Tuesday, June 05, 2007


Best. Season. Ever.

By Edward Copeland
Try as a I might, I can't get excited about the forthcoming Simpsons Movie because I've long since given up on the new episodes on Fox. The Simpsons for a long time was one of my favorite and best shows on television, but it's been running on fumes for a long time. (As the photo shows in one of their Season 4 spoofs, it could bear the same title now as the Star Trek spoof.) I actually tuned in for the 399th and 400th episodes and while the 400th was better than recent years, it was still covering territory that South Park has done more recently and it with sharper aim. I pulled out the DVD of what I consider the Holy Grail of Simpsons seasons — Season 4. I re-watched nearly every episode and damn if they didn't hit nearly every one of them out of the park that year. This was the show I loved and I don't see how anyone can watch any of these episodes and not see how recent years have been more than lacking. So, let's look back at 10 of the very best from their very best season, those halcyon days when Conan O'Brien was still a writer and a producer and The Simpsons were on fire.


Season 4 got off to a great start with this classic outing as the parents welcome a respite from their kids to summer camp, not realizing that "the krustiest place on earth" was less than a great place to visit. As with most of season 4, this was when The Simpsons effortlessly juggled an A and a B storyline, usually bringing them together by the climax. It begins with Bart worrying that if he doesn't manage C's on his report card, Homer won't let him go. Lisa is similarly scarred when she gets her first-ever B+ on conduct because her teacher says, "Everyone needs a blotch on their permanent record." Despite straight D's, Homer lets Bart go anyway since they didn't want them hanging around the house anyway and the absence of kids starts paying off well for Homer healthwise. The camp though is a disaster. As Lisa writes, "I no longer fear hell because I've been to Kamp Krusty." Bart keeps holding out hope that Krusty will live up to his promised appearance, but all the campers get is Barney in clown makeup instead. As Ralph Wiggum observes (and interestingly, he gets dumber as the season goes on), "He's still funny, but not ha-ha funny." It's the final straw and Bart leads a revolt, including freeing the campers at "image enhancement camp," which one kid tells his father not to use euphemisms for "fat camp for daddy's chubby little secret."


The fourth season's second episode is my choice for the best Simpsons episode ever. Marge, looking for life outside the home, gets a part in a community theater musicalization of "A Streetcar Named Desire" titled "Oh, Streetcar!" It's scary how the spoof lyrics seem to portend the laughable lines that would come forth a few years down the road when Andrew Lloyd Webber made a musical version of Sunset Blvd. In fact, season 4 produced many of the cartoon's greatest musical moments and I have to wonder if the many series that did musical episodes later didn't find a bit of inspiration here.

You're a dame, I'm a fella
Stanley stop or I'll tell Stella
Can't ya hear me yella
You put me through hell-a

Then there is the opening masterwork, performed by Chief Wiggum:

Long before the Superdome
Where the Saints of football play
lived a city that the damned called home
hear their hellish roundelay

On top of the great musical storyline, Marge also has to find someone to watch Maggie, so she puts her in the Ayn Rand School for Tots, "the only center in town not under investigation" run by the musical director's sister who frowns upon pacifiers saying that babies who want them are saying, "I am a leech." You even see the school's administrator taking time to read "The Fountainhead Diet." The storyline allows for great homages to The Great Escape and The Birds, including a Hitchcock cameo. Besides, where else could you ever imagine seeing Ned Flanders playing Stanley Kowalski?


What's so amazing is how The Simpsons has gotten away with poking fun at religion yet never seemed to pay a price for it, even earning kudos from religious leaders instead. This episode, where Homer decides to skip church and discovers what could be "the best day of his life" (other contenders include marrying Marge and being present when a Duff beer truck overturned). They even interrupt a public affairs program on TV for a football game. Marge worries for his soul, but Homer reassures her that he can always recant on his deathbed. He even gets a dream visit from God himself who backs much of what Homer has been saying, while the rest of the town worries about him, even non-Christians such as Moe ("Born a snake handler, die a snake handler") and Apu, who reminds Homer that there are 700 million Hindus and begs him not to "offer my God a peanut."


It's also easy to forget how The Simpsons can manage to be touching and funny at the same time, even when it involves a dunce of a character like Homer. Lisa's self-esteem takes a big hit when a caricature artist at a school carnival paints an unflattering portrait of her. Homer, oblivious to his daughter's misery, uses the drawing to enter her in the Little Miss Springfield pageant (sponsored by Laramie Cigarettes). Lisa is horrified, but he even sacrifices a ride on the Duff blimp that he won to help pay for her makeover and entrance fee. Of course, she has a proven competitor in Amber Dempsey, a frightening precursor to JonBenet Ramsey, who wants to grow up to be a "sweetie pie" and concludes when asked that the Bill of Rights is a "good thing." Unfortunately, an accident causes Amber to lose her crown and Lisa moves up and decides to use her title as a platform to speak out against various injustices.


Who knew that Homer was personally responsible for Barney's alcoholism? A flashback shows that Homer offered the then-studious and motivated Barney his first beer and set him on his path to drunkhood. Perhaps that explains the vehemence with which Barney steals Homer's (for once) great moneymaking idea of opening a snow plow business and practically drives his friend into oblivion. I don't mean to make the episode sound that serious, because it is one of the funniest. It includes Troy McClure hosting "Carnival of the Stars" on TV where Angela Lansbury walks on hot coals. "Excitement, she wrote," he says. There's even a celebrity in Springfield itself: Adam West is at the car show where Homer first buys the plow, complaining about how he didn't need molded plastic to improve his physique as Batman and wondering why Batman doesn't dance anymore. Homer advertises on an obscure television station, late at night. "We may be on a lousy channel," he tells the kids, "but the Simpsons are on TV." He even offers free T-shirts for potential clients: T-shirts promoting Stockdale for Veep. When Barney gets into the business though, he somehow manages to get Linda Ronstadt to shill for him.


Once upon a time, Conan O'Brien wasn't a household name: He was a writer and producer on The Simpsons and from his pen came this gem of an episode. First, it opens with a great Flintstones spoof, with Homer driving home singing, "Simpson, Homer Simpson/He's the greatest guy in history/From the town of Springfield/He's about to hit a chestnut tree." That bit is only an appetizer though as Mr. Burns and Smithers are caught disposing of nuclear waste in area tree trunks. The price for his crime? $3 million to the town, which makes everyone turn out to a town hall meeting to decide how to spend the unexpected largesse, an unexpected gift for Snake and the town's criminals who get a burglary spree as a result. "Could this town be any stupider?" Snake asks. Burns even has the gall to come to the meeting in disguise to try to get the $3 million for his plant. Marge makes the sensible suggestion that they finally repair the holes on Main Street which are growing more dangerous with each year. The town seems to like the idea until Lyle Lanley (the late great Phil Hartman) speaks up in a great Music Man homage. A town with money is like a mule with a spinning wheel, he says. "He has no idea how he got it and darn if he knows what to do with it." Lanley has an idea of what to do with it though: Build a monorail. Marge tries to talk sense to the town, but as Bart points out, she should have had a song ready like Lanley did. Of course, the monorail also gives Homer a chance for yet another new career: That of monorail driver. He can't wait to take the helm, even though the questionable mode of transportation has a closet with a family of possums. "I call the big one Bitey," Homer tells Marge. Marge does some sleuthing and discovers the desolation left in the town of North Haverbrook, which had previously embraced Lanley's scheme. She even finds the scientist who tried to stop Lanley from constantly cutting corners and she races to save her husband and family. "Nothing brings out celebrities like the maiden voyage of a monorail," Kent Brockman tells TV viewers and Leonard Nimoy is among those who arrive for the special event, though Mayor Quimby thinks he's from Star Wars instead of Star Trek. Of course, the ride goes out of control and when it's suggested they just cut off the power, the controllers say it's solar powered. "When will people learn?" Homer does end up saving the day, with the help of a donut. "Donuts — is there anything they can't do?" Marge then relays that the monorail went down in the history of Springfield follies, such as the popsicle stick skyscraper, the 50-foot magnifying glass and the escalator to nowhere.


This may well be my second favorite all-time episode, a clever blending of two February holidays: Valentine's Day and Presidents Day. Ralph Wiggum had become fully dumb by this point as his teacher urges everyone to get out their scissors, he says he's not allowed to use them and the class laughs. "The children are right to laugh at you Ralph," the teacher says. "These couldn't cut butter." As the class shares their valentines, Lisa takes pity on Ralph's empty valentine sack and gives him a card, prompting him to fall head over heels for him. Lisa tries her best to brush Ralph off. Homer advises her to use six little words if all else fails: "I'm not gay, but I'll learn." Also going on amidst the festivities is Krusty's 29th anniversary show, which Bart and Lisa long to see. When Ralph comes up with tickets, Lisa agrees to go with him against her better judgment. Krusty's show provides many classic bits including a urine monkey that's "funny on so many levels" as well as past sidekicks such Sideshow Raheem. Unfortunately, Ralph embarrasses Lisa on the live show and she snaps, destroying the poor boy. Complicating things further is the upcoming school program for Presidents Day, which casts Lisa as Martha Washington and Ralph as George. The highlight of the show though is yet another memorable music number that opens the school program:

We are the mediocre presidents
You won't find our faces on dollars or on cents
There's Taylor, there's Tyler
There's Fillmore and They're Hayes
There's William Henry Harrison — I died in 30 days


Bart and Lisa are distressed to notice a real decline in quality in new Itchy and Scratchy cartoons. Lisa notes that they are nearly as bad as those Itchy and Sambo cartoons of the late 1930s before the siblings decide that they should try writing their own episode. Their script is rejected, they presume because of their age, so they resubmit it and put Grandpa Simpson's name on it and Abe ends up getting hired as a staff writer for the show, even though he's oblivious to what's going on. The boss at Itchy and Scratchy Inc. even goes so far as to sack his Harvard-educated writing staff, telling them that they "should have majored in not getting fired." Speaking of education, as Homer and Marge's high school reunion (for 1974) nears, Homer tries to keep secret the fact that he never graduated. He sweeps most of the awards at the reunion, including most weight gained which he credits to discovering a meal between breakfast and brunch, but soon his lack of diploma is discovered and he's forced to return the awards and consider finishing his education.


Homer is excited at the approach of his "sixth favorite day of the year," Whacking Day, when Springfield carries on the tradition founded by Jebediah Springfield of luring snakes out of hiding and beating them to death with sticks. Lisa is horrified by the ritual. At the same time, Bart finally pulls a stunt that forces Principal Skinner to expel him. When he's kicked out of a private school, Marge chooses to home-school him, even though Bart argues this means he can't be educated and should try to find a career, suggesting he become an English shoeshine boy. "No son of mine is going to be a 19th century Cockney bootblack," Homer insists. As part of Marge's schooling, she takes Bart to Springfield's historical theme park, where he uncovers that Whacking Day is a sham, even though the town has even tricked soul crooner Barry White to this year's event. It turns out the ritual actually began in 1924, as an excuse to beat the Irish. With White's help, Bart and Lisa manage to save the snakes.


"Gabbo is coming," ads declare. Everyone is curious as to what that means before they discover that Gabbo is a ventriloquist dummy whose new TV show will air opposite Krusty. Bart says that Gabbo will need a hook, which he has with the phrase, "I'm a bad wittle boy." He also likes to do crank phone calls, which Bart insists he stole from Krusty but which Grandpa Simpson says he stole from Steve Allen. "Everything is stolen," Abe says. "The fax machine is just a waffle iron with a phone attached." The hype creates such a phenomenon that Krusty's ratings go into the toilet and the clown gets his walking papers. Lisa and Bart are determined to save their idol, even going so far as to try to sabotage Gabbo by letting it go over the air that he thinks Springfield kids are "a bunch of SOBs." Bart and Lisa try to lift Krusty's spirits and he gives them his address book so they can recruit Krusty's many celebrity friends, including his "worthless half-brother" Luke Perry, Bette Midler, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Hugh Hefner and Johnny Carson, who shows the world some of his lesser-known skills when he juggles a 1987 Buick Skylark, for a comeback special.

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I damn near blew up my brain laughing at the Elvis-shooting-the-TV gag the first time I saw it. That's definitely in my Top 5 Simpson moments.

Interesting, I was thinking of doing a post about why Season 5 is the best, but it's pretty hard to argue with what you have here. Hmmm, might have to pop in a few Season 5 discs tonight.
and an honorable mention for my favorite episode of season four - 'last exit to springfield'

"come gather round children, it's high time ye learns
'bout a hero named homer and a devil named burns"
I know. Season 4 was so chock-full of gems, I had a hard time narrowing it down to just 10.
I think your absolutely right. Season 4 is amazing. Great post!
One of the things that I always liked about the Flintstones-inspired opening to the monorail episode was the fact that Homer kept driving by the same house over and over and over again (just like the old Hanna Barbera cartoons).
Dental plan!
I definitly remember Jebediah Springfield's Whacking Day.
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