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.)
The run of that show is now approaching 600 episodes, with a movie as well. And that's far more time than you likely have to spend watching a TV show, even with all episodes available on the Simpsons World app, or running near-daily on cable channel FXX.
Instead, let's pick one hour a piece — two consecutive episodes — from those first eight seasons, just to see how the show grew, changed, and became the pop culture behemoth it is today.
"The Crepes of Wrath" and "Krusty Gets Busted" (episodes 11 and 12): 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.
"Brush with Greatness" and "Lisa's Substitute" (episodes 18 and 19): 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.
"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."
"Duffless" and "Last Exit to Springfield" (episodes 16 and 17): 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 pair 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.
"Cape Feare" and "Homer Goes to College" (episodes 2 and 3): "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.
"Homer the Great" and "And Maggie Makes Three" (episodes 12 and 13): 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.
"King-Size Homer" and "Mother Simpson" (episodes 7 and 8): Here's another duo 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.
"A Milhouse Divided" and "Lisa's Date with Density" (episodes 6 and 7): 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.