The best ''Simpsons'' episodes, Nos. 21-25
21. LIFE ON THE FAST LANE
Airdate March 18, 1990
While ”The Simpsons”’ first season seems shockingly tame compared with later, zanier years, the endearing ”LOTFL” is a showcase for the series’ bedrock of character and heart. Furious at Homer for his self-serving birthday gift (a bowling ball — with his name on it), Marge takes bowling lessons out of spite — and ends up tempted into an affair with her instructor, the brunch-loving French lady-killer Jacques. ”LOTFL” is indispensable early ”Simpsons,” if just for the classic Homerism that caps the happy ending: ”I’m going to the backseat of my car with the woman I love — and I won’t be back for 10 minutes.”
22. HOW I SPENT MY STRUMMER VACATION
Airdate Nov. 10, 2002
You’ve gotta admire a show that lands the greatest names in rock and then gives them as much respect as a brown M&M. When Homer attends the Rolling Stones’ Rock N’ Roll Fantasy Camp, corporate Mick howls, ”Rule number one, there are no rules!… Rule number two, no outside food.” Tom Petty is booed for singing about social issues instead of chicks and cars, and Elvis Costello is called ”Nerdlinger.” (When Homer knocks off his glasses, Costello wails, ”My image!”) While rockers have always shone in ”Simpsons” solos, the Stones so giddily mock their hall-of-fame status it makes ”Strummer” the series’ Woodstock: a classic-rock show even Disco Stu could get behind.
23. THE ITCHY & SCRATCHY AND POOCHIE SHOW
Airdate Feb. 9, 1997
Hey, kids! Who likes scathing commentary on aging TV series? In this provocative, self-referential spectacle that polarized a nation (okay, some particularly rabid fans), ”Itchy & Scratchy”’s falling ratings prompt the network suits to introduce a painfully overhip canine. (”You’ve heard the expression, ‘Let’s get busy’? Well, this is a dog who gets biz-zay.”) The Homer-voiced Poochie provides perfect fodder for aggressive meta-lampoonery: As Lisa criticizes the desperate character-adding act, a hipster teen named Roy is seen inexplicably chillin’ with the Simpson clan. No cow is sacred here, not even ”The Simpsons”’ increasingly nitpicky fans, who are milked for laughs in the Comic Book Guy’s ”Worst Episode Ever” didacticism. Worst ever? Hardly.
24. SIMPSON AND DELILAH
Airdate Oct. 18, 1990
Check the record books. ”Dawson’s Creek” may claim to have aired network television’s first real man-on-man kiss in the year 2000, but back in October of 1990, a serious smooch took place between Homer and his super assistant Karl (voiced by Harvey Fierstein). But lip-locking aside, this early entry — in which Homer transforms into a ”young go-getter” courtesy of a hair-growth formula — is as long on laughs as it is on sizzling sideburns. It’s hard to say exactly what makes this well-coiffed installment so special, except to say that it sort of looks like any other ”Simpsons” episode…only more dynamic and resourceful.
25. WHO SHOT MR. BURNS? PARTS 1 & 2 (pictured)
Airdate May 21, 1995; Sept. 17, 1995
A two-part comedic homage to ”Dallas”’ ”Who shot J.R.?” stunt, ”WSMB?” is perhaps ”The Simpsons”’ most grandiose pop moment ever. An atypical outing, too: Satiric potshots (O.J. Simpson, Madonna, and ”Twin Peaks”) and gut-busting randomness (Moe’s marathon lie-detector session is a classic) are subordinate to a methodically plotted murder mystery that, alas, climaxes with a cop-out, albeit a deliberate one. (Maggie did the deed — accidentally, of course.) There’s no way it could have approached the ratings for ”Dallas”’ cliff-hanger, but it’s still a pivotal marker in ”The Simpsons”’ evolution. By deftly deploying ”The Simpsons”’ array of supporting characters (even Doctor Colossus!), this onetime anti-”Cosby” lightning rod demonstrated what a rich, self-sustaining universe it had become.
Worst Episode: BART TO THE FUTURE
Airdate March 19, 2000
Choosing the lamest ”Simpsons” episode is like picking the crowning installment of ”Shasta McNasty” — it’s all relative. So while ”Bart to the Future” was likely better than anything else on TV the week it first aired, even Mojo the monkey could’ve banged out a more inventive script: Bart visits an American Indian mystic and foresees Lisa as president and himself as a ponytailed slacker. Plus, the whole looking-into-the-future premise is merely reliving past glory, carried out far more successfully in 1995’s ”Lisa’s Wedding.” And you’re really in trouble when even Homer — wasted here as an old man on a wild goose chase for Abe Lincoln’s gold — can’t dig up a laugh. We didn’t know it was physically possible for something to both suck AND blow.