sounding voice-over and a flimsy framing narrative about the importance of love or something like that.

It may be a cynical attempt to save money by short changing loyal viewers (especially those buying the box sets), but the fact remains that there's still plenty of classic Simpsons material here, even if we've seen all the good stuff before. By grouping them under a theme, we're also invited to compare similar moments in the characters' lives, sometimes years apart, which I try to do mentally anyway - linking Homer's Mindy temptation back to Marge's near-fling with Jacques and Bart and Lisa's tales of pre-adolescent heartbreak (why didn't they use Mr Bergstrom? Would they have to pay Dustin Hoffman twice?)

So if you're feeling generous, you can think of this as a severely edited version of one of those VHS collections they used to put out in the late 90s, grouping episodes under a perceived theme. Not so much a clip show as extended sequences from five episodes and smatterings from a few more, it's like they didn't even want to make the effort to source more clips. The cheap, overworked bastards.
"They pieced it together from old shows and it seems new to the trusting eyes of impressionable youth" - Lisa Simpson

Itchy & Scratchy Land (6x04) ***

The last vetiges of realism are stripped away as the Simpsons battle killer robots, but it's still funny, so who cares? For all its excesses, this is still a story about a family going on holiday, and its observations about corporate theme parks are pretty spot-on. There's even some rare coherence in the plot as Marge tries to understand why cartoons need to be so violent, in an episode that pushes the gore to greater extremes. Itchy & Scratchy are more gruesome here than ever, and are better for it.

Characters of note include the sinister German guards ("take her to The Hole"), the ill-conceived Ku Klux Klam and several characters named Bort, which is a common name around those parts. Still, I couldn't help bit find the idea of Homer reading the Bible - reading anything that wasn't TV Guide - distractingly out of character. I have the feeling I'll need to shed this desire for continuity to save myself a lot of stress, we might already be past the golden age.
"Let's make a pact: this is going to be the best vacation ever or we'll all agree to disband and join other families" - Homer Simpson

Sideshow Bob Roberts (6x05) ***

I've never really enjoyed this overtly satirical, Republican-baiting episode, partly because I'm not a fan of repetitive Sideshow Bob stories in general. My opinion hasn't changed as I've grown up and gained at least a passing familiarity with the sort of things being mocked here - last time I watched this episode, Clinton was probably still in the White House - but I still feel obligated to side with any comedy show that leans to the left, so right on or whatever. It would mean more to me if I was American.

For new viewers and those wanting to get their bearings when watching endlessly syndicated repeats, Lisa helpfully provides Bob's back-story, though weirdly misses out the more pivotal events of 'Cape Feare.' Bob himself is even less compelling here, waging his battles on the political field and not swinging any axes at Bart or stepping on any rakes. Any threatening presence he once had has now completely faded, as the mocking ending rubs in, so I'm not really looking forward to his inevitable returns.

This is still mid-90s Simpsons though, so there's always something to like even if you're not into the story - like Bart being pushed back to kindergarten where he fits right in and an anti-Quimby ad that doesn't realise it's even more anti-Bob. See, I sometimes enjoy the clever gags too.
"I'm only ten and I already got two mortal enemies" - Bart Simpson

Treehouse of Horror V (6x06) *****

That was my favourite Halloween episode since the first one back in season two, and I get a feeling it'll be top of my list overall - not that I really have the patience to plough through all 20-whatever seasons, this is going to stop some time. But not while it's still so much fun.

The joy of these Halloween specials is that they give the writers freedom to be as imaginative as they like, and to add borderline scary horror and excessive cartoon gore to the series' usual high quality gags. They don't always get it right, and usually in these episodes there's one segment I quite like and two others I'm indifferent to, but this one bucks the trend as they're all great, and pretty horrific too. With the violent 'Itchy & Scratchy Land' and now this, something's going on this season and I'm all in favour.

The first story is quite a faithful adaptation of Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining, and it also harks back to my favourite installment in the original 'Treehouse of Horror' as the Simpsons contend with the malevolent influence of a creepy old house (or just a lack of beer and TV) driving Homer insane.

The second is based on Ray Bradbury's classic cautionary tale of time travel and is extremely imaginative, as Homer snaps back and forth across time courtesy of an inexplicably modified toaster and keeps unintentionally changing the world in subtle and drastic ways. The ending is the icing on the donut rain.

The third is less memorable but still keeps up the horror quotient as Principal Skinner solves the problem of overcrowded detention by cooking the students. The ending to this one, as Bart wakes up from his nightmare only to face a worse fate, crosses a new line of gruesome and pauses for a couple of seconds to let this sink in before lightening the atmosphere with a descriptive song. Total classic.
"No TV and no beer make Homer something something" - Homer Simpson

Bart's Girlfriend (6x07) ***

Another episode I don't remember having seen before (that's an impressive five out of 110 by my reckoning so far), I can't say my childhood was lacking without it. Falling for a girl for the second time (though even Bart seems to have forgotten the first), this time his lesson is not to be a sucker for a pretty face hiding a blacker soul than even his. They would have been good together if she wasn't quite so bad.

If you're not much of a fan of Bart stories, hopefully you'll enjoy Marge obliviously criticising the ridiculous hair of Troll dolls; the Sea Captain intentionally wrecking ships; Homer revealing that the death penalty is the only thing that's kept him from filicide; Grampa confessing he was the one who cancelled Star Trek; Bart confessing he's been wearing the same outfit for years, and Principal Skinner's needlessly elaborate Scotchtoberfest scheme to entrap Bart.

If you tuned into The Simpsons and it's this one, there's no particular reason to switch it off. That's the best I can do.
"I don't think God's words have ever sounded so plausible" - Bart Simpson

Lisa on Ice (6x08) ***

Another kids episode (some especially adult-themed ones coming up, give them a break), I'm more dismayed that it's another sports episode, this time featuring ice hockey as Bart and Lisa go head to head with each other and against the concept of violent child sports in general.

As someone who's 111 episodes into a retrospective about a cartoon show, you won't find it hard to believe I sympathise with Lisa's failure at compulsory school sports, but then she becomes unintentionally great at it and just another jock to despise. There's very little of Lisa's established character here - her fights with Bart have more in common with the first season 'There's No Disgrace Like Home' where the family notoriously acted out of character.

But then the sneaky writers win me over with a sweet ending and there's the usual smattering of unfortunate events and mad daydreams to make this episode as fun as the rest, from the Butthead Memorial Auditorium to Lisa's confusion over the literal nature of Monster Island (it's actually a peninsula) and Milhouse taking Willie's place as the character most abused for laughs. Ol' Gil hasn't showed up yet.
"The times they are a-becoming quite different" - Seymour Skinner

Homer Badman (6x09) *****

Another in a long line of episodes that can be viewed as an extended parody of the more disreputable aspects of TV - this time outrage-fuelled editorialising - it deals with the media and public response to sexual harrassment rather than stepping down the dark avenues of dealing with its actual effects. Homer was just retrieving his gummy.

There are lots of on-the-nose send-ups of exploitative TV, most notably Homer's strategically edited interview, and other classic clips, like the world's worst stand-up and Gentle Ben, the uncontrollable talk show bear. Homer's fantasy of living under the sea isn't up there with his Land of Chocolate daydream, but I like that it's apparently his answer to everything.

Homer may not have harrassed the babysitter, but he is guilty of multiple counts of candy theft and Buzz Cola vandalism which Marge is a reluctant party to. We're long past the point in this series where actions require consequence if the plot doesn't care. The junior campers massacre might have sealed the deal.
"If you are reading this you have no life" - Paused caption. Whoops!

Grampa vs. Sexual Inadequacy (6x10) ***

Another episode to make conservative parents hot under the collar and suggest a spontaneous trip to McDonalds rather than eating in front of the TV, this is also the show's most mature take on Homer's relationship with his father for a few years. Abe is a clear mirror for Homer, if these characters aged at a normal rate it wouldn't be long until Homer was tediously reminiscing about the seventies to the bored ears of Bart Junior.

The whole town of Springfield was apparently experiencing the same marital problems as Homer and Marge before Grampa's tonic came onto the market. The kids try to explain their parents' disappearance from the streets as the influence of aliens, government cover-ups or reverse vampires, but I'd be more worried about what the nuclear plant or vengeful Shelbyvillers are putting in the water to turn everyone off.

This is a bit of an old-school episode in its focus on family conflicts balanced by a child's view on the world. It's also old-school in its lack of stand-out funny moments. I criticise the writers when they're too wacky and not wacky enough; they're damned if they do and damned if they don't. Keep up the good work.
"They didn't start chasing us until you turned on the getaway music" - Homer Simpson

Fear of Flying (6x11) ****

Another good Marge episode, it was during season four that her episodes overtook Lisa's as the surprise classics. After confronting her fear of flying (apparently on and off), Marge gets permission to go crazy again, like those times she caused a massive traffic obstruction, developed a gambling addiction and became an outlaw. So much for the sanest of the family unit, all hope lies with Maggie.

Even in an episode that spends time getting inside Marge's head and uncovering her traumatic past, Homer still manages to steal the show with some of his all-time best scenes as he's banned from Moe's around the time a familiar-looking stranger announcing himself as Guy Incognito decides to give the bar a try.

I also enjoyed the Home Alone scene with Grampa; the Cheers scene even if I don't really get it; Homer's phobia of sock puppets and the unappetising implication that Santa's Little Helper and Snowball II enjoy a more than platonic relationship. What I don't like is the extended couch gag where the living room turns into a full circus, which was hilarious the first time I saw it at 12 years old but soon becomes tedious shorthand for the script being too short this week.
"You deserve a vacation. It's a chance for you to clean up after us in a whole other state" - Homer Simpson

Homer the Great (6x12) ****

The one where Homer temporarily joins the Freemasons, except they don't call it that, after which Springfield's secret society is never mentioned again.

I can't watch this one without being occasionally dismayed by thoughts of conspiracy theorists jumping on every nod to Masonic rituals and symbolism as somehow corroborating their (inevitably anti-Semitic) theories about the television industry being involved in the Illuminati plot. To mock is to create the perfect smoke screen, and so on - you know, the sort of stuff they'd say on The X-Files. It isn't the episode's fault, of course, and at least it raises awareness of some of the unfairly privileged groups and strata of society that do exist, even if convenient parking spaces and cosier work chairs are simplifying things.

It's yet another classic Homer episode - at this point, you can assume all episodes are classic unless stated otherwise - and doesn't just use him as a buffoon. Sure, he's stripped naked and forced to drag the Stone of Shame (soon mercifully replaced with the unfortunately heavier Stone of Triumph), but his despair goes deeper than that, and his childhood memory of the No Homers Club is really sad. His inability to concoct any excuse about tracking Lenny and Karl should also be some comfort to Marge that she'd always know if he was having an affair.

Patrick Stewart lends gravitas to the Stonecutters leader - I'm glad they gave him an authoritarian role and didn't just get him to play himself with some lazy Star Trek references. I also liked that Grampa is apparently president of the gay and lesbian alliance, though he doesn't recall how that happened. Make up your own episode, they can only give us so many each year.
"I saw weird stuff in that place last night. Weird, strange, sick, twisted, eerie, godless, evil stuff. I want in!" - Homer Simpson

And Maggie Makes Three (6x13) ****

When you're dealing with an episodic cartoon comedy series with a lax attitude to continuity, it's satisfying when some episodes connect together over time to form consistent arcs that are crying out to be packaged together on a VHS compilation. I don't think they ever collected the four (and counting) family flashback episodes in this way - 'The Way We Was,' 'I Married Marge,' 'Lisa's First Word' and now this - but when watched in sequence they fill in all the important blanks taking us from Homer and Marge's first meeting to the birth of all three children. Then you can start at episode one.

They don't explicitly mention what date it was "two years ago" this time, so I don't need to pull my hair out as I would if they tried to tell me Maggie was conceived in 1993 (season one debuted in 1989). There are references here and there, but it's still possible to reconcile the already stretched continuity of the earlier episodes with this one. Dr. Hibbert's hair is a barometer of changing urban fashions.

Whether it's 1987 or 1993, by being set closer to the present day there are fewer surprises in store as the characters all look and act the same as they always do (even the two-years-younger Bart and Lisa), but we learn that Homer quit his unsatisfying job to work his dream job in a bowling alley before crawling back when there was another bun in the oven that needed paying for. Forget all the times Homer's seemingly quit his job since to pursue various temporary careers, this is a slightly more serious 'mythology' episode where actions actually have consequences.

As such, the wacky humour is toned down and the sentimentality is raised to season one/two levels - Homer's plaque adorned with photos of Maggie to spell out a new message might be the most touching scene the show's ever produced. But don't worry if you don't have a heart, there's still lots of stuff to laugh at, from Homer's enthusiastic sperm impression to his mistake over the function of the umbilical cord.
"If horse racing is the sport of kings, then surely bowling is... a very good sport as well" - Homer Simpson

Bart's Comet (6x14) ****

I'm really not minding the rise of over-the-top movie plots like I thought I would. This could have been the basis for a decent Simpsons movie more than a decade ahead of time, but it doubtless works better as 20 minutes rather than being stretched to 90.

It's perfectly fitting that a comet named after Bart should prove to be so potentially destructive. Homer doesn't even show up until half-way through the episode - is that a record? - but as usual he commandeers things to get the biggest laughs, from his observation on the futility of thinking to the bizarro ending where his wacky theory is proven correct, Springfield's horrendous pollution is the town's saviour, Moe's bar doesn't set on fire and Flanders' shelter proves to be a death trap after all.

Homer chucking Ned out of his own shelterini was heartless, but it fit in with the apocalyptic feel and was made up for with the townsfolk's touching (unprecedented) camaraderie. Though I especially liked Ned's arrangement with Todd to blow daddy away if need be. Other moments of note include fatally incompetent fighter pilots and Mayor Quimby being so out of touch he doesn't even remember his own town's name.
"You get all the fun of sitting still, being quiet, writing down numbers, paying attention - science has it all" - Seymour Skinner

Homie the Clown (6x15) **

Sorry to be negative, but this is the first episode since 'Lady Bouvier's Lover' that I could have gone without. It's mostly down to it being about Krusty, who I'm not especially fond of and have spent enough time with already, and the mob, who I liked in 'Bart the Murderer' but always felt like one-time characters. This show doesn't know the meaning of the term!

It's kind of a Homer episode too, though he only enrols in Krusty's money-making clown college because he's a sucker for billboard advertising. The episode finally addresses the issue of Homer and Krusty looking basically identical under the make-up - I read once that they planned a reveal that Homer was secretly Krusty for a while in the first season - and Homer's near-fatal blunders as his parachute doesn't open and he crashes cars into trees are funnier than what he was supposed to be doing. But the series of unfortunate events leading to the disappointing conclusion doesn't do it for me.
"You have brought great joy to this old Italian stereotype" - Don Vittorio Di Maggio

Bart vs. Australia (6x16) ****

This series hasn't shied away from stereotypes before, but this is the crowning achievement of its ridiculously provocative racism.

It's hard to see how any Australians could be offended by the baseless gags at the expense of their people here, which largely aren't even stereotypes. Sure, there are references to Fosters and convicts, but nothing overly personal to suggest anyone involved in the show has ever been to Australia or knows anything about the country at all apart from what they gleaned from Crocodile Dundee. They can't even do the bloody accent, they sound more like South Africans. Jesus, they don't know anything!

The only scene that I could have done without was the Simpson family delighting in the destruction of the nation's agriculture by Bart's toad, which seemed pointlessly cruel. And the Coriolis effect has been thoroughly debunked, so stop mentioning it in relation to flushing toilets. The amount of false education packed into these 20 minutes is impressive, there must be some viewers who still think there's a country called U R Gay.
"Here in America we don't tolerate that kind of crap, sir" - U.S. Marine

Homer vs. Patty and Selma (6x17) ***

While earlier Patty and Selma episodes focused on Selma's tragic love life, here they revert to being evil sisters-in-law, lending money to a desperate Homer on the condition that he becomes their bitch. He gets the last laugh of course, and even demonstrates that he's capable of being thoughtful and loving on occasion because we're not past season 10 yet.

Meanwhile, Bart (a.k.a. Ratboy) shows up late to gym registration and is stuck with ballet class, which he finds a hidden passion and talent for, overcomes his fears and is roundly humiliated by his peers so he'll presumably stop doing it now. Everyone is back as they were, except fans who will never stop speculating about Bart's sexual orientation.
"When the seeds have been planted, you throw away the envelope" - Patty Bouvier

A Star Is Burns (6x18) ***

I never clicked that the squat, Fred Flintstone looking film critic was a guest character from another show. Bart's self-referential comment about cheap cartoon crossovers makes it obvious now, but I previously assumed it was another forgotten celebrity I was supposed to recognise if I'd been born in America earlier than the 1980s. I prefer to keep thinking that.

Springfield throws its inaugural film festival to help the city shed its downtrodden image, which Monty Burns tries to commandeer to boost his own profile. This isn't really a Burnsie episode though (love his Empire Strikes Back theme), with a memorably harrowing entry from Barney and a similarly tragic submission from Hans Moleman. Why did he film that? Was it set up? Why? This episode made Hans one of my favourite enigmatic characters.

We also get McBain trying out stand-up comedy and reacting badly to hecklers and Homer auditioning for the role of Mr. Burns but not being able to get his one-word catch-phrase right.
"Flanders to God, Flanders to God, get off your cloud and save my Tod!" - Ned Flanders

Lisa's Wedding (6x19) ****

The Simpsons goes sci-fi as Lisa is granted a glimpse (however seriously we're supposed to take it) of the distant future world of 2010, when all trees are holograms, World War III has left untold devastation, no one has mobile phones, the soy snack market is booming, robot workers are frequently destroyed by emotion and cars still can't fly but are required to have Jetsons sound effects regardless.

It's also a chance for the writers to project the characters into the future. Bart found his true calling as a wrecking ball operator, Homer works for Milhouse, Quimby has slid from mayor to cabbie and Martin lurks beneath the school in an inexplicable Phantom of the Opera situation.

Beyond these 'what if...?' treats, the story of Lisa falling in love with a snob and rejecting him when he doesn't accept her weird family is quite nice. It's the best Lisa episode for a good while, and by showing us logical outcomes for the characters 15 years down the line it doesn't piss me off like the later fantastical episodes inserting the characters into various books and films. Save it for Halloween.
"Fox turned into a hardcore sex channel so gradually, I didn't even notice" - Future Marge

Two Dozen and One Greyhounds (6x20) *****

Another episode I enjoyed a lot more than expected, partly because its frequent nods to Disney hit all the right notes. Mr. Burns makes a perfect substitute for Cruella Deville - better than his Dracula, not quite up to his Charles Foster Kane - and his 'See My Vest' ditty is one of the few Simpsons songs I really like.

Santa's Little Helper picks up a mate who'll never be seen again, but I'll forgive the continuity laziness as the puppies are frankly adorable. Maybe she got hit by a car or something. It's disappointing that they never got their dog spayed in the six years of real-time since 'Simpsons Roasting Over an Open Fire,' or however long they're going to pretend it's been for these ageless characters. Weird how I reacted more strongly to that irresponsible display than to any of Bart's supposedly impressionable antics in the early years that got parents in a huff.

Slash writers get more fuel for the 'Bart is gay' fire as he dresses up in Lisa's clothes, Snowball II competes for attention again (I like that cat), and we see the quality of dog naming has slipped severely since we last visited the track. The writers are guilty of this too, with their third "The Artist Formerly Known As..." reference this year. Good old 1995.
"Your cable TV is experiencing difficulties. Please do not panic. Resist the temptation to read or talk to loved ones. Do not attempt sexual relations, as years of TV radiation have left your genitals withered and useless" - TV Announcer

The PTA Disbands (6x21) ***

A school-based episode focusing on the staff rather than the students, we see a thriftier and more confrontational side of Principal Skinner as he defends his careful budgeting while Mrs. Krabappel leads a strike.

The plot is secondary to the random gags, which is unusual for this season, and there's plenty to enjoy. Fort Springfield's corporate reinvention and Principal Valiant; Malk and edible gym mats; the presence of Tek War in the curriculum; Lisa suffering grading withdrawal and a construction foreman with the voice of a 10-year-old kid. Not a classic episode, but enough elements are.
"In this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!" - Homer Simpson

'Round Springfield (6x22) **

Bleeding Gums Murphy shows up for the first time in five years and promptly dies. This mildly devastates Lisa, who decides now is the time to spread his smooth jazz message in tribute, rather than when he was alive and could have benefited financially.

This isn't the first time the writers have taken a serious stance on death ('Old Money') rather than playing it for laughs (the end of 'Boy-Scoutz 'n the Hood' and other examples, mostly occurring around Halloween). In calling back to the first season's 'Moaning Lisa' it's similarly sentimental and not all that funny.

Unusually, the lighter Bart B-plot is better, as he accidentally eats the 'free' jagged metal surprise in his Krusty O cereal and needs an appendectomy. I guess it's not all that light, is it? Drs. Hibbert and Riviera team up but Bart somehow makes it out alive (maybe Lisa instructed again), and we learn that most of the black characters in Springfield are apparently related. That was one throwaway gag that maybe invited rethinking.

This is mid-90s Simpsons, so it still has its moments. Ones that especially stood out were the inappropriate hot dog seller, Homer's poor attempt to console his daughter and Bart's fantasy of losing on roulette. He's so easily pleased.
"Bonjour, you cheese-eating surrender monkeys" - Groundskeeper Willie

The Springfield Connection (6x23) ****

Another example of Marge episodes being unexpected treats (from season four onwards anyway), a run-in with a criminal inspires the housewife to join Springfield's workshy and corrupt police force to clean up the city.

This puts a strain on her relationship as Homer gets up to much more extralegal activity than usual, but it's Herman who comes off as the real criminal, even holding Homer at gunpoint. We see Moleman being led to the electric chair with no doubt he'll be alive and well next episode; Herman's actions feel permanent.

Homer carries most of the funnies as ever, playing a harrowing prank on Flanders and taking the command "not so fast" overly literally. Chief Wiggum stares at a magic eye picture because it's 1995.
"Mmm... incapacitating" - Homer Simpson

Lemon of Troy (6x24) ****

We finally get to see Shelbyville, and even from an unbiased perspective it's a bit of a dump, with doppelgängers of familiar characters and freaky yellow fire hydrants. Jesus, it isn't even Halloween.

This is a nice episode for the Springfield mythology, however corrupted Grampa's story of the cities being divided over the issue of cousin marriage may be. Realism is subjective in an episode where spray cans can't be used as jet packs (remember My Secret Identity?) but Professor Frink creates a flying motorcycle.

Flanders' RV makes a delayed comeback (there's been a lot of season one nostalgia lately), Bart finds a real-world application for Roman numerals (that would never happen) and Nelson and Martin need to be paired up more often.
"Eat all of our shirts!" - Ned Flanders

Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part One) (6x25) *****

They've showed a lot of restraint when it comes to 'event' episodes - celebrity cameos aside, this is the first one that feels a bit like a cynical marketing strategy to renew or maintain interest in the series. I don't think it really needed the help, but the expanded scope of this two-parter and its genuinely cryptic nature might put it up there with my favourites.

I wish I could erase my memory of who did it every time I watch. I probably knew that before I saw it the first time, missing out on the cliffhanger speculation at the time thanks to living on the wrong side of the Atlantic and not having Sky. Many characters are given personal motivations to seek vengeance on Burns before he unleashes his most needlessly evil scheme yet and pisses off a whole lot more. Homer is set up as the most likely supect, but Smithers would feel the most justified after he's fired for standing up for his morals. Others like Willie and Moe would be believable because of their propensity for mindless violence, and they could always go for one of the kids for a more shocking angle.

When you know whodunnit already, there are a few subtle clues that I'm probably interpreting out of nothing. I don't know if they'd even settled on the answer when they made this first part, so rest assured there's plenty of room for speculation.

Beyond the gimmick, there are the usual funnies and subtle educational tidbits as the school's temporary oil wealth is budgeted for double guitars and chocolate microscopes and Grampa stands in a doorway during an earthquake for protection. Pay attention, kids!
"You're dead, Burns!" - Homer Simpson

Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part Two) (7x01) ***

I was a bit disappointed with this conclusion. Not the solution to the murder mystery, which is fine, but the way it drags out and engulfs the whole thing, meaning there's not too much to enjoy if you're watching again and already know whodidit.

My favourite elements were the homages, which were affectionately and brilliantly done. The Twin Peaks one at least, I'm too young to remember Dallas as anything more than an insidious theme tune, but it's well known enough that I got it.

I like the implication that Wiggum is actually a decent investigator on an unconscious level, and Smithers' descent into an alcoholic bum is pretty funny. But in the end, they spend too much time setting up red herrings and too little on nonsensical asides. This isn't actually a drama.
"Dozens of people are gunned down each day in Springfield, but until now none of them was important" - Kent Brockman

Radioactive Man (7x02) ***

It's a new season, so obviously we're all craving a... Milhouse episode? He carries the burden well, not craving the attention thrust upon him when cast as Fallout Boy in a doomed adaptation of his favourite comic book, which sets him apart from his peers. I'm also grateful for any insight into his breaking home, where his parents happily spend their son's newfound wealth on escapist contentment before he's actually earned any.

The send-up of the campy 60s Batman series is the best part. It seems I've started to enjoy their parodies more than their actual plots, that can't be a good sign. Hey, remember Spirograph?
"Get me two plane tickets to the state that Springfield is in" - Hollywood Executive

Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily (7x03) ****

Social services would choose this of all days to visit. A series of unfortunate events conspire to make Homer and Marge look like neglectful parents, so their tragic children are sent as far away as their neighbours the Flandereses.

Flanders descended from an overly optimistic neighbour to a full-blown zealot a season or two ago, and this is where he crosses the line to genuinely creepy. It's always fun seeing the Flanders home life, with Rod and Tod's terrible ideas of fun and their exposure to violent cartoons, and the ending, hinging on Maggie's decision, is sweet without being stupid.
"Ned, have you thought about one of the other major religions? They're all pretty much the same" - Timothy Lovejoy

Bart Sells His Soul (7x04) ***

I suppose this is the season when what I archaically think of as 'modern Simpsons' began (it's still 1995), when the frequency and hit rate of gags slowed down a little and stories became more formulaic. That's probably completely wrong, and I can't say the episodes have started to slip in quality yet, I think the blame lies in seasons three, four and five being really good, six still being strong but tending towards the ordinary, and this one feeling like the magic is gone. It's also undoubtedly because I've now gone past the era of over-familiarity, when I'd unfailingly watch every episode on its long-delayed BBC debut, into the ones I caught up on later repeats. I was a teenager now, who foolishly thought life was about more than just watching TV. Had I learned nothing from this show?

Bart sells his soul to Milhouse for $5 and is convinced through the customary series of coincidences that he's given away a vital part of himself and strives to get it back. They keep things nicely ambiguous so everyone can draw their own conclusions, I think Lisa makes the case for the concept rather than the reality of a soul really well. Maybe she can get back in my good books.

There's a B-story about Moe revamping his bar into a family restaurant until he remembers he can't stand children or happiness in general. It feels like the sort of plot they would have rejected in previous years, and isn't funny enough to be worthwhile really. They've spoiled me too much.
"How can someone with glasses that thick be so stupid?" - Bart Simpson

Lisa the Vegetarian (7x05) ****

Yep, we're in the era of overly fawning celebrity cameos for the sake of it now. You could say that stretches as far back as the Michael Jackson episode, or Ringo Starr, but in the meantime most guests have been sporting enough to take a few satirical stabs. Maybe there's a rule about not insulting the Beatles.

I understand why people would hate Lisa in this episode, or even consider it the point of no return for the character (I'll share an insight that comes from watching every episode in sequence: things aren't that consistent). But I like her journey from preaching vegetarian zealot to demonstrating through example. The fact that I've been vegetarian on and off in my life might sway things - this is another (occasional) example of The Simpsons as good edutainment, and those who passionately hate vegetarianism can be satisfied that the balance is maintained with some annoyingly catchy put downs. You don't win friends with salad, after all.

As someone who was probably taken in by conspiracy theories by about a week before realising they were just entertaining, I like their joke about backmasking. Paul McCartney's okay, but having him and his late wife show up in Apu's garden for basically no reason is as gratuitous as cameos get. Remember the good ol' days of 'Homer at the Bat,' when they'd invite sporting legends to voice their animated counterparts' descents into hell? Maybe The Simpsons should have been six seasons and a movie?
"Cartoons don't have messages, Lisa. They're just a bunch of hilarious stuff" - Bart Simpson

Treehouse of Horror VI (7x06) **

It looks like the previous Halloween episode (one of my all-time favourite episodes, I think) was a fluke, as these are back to feeling like the tradition is being followed because it's a tradition. It's still fun escapism, but none of these three 'scary' tales would be up there with my favourites.

The most memorable is Homer entering the third dimension, riffing on The Twilight Zone again. My brother told me about this years before I eventually saw it, and I assumed he'd dreamed it. It's a nice one-time gimmick, especially in the year of Toy Story when CGI was very exciting, but a gimmick is all it is. Nothing happens and it just ends.

The other stories are fair homages to rampaging Godzilla movies (with a nod to Ghostbusters) and Nightmare on Elm Street, specifically the ace third film which was part of my childhood even though it technically shouldn't have been. Willie stands in for Freddy Krueger, but the running joke of him getting killed in every installment was consigned to last year's episode. There's no element that connects these stories any more, and the blood has been noticeably toned down too.

They've got six years and more than 100 episodes under their belt, maybe this show's just been running for too long. How long was it until it finally ended? ...Huh?
"Let's have no more curiosity about this bizarre cover-up" - Seymour Skinner

King-Size Homer (7x07) ***

Homer gets ever more ridiculous and dangerously irresponsible as he masterminds a scheme that will allow him to work at home at the mere cost of his health and marriage. After dallying with injuries from falling objects, he opts for morbid obesity as an achievable goal, aided by Dr. Nick Riviera, the chocotastic group of foods and an enthusiastic Bart, who's inspired to follow his father's example in the future.

A few scenes are sympathetic to society's weight problem, but that doesn't stop the writers from wringing every situation for laughs, culminating in Homer's ice cream truck hijacking and his fat ass accidentally saving the day. The customary reset button conclusion follows, but at least it's mentioned. Unlike the time Rob McElhenney intentionally gained and lost significant weight in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, this animated character won't have suffered permanent liver damage for our amusement.
"The fingers you have used to dial are too fat" - Operator

Mother Simpson (7x08) **

Having learned nothing in the previous episode, Homer concocts another ingenious and expensive scheme to get a day off work by faking his own death. Unlike the zany antics of earlier seasons, this opener actually leads into the main plot as Homer's mother returns to Springfield to mourn for her son, and is forced to explain her absence for the last 27 years (not counting how long the show's been running in real time, Homer was still a 60s kid).

I never even considered the absence of Homer's mother to be an issue, I was just so used to him only having a father all these years. But while her bonding with Lisa is nice, this episode seems like it was created just to add Mona Simpson to the canon, without much of a story to support it. Burns just plays the arbitrary villain, it's quite the comedown after that whole blocking-out-the-sun thing. Still, I liked the flashbacks peeking further back than we've been offered before, with appearances from an asthmatic Clancy Wiggum and curiously more Jewish Kent Brockman.
"Do I know what rhetorical means?" - Homer Simpson

Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming (7x09) *

These excuses to bring back Kelsey Grammer are getting worse every year. I don't enjoy Sideshow Bob episodes most of the time, and this is probably my least favourite episode of the series so far.

I didn't like anything about it, from Bob's shallow motivation of being annoyed by the banality of TV to how easily his plans are scuppered by archaic technology. I'm aware of the irony of the traditional machines he reveres being crushed by their modern equivalents, so don't bother pointing that out.
"I'm aware of the irony of appearing on TV in order to decry it, so don't bother pointing that out" - Sideshow Bob

The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular (7x10) ****

I've been getting bored by some of the recent episodes, so a good gimmick was what I needed. For their annual, budget-necessitating clip show (would you rather they just lose an episode per year?) the team used the format to their advantage in presenting rare and previously unseen clips that are a real treat for fans rather than an insult, while relentlessly mocking themselves and the industry in general. I liked this a lot more than I expected to - being presented by a typically disinterested Troy McClure certainly helped - and it's my favourite of the largely mediocre season so far.

There are the standard montage sequences reusing clips from across the years, collected under themes of Homer's increasing stupidity (see, they're aware of it), what the deal with Smithers is, and hardcore nudity. There's also an extended opening that uses multiple couch gags, which was a bit wearying until I considered someone tuning in for the first time and getting really confused, which made it funnier.

Much more interesting than the stuff we've seen before is the stuff that was previously unavailable, before the likes of YouTube and DVD bonus features anyway. I'm sure a lot of people had no idea about the characters' shaky origins in The Tracey Ullman Show before this episode (I don't know anything else about that show), the fully animated false endings for 'Who Shot Mr. Burns?' are an interesting insight into TV production secrecy (I've seen these red herrings created for a lot of shows since), and the false trivia is convincing enough that I had to do a Google search to confirm what the cash register really says in the opening titles, which is smart in itself. Marvin Monroe's off-screen death is a weird one, I guess they had a thing against that character.
"The Simpsons have come a long way since an old drunk made humans out of his rabbit characters to pay off his gambling debts" - Troy McClure

Marge Be Not Proud (7x11) ***

I never associated season seven with being so middling and unmemorable. Alright, so I never thought of The Simpsons in terms of seasons at all, unless there was a particularly crudely-drawn and oddly-voiced Homer, but it's very noticeable when watching them all back to back like this. I won't write off the show yet, as I know there are still plenty of great episodes to come, but the hit rate has dropped significantly, somehow.

I don't think I'd ever seen this one before, I was surprised to learn they made another Christmas-themed episode. It's an obvious annual gimmick, but outside of Halloween they don't generally like to give too many signs that these kids should really be getting older. Especially since Bart and Lisa already celebrated their birthdays in season three and stayed the same age.

To season seven's credit, the writers do often go back to basics and deal with realistic crises for the Simpson family, this time teaching Bart that shoplifting's bad. This causes Marge to wonder whether her (inconsistent) over-[s]mothering is to blame, they both learn something, and all's made up in time for Christmas... which presumably happens off screen.

It doesn't feel very festive at all, and has nothing on the definitive Christmas special (1x01). I guess that wasn't their intention.
"Now he's just a little boy stealing little toys, but some day he'll be a grown man stealing stadiums and quarries" - Don Brodka

Team Homer (7x12) ***

Another distinctly average episode, as usual there's nothing really wrong with it, but it doesn't impress me much.

The unlikely (and basically accidental) bowling team of Homer, Moe, Apu and Otto chances on a winning streak until Mr. Burns swoops in and the most expendable (least amusing) character is forced out to make way for the terrible bowler who nevertheless provided their funding.

Burns is non-threatening again, but as he'll doubtless forget everything that happened here there's every chance he'll be a villainous tyrant again in his next appearance, you can never tell. More reliably uninteresting is Otto, who they try to give a break before realising he's more useful in the background.

Meanwhile, a prank of Bart's courtesy of Mad magazine leads to Springfield Elementary temporarily enforcing uniforms to quell independent thought. It gives those characters something to do for seven minutes or so, you know.
"I guess some people never change. Or, they quickly change, then quickly change back" - Homer Simpson

Two Bad Neighbors (7x13) ****

A memorable and significant episode standing out from the heap, the show gets some of its sillness back as former president George Bush (Senior) moves in across from the Simpsons, upstaging Homer's rummage sale antics and encouraging Bart to unleash his inner Dennis the Menace (U.S. version) in one of my favourite homages of the series.

It was a bold, possibly foolish move to base an episode around an actual living human and assassinate his character more than his politics, and this may have set the bar for the likes of South Park later. I like that they keep things coolly non-political, apart from a compulsory comment from Lisa about how she wouldn't have voted for the tyrant. Okay, I admit it, my knowledge of Bush Snr. comes almost entirely from Bill Hicks routines.

As the neighbourly rivalry escalates, so does the daftness, culminating in a shirt-tearing fight in the sewers. Homer looks suitably buffoonish and even unrealistic next to the Bush caricature, which helps to make the former prez seem like he really doesn't belong in this universe, even if he has exactly the same voice as Flanders (and a bunch of other characters).

Even before the Bushes arrived, I enjoyed the nods to continuity as the Simpsons peddled various gifts and merchandise from their earlier adventures. I spotted the Olmec head, 'I Didn't Do It' shirts, Lisa Lionheart dolls and Grampa's virility tonic, though there will be several thousands websites listing the ones I missed. The irritatingly recurring Disco Stu is also introduced for the purpose of a single joke and has already outstayed his welcome.
"I thought the banner was pretty straightforward" - George Bush Senior

Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield (7x14) **

I was a supporter of Marge episodes for a while, as she had a good run in the previous few years. But like Lisa before her, it's time to leave that character behind and just focus on Homer entirely from now on. The audience likes Homer.

I wasn't riveted by Marge's journey of being tempted by the glamour of high society before eventually re-embracing her working class roots. She was just annoying throughout. But that's okay, because Homer's in it too and he plays golf against Mr. Burns, ha ha. That's what we like.
- "I wonder if this Homer Nixon is any relation?"
- "Unlikely sir, they spell and pronounce the name differently" - Burns and Smithers

Bart the Fink (7x15) ***

For a Krusty episode this isn't bad, which is to say it's still basically average, but at least his fall from grace (again, again) makes him more sympathetic than he is the rest of the time. This is one character who deserves the occasional sour spells fate casts on him, and he always recovers by the end anyway.

I had a very slight hope that his new identity as a simple fisherman might have been the true ending for the character, if the writers were also bored of him and wanted to create a fitting send-off, but it wasn't meant to be.
"A professional in an ape mask is still a professional" - Marge Simpson

Lisa the Iconoclast (7x16) ****

I was so glad when I realised half way through that this was a Lisa/Homer episode, I've missed them. And it does recapture the magic of their earlier team ups, even if it isn't up with the best of them like 'Lisa's Pony.' I should stop comparing these fine episodes to their more cromulent predecessors.

After brief glimpses in 'Lemon of Troy' and way back in 'The Telltale Head,' we delve deeper into the Springfield mythos and the shady past of the city's founder Jebediah. I know with absolute certainty that there are specific allusions to the U.S. forefathers all over the place but I don't come from there and have mostly pieced together their history through TV, so I hope Americans can forgive my ignorance. Watch Blackadder some time to learn how it feels.

I don't have the same aversion to Lisa's crusades as a lot of people, though it depends on the cause she's championing, and I can get behind her here - besides, those closing moments are just nice. I'm more troubled by Mayor Quimby taking out a hit on the young girl, Chief Wiggum's impromptu ventriloquist act and the heavy duty workload Miss Hoover tasks her eight-year-old students with, but thinking about it they've always treated Springfield Elementary more like a high school.
"I support most any prejudice you can name, but your herophobia sickens me" - Moe Szyslak

Homer the Smithers (7x17) ****

The series has been back on form recently after a confusingly middling stretch, and after a couple of weak appearances Monty Burns is also back to his tyrannical, over-privileged, archaic best. Since the writers drew attention to Smithers' 'unconventional' lifestyle in the recent clip show, they're free to push the envelope further as Waylon has some much-needed time away at a resort that seems to be exclusively populated by happy men. What are the chances?

Homer is selected as his replacement during the absence, specifically so that Smithers will look exceptional by comparison, but this has the unintended effect of teaching Monty how to take care of himself for the first time in his 104 years. No doubt he'll forget it all before his next appearance when Smithers will be called on to contentedly perform some infantilising duty or other, but that's how we like him.

I hardly mentioned Homer. He's great too.
"Can you repeat the part of the stuff where you said all about the things?" - Homer Simpson

The Day the Violence Died (7x18) ***

Comic Book Guy has really come into his own this season, which I guess means the writers finally realised how much they enjoyed venting extreme sarcasm through this zigzag-bearded mouthpiece. There's another nod to the series' origins in this nostalgic season with the appearance of characters modelled on the original Bart and Lisa designs at the end, which teaches the real characters some humility after Marge embiggens their confidence.

I tend to watch these episodes in blocks of four, and three of today's ('Bart the Fink,' 'Lisa the Iconoclast' and this) have featured Bart and/or Lisa doing the 'right' thing and unintentionally spoiling everyone's fun. It's an oddly specific theme.

We learn more about the background of Itchy & Scratchy, which must surely have been covered by now, though once a year is acceptable. I have no idea what the 'Amendment to Be' sequence is parodying, but that isn't a barrier to me loving it.
"We've got plenty of hearsay and conjecture, those are kinds of evidence" - Lionel Hutz

A Fish Called Selma (7x19) ***

Troy McClure becomes a real boy and more than a one-joke character in this episode, though they never let that one joke ("you may remember me from...") lie. I always enjoy seeing whatever cheap product or service the washed-up actor is promoting every other episode, but he doesn't carry the burden of an entire episode any better than the likes of Otto before him. It doesn't help that it's at least the third episode about Selma being unlucky in love either, though for continuity's sake I was glad to see the reappearance of Jub Jub.

Another major positive is the Planet of the Apes musical, which is up there with my favourite Simpsons gags ever and must be in one of the later clip shows because I've seen it a lot more often than I've seen this episode. Seeing this as a kid who'd recently watched the Apes saga for the first time, as my dad had bought a box set, I was particularly impressed by the parody's attention to detail in creating something casual viewers could enjoy but that fans would get an extra kick out of. This was years before Family Guy started copy-and-pasting Star Wars scripts and changing the nouns. It doesn't work like that.
"Please don't smoke in our restaurant. We don't serve contemporary California cuisine in your lungs" - Waiter

Bart on the Road (7x20) ***

This is a fun adventure episode, they don't have to go for domestic realism every week. Skinner's hastily concocted 'Go To Work With Your Parents Day' is a good excuse for Lisa to spend time with her father again, and through a couple of misdemeanours leads to Bart taking his friends on a road trip.

The Bart, Milhouse, Nelson and Martin team that worked well in 'Lemon of Troy' is still great, even if Nelson's presence is a bit of a mystery - maybe he just warmed to these little guys? (Martin's explicitly only there because he provided the funds). Homer and Lisa are reliably cute together - I like how dependent on her he becomes - and Marge feels left out of the action so much that she intentionally wakes and distresses Maggie just so she can be calmed down again. I enjoy these rare insights into Marge's ever so slightly darker side.
"You are hearing me talk" - Al Gore Doll

22 Short Films About Springfield (7x21) **

There have been more gimmicky episodes this season than usual, and this one isn't as successful as the 138th Episode Spectacular or the time George Bush moved in. The show's ensemble has been steadily on the rise from the beginning, and this is supposed to be the chance for some of these peripheral characters to shine in situations not directly related to a member of the focal Simpson family, but it's probably the brevity that counts against it as it mostly goes nowhere, as well as my heightened expectations. I'm past the point where I remember most episodes by their titles, so weird ones like this stand out on the horizon.

There are more writers listed for this episode than any other (so far, at least), which gives it a very uneven tone and makes it easy to pick your favourite skit. I'm with 'Skinner & the Superintendent' all the way, a great little sitcom caper of mumbled excuses and naturalistic dialogue that harks back to their "what's a battle?" exchange in 'Whacking Day'. There are also more than a couple of Pulp Fiction references in Wiggum's story, and while I laughed at Lou's explanation of exotic McDonalds cheeseburgers I wasn't keen on the return of Herman being evil again. I wish they'd lock him up with Sideshow Bob in inescapable perpetuity.
"Aurora borealis? At this time of year? At this time of day? In this part of the country? Localised entirely within your kitchen?" - Gary Chalmers

Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson in "The Curse of the Flying Hellfish" (7x22) ***

Another adventure caper so soon after 'Bart on the Road,' this one's even more over-the-top as Grampa ends up having to rescue Bart from drowning inside a sunken chest after Burns makes off with the stolen Nazi portraits. Strange, I'm sure I read something about the writers concentrating on down-to-earth family situations this year. I don't have a problem with the occasional totally insane episode though.

Abe-centric episodes don't have a tradition of being the best, and it's just plain weird to see him interacting with Burns earlier in their lives in light of their interactions in previous episodes and Burns' inconsistent age. Still, I've been calling for Monty to be used in a more conventionally evil capacity than just being an occasional nuisance (they can drag out Sideshow Bob for that), so I guess this is my fault.
"Hey fun boys, get a room" - Baron

Much Apu About Nothing (7x23) **

It's been longer than I thought since Apu got an episode ('Homer and Apu' was in season five. I wish this was still season five. That was great), and as usual it's not quite as good as an average episode about Homer getting up to something would probably be. The Simpson patriarch still keeps himself busy, organising a city-wide bear patrol after a lone grizzly is seen wandering the streets (maybe it wanted to reunite with Maggie?) and aids Apu in his quest to become legally American.

Selma reveals an unseen dalliance with Lionel Hutz that's added to her ungainly long surname since her brief marriage to Troy McClure a few episodes previously (she must have a thing for Phil Hartman's voice. Who doesn't?) and Mayor Quimby sinks to a new low even for him as he attempts to excuse Springfield's current problems on the irrelevant scapegoat of immigrants.

The episode has a serious core on this matter, climaxing with an unexpected upbeat speech from Homer, but sadly it's not all that funny.
"He thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread, sliced bread having been invented the previous winter" - Abraham Simpson

Homerpalooza (7x24) ****

This has always been one of my mental landmarks charting the series' decline in quality, and like a couple of others I've already passed, it wasn't the celebrity-pandering disaster I'd expected. It's still celebrity heavy, but so was 'Homer at the Bat' back in season three and that's one of the best, isn't it? It's annoying and confusing, having to discard fervently held opinions in the face of evidence. I'm happy they're proving me wrong - maybe I can look forward to 'Simpsons Bible Stories' in season 10 after all...

This story of Homer desperately trying to reconnect with the music scene to feel young again and win the respect of his kids offers accurate commentary on Generation X attitudes, the wrong opinions of kids and the creeping commercialism of live events. With a few years behind it now, this 1996 episode has grown a new layer of irony as the music being championed as bold and new is now just as old as Homer's dinosaur bands were at the time. I'd go with his enduring selections every time.
"I thought I had an appetite for destruction, but all I wanted was a club sandwich" - Homer Simpson

Summer of 4 Ft. 2 (7x25) ****

School closing for the summer and the Simpsons hitting the road gives this final episode of the season a nice end-of-year vibe that's missing from most. This year has also bucked the trend of quality petering out towards the end, as I've generally enjoyed the recent episodes more than the disappointing early ones of the season. I don't know, maybe I had Simpsons overload for a while or just had to get used to the new style, but based on memories from over half a life ago, I didn't expect this episode about Lisa seeking the acceptance of cool kids to be one of my favourites of the year.

While her story is a pretty obvious but touching one, I especially like it when she snaps and develops a really vicious rivalry with Bart. It's also good to see Bart put in his place for trying too hard (I found his celebrity status at school too weird at the beginning), and Marge has to back off from over-mothering Lisa as she did Bart earlier in the year, so decides to concentrate her efforts on the baby instead. The look on her little face.

What? Oh yeah, Homer's in it too, doing funny things like negotiating Flanders into doing chores for him in exchange for letting him use his beach house (Homer isn't the only one who gets dumber every year) and setting off illegal fireworks in said beach house.
"Girls, Lisa. Boys kiss girls" - Marge Simpson

Treehouse of Horror VII (8x01) ****

Time to get into the Halloween spirit again (they're coming faster and faster, it feels like seven this year already), with three more unconnected remakes of Twilight Zone episodes. I was only being sarcastic, but reading up on it that seems to be largely true.

The first story concerning Bart's previously unseen conjoined Siamese twin is the best, and the attic scenes before the reveal are pretty creepy. For a cartoon. Look, I'm trying to be generous. Tales from the Crypt taught us that episodes about twins are reliably good, and there's a neat twist that's actually signposted plenty early and that I didn't catch, proving I've learned nothing whatsoever from all those horror anthologies. It's almost like I've wasted my life.

The second story is decent too (here's where The Twilight Zone really comes into play), and sees Lisa unintentionally create a microscopic, rapidly evolving civilisation in a petri dish. It's another hard sci-fi adaptation for those who liked Homer's toaster time travel escapades a season or two ago, I always appreciate those.

The third story is the first time the watchful aliens Kang and Kodos have actively taken part in a Halloween episode since the first one, which was a surprise to me, but it's not very good. The political references are so specific to its original airing as to make them nostalgic by the time of the first re-run, and while I'm glad they stuck to their guns and didn't treat Clinton and Dole any better than George Bush the previous year (at least Homer didn't actually kill Bush), it felt like UFO capers for the sake of it.
"I'm very disappointed and terrified" - Marge Simpson

You Only Move Twice (8x02) ****

Here's a certified Simpsons classic I'd never seen before. That's a turn up for the books, as most of the episodes so far that I randomly hadn't seen were usually average to poor ones, sandwiched between those I'd seen multiple times as a kid. Maybe I've struck a golden stretch of brand new classic Simpsons! Ah, no - the Homer boxing one's next. Never mind, there might be a few more unseen treats before I'm through.

By relocating the Simpson family to a slightly creepy and very detailed planned community for the majority of the episode, this has the vibe of a mini-movie like 'Bart's Comet' and 'Marge vs. the Monorail' before it, and I like that. Homer's new boss tyrant buddy is one of the more memorable one-time characters too (that's assuming he doesn't show up again for a disappointing cameo as they're prone to doing), and while one of the highlights of the episode is seeing how far they can push the obvious under Homer's nose without him getting a whiff of what's really going on, the excessive violence actually disturbed me a little, especially when Homer's unwittingly an accessory.

I know, I'm taking this cartoon much too seriously. I have to take a break one of these seasons... but not when it's still so good.
"Your dreams may vary from those of Globex Corporation, its subsidiaries and shareholders" - Voiceover

The Homer They Fall (8x03) **

A sport episode again. A violent sport episode to boot. If it was funny enough I'd get over my preconceptions (I keep coming back to 'Homer at the Bat' as an example of a brilliant episode I might have skipped), but it still doesn't do it for me.

In fact, my favourite part was the brief image montage of the temporarily reformed Moe helping out the poor and needy over the end credits. I'm such a pussy. There's no reason you shouldn't like it better.
"They called me Kid Gorgeous. Later on, it was Kid Presentable. Then Kid Gruesome. And finally, Kid Moe" - Moe Szyslak

Burns, Baby Burns (8x04) ***

I still get excited at the prospect of a Burns episode, but this isn't one of my favourites. I can't say I'm familiar with the work of Rodney Dangerfield (beyond him having one of those names I'd heard), but he puts in a great guest performance as Burns' long-lost son, quipping his way through the episode and catching himself talking to himself.

Homer shows his rarely seen altruistic side in this episode too, as he bonds with Larry over their mutual interests of drinking and laziness and stages a fake kidnapping in a futile attempt to melt Monty Burns' shrivelled heart. I guess his memory of their previous encounters is almost as bad as the old man's or he wouldn't have wasted his effort.

At least this one has some effect on continuity, following up on 'Burns' Heir' a few seasons back, unless he just chooses to disown the lout. Special credit also needs to be given to one of my very favourite Simpsons gags:
"He spelled 'Yale' with a six" - Woman

Bart After Dark (8x05) ****

I can't put my finger on why this season is impressing me a lot more than the last, but making forced comparisons is one of my reasons for working through a series this dense, so I have to make the observation somewhere.

The bordello fits in perfectly with the seedy side of Springfield established as far back as the first season. The town isn't lacking strip clubs or disreputable characters, so I get behind this being a major institution and part of the city's culture that we just haven't seen before because its customers like to keep it quiet. I'm actually happy to see Skinner having any sort of private life, however scandalous, and there shouldn't be any surprises among the rest of the regular clientele.

They manage to keep this strictly a family show by relying entirely on innuendos (mostly visual), so I'm still not sure exactly how far things are taken in there. The girls put the spring in Springfield regardless.
"I have been grossly misinformed about witches" - Bart Simpson

A Milhouse Divided (8x06) ****

As with Lisa's vegetarianism last season, the show makes another permanent change that isn't conveniently reset at the end of the episode, though only to the minor characters of Milhouse's parents. I suppose that makes it more like the time Bleeding Gums Murphy died then, in that it won't necessarily impact on anything anyway.

It's surprising that the show hasn't tackled divorce in a serious way until now, apart from Homer and Marge being temporarily estranged on a couple of memorable occasions (they previously had a dinner party in 'War of the Simpsons' too). While Kirk Van Houten is beyond hope, Homer learns from his son's friend's parent's mistakes and the end of the tale gets all soppy again like the old school episodes I love.

Even with the emphasis on drama there's still time for funnies, and my favourite moments are still the brief gags of Homer's non-soothing ocean lullaby and Kearney having a child that attends the same school he does.
"I sleep in a drawer" - Kearney Jr.

Lisa's Date with Density (8x07) ***

Lisa goes through an unlikely but not unrealistic phase and finds herself attracted to Nelson Muntz. It's nice to find out a little more about the increasingly benevolent bully, but his parents still haven't made an appearance. Isn't he three academic years above Lisa too? It would never have worked.

Life has more harsh lessons for Milhouse so soon after his parents' divorce, as his infatuation with Lisa foreshadowed in 'Lisa's Wedding' comes true, and he gets beaten to a pulp for helping her out. I'd feel sorry for him if that whole sequence wasn't so funny.

And to fill time or squeeze in some cheap laughs alongside the more serious message about accepting people for who they are, Homer tries out a telemarketing scam and is then told to stop by the police. It's fine, the writers have earned some off days.
"Most women will tell you that you're a fool to think that you can change a man. But those women are quitters" - Marge Simpson

Hurricane Neddy (8x08) ****

Like 'Bart's Comet' and 'You Only Move Twice,' this starts out like another high-stakes movie premise as a hurricane tears through Springfield, before becoming the best Flanders episode since he was first fleshed out in 'Dead Putting Society.' That character was reduced to a one-dimensional fundamentalist do-gooder several seasons previously, but they can still pull out the ol' Neddy when they have the right story, and this one takes us right back to his origin.

Flanders' diatribe against Homer and other Springfield residents was very satisfying, after their well-meaning but poorly executed reconstruction of his house. Ned's more well-rounded personality won't last, but it was great to be reminded that there's a real human under that well-pruned moustache and green knitwear.

There's time for serious musings on acts of God and dark humour too, as the hurricane saves a convict from the electric chair only to be blown onto power lines.
"If you think naming a destructive storm after a woman is sexist, you obviously have never seen the gals grabbing for items at a clearance sale" - Kent Brockman

El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voyage of Homer) (8x09) *****

How did I ever miss this one? I'm long past the era when I'd seen more or less every episode, but it's annoying to think how many times I sat through arbitrary repeats of 'Behind the Laughter' but was somehow busy each time this unique specimen passed through the schedule.

The weirdest Simpsons episode for a good while (surely one of the oddest of the lot), it largely takes place in Homer's chili-induced fever dreams as he's instructed by a Johnny Cash voiced coyote to embark on a psychedelic and spiritual quest to discover his true soul mate.

There's so much I love about this one, from the dream-like animation and eschatological musings to the tender conclusion where Marge demonstrates how in tune she is with her husband and dispenses some uncharacteristically sage advice on compatibility. Forget the gargantuan butterflies and cracking sun, Marge saying something that actually made me think was the weirdest moment here.

I forgot to mention it's still funny too. Homer confessing his psychological turmoil to a furniture salesman tickled me particularly.
"I'm a lonely, insignificant speck on a has-been planet orbited by a cold, indifferent sun" - Homer Simpson

The Springfield Files (8x10) ****

Before I committed to reviewing 200+ episodes of The Simpsons I worked through a similar number to cover The X-Files in its entirety (I'm not planning on sticking around when this show goes downhill like that one did in the later years). So I appreciated the multiple references in this delightful crossover, even if Mulder and Scully's visit to Springfield takes up less of the episode than I remembered.

My favourite thing about this one is how many ideas are crammed into it. It feels like briefly stepping back to the era of seasons four and five (my personal favourites) when those cutaways and gratuitous alien cameos seemed to be at their height, before the focus returned to the tighter plotting and domestic situations that I claimed to prefer but it turns out I sort of don't.

As well as the plenty of (accurate) X-Files gags, there are appearances by various other fictional creatures, from ALF and Marvin the Martian to the Budweiser frogs, and an extended return for Leonard Nimoy which I'd completely forgotten about and really adds to the episode. He even sings! Add to that music cues from Psycho and Close Encounters and this is the best extended Treehouse of Horror segment they never made.
"The following tale of alien encounters is true, and by 'true' I mean false. It's all lies, but they're entertaining lies, and in the end, isn't that the real truth? The answer is no" - Leonard Nimoy

The Twisted World of Marge Simpson (8x11) **

Another dull Marge ep, this time she attempts to stave off the tedium of her housewife existence by investing in a failed pretzel franchise. When business doesn't exactly boom, Homer seeks help from the mob and the episode gets even worse.

The moral of "aim low, don't try" is a stalwart of the series, though it normally issues from Homer. I don't know how accurately Springfield's ignorance of all things foreign is supposed to represent America at large, but if they didn't know about falafel in the 1990s they were sadly deprived.
"I did what any loving husband would do. I reached out to some violent mobsters" - Homer Simpson

Mountain of Madness (8x12) ****

Another fun adventure episode, a few per season is the right amount. After the nuclear plant employees perform a particularly shoddy fire drill, Mr. Burns decides a gruelling team-building weekend is the solution, and because he and Smithers always fight on vacation he ends up teaming with Homer to reach the cabin.

They actually get along surprisingly well before they're buried in an avalanche and become paranoid nemeses. Burns won't remember any of this, of course, and it's doubtful Homer will unless prodded, but their camaraderie-turned-hostility is fun for us to watch anyway. Meanwhile, various national park activities keep the rest of the family busy and Maggie gets to don her impractical star outfit again.
"I must say, once you've been through something like that with a person, you never want to see that person again" - Charles Montgomery Burns

Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious (8x13) ***

What a rubbish title. I wasn't as keen on this copyright-stretching Disney crossover as I was the recent X-Files one, mainly because I'm not a fan of musicals. I don't know if these songs were all direct parodies of Mary Poppins originals or something they came up with themselves. I don't exactly have the 'Poppins on DVD to check.

Marge is stressed out by the family again again again, though losing her hair is a nice visual touch. Rather than send her away to a spa or whatever else happened in those earlier episodes where the same thing happened, they decide to hire a nanny. Shary Bobbins can inexplicably fly and Springfield temporarily turns into Hollywoodized Victorian London during her tenure, but at least I appreciated the digs at some of the worst excesses of British cuisine.

Because I wasn't so into the plot, I sought solace in the occasional cracking gags, like the unfortunate acronym of the Krusty Komedy Klassic and Homer getting turned on by Marge's beach umbrella hairdo and grudgingly giving up his Civil War reenactment society that has been such a major part of his life over the previous seven seasons. It's not a bad episode, but most people will probably like it more than I do.
"I'm an original creation, like Rickey Rouse and Monald Muck" - Shary Bobbins

The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show (8x14) *****

This meta episode may have stemmed from anxiety about the show's long-running duration and decline in popularity, but it's the strongest proof that they've still got it. This is an instant classic that's up there with my favourites - largely for the writers taking the opportunity to lambaste themselves, interfering network elements, the temperamental audience and the more irritating, nit-picky aspects of fandom, of which I'm evidently guilty.

Meta episodes can be annoying, but this one strikes the perfect balance and once again relies on the convenient cartoon-within-a-cartoon Itchy & Scratchy to explore various avenues The Simpsons could have taken if it had caved in to pressure from above and really introduced a committee-forged character like Roy into the Simpson household.
"Very few cartoons are broadcast live, it's a terrible strain on the animator's wrist" - June Bellamy

Homer's Phobia (8x15) *****

I can imagine this legendary episode seeming controversial (in the eyes of twats, anyway) when it first aired, and it stands as one of the best examples of a 90s show exploring gay themes without being overly patronising. The concept of an all-gay steel industry is just as ludicrous as Homer's reckless efforts to straighten out his son, and while Homer isn't completely turned around by the end, he's at least a little more tolerant and that's the best we could realistically hope for.

If I was a casual viewer, Homer's casual homophobia might have seemed excessively harsh, but it does fit in with his occasional fiery temperament and narrow, conventional values, so I think they strike the right balance. I've been more annoyed at him in other episodes.
"I like my beer cold, my TV loud and my homosexuals flaming" - Homer Simpson

Brother from Another Series (8x16) **

Another pseudo-crossover I can't get too excited about, I never watched Frasier so the references go over my head. That makes me nostalgic for all those classic film references I didn't get in earlier seasons, unless they're still doing those just as frequently but they've become so obscure that I don't even pick up on it.

I haven't liked a Sideshow Bob episode since his first return in 'Black Widower' (there have been three in-between), and while this one at least does something different - he cries peace and goodwill and actually means it this time - it's not enough to wipe the slate clean and give me hope for the future. The only hope I have is that there's a small chance this might be Bob's final outing, as this is the last one I remember from the first time round, but with 20 further seasons ahead and counting, I seriously doubt it. A quick google could mercifully extinguish my optimism, but I'll keep the pathetic flame flickering as long as I can. Bart's sometime-nemesis in prison for good this time!
"Hello Bart! He's just a little shy because I tried to kill him so many times" - Sideshow Bob

My Sister, My Sitter (8x17) ***

Homer and Marge dress up nicely for a night out at Springfield's fashionable new waterfront, which involves Homer dressing up like the guy from Monopoly for some reason, and Lisa is left in charge, having proven her credentials as a reliable babysitter. Her infuriated brother proceeds to destroy her reputation and injure himself in the process.

Bart is an utter bastard and completely loathsome in this one, which is presumably just what they were going for, but it still makes it uncomfortable to watch. He doesn't even get his comeuppance at the end, which makes it seem like the purpose of the story was to teach Lisa not to take pride in her accomplishments.
"Who called for an emergency sisterectomy?" - Medic

Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment (8x18) ****

Another certified classic, and a chance for Homer to demonstrate that there's a brilliant mind lurking very, very deep in that thick head when his beer is at stake.

When Bart accidentally gets drunk at a St. Patrick's parade and Springfield is put on prohibition, Homer masterminds the supply of liquor to Moe's "Pet Shop" through an elaborate system of bowling balls, earning the ire of crack investigator Rex Banner who'll doubtless return only to be spoiled in season nineteen or so.

Even Marge approves of her husband's reckless criminal scheme, pleased to see him using his brain for a change, and his final sentiment ranks among the series' most astute observations:
"To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems" - Homer Simpson

Grade School Confidential (8x19) ***

The show explores sitcom drama territory again, as Bart unintentionally witnesses his principal and his teacher hooking up and is bribed into being their bitch. I'm quite happy that those two found a way to stave off the tedium of their lives, and it fits neatly enough with what's been established before, but I'm not invested enough in the relationship for an entire episode to be dedicated to it.
"If life has taught me one lesson repeatedly it's to know when I'm beaten" - Seymour Skinner

The Canine Mutiny (8x20) ***

So I guess there were more episodes about the dog than the two I remembered. Santa's Little Helper isn't really the subject of the episode though, it's more about Bart learning the follies of credit card fraud when he makes a number of elaborate purchases only to have them reclaimed.

Hang on, he doesn't really learn anything! Even his parents are unusually lenient on him. Maybe they've just grown to accept his mischievous japes, but that brat's getting away with a lot this season. At least there's sort of a happy ending for everyone else.
"That dog has more education than I do" - Homer Simpson

The Old Man and the Lisa (8x21) ****

It turns out Burns' fortune has been in decline all these years and he's now broke. Moving into Smithers' confirmed bachelor pad temporarily before being bundled into the retirement home, this is both a chance to see the out-of-touch centenarian strugging to get by in the real world (the supermarket scenes are some of his best) and to reaffirm that he is really a shrewd businessman at heart, even if the heart will always be lacking.

I like that Burns isn't presented as a deliberate evil-doer here, but just as someone who's naturally inclined not to care which species become extinct on his rise to the top. He's really very fair and generous to Lisa, who has to live up to her principles and becomes more than just a hollow preacher. People who hate Lisa episodes (understandable) or Burns episodes (inexplicable) will obviously hate this, but I like 'em both and it's been my favourite in a while.

Other notable moments include Burns' anti-nature rant, which almost sounds convincing if you switch your brain off, and asking Krusty where the "Burns O's" cereal is, presuming everyone gets a cereal with their face on. I love it! Springfield's townfolk are also revealed as the mindless automatons I suspected they were all along.
"Family, religion, friendship: these are the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business" - Charles Montgomery Burns

In Marge We Trust (8x22) ****

Yes, it's a Marge episode. No, it's not terrible.

Disillusioned with her family's lack of interest in church, Marge seeks advice from Reverend Lovejoy only to learn how jaded he is with the whole thing too, mostly due to decades of having to deal with Ned Flanders' constant crises (coveting his own wife, etc). Marge makes the church matter again, inspires the Rev and learns her limits - it's always nice when the more annoying characters get that hint. Though the action-packed ending is a bit over the top.

Still, as decent as Marge's story is, the stand-out moments are all from the brief B-story, as Homer investigates why his likeness appears on a Japanese washing powder box. The Japanese commercial is absolutely brilliant, it's got to be up there with the Land of Chocolate, Gentle Ben and Man Getting Hit By Football in my favourite Simpsons cutaways.
"She taught me that there's more to being a minister than not caring about people" - Timothy Lovejoy

Homer's Enemy (8x23) *****

One of my favourite episodes, Frank Grimes is such a welcome addition to the series and it's sad to see him depart so soon, making for some of the blackest humour in the show yet. Things have come a long way from the kid-oriented early years.

Grimes is like a prototype of Gil (who still hasn't showed up yet), a victim of bad luck throughout his life who's never amounted to anything despite putting in the work. He might be the most realistic character ever to cross paths with Homer, which makes him the perfect foil to criticise and be bamboozled over how ridiculous he is.

To be fair to Grimey, Homer is particularly annoying, stupid and life-threatening in this one, and when his salary is cut despite him saving Homer's life, Frank dedicates his efforts to exposing the incompetent buffoon in front of his peers and employer, which only reaffirms how much they love the clown.

There's a B-story where Bart buys a dilapidated factory for $1. It entertains him for a while, adds more fuel to Frank's disbelief of how well the Simpsons are doing and most importantly it lightens the tone, which otherwise borders on the darkness of The League of Gentlemen.

R.I.P. Frank Grimes. You remind me more of myself than I care to admit.
"Pigs tend to chew. I'd say he eats more like a duck" - Lenny Leonard

The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase (8x24) ****

These self-referential episodes can be a risk, but one that's worth taking. This collection of deliberately cheesy parodies of lame spin-offs is basically a different take on the 'Treehouse of Horror' format, but I liked it more than last season's '22 Short Films About Springfield.'

'Wiggum, P.I.' sees Clancy uproot to New Orleans with son Ralph and inept assistant Seymour "Skinny Boy" Skinner. Plenty of genre cliches are worked through and there's a gratuitous cameo by the Simpson family that makes this feel the most credible as a genuine attempt at a lazy spin-off, even though you'd have to be a complete moron to think it was anything of the sort. Apparently there were some, I assume they'd never watched the series before.

Elsewhere in the schedule, Moe and Grampa Simpson make an unlikely team in a completely bonkers multi-camera sitcom, which is easily my favourite. Taking its cues from those outlandish sitcoms of the 70s and 80s, complete with a crudely animated intro providing basic exposition, it's great to see the show experiment with a type of humour it otherwise couldn't get away with.

The third segment sees the Simpson family return for a variety show, with the notable exception of Lisa who declined to take part and is replaced by a busty cheerleader. I enjoy thinking about those in-universe behind-the-scenes conversations that must have taken place more than I actually enjoy this installment, which is such an accurate send-up of the dated format that it's somehow uncomfortable to watch.

With this and 'The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochy Show,' the creative team have been conscious of the show's longevity this season, and make several self-deprecating predictions for ways the series could jump the shark in year nine. This has been another excellent season for the show (not quite over yet), let's see if they stave off the inevitable decline another year.
"Spin-off: is there any word more thilling to the human soul?" - Troy McClure

The Secret War of Lisa Simpson (8x25) **

A bit of a downer for the end of the season, there are similarities to last year's 'Summer of 4 Ft. 2' as Lisa struggles to prove herself to her peers and school seemingly ends for the summer again, but Bart and Lisa remain the same age and will be back in the same grades next time, as is their curse.

This is one of the low points of the year really, harking back to old episodes like 'Kamp Krusty' but without the nostalgic charm as I'd well exceeded these kids' ages by this point. They don't particularly act in character either - Bart's a neighbourhood nuisance when the occasional episode requires it and Lisa decides military school will offer the discipline she needs, not realising until it's too late that the military are the ones who use weapons and kill people and stuff.
"The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain" - Commandant

The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson (9x01) ***

Entering the Mike Scully era and the series' prophesied downfall. It's not fair to lay the blame for the show's deterioration squarely on the showrunner at the time - it's not like he wrote most of the episodes, plus most people seem to like season nine well enough before the hate begins in ten. But looking back at the episodes Scully wrote previously, I have to admit he's not one of my favourites.

It's hard to judge this new season on the basis of the first episode, as it takes a break from the norm as the family visits New York to retrieve their car. Just featuring the World Trade Center made it inherently a little controversial for a while (this was made in 1997), and there's also the unfortunate scene popular with conspiracy screwballs that in no way predicts the 9/11 attacks, so shut up and watch The Lone Gunmen instead.

I'm not a fan of their tourism episodes generally, but it's nice that they're so disrespectful to the beloved city at least, unlike that terrible sycophantic one in the dark years ahead where they visit London. There's a big song and dance number, and I don't really like those either. It's an episode.
"Hey, it's Duffman! The guy in a costume who creates awareness of Duff!" - Lenny Leonard

The Principal and the Pauper (9x02) **

This feels like the start of something bad. There have been lousy episodes before, but this carries the uncomfortable feeling that it could become a trend - messing with the established identity of a character just for the sake of an average story and the self-referential reset button ending suggest this is a show that's starting not to care.

I forgot about the revelation that Skinner isn't really Skinner, which isn't surprising considering they make a point of not mentioning it again. This is still firmly in the period of pop culture awareness though, so it feels like it matters - they probably screwed up all sorts of stuff from season fifteen or so and only the dedicated fans would notice.

I haven't really enjoyed Skinner-heavy episodes before, and this is by far the weakest yet. The only moment I really liked was when he visits Agnes and she mistakes him for her son for the first time, with a strong suggestion that she knows what's going on really and is just happy to have a son to mother again. It's a way of coping.
"Up yours, children" - Armin Tamzarian

Lisa's Sax (9x03) ****

I didn't expect any more flashback episodes, after the last one brought us pretty much up-to-date with the birth of Maggie. This one backtracks a little further to ostensibly deal with the origin of Lisa's saxomophone, but gets sidetracked on the way to cover the origin of Bart's prankster side too, during his first days in school.

Part of the masochistic fun of these flashback episodes (for me anyway) is trying to set the continuity straight, which was slipping even back in the early seasons as they retroactively brought the dates forward to match the character's ages at the time. The trend continues here by depicting a three-year-old Lisa in 1990, which obviously contradicts her presentation when the actual show itself was on air during that time (was she seven or eight in the first season?) but also doesn't even match up to her supposed eight years in then-present 1997. Homer's baldness is inconsistent too. What am I supposed to do, just ignore these oversights and enjoy this? Okay.

I loved the Twin Peaks reference, which is basically accurate. Apu's random appearances were fun too, and the ever-fashionable Dr. Hibbert sports his most spectacular period outfit yet.
"My retinas have detached again" - Abraham Simpson

Treehouse of Horror VIII (9x04) ***

This is the last season I'm going to bother reviewing, as I don't want to take the plunge into the years of Jerkass Homer and endless fantasy plots, so after the previous flashback episode this is a final outing for that other old stalwart, the Halloween special. It's not one of the best.

My main issue with these tales is that they don't really have satisfying endings. The first two just finish and the third one makes a hokey attempt to explain the origin of Halloween, which feels more like it belongs in a kid's show. I miss the introductions and segues now.

My favourite of the three is probably the first, just for the scene where Comic Book Guy is confronted by a nuclear missile and has a revelation that all us nerds need to come to sooner rather than later. Elsewhere, Bart's turned into a fly and then gets better, and Marge is a witch. Compared to the decapitations, child cannibalism and inside-out dancing of 'Treehouse of Horror V,' this is tame stuff.
"I've wasted my life" - Comic Book Guy

The Cartridge Family (9x05) ****

I still archaically consider this a 'modern' Simpsons episode, in spite of it dating back to 1997. This insanity can be blamed on the BBC's tardiness in broadcasting the series - they only started showing season one that year, and by the time they got round to this season in late 2001 I was temporarily disillusioned with TV, seeking escapism in angry metal bands instead. I eventually saw this a couple of years later, after I'd come to my senses and realised there was enough space in my life for both vegetative viewing and tinnitus, but there was a clear divide in my personal continuity between the first eight years and whatever I saw from the subsequent seasons (I've hardly seen any from the past decade).

With that lengthy, self-indulgent overture out of the way, this may be a 'modern' episode but it's a really good one too, the writers once again restraining their liberalism to present a very balanced overview of the gun ownership issue that wasn't about to disappear any time soon.

Homer strikes genuine fear into Marge, who moves the kids into a delightfully sleazy motel until he comes to his senses. I won't ruin things by pointing out that Homer's previously been shown to keep a massive shotgun in the house on several occasions... damn.
"A gun is not a weapon, Marge, it's a tool. Like a butcher's knife or a harpoon or an alligator" - Homer Simpson

Bart Star (9x06) **

This episode is as blah as they come, an unwelcome callback to 'Lisa on Ice' and further back to 'Saturdays of Thunder' that brings out Homer's competitive side again as he pushes Bart to succeed on the football pitch, but only serves to drive him away. He also really riles up Flanders, whose anger management therapy last season might actually have worked after all.

There were still a few things I liked, including Homer's patented Skittlebrau feel-good cocktail and Lisa realising the modern world is fast catching up with her feminist ideals and stealing her thunder. She'll still find things to get pissed off about, don't worry.
"Confused, would we?" - Homer Simpson

The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons (9x07) ****

From the Van Houtens' divorce and Skinner hooking up with Krabappel to the Armin Tamzarian fiasco and now this, there's really been a focus on dramatic, permanent character development recently, and this marks the end of Apu's bachelor life. If I'd had to guess, I would have placed Manjula's introduction a couple of years later, but like I said, I was already out of touch and left behind by this point the first time around.

I was surprised that this was a good episode, my natural scepticism got the better of me (if there's a later one about the Nahasapeemapetilons giving birth to octuplets or something, that's probably what I was thinking of). Apu and Homer always make a strong team, recruiting a reluctant Marge into their web of lies before the wedding goes ahead regardless.

The attention to detail in the Hindu wedding ceremony might make up for the years of stereotyping Apu has inflicted on the subcontinent and its diaspora. There's also a very cute B-story where Homer hides out at the Retirement Castle and finds it a natural home.
- "Has the whole world gone crazy?"
- "No, just your screwy country" - Apu and Homer

Lisa the Skeptic (9x08) *****

The show hasn't lost its touch yet. This is my favourite of the season so far, partly because I controversially quite like Lisa episodes generally and also because I appreciate its debates of faith versus science and general championing of scepticism (which is how I spell it, deal with it).

It's a great episode for Lisa, and Marge has some nice bonding scenes with her daughter where they explain their differing viewpoints. Everyone else comes off pretty badly though, particularly Homer who inexplicably gets away with claiming ownership of the supposed angel fossil and the angry, torch-wielding townsfolk who'll never be put down.

A late classic. Oh hang on, this is still 1997 isn't it? As far as my Simpsons re-watch goes, the sun is descending.

Realty Bites (9x09) ***

It looks like 'modern' Simpsons is here to stay, as a relatively serious story about Marge's struggle to sell property is tempered by a cartoon story where Homer fights Snake in a sports car. The two plots come back together at the end in Curb Your Enthusiasm style.

The only things this episode really has going for it are the final appearance of Lionel Hutz before voice actor Phil Hartman's tragic death and the introduction of Gil, Springfield's unluckiest resident now that Frank Grimes is out of the picture.
"Trying is the first step towards failure" - Homer Simpson

Miracle on Evergreen Terrace (9x10) **

I really had no idea they'd made additional Christmas specials after the first one. This is now the third, and like its predecessor 'Marge Be Not Proud' in season seven it's forgettable and doesn't feel particularly Christmassy. It also focuses on Bart's guilt again, as he accidentally burns down the family's presents and belongings and tries to blame it on a burglar, gaining the Simpson family the sympathy of the town before the deception is revealed and things end badly.

It makes sense that they'd want to do a Christmas episode every year, ignoring the issue of the children never ageing, but none of these so far have matched 'Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire' in terms of holiday spirit. It also seems that Bart believes in Santa now, despite his knowing wisecrack back in the first episode that the fat guy who brings him presents doesn't go by that name.
"Let's go buy some happiness!" - Homer Simpson

All Singing, All Dancing (9x11) *

Oh god, not only is this a clip show, but a clip show of just the songs. The only thing worse would have been a clip show entirely dedicated to Sideshow Bob, though even that would have the funny bit with the rakes.

The flimsy wraparound conceit for these clips is that the family is watching old video tapes of their spontaneous musical moments. Video tapes that couldn't possibly exist. Even the last clip show ditched any attempt at in-universe continuity by presenting The Simpsons as a TV show, but they were oddly determined not to break the fourth wall here.

Some of the songs made memorable moments in the original episodes, but stripped of their context they're basically pointless. They come up with some new songs (or maybe it's just one extended one) in between the clips, which are completely unmemorable. I'm pretty sure this will be my least favourite episode, of the first nine seasons at least.
"Singing is the lowest form of communication" - Homer Simpson

Bart Carny (9x12) **

Homer and Bart become carnival workers, a profession that, I've gleaned from your comedy shows, has a fairly well established, undesirable reputation in the USA. There are certainly no counter-arguments here, as the carnies repay the Simpsons' generosity by squatting in their home and kicking them out.

I didn't like this episode much, but there were still a couple of things I enjoyed. Marge brings up Homer's heart condition resulting from his quadruple bypass, heretofore and hereafter ignored, and after Bart bunks off gardening chores I like that he's excited at the prospect of a virtual reality gardening simulator.
"You wrecked Hitler's car. What did he ever do to you?" - Nelson Muntz

The Joy of Sect (9x13) ****

Another late classic in my mercifully curtailed nine-season run, The Simpsons' satirical attack on cults is less direct than the later, ballsier efforts of South Park, but still gets away with plenty of thinly veiled parodies of Scientology tenets while picking and choosing from classic suicide cults of the 70s to 90s. The episode's broadcast relatively soon after the Heaven's Gate suicides is more notable than their digs at the acolytes of Xenu.

Homer's stubbornness and (increasing) idiocy delay his conversion to the Movementarian cause, leading them to believe he's some sort of superman until they realise they merely have to talk down to his level. Other strong-willed characters are broken in this fashion too, including Lisa, leaving Marge the only free-thinking Simpson to risk a daring escape from the compound and recruit seemingly the only non converts left in the town.

I loved the Prisoner sequence (it's nice when they parody things I actually get), the power of beer is reinforced once again, and even Burns gets a moment to shine as he feels left out of the limelight and makes a failed attempt to start his own cult. This is far from the best season, but with this, 'Lisa the Skeptic' and 'The Cartridge Family' it has some of the most thought-provoking stories.
"I pride myself on being a good host, so I'm obliged to offer you a beer, but I'm so darn mad it's going to be mostly head" - Ned Flanders

Das Bus (9x14) ***

One of their occasional unlikely adventure stories, this is one of the most memorable as the school bus plunges into the sea, Otto's "rescued" into a life of slave labour (he'll be inexplicably back in the driver's seat next time) and the kids are stranded on a desert island where things go all Lord of the Flies.

It's more than a cheap parody, as the distinctive personalities of Bart, Lisa, Milhouse and Nelson in particular all play their part in the situation getting out of hand. As for the other interchangeable kids, I like that even Bart confuses the names of people who've supposedly been his friends for the past nine seasons and longer. The ending will either infuriate or titillate you - it's a clear sign of the laziness creeping into the storytelling by this point, but it's a cheap laugh that I enjoyed anyway.

There's a pretty bad B-story where Homer starts a dot-com business, which wrings as many obvious, lazy jokes out of the conceit as it can. The delayed broadcast of these episodes in the UK must have made the whole thing look charmingly dated by 2002, we were all on eBay by then.
"We'll live like kings. Damn hell ass kings!" - Bart Simpson

The Last Temptation of Krust (9x15) ****

This could be the first Krusty-based episode I've loved. Usually the stories of his temporary fall from undeserved grace don't do it for me (excepting the nostalgic sleuthing of the first season's 'Krusty Gets Busted'), but I really enjoyed his journey here - from the long-coming realisation that his act is stale and basically terrible, through his reinvention as a scathing social commentator (complete with George Carlin ponytail) to his final judgement that he's in it for the money after all and happy with it. At least he's an honest shill.

Despite the heavy presence of Jay Leno I got more of a Larry Sanders vibe from this episode, probably due to the smattering of late 90s comedians like Bobcat Goldthwait and Janeane Garofalo who I only know from that. The closing advert for the Krusty-inspired, unsafe-for-public-roads SUV the Canyonero is another highlight, and there's even a not-long-awaited reappearance of the ever-struggling Gil, now working as a shoe salesman. They're still bothering to give him an actual background and character, but he'll be relegated to cheap Hans Moleman cameos before long.
"I'm Moe, or as the ladies like to call me, 'Hey You Behind the Bushes'... is this thing on?" - Moe Szyslak

Dumbbell Indemnity (9x16) ****

I had the feeling this episode came later, but as they've already given several supporting characters their own episodes over the last couple of seasons it was time for a decent Moe episode. The perpetually angry and depressive bartender finds true love for a while, as unlikely as that seems with that face and personality, and even shows that he has other human emotions like guilt and compassion when he decides to admit his culpability in an insurance scam and free Homer from prison.

It may be Moe's time to shine, but Homer still gets the biggest laughs. His bumbled attempt to escape from a car as it plummets down a hillside, only to be improbably rolled back into the driver's seat, is probably up there in my top 10 Simpsons moments.
"Stop saying Hawaii in there!" - Clancy Wiggum

Lisa the Simpson (9x17) ***

I'm an outed fan of Lisa episodes, but this time she's dealing with an entirely fictional issue rather than struggling with universal growing pains or defending the animals, so it's difficult to care. The notion that all males with Simpson DNA are doomed to be morons is amusingly tragic (Bart takes the bombshell well), but Lisa should have already known she had a chance of turning out okay after meeting her paternal grandmother. I almost forgot about that episode until now, looks like the writers did too.

Everyone around Lisa becomes necessarily dumber and more animal-like to hammer the comparison home, most evident when she literally has to stoop to her father and brother's level as they feast on squished chocolate bars, but on the plus side there's a nice visual puzzle bookending the episode that actually took me a while to crack, so that's a bonus.

Oh, there's also a really weird B-story where Jasper freezes himself in the Kwik-E-Mart and Apu charges punters to come and see him. He thaws eventually, somehow, and Apu and his brother concoct another wacky money-making scheme in its place. It's the oddest little tale they've tried to pass off outside of Halloween.
"You may remember me from such medical films as Alice Doesn't Live Anymore and Mommy, What's Wrong With That Man's Face?" - Troy McClure

This Little Wiggy (9x18) **

Another episode for Ralph after 'I Love Lisa' five seasons earlier, this time it's Bart's turn to endure spending time with the sad little imbecile after Marge feels sorry for him. I guess the end is quite a happy one for Ralph, but otherwise his story is just a bit depressing, and the threat of Bart losing his changeable street cred isn't enough jeopardy to keep me interested either. They aren't so big on endings that deal with consequences any more.

At least the abandoned penitentiary and the Knowledgeum looked quite nice. I like the velcro ceiling particularly.
"Good things don't end with '-eum.' They end with '-mania' or '-teria'" - Homer Simpson

Simpson Tide (9x19) **

The day has finally arrived: Homer is fired for his incompetence, and we can only hope that gives some small measure of satisfaction to the spirit of Frank Grimes. He'll obviously be right back in his old position next time with no explanation, but let Grimey enjoy it while it lasts.

To keep himself occupied, Homer joins the Naval Reserve, as apparently does everyone else because no one has responsibilities any more, so cue the expected jokes about homosexuality and corruption. Homer is put in charge for the flimsiest of reasons and almost causes a major international incident until he saves the day through a tenuous connection to the B-story about Bart getting an earring, which would otherwise have been a complete waste of time. I never like the military-themed episodes.
"You can't spell dishonourable without honourable" - Homer Simpson

The Trouble with Trillions (9x20) **

This season has been sadly lacking in Monty Burns episodes, and this hardly makes up for it as he teams up with Homer again and temporarily escapes to Cuba before returning to America with his tail between his legs and sufficient money to bribe himself out of the inevitable consequences.

An episode that starts out with a depressing reminder of taxes has to try extra hard to be funny, and this one doesn't really get there. Homer almost takes a suicide pill at one point - it's just a cheap laugh, but it still disturbed me a little. This show is so far removed from reality now, I feel we're supposed to have stopped suspending our disbelief that these are real characters by this point.

There's some especially glaring lack of continuity when Homer states he's never been fired by Burns despite the previous episode (of course, these could have been produced/aired out of order), but we do finally learn the origin of that boat painting that's been lurking in the background of every episode. Turns out Marge did it. Okay, it's insignificant, but it's still nice that it got a mention.
"We believe Burns still has that bill hidden somewhere in his house. But all we've ascertained from satellite photos is that it's not on the roof" - Agent Johnson

Girly Edition (9x21) ***

Another Lisa/Bart rivalry episode that brings out their worst sides, this otherwise skippable story is saved by the first appearance of the Crazy Cat Lady, a spot-on parody of toy commercials disguised as cartoon series with The Mattel and Mars Bar Quick Energy Chocobot Hour and yet more critique of institutional laziness and audience pandering in the news industry.

There's also quite a fun B-story where another critter temporarily passes through the Simpson household as Homer gets a monkey that carries out chores around the home until Homer's infectious laziness rubs off on it. I also liked the way Bart's destruction of Willie's shack came back to bite him - consequences are getting increasingly rare in the series.
"I've got to finish him off while I'm still temporarily insane!" - Groundskeeper Willie

Trash of the Titans (9x22) ****

One of the most memorable from the ninth season, this might unfortunately be the point of no return for Homer's character as he stands up for his pointless principles to the bitter end and drags the whole town down with him. He was a dick even as far back as 'When Flanders Failed,' but that episode was all about his guilt - here, he just wants to win in his feud against trash collectors and his subsequent election campaign, and doesn't feel any remorse by the quick fix ending that requires the whole town to be moved building by building because he destroyed the local ecosystem. It's a funny ending, so they get away with it this time - but Jerkass Homer is here to stay.

There's a lot to like about this episode, which even features one of the more acceptable song and dance numbers (it doesn't top the inside-out song from 'Treehouse of Horror V' though). Fat-cats contrive a new money-making holiday that the gullible townspeople lap up; Bart gets the plague; Homer makes and breaks another level-headed enemy, and U2 say "wankers" in a family show because Americans don't know how rude that is.

This would have made a fine addition to an environmentally-themed compilation of episodes, like they used to put out in the 90s. It's a strong critique of throwaway culture and the escalating garbage problem, but its good points sadly draw more attention to this being a series past its prime.
"I never apologise, Lisa. I'm sorry, but that's just the way I am" - Homer Simpson

King of the Hill (9x23) ***

This is another unrealistic adventure episode, a theme going all the way back to 'Call of the Simpsons.' I used to think I didn't like those types of episodes, but it's turned out I don't have a problem with them at all - especially as this is something of a redeeming one for Homer.

When he announced his plan to lose weight and get in shape, I sided with Marge's disillusioned camp, but he actually pulls it off thanks to a dedicated exercise regime in the gym (pronounced how it looks). His can-crunching flab will be back next time for sure, but for half an episode at least, sheer willpower, pressure from his son and a dash of competition with Flanders saw him to the top of a deadly mountain.

I can't make the obvious observation that we've never seen these towering peaks before, as the whole town was moved to a new location last episode, remember? Take that, continuity nitpickers! Now as long as the Murderhorn is visible in the background of every establishing shot from here on, I'll have nothing to complain about. There's no way they'd just forget about something like that.

It was also satisfying to see the truth revealed behind one of Grampa's fanciful stories, which paints the Simpson elder in a much less heroic, more cannibalistic light. I also like how young kids will laugh at Comic Book Guy being revealed taking a dump, while older viewers can enjoy the gag on its intended level. A true generation-bridger.
"Our beef jerky is now nearly rectum-free" - Apu Nahasapeemapetilon

Lost Our Lisa (9x24) ***

School's closed for the day, so Bart celebrates by sticking stuff to his face and Lisa gets on the wrong bus, leaving her stranded in the rough/secret/Russian end of town we've never seen before. It's okay, that whole relocating-the-town thing gives the writers leeway for a while.

It's good to see Lisa dealing with a real, relatable dilemma again, one I still have to struggle with all the time living and travelling in foreign countries. I'm also happy to be given one final Homer/Lisa episode before my re-watch ends - this isn't up there with their best like 'Lisa's Pony,' but Homer's pratfalls are as funny as ever and he even dispenses some valuable/irresponsible life lessons along the way.
"Stupid risks are what make life worth living" - Homer Simpson

Natural Born Kissers (9x25) *****

This was a great ending for my insightful and massively fun Simpsons re-watch. I originally planned to watch the first ten seasons before quitting, but looking ahead I was getting more depressed than excited and decided not to spoil my memories like I might have done with The X-Files, so chose to go out on a high.

I remember this one seeming pretty controversial at the time (as a UK viewer, add five years to 'the time'). There's tons of barely covered yellow nudity and implied sex all over the place, I wonder if they'd even have been able to get away with it in the earlier seasons when this was regarded as more of a kid's show?

It's not like it's too extreme though, and really the story of Homer and Marge reigniting the spark in their married life after 11 years is very touching. They may be doing it in barns, sewing rooms and mini-golf windmills, but they are married - even church groups would have trouble condemning this one.
"They only come out at night. Or in this case, the daytime" - Clancy Wiggum

Top 10 Simpsons episodes

#1. Last Exit to Springfield (4x17)

Here's an example of an episode I wouldn't have known would be one of my favourites without watching again. If it had gone by the more accurate title 'Dental Plan (Lisa Needs Braces),' then maybe. It's one of several episodes here with a looming Monty Burns presence, as well as a lot of Homer and Lisa. One of the most pleasant surprises of this rewatch was how much I loved that pairing.

#2. Secrets of a Successful Marriage (5x22)

Closing what might be the best overall season, this story of Homer and Marge's one-sided martial troubles (not for the first or last time) is the perfect middle ground between the emotive domestic stories of the early years and the wackiness of subsequent seasons. Homer's creeping insanity will make you laugh and cry.

#3. Homer the Heretic (4x03)

I always knew this was one of my favourites, and not just for the satisfying pot shots it takes at organised religion. Faith actually comes off pretty well in the end, as this is one of the most balanced analyses of the issue I've ever seen. God seems like a decent guy, and I love how much they exaggerate the discomfort the Simpsons endure at church while Homer stays home having the best day of his life.

#4. Homer's Enemy (8x23)

Season eight was another great year, one in which the writers weren't averse to prodding the weaknesses in their show to see how well it withstood the scrutiny. The tragic tale of Frank Grimes makes for one of the darkest episodes ever, but as a mouthpiece for disgruntled viewers he lets off a lot of the steam I'd built up for Homer's less attractive traits and the show's more ridiculous excesses. R.I.P.

#5. The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show (8x14)

Another self-referential analysis born out of anxiety that the show had outstayed its welcome by this point (this was still in the mid-nineties!), this is a brilliant commentary on the animation and TV industries of the time and more than makes up for the weaker Itchy & Scratchy focused episodes of previous years.

#6. The Last Temptation of Homer (5x09)

Homer's answer to Marge's near-infidelity back in season one, I love that they don't shy away from showing his genuine attraction to what basically amounts to his perfect partner. It still has a moral core and a happy ending that humanises the increasingly cartoonish Homer, plus the usual host of great cutaways and weird characters that make this era of the show so watchable.

#7. Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk (3x11)

One of many great Burns episodes, this one edges out 'Rosebud' and 'The Old Man and the Lisa' by giving us our first in-depth look at the retired despot's personal life, with Snappy the alligator and Smithers the queen bee. The Land of Chocolate sequence is one of the most classic Simpsons moments.

#8. Lisa's Pony (3x08)

Another great Homer and Lisa episode, we see how dedicated her father can be to his family's happiness as Homer struggles to work two jobs with no sleep to pay for the pony he bought her affection with. They both grow from this episode, however easily that can all be tossed away after the end credits, and there's another classic Homer fantasy sequence as he falls asleep behind the wheel.

#9. Treehouse of Horror V (6x06)

The annual Halloween specials are always a refreshing break from the norm, but only a few of them really impressed me after the first. This is definitely my favourite, with their take on The Shining, Homer's disastrous time meddling and Principal Skinner's solution to the school's problems of overcrowded detention and fresh meat shortage. It also ups the gore ante considerably compared to previous years.

#10. Marge vs. the Monorail (4x12)

You can't really do a Simpsons top 10 without including this one. Certainly one of the best high-concept stories they pulled off, the monorail plot itself is just a gimmick to hang so many bizarre gags around, from Homer's disastrous recreation of the Flintstones intro to Leonard Nimoy's cryptic cameo. The show was getting sillier, but it had really hit its stride.

Top 9 Simpsons seasons 1-9 seasons

#1. Season 2: 3.91 stars
#2. Season 3: 3.71
#3. Season 5: 3.68
#4. Season 4: 3.64
#5. Season 8: 3.60
#6. Season 6: 3.56
#7. Season 9: 3.08
#8. Season 1: 3.08
#9. Season 7: 3.04

That took me by surprise, considering no season two episodes appeared in my top 10 and that I retrospectively shunted season 2 into the bronze tier on my journey through the series, after being spoiled by the 'golden' age of 3-5. It's fair to say that season benefited from nostalgia and a slightly lower bar of excellence that would be incrementally raised. Or maybe it's just really consistent in its almost-excellence.

Take away the picky decimals and it doesn't matter anyway: there are six four-star seasons here, where random dipping is probably going to give you an above-average experience. They're all classics by default, even the slightly crap ones. Did things inexorably slide after season 9? I don't know, but to be honest I'd rather start '90s Simpsons over again again again again than embark on a millennial odyssey.

No comments:

Post a Comment