Let’s be honest, The Simpsons are past their prime. Hell, they’re past being past their prime, with the best seasons feeling more and more distant with each passing year. With that said, this show is still capable of being really funny, even in its oft-questionable later years. With that in mind, here are 10 episodes from the past five seasons that are worth reconsidering.
10. “A Totally Fun Thing Bart Will Never Do Again” – Original Airdate: April 29, 2012
A stray joke from a Season 13 episode (The Simpsons are goin’ to Antarctica…next year.) actually gets played out in an episode involving a nightmarish experience on a cruise ship. Bart is miserably bored by his life at home (as the opening scene illustrates perfectly), and when he realizes his vacation fun is about to end, he pulls off a last-ditch effort to keep the cruise going without realizing the consequences. Naturally, it backfires horrifically and the entire ship loses its mind. The Simpsons are finally exiled from the ship just as it reaches Antarctica. Okay, fine, there’s a lot of ridiculousness here, but anyone can relate to Bart’s unrelenting boredom, and the scenes on the cruise ship after Bart’s stunt are hilarious (“Mankind was told to run near the pool. Mankind did not listen. This is his reward!”). The fact that this actually happened in real life last year only makes it funnier.
9. “Donnie Fatso” – Original Airdate: December 12, 2010
How much you enjoy this one depends on how much you are willing to look past a questionable ending and just enjoy how good the first 21 minutes are. After Homer is sent to prison on a bogus charge, he has no choice but to infiltrate the mafia and take down Fat Tony. We see the two become extremely close, and it feels genuinely heartbreaking when Homer betrays him, and you get the feeling that Homer is actually remorseful about what he was forced to do. Unfortunately, the episode does have a really strange ending: Fat Tony dies, and is then replaced by his cousin Fit Tony, who eats a ton of fatty food, and…you can guess where this is going. Fans were outraged that a character was killed and replaced in such a lazy fashion, but I’m willing to overlook it in favor of how strong the rest of the episode is. Homer’s entrance into mob life is surprisingly engaging, and if not for the ending, this episode would have likely topped this list.
8. “The Bob Next Door” – Original Airdate: May 16, 2010
Ok, this is a somewhat controversial episode, mainly due to one admittedly gross scene in which Sideshow Bob actually carves his face off and switches it with another prisoner. Yes, it’s a bit gruesome to watch, but I’ll give it a pass because of how well everything else here works. The presence of a new neighbor who happens to sound exactly like Sideshow Bob is understandably frightening for Bart, and the episode manages to play things so coyly that after awhile, we aren’t totally sure what’s going on. But of course, Bart’s instinct are dead-on, and the second he lets his guard down, Sideshow Bob is taking him across the country in order to execute Bart at the Five Corners (“I fire bullet in one state, it hits you in another, I haven’t committed any crime in either state.”) Of course, Bob is foiled once again, but this episode was surprisingly suspenseful, and showed that after two decades, The Simpsons is capable of pulling inspired episodes from the Sideshow Bob well.
7. “The Food Wife” – Original Airdate: November 13, 2011
The Simpsons take on foodie culture — written by Matt Selman — who is a celebrated eater in his own right — winds up being an inspired (and fairly loving) tribute to the hipsters who are always on a quest to find the next great obscure restaurant. The episode partially centers on Homer and Marge’s struggle to be the “fun” parent, but the best scenes tend to involve the food itself, like El Chemistri, the hip restaurant that serves porkchops 100 ways, and has customers eat salads made from foam and air. There’s also an inspired guest spot from Tim & Eric, who provide “Bloggin A food Blog,” one of the best songs to be featured on The Simpsons in years.
6. “500 Keys” – Original Airdate: May 15, 2011
This one takes a fairly common problem — too many keys cluttering up the house — and turns it into a highly original storyline, as each member of The Simpson family has an adventure with one of the random keys set out on the kitchen table. Marge has a wacky adventure with a farting toy train, Homer finally gets to ride the Duff Blimp, Bart’s pranks keep turning into good deeds, and he is rewarded with the key to the city. The main story, though, involves Lisa’s quest to get to the bottom of a secret room that keeps changing shape. It first presents a classroom full of mannequins, then it completely disappears, in the style of an old Hollywood mystery. I won’t spoil the ending, but it winds up being pretty dark. Poor Otto may be scarred for life after what Skinner and Chalmers did to him. No wonder he smokes so much pot….
5. “Homer The Father” – Origina Airdate: January 23, 2011
At a point in this show’s history where it tends to rely on weirder and weirder plots just to keep from getting bored with itself, this one features a simple storyline about Homer trying to be a better father (by following the advice of a cheesy 80s sitcom, of course), and interacting with Bart. Naturally, his attempts at strict parenting fail, as when Bart is denied a mini-bike despite getting his grades up, he decides to the sell the power plant’s secrets to the Chinese in exchange for one. Okay, fine, so the plot is still a bit out there. But the bonding between Homer and Bart works far better than in most episodes, and it was nice to see Homer actually try to be a good dad, even if he winds up failing miserably.
4. “The Saga Of Carl” – Original Airdate: May 19, 2013
Okay, I have no idea how this one managed to work. Homer and his drinking buddies win the lottery, and Carl steals the ticket to return of his native country of….Iceland? Umm..okay. As odd as it sounds, the winds up being a rewarding episode. The scenes of Homer, Lenny, and Moe chasing Carl around Iceland are actually pretty rewarding, and it ends up being one of the better vacation episodes of the post-classic years. The episode ends on a sweet note, as Carl’s early proclamation that Homer, Lenny, and More aren’t really his friends because they just do “guy stuff” (note: the montage of these activities is probably the best bit in the episode) being disproven by their efforts to not only track him down, but also help him redeem his family’s name. Also, the music of Sigur Ros is prominently involved in this one, and that alone should make it worth watching at least once.
3. “Holidays Of Future Passed” – Original Airdate: December 11, 2011
The Simpsons have gone to the future episode well many times during their run — this was the fourth episode to do so — but it’s hard to get angry about them recycling plots when they do it this well. This one finds the Simpsons 30 years in the future, with all of them at a crossroads. Bart is miserable as a single father, Lisa is struggling to raise a daughter with Milhouse, and Maggie — now a famous rock singer — is about to give birth (note: she doesn’t talk). Naturally, the loose ends are tied up at the end, and we get the feeling the Simpsons will be well-equipped to survive the challenges that face them in the future. This episode was originally written as a series finale, and honestly, it would have been a nice note to go out on.
2. “The Book Job” – Original Airdate November 20, 2011
This one starts out with a solid premise — that all popular tween-lit novels are actually written by a gaggle of hapless English majors — and takes it further by having Homer and Bart get a group of Springfield’s biggest nerds together to cash in on the phenomenon. Meanwhile, Lisa tries to write a book by herself, but gets struck by a crippling case of writer’s block. As the title indicates, the episode plays out as a parody of The Italian Job, with one of the more inspired bits being the decision to borrow the title cards introducing each scene. Neil Gaiman guest stars as himself, and is one of the few guest stars in recent years who actually gets good dialogue, and makes sense within the context of the story. Naturally, he ends up taking all the money and escaping to tropical island (with Moe, for some reason), but in any event, this was the rare recent episode that actually had an entertaining plot and stuck with it for the full 22 minutes.
1. “Brick Like Me” – Original Airdate: May 4, 2014
Ideally, this shouldn’t have worked so well. A shameless cross-promotional stunt with the Lego folks is the kind of the thing The Simpsons would have shunned in its prime, so it can’t be anything more than yet another sign of the shows deterioration, right? Well, actually, it was really freaking funny. First off, there was a ton of fun to be had from bringing the Simpsons into the Lego universe, as this episode had more great sight gags than any episode in recent memory. More importantly, the episode had a strong emotional core, focusing on Homer’s fear that Lisa is getting too old for him. What could have been nothing more than a tacky cartoon crossover ended up being one of the best episodes in years, and a reminder of what The Simpsons can still do when it’s on its game.