Best Episode Ever # 1: ‘The Simpsons’
Welcome to my new column for the CraveOnline TV channel. Each week, I will write about a different television series and pick the best episode ever. This will likely inspire some fun debate, so we hope, and where I’m not familiar with a particular series, it will give me a chance to talk to other experts and educate myself on the apexes of other shows.
It is appropriate for several reasons that I inaugurate the Best Episode Ever column with “The Simpsons.”
For one, Comic Book Guy’s “Worst Episode Ever” made the hyperbolic phraseology commonplace, even legitimate in criticism. Secondly, it is the longest running current series on air, and I have never missed an episode. Going on 25 years now, I have always made “The Simpsons” appointment television whether I needed to use my VCR, or now a DVR. “Simpsons” showrunner Al Jean is the only other person I’ve met who says he’s also seen them all. Even Hank Azaria told me he’s missed a few, and he’s 50% of the voices every week.
As a devoted “Simpsons” fan, I do not subscribe to the belief that the show has overstayed its relevance. I might give you that there was a Golden Age, around years 4-10, where the show was just an unimpeachable force in Prime Time. Indeed, my pick for Best “Simpsons” Episode Ever comes from that era, but only because I’m still comparing it to the subsequent 14 seasons and it still holds up. I would say there was a Golden Age, perhaps a rough patch, but then a New Renaissance (Season 13 is brilliant) and then a Postmodern period where they got self-reflexive about their own legacy, maybe in response to meta shows like “Family Guy.”
Since 2007, we are in the Post-Simpsons Movie period which has a palpable tone itself. Maybe that began in 2008 when we started to see the episodes made after the movie. Animation takes almost a year from script to air. I point to “Coming to Homerica” as a recent episode so brilliant it might have even qualified for a Best Episode Ever. They took the recent immigration debate from beginning to end from a purely satirical perspective, proving they’d never run out of relevant material. I also like that they do shows about getting an HDTV or going to Trader Joe’s (Swapper Jack’s in Springfield.)
But, let’s go back to the age when the satire “The Simpsons” offered was still new and unexpected, so it didn’t have to pierce through layers of cultural awareness. To a casual “Simpsons” viewer, picking a Best Episode of “The Simpsons” might be tough. ”Bart Sells His Soul” seems a strong choice with its profound message and irreverent religious satire, not to mention Bart actually selling his soul to Milhouse for five bucks. Maybe the Michael Jackson episode everyone remembers, “Mr. Plow,” “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” or any of the “Treehouse of Horrors.” Fortunately there is one episode that stands out even above those classics.
The best episode of “The Simpsons” ever is “El Viaje Mysterioso de Nuestro Homer.” This is the one where Homer goes to a chili cook off and eats chili made with hallucinogenic peppers. To the casual “Simpsons” viewer who may have caught this in syndication one afternoon, “El Viaje Mysterioso” may just seem like a funny episode, but what’s special about it? Let me break down how “Nuestro Homer” elevates the very structure of a “Simpsons” episode.
Until recently, “The Simpsons” episodes were told in three acts, with two commercial breaks in between. The first act would always be the funniest, because it was basically a 7 minute short that had nothing to do with the rest of the episode. It could be about any bizarre thing “The Simpsons” wanted to spoof. Only right before the first commercial break would the show reveal what the rest of the story would actually be about. The next two acts would resolve the story, and they’d be great, but a little too tied to structure to match the freeform hilarity of act one.
“El Viaje Mysterioso de Nuestro Homer” is the only episode of “The Simpsons” that gets funnier in each act. Act one with the chili cook off is great stuff. A lot of supporting characters get to play chili chefs and there’s a great sight gag with Homer eating ultra spicy chili and drinking candle wax to steel himself. After all this craziness, Homer and Marge get in a fight and the rest of the episode should be about Homer resolving this fight, but it gets better.
In Act 2, Homer trips out on the chili peppers and has a surrealist fantasy. This hilarious sequence easily tops the chili cook off itself and has satirical fun with vision quest imagery. Homer plays around with the hallucination’s physics and gets payback when he mistreats his spirit animals. This segment also gets deep because instead of just teaching Homer that he did Marge wrong, it makes him question whether she is even his soul mate. Johnny Cash plays the voice of a coyote who encourages Homer to find his true soul mate.
After the last commercial, Act 3 takes it to yet another level by unleashing a sober Homer to find his true soul mate. Basically, the rest of the episode makes fun of the very dream the motivates Homer in this episode. The coyote returns to remind Homer to find his soul mate, but when Homer asks how, the coyote replies, “I’m just a memory. I can’t give you any new information.” We know Homer’s going to end up with Marge, but the sincerity of his search for a soul mate is hilarious. His phone call to the personal ad for GBM still cracks me up. The resolution is a really sweet and poignant affirmation of the true connection Homer and Marge share, despite their ups and downs, but along the way Homer’s shenanigans cause a boat crash with some classic one-liners about Homer’s silhouette.
I don’t think they’ll ever have an episode like “El Viaje Mysterioso de Nuestro Homer” again. They can’t really. They’ve changed the act structure of “The Simpsons” to suit new commercial patterns. Now they have four acts, and they don’t even take a commercial after the couch gag because they’re afraid of losing viewers (as if we’re watching live TV anyway). So they don’t really have those crazy first acts anymore, or at least they’re not as dramatically delineated.
I will never waver on my love of “The Simpsons” and the day they stop producing new episodes, I will go through withdrawal. Hopefully we’re still another five years away from that, but what will I do when there’s only 500-600 episodes of “The SImpsons” for me to watch? I guess start with “El Viaje Mysterioso de Nuestro Homer” and work my way down.