The Simpsons at 500: Why I still watch

Millions of North Americans will tune in Sunday to The Simpsons landmark 500th episode.  I will be one of them. I’ve seen the previous 499, so why stop now? I mean, it’s not as if it’s a show that I actively look forward to every week, likes Parks and Recreation or 30 Rock or Justified — but hey, it’s there.

The Simpsons — indisputably, in my view, the greatest show in the history of television, comedy or otherwise — long ago stopped being appointment television. At the peak of its brilliance, The Simpsons simply dazzled week after week, with its groundbreaking blend of scathing satire, spot-on parody, screamingly funny sight gags and just the right touches of sentiment. It was, unquestionably, brilliant. Sadly,

Notice that I said it was brilliant. The Simpsons is no longer brilliant, or even shining. For a time a few seasons ago, The Simpsons teetered on the edge of being unwatchable. My three sons, who grew up watching the show and adore it fiercely, simply stopped watching it altogether. In their view (and I could hardly dispute it) the show was such a pale shadow of its former self that it was actively desecrating its legacy. Struggling to watch some of the worst episodes of years past (there was one episode in Season 20 that I stopped watching half-way through, so I guess I’ve only seen 498 ½ episodes), I couldn’t argue. But I have always held out hope that the show would at least provide me with a solid laugh or two, which I figure is worth 23 minutes of my time. On occasion, it can still amaze.

Take this season, for example. Season 23 began with five episodes of epic awfulness (even the reliable Halloween episode tanked), but then went on a streak of three episodes (Lisa discovering that the book series she adores is a sham; Homer becomes a sales rep for vodka; Krusty gets cancelled — again) that reverted to its classic mixture of parody and satire. Amazingly, those three episodes wouldn’t have looked out of place in the series’ best (or maybe better) years. That’s why I still watch The Simpsons. While I know there is no hope for a true classic anymore, The Simpsons still has the ability to produce a real gem amidst the cubic zirconium it cranks out today.

And now, in honor of its 500th episode, I would like to add my list of the top Simpsons episodes to the 15,237 other Simpsons lists that litter the Internet. I can’t rate them; it would be like choosing a favourite child. So here, in no particular order, are some of my all-time favourite episodes, and some that are just favourite moments:

Homer the Heretic: Homer quits going to church. During a commercial break the first time this episode aired, I got a call from my brother Todd, who was in tears of laughter while watching the show. What other show in TV history would have the guts to feature God in a cameo. (Nice teeth, good smell, a class act, all the way.) A masterpiece.

Homer at the Bat: Mr. Burns puts together a team of ringers to win a beer league. Some of the best sight gags in the show’s history.

• The Homer They Fall: Homer becomes a boxer. Might be my all-time favourite. When Homer walks into the ring to fight Drederick Tatum wearing a robe that simply says “Opponent”, and playing his theme music, “Why Can’t We Be Friends”, I almost lost it.

• Radio Bart: Bart falls down a well and adopts the personal of Timmy O’Toole. Razor sharp satire of the media’s infatuation of this kind of story.

• Mr. Plow: Homer again, in what I suspect is the most frequently cited episode in Top 10 lists.

Krusty gets Kancelled: The first time, that is. An all-star show featuring Johnny Carson, Bette Midler, Elizabeth Taylor and others. The parody of Carson’s last show, which featured Midler crooning to Krusty, is one of those little Simpsons moments that make the show funny on so many levels.

• The Last Temptation of Krust: Krusty gets cancelled, again, then becomes a cutting edge comic, and then sells out. The Canyonaro commercial at the episode’s end is the funniest song in the show’s history.

• Cape Feare/Sideshow Bob Roberts/Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming: Had to list three great Sideshow Bob episodes. Bob running for mayor is one of the show’s great political statements. Kelsey Grammer is brilliant as Sideshow Bob, and the show’s dialogue is always elevated a notch for Sideshow Bob. And remember… no man who speaks German can be all bad.

• Homie the Clown: Yes, Homer again, this time as a substitute Krusty. A perfect blend of my two favourite characters.

• Homer’s Enemy: The semi-infamous Frank Grimes episode. An odd episode that stands alone as a classic.

• Bart Sells His Soul: No other show on TV would deal with issues like do souls exist. Also, Uncle Moe’s Family Feedbag.

Mother Simpson: Homer finally meets his mother, radical Mona. It makes my list most because of the genuinely beautiful moment at the end where Mona has again left Homer, and he sits alone in the desert while the closing credits roll, accompanied by a beautiful piece of music by the show’s brilliant musical director, Alf Clauson.

Marge Be Not Proud: Bart gets caught shoplifting at Christmas. Features security manager Don Brodka — that’s right, Don Brodka — and a lovely ending.

You Only Move Twice: The family moves to a new town when Homer gets a job. His new boss? Hank Scorpio, voiced brilliantly by Albert Brooks. One of the few times when the show goes off the rails that doesn’t result in a train wreck.

The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show: Another great satire episode, with the Simpsons writers taking dead aim at the show’s hypercritical fans.

Das Bus: The kids become stranded on an island in this Lord of the Flies spoof. Not a great episode, but it does have one hilarious line: “I’m so hungry I could eat at Arbys.”

Girly Edition: Bart and Lisa co-host a children’s news show. Parodies of sappy human interest stories from TV news are priceless.

• Mayored to the Mob: Homer becomes Mayor Quimby’s bodyguard. Mark Hamill’s self-deprecating appearance as himself is one of the best guest voice appearances.

Behind the Laughter: The Simpsons story as told in a Behind the Music parody. Hilarious end to a truly terrible season.

• Mr. Spritz Goes to Washington: Krusty goes to Kongress. A late classic, with some brilliant political insights.

• Midnight Rx: Homer and Grandpa smuggle cheaper drugs in from Canada. Features the great gag: Welcome to Winnipeg. We live here. What’s your excuse.

But no list can be complete without mention of some of the worst. The list is long and depressing; in fact, I stopped making this list with a few seasons to spare. Among the worst: Simpson Tide (Home joins the Navy, with brutal results);  Lost our Lisa (Lisa takes a bus to a museum; painful to watch); Lard of the Dance (Homer and Bart collect lard); Marge Simpson in Screaming Yellow Honkers (Marge gets a Cayonero SUV, episode ends with family being menaced by rhinos); Monty Can’t Buy Me Love (Mr. Burns finds the Loch Ness Monster); Brother’s Little Helper (Bart takes mood altering drugs); E-I-E-I Annoyed Grunt (tobacco and tomatoes are mixed together in possibly the worst episode ever); Saddlesore Galactica (Home and Bart adopt a racehorse in this appalling episode);  The Frying Game (an episode so bad, I’ll leave it up to the Simpsons Episode Archive to describe it. “Homer is sentenced to community service after nearly killing a rare insect found in his backyard pond. While working in a Meals on Wheels program, Homer befriends an elderly old woman. When the woman is thought to be dead, Homer and Marge become murder suspects after being named the sole beneficiaries of her will. Homer is convicted and sentenced to the death penalty, but just before he is scheduled to die in the electric chair, it is revealed that he’s a contestant on a new reality show called “Frame Up” and the old woman is alive and well.” Every bit as bad as it sounds.

As for episode 500 tonight, I can’t say that I have high hopes. The previews look bad, but I’ll be watching. And I’ll be watching 501, and 502, and on and on until the series, in the words of Troy McClure, becomes unprofitable.

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