Saturday, December 27, 2014

Don’t have time for the 276-hour Simpsons marathon? Here are eight you can’t miss

The Simpsons marathon begins Thursday on FXX. 20th Century Fox

The first eight seasons of The Simpsons are arguably the greatest achievement in television history. Fast-paced, erudite, and packed with great jokes alongside a surprising amount of heart, the series threw a century of American pop culture into a blender and hit puree. (It then ran for another 17 years, which have many good-to-great moments in them but don't have the stunning consistency of the early years. Still, eight years is a phenomenally long streak for any TV series.)

Now, FXX is celebrating its launch of The Simpsons into cable reruns for the first time ever by airing the entirety of the show's run — all 552 episodes, plus The Simpsons Movie — over 12 days. It starts Thursday at 10 a.m. Eastern. (If you don't know where FXX is on your program guide, it might be buried in the sports channels, as it's the rebranded former Fox Soccer Channel.)

But you're a busy person. You may know you love The Simpsons, but you also might not have time to watch, y'know, 552 episodes (or even "just" eight seasons) of it. So if you want to catch the best of those first eight seasons, what's the one hour you should watch per day? (If you want to explore on your own or watch something from seasons nine through 25, the good folks at Vulture have the complete schedule.)

We're here to help.

Season one

"The Crepes of Wrath" and "Krusty Gets Busted" (episodes 11 and 12; airing from 3-4 p.m. Eastern Thursday): The first season of Simpsons is a little off from what the show would become. It's still packed with great stuff, and it's easy to see why the show was such an atomic bomb on the TV landscape. But it's also a little slower-paced and tentative. You can feel the series figuring out just what it can do. These two episodes are a reminder of that time. The first, involving Bart going to France on a foreign-exchange program, is a reminder that when the show debuted in the 1989-90 TV season, the Cold War wasn't technically over yet, while the second features the first appearance of recurring psychopath Sideshow Bob.

The Simpsons

Lisa's Substitute (20th Century Fox)

Season two

"Brush with Greatness" and "Lisa's Substitute" (episodes 18 and 19; airing from 1-2 a.m. Eastern Friday): Here's where the show really starts to become The Simpsons that we know and love. "Brush with Greatness" isn't the best episode ever, but it features some great moments between Marge and Mr. Burns, a character pairing the show got surprising mileage out of, as well as a killer ending. But, really, you're watching this hour for "Lisa's Substitute," one of those episodes that stands out as the show doing everything it was capable of, along with perhaps the most moving single line in the entire series.

Season three

"Flaming Moe's" and "Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk" (episodes 10 and 11; airing from 8-9 a.m. Eastern Friday: Even casual fans will recall "Flaming Moe's," which manages to work as a pastiche of Cocktail, an extended homage to Cheers, and an exploration of Homer's relationship with Moe. Aerosmith's appearance, along with "Homer at Bat" later in the season, began the show's long tradition of celebrity cameos, and the episode features the best-ever Bart prank call to Moe's, wherein a gentleman named Hugh Jass politely answers. But the real winner here is "Kraftwerk," one of the first episodes to veer into outright fantasy and absurdism, featuring a way longer than necessary sequence in which Homer explores the "Land of Chocolate."

Season four

"Duffless" and "Last Exit to Springfield" (episodes 16 and 17; airing from 11 p.m. to 12 a.m. Eastern Friday): The Simpsons' fourth season is one of the best, most consistent seasons in television history. (One of the others? The series' fifth season.) The lineup of episodes is filled with heavy hitters, but this hour exemplifies how the show got better as it became more about Homer and less about his son. In the first half-hour, Homer tries to give up beer, which goes about as you'd expect. And in the second half-hour, Homer leads his fellow nuclear power plant workers in a strike because "Lisa needs braces." (If your brain didn't immediately fill in "dental plan," you absolutely need to watch this half-hour of television.) "Last Exit" is a handful of episodes with a good argument for being the best the show ever did, so it's worth it to check it out.

The Simpsons

"Cape Feare" (20th Century Fox)

Season five

"Cape Feare" and "Homer Goes to College" (episodes 2 and 3; airing from 3-4 a.m. Eastern Saturday: "Homer Goes to College," the final episode of the show written by Conan O'Brien, is excellent, but it'd be criminal to not list "Cape Feare" here. Its reputation as one of the show's finest episodes is completely deserved, not least because of how fearlessly bizarre it lets itself get. Not one but two Gilbert & Sullivan songs are sung — the first without any context given at all. Sideshow Bob's parole hearing ends with a member of the board pronouncing, "No one who speaks German could be an evil man." And most importantly of all, there's the rake sequence, one of the strangest and most wonderful bits the show ever pulled off.

Season six

"Homer the Great" and "And Maggie Makes Three" (episodes 12 and 13; airing from 7-8 p.m. Eastern Saturday): As the series wound its way into the second half of its run of great seasons, The Simpsons alternated brilliantly between whimsy and pathos. This hour perfectly shows off both qualities. In the first episode, Homer discovers he is unexpectedly the chosen one of a secret society known as the Stonecutters, a group that sings one of the series' best songs. And in the second half-hour, the show flashes back to the birth of baby Maggie, in an episode that courts legitimate despair before a perfect, bittersweet ending. If you watch only one hour of the show this weekend, make it this one.

The Simpsons

"King-Size Homer" (20th Century Fox)

Season seven

"King-Size Homer" and "Mother Simpson" (episodes 7 and 8; airing from 5-6 a.m. Eastern Sunday): If you're up this early for some reason, you'll have few better options than this hour, another that alternates between a whimsical episode (in which Homer decides to get as fat as possible to qualify for workplace disability benefits, because he is as lazy and venal as TV characters come) and a more heartwarming one (in which Homer's long-lost mother returns and old wounds are reopened). The ending of "Mother Simpson," in particular, features one of the show's most unexpectedly lovely images and speaks to how well the series was directed and animated at its height. These weren't just minimally animated still images; they were real, beautifully detailed cartoons.

Season eight

"A Milhouse Divided" and "Lisa's Date with Density" (episodes 6 and 7; airing from 5-6 p.m. Eastern Sunday): Let us now praise Milhouse "Nobody Likes Milhouse" van Houten. Few secondary characters have the pathos to sustain back-to-back character studies like this. The first, about his parents' split, could easily turn dour and After School Special-y on a lesser show, but the writer, Steve Tompkins, manages to neither make the stakes feel trivial nor let the gravity of the situation detract from the jokes. The episode's finest moment — "I sleep in a racing car, do you?" "I sleep in a big bed with my wife" — is simultaneously hilarious and absolutely devastating. "Lisa's Date with Density" is ostensibly about her attempts to civilize Nelson Muntz, who manages to gain complexity without giving up the things that make him a great caricature, but Milhouse's desperate attempts for Lisa's approval form the episode's backdrop. It's not an accident that it ends with our blue-haired hero jumping into the air in glee upon Lisa's pronouncement that her next crush "could be anyone." There's nothing more Milhouse than passionately celebrating the smallest morsel of even potentially good news.

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