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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

A beginner's guide to 'The Simpsons'


Last week’s unveiling of the Disney+ streaming service has found media attention mostly focused on the platform’s stellar new “Star Wars” show “The Mandalorian” and expansive back catalogue of animated Disney classics. Lost in the frenzy, however, was a streaming landmark: thanks to Disney’s recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox, Disney+ is the first service to stream every episode of “The Simpsons.” While the travails of American pop culture’s foremost nuclear family seem a little out of place amongst the clean-cut Mouse House image, this is a better time than ever before to get caught up on one of the longest-running shows in television history. Below are five highlights of the thirty-plus seasons of “The Simpsons.”

“Bart Sells His Soul” (Season 7, Episode 4)

“The Simpsons” is a satirical omnivore, taking on every aspect of life in America and beyond through a lens both high- and low-brow. This episode, my own personal favorite, considers no less than the nature of salvation and the soul using Bart Simpson as an avatar. After an all-time gag where he substitutes the church hymnal with “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” Bart doubles down on his anti-religious predilection by selling his soul to Milhouse for five dollars. Through a series of trials that find Bart doing some literal, fruitless soul-searching, “The Simpsons” doesn’t just assert that the soul exists; it even puts a price on it.

“Cape Feare” (Season 5, Episode 2)

Even if it’s not the “best” episode of “The Simpsons,” “Cape Feare” is probably the definitive 30-minute slab of the program. A big-name guest star? Check, in the form of a never-funnier Kelsey Grammar as Sideshow Bob. Bob’s losing war against a cavalcade of rakes is a hysterical visual joke that has inspired entire scholarly articles, while his chest tattoo leads to some typically dubious life advice (“No one who speaks German could be an evil man!”). More than anything, “Cape Feare” showcases the show’s use of cultural touchstones both contemporary and fusty: the episode itself is a parody of a 1991 Scorsese film that nevertheless ends with a full-length rendition of “H.M.S. Pinafore.”

“Lisa’s Substitute” (Season 2, Episode 19)

The biting, sarcastic exterior of “The Simpsons” hides the bleeding heart at the show’s center. Seldom have the program’s humanist tendencies been on more prominent display than in this early-season episode, where Lisa’s long-ridiculed academic impulses are finally rewarded. In a one-off turn as the world’s perfect substitute teacher, Dustin Hoffman is central to the most touching moment in the show’s entire run. With his train departing from Springfield, Mr. Bergstrom leaves Lisa — and the audience — with misty eyes, a rarity for a show that usually creates busted guts.

“Marge Vs. The Monorail” (Season 4, Episode 12)

Much like “Saturday Night Live,” “The Simpsons” is known for its murderer’s row of writing alumnus. Undoubtedly the most notable comedian to come out of that writing room is Conan O’Brien, who famously penned this “The Music Man”-aping installment. When Phil Hatman’s Lyle Lanley promises to bring public transit and prosperity to Springfield with a catchy song-and-dance routine, O’Brien’s joke-loaded script kicks off in earnest; unlike the titular monorail, however, it never derails.

“You Only Move Twice” (Season 8, Episode 2)

If “The Simpsons” makes the news these days, it’s more likely than not in reference to the ever-growing trend of the show predicting the future. Though it doesn’t foreshadow a specific current event, this 1996 episode presages today’s Silicon Valley billionaires in the form of Albert Brook’s Hank Scorpio, whose Google-esque niceties can’t mask the villainous nature betrayed by his name. Come for an expert parody of consumerism and Bond movies alike, stay for a brutal final dig at the only NFL team not worth owning.