30 essential Simpsons episodes to watch on Disney+
Josh Slater-Williams | On 05, Apr 2020Reading time: 19 mins
Thanks to Disney’s acquisition of the 20th Century Fox back catalogue, one of the big selling points of Disney+ is access to the entire library of The Simpsons. Well, almost. The Michael Jackson-featuring Season 3 opener, Stark Raving Dad, was pulled from circulation in 2019 – you can currently only get that episode legally on the existing DVD box set of that season.
Additionally, most of The Simpsons’ 30-plus seasons was initially presented on Disney+ in an incorrect, cropped aspect ratio. (Update: This has now been fixed – see here for details.) But any easy access to The Simpsons is good access, even if conventional wisdom is that only an increasingly small fraction of the output is worth accessing.
Yes, while The Simpsons may be America’s longest-running sitcom and scripted primetime series, much of the actual passionate love for the show concerns a specific golden period early in its run. Consensus varies as to what actually counts as the golden age. Some say it goes up to Season 10, others will say 9. Seasons 1 to 8 are generally considered the safest, although many will argue that the abbreviated first season is very much a test run for a show that properly began in Season 2. Any way you look at it, this golden age can be boiled down to the 1990s, when the show was at the height of its popularity and creativity.
But where to start if your only exposure to Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie (and Grandpa) is the odd new episode on Sky One or Channel 4? Or if you’ve never seen an episode in your life? Where to turn to first if you’d like to explore the legacy of one of the most influential series in television history, but want to get a broad taste of its treasures instead of watching several hundred episodes in order?
Fear not, for the following list, complete with some historical context concerning the show’s evolution, presents the best of all the ways The Simpsons can make you laugh and make you cry. Whether you’re a Simpsons novice or an ardent Springfield fan, here are the 30 – 31, technically – essential episodes to watch on Disney+:
This list is presented in order of air date:
Bart Gets an ‘F’ (Season 2)
While the show’s first season has its own charms and historical importance, its rhythms, objects of focus and certain characterisations don’t gel so well with the golden years that followed. If you are a total newcomer, then this point may seem strange, but going back to Season 1 can be jarring beyond the radically different animation style. This is not true of the season that immediately followed. The second season is where The Simpsons truly became ‘The Simpsons™’.
With the central characters now established, the writing team had a better idea of the direction they wanted to take those characters and their roles in the show’s dynamics. They also had the advantage of being able to respond to feedback concerning the first season and the pop culture juggernaut that the show had already become – on that note, Season 2’s opener, Bart Gets an ‘F’, remains the highest rated episode in the show’s history, with an estimated 33.6 million viewers.
In its first season, the show was arguably centred more around Bart’s anarchy than the rest of the family, which would change going forward. But with this poignant Season 2 opener, in which Bart is faced with an ultimatum to pass a final exam or be forced to repeat the fourth grade, writer David M. Stern and director David Silverman strip back the boy’s punky facade to show that, underneath all the bravado, is a child who’s deeply afraid of failure. It’s an enduringly great episode either way, with some beautiful animation flourishes, but a key one as a mission statement. Just ignore the fact that Bart has remained in the fourth grade for the following 30 years of episodes.
Itchy & Scratchy & Marge (Season 2)
One of the best things about the prime era of The Simpsons is the show’s ability to insightfully skewer political and social issues without beating viewers over the head. Itchy & Scratchy & Marge is one of the series’ earliest and best examples of this, satirising censorship and issues of free expression.
The Itchy & Scratchy Show – The Simpsons’ recurring cartoon-within-a-cartoon that’s a heightened, gory parody of Tom & Jerry and its ilk – becomes the subject of Marge’s protesting ire, after she attributes Maggie’s attacking of Homer with a mallet to the show’s influence on the children of America. The extended homage to Psycho’s shower sequence in the scene where Maggie knocks Homer out is one of the finest film parodies in a series that would become known for them. (More on that later.)
Lisa’s Substitute (Season 2)
Widely considered Season 2’s greatest episode, and a favourite of many key cast members and showrunners, Lisa’s Substitute is one of the series’ finest episodes when it comes to sentiment, and one of the best to focus on Lisa. But it also stands out for its use of a famous guest star. In this case, it’s Dustin Hoffman, credited under a pseudonym, whose inspirational and iconoclastic teacher, Mr. Bergstrom, offers Lisa a fleeting glimpse of a life with an intelligent and supportive patriarchal figure worthy of admiration, although Bergstrom’s influence does allow Lisa and Homer to find a sweet common ground by the episode’s end.
Celebrity voices have been part of The Simpsons since the first season (see Albert Brooks), sometimes playing themselves for short scenes, but it rarely came across as stunt-casting until the show started going downhill towards the end of its first full decade on TV. YouTube essayist Super Eyepatch Wolf posted an entertaining video in 2017, titled “The Fall of The Simpsons: How It Happened”, that pinpoints one part of the show’s decline to the following: “Rather than treating the idea of celebrity with the wry disdain it had in its earlier seasons, modern Simpsons revels in the celebration of the rich and famous. No longer were bespoke guest characters created for each new celebrity; the joke now was just let the Simpsons meet a celebrity and have that serve as the gag.”
But Hoffman’s guest spot is a beautiful example of a big name disappearing into a character rather than just playing up a version of their real life or screen persona – although a cheeky, seconds-long homage to The Graduate is snuck in. Mr. Bergstrom fits seamlessly into the now fully developed world of Springfield, and Hoffman’s choice to be credited as someone else seems like he truly wanted to blend in and let the work speak for itself.
Flaming Moe’s (Season 3)
Speaking of celebrities, Aerosmith appear in Flaming Moe’s and were the first band to guest star on the show, enthusiastically sending themselves up in a storyline centred around one of the show’s most enduring supporting characters: Moe the bartender. Fellow iconic sitcom Cheers is explicitly parodied in this episode, including its famous theme tune.
Moe’s loyal patron Homer tells him about the Flaming Homer, an alcoholic mixture of cough medicine and fire he accidentally invented one night. Intrigued, Moe tries out the recipe, then renames the delicious cocktail the Flaming Moe and begins selling it to overnight success. A hurt Homer seeks revenge as Moe’s Tavern becomes the trendiest nightspot in town, as a brewery corporation offers Moe $1 million for the secret recipe.
Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk (Season 3)
Of the supporting characters outside the Simpsons household to receive their own episodes of focus, Mr. Burns has probably had the most in the entire series. And for good reason. A send-up of corporate America, the billionaire tyrant is one of the most flexible characters in the Springfield arsenal, with shifting motives and loyalties depending on the storyline or satire at hand. He is the show’s primary antagonist, to wildly fluctuating degrees of villainy, and a conduit for all manner of adventurous narratives.
There are several Burns-centric episodes in our list, but this Season 3 highlight is his best early outing. Wishing to pursue other interests, Burns decides to sell his nuclear power plant to German investors for $100 million. The side effect is that he loses his respectability in town because he can no longer control anyone, including the plant’s ill-suited safety inspector, Homer, who is almost immediately fired by the Germans because of his gross incompetence. On that note, Homer’s daydream excursion, mid-interview with his new bosses, into the so-called ‘Land of Chocolate’ is one of the show’s finest flights of fantasy.
Radio Bart (Season 3)
Celebrity posturing and media circuses get one of their finest Simpsons drubbings in Radio Bart, which has a plot that heavily references the Billy Wilder film Ace in the Hole (1951).
With the aid of a radio-transmitting microphone Homer gifted him for his birthday, Bart pranks the people of Springfield by tricking them into thinking a little boy is trapped down a well, his leg trapped, with Bart performing the cries of “Timmy O’Toole” from home. With national media attention in place, a rescue operation is in progress. Bart realises he’s stupidly labelled his microphone down the well with his own name and attempts to retrieve it, becoming trapped himself. Confessing his deception, he finds the townsfolk now unwilling to get him out.
With the aid of game guest star Sting, this episode’s spoof of celebrity supergroup charity singles like “We Are the World”, titled “We’re Sending Our Love Down the Well”, has become such a go-to cultural touchstone that commentators immediately broke it out in reference to Gal Gadot’s recruitment of famous friends to sing John Lennon’s Imagine to… “help” with morale during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Homer at the Bat (Season 3)
For the rightful complaint that later episodes would give the Simpsons short shrift compared to celebrities playing themselves, this Season 3 highlight is an early example of the show juggling several guest stars in a very silly story, while not to the detriment of the family member the plot actually concerns.
As Homer leads the power plant’s softball team to a winning season, Mr. Burns gets cocky and places a bet that his team will win a championship game. To ensure this, he brings in nine ringers from Major League Baseball teams, employing them at the plant. The con goes awry as virtually all the men experience terrible misfortune in town, prohibiting them from contributing to the assured victory.
A Streetcar Named Marge (Season 4)
One of the show’s finest Marge-centric episodes, this is also a perfect tear into both community theatre and larger productions of Broadway and the West End. It also now seems prescient as musical stage adaptations of non-musical works only grew more popular in the decades since this first aired.
Marge is thrilled when she wins the starring role in a musical version of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, but finds that the play’s parallels to her own life’s struggles with Homer’s insensitivity begin to take a toll. You’ll never think of Williams’ closing lines the same way again after seeing the upbeat finale number, “You Can Always Depend On the Kindness of Strangers”.
Mr. Plow (Season 4)
Wacky, dark and spectacularly funny, Mr. Plow sees Homer take on an entrepreneurial spirit, buying a snow plough one brutal winter and starting a business ploughing streets and driveways. It is a runaway success, but Homer’s friend Barney, taking Homer’s inspiring words of encouragement too literally, starts a rival plough company and quickly puts Homer out of work.
Lisa’s First Word (Season 4)
The golden age of The Simpsons features a number of memorable flashback-centred episodes that tell stories of how the family reached the status quo we found them in during their very first episodes. These include an exploration of how Homer and Marge first met, how they got married, and how Maggie came into the world. To highlight just one of this collection of episodes, Lisa’s First Word is perhaps the strongest. The brunt of the narrative concerns Bart as a toddler struggling to have to share attention and affection with a baby sister, but there’s much enjoyment to be found in the looks at Homer and Marge navigating Reagan’s America as a young married couple with a second child on the way.
Marge vs. the Monorail (Season 4)
One of many gems penned by Conan O’Brien before his talk show days, Marge vs. the Monorail is among the definitive episodes exploring the absurdism and collective lack of reason inherent in Springfield. After Mr. Burns is forced to donate $3 million to the town, an outsider huckster, Lyle Lanley (recurring guest star Phil Hartman), sells the easily duped citizens on a faulty, unnecessary monorail transit system. Marge seeks to expose the folly, while Homer faces doom as driver of the ill-fated maiden voyage.
Last Exit to Springfield (Season 4)
Frequently cited as one of the best episodes ever by fans and creators alike, this tale of Homer leading the power plant union to save the workers’ dental plan has all the elements of the greatest Simpsons episodes in one tight, consistently hilarious package: scathing satire, surreal tangents, palpable humanity, Mr. Burns as the instigating threat, a hugely quotable script, and an inescapable sense of joy. It’s the show firing on all cylinders. A flawless episode of television.
Homer’s Barbershop Quartet (Season 5)
Homer’s Barbershop Quartet walked so that Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story could… well, also walk. Hard.
This Season 5 opener sees the Simpsons kids stumble upon a picture of their dad on an old LP album cover. With Bart having no recollection of Homer’s supposed fame only eight years before, their father tells the story of how he and Principal Skinner, Apu and Barney recorded a barbershop quartet album in 1985, as The Be Sharps. It catapulted them to global fame and eventual dissolution. George Harrison has a fun cameo as himself in a story that explicitly parallels the rise of The Beatles, to the extent that Barney contributes to the group’s disbandment, in part thanks to the influence of his Japanese multimedia artist girlfriend.
Cape Feare (Season 5)
The Simpsons relishes in film parodies, and sometimes those make up the bulk of an episode. The Rear Window-riffing Bart of Darkness in Season 6 is a fine example, but this delicious and thoroughly weird parody of Cape Fear – both versions, but mainly Martin Scorsese’s – is unforgettable. And it still works wonders without having seen either movie.
Homer Goes to College (Season 5)
The final episode for which Conan O’Brien received a sole writing credit, Homer Goes to College embraces the full comedic potential of Homer at his most maddeningly stupid. After he causes a nuclear meltdown at work during a routine inspection, he’s forced to complete a rushed nuclear physics course at college. But with his mind poisoned by an idea of college informed solely by National Lampoon-style movies and Revenge of the Nerds, Homer repeatedly sabotages his studies and terrorises the dean for no logical reason.
Rosebud (Season 5)
Rosebud is another perfect episode-long parody of a film that also takes time to swipe at various other targets. In the spirit of Citizen Kane, Mr. Burns’ longing for his childhood teddy bear, Bobo, humanises the maniacal man but also showcases his tyranny, as he turns the town of Springfield against The Simpsons when Homer won’t surrender the found Bobo, who now has the affections of baby Maggie.
Bart’s Inner Child (Season 5)
New-age self-help gurus are the satirical target in this very fun episode that plays just as well now in the era of Goop. After a visiting peddler of lifestyle tips (Albert Brooks in another guest role) encourages Springfield to be inspired by young Bart’s impulsiveness, the eldest Simpson child finds his sense of identity lost as the town goes to disarray.
$pringfield (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Legalised Gambling) (Season 5)
In order to revitalise its flagging economy, Springfield legalises gambling, leading to Mr. Burns opening a boardwalk casino, where Homer ends up working as a blackjack dealer and Marge develops a gambling addiction. A deft balancing of bizarre moments and tender family struggles, the episode features a memorable subplot where an increasingly germ-phobic Mr. Burns essentially transforms into latter-years Howard Hughes.
Deep Space Homer (Season 5)
Speaking of gambling, literally sending a Simpson to space was a big gamble, even with the show’s now well-established detours into wild plotting. But this hilarious episode is a consistent delight and features some of the series’ funniest film nods, specifically concerning 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Right Stuff and Planet of the Apes.
The Boy Who Knew Too Much (Season 5)
Truanting from school, Bart witnesses the apparent beating of a French waiter by the mayor’s abrasive nephew. At the ensuing trial, Bart is the only person who can testify to the demonised rich brat’s innocence, causing a crisis of conscience, particularly since Principal Skinner is on the jury with Homer. The plot turns into a 12 Angry Men riff, but some of the funniest visual gags include nods to Terminator 2 and the original Westworld.
Treehouse of Horror V (Season 6)
A Halloween tradition since Season 2, the anthology-style Treehouse of Horror episodes allow the creative teams to flex their fantastical muscles for self-contained stories of terror with no need to ground the narrative rules in the show’s usual world. Even in later seasons, the Treehouse of Horror episodes are usually good for at least one inspired segment. That said, like anthology films, the episodes as a whole can be hit-and-miss.
Treehouse of Horror V is the best Halloween special because all three of its stories are particularly strong, even if it’s best known for the opening segment in particular: the absolutely brilliant “The Shinning”, which is reported to have made noted Simpsons fan Stanley Kubrick wet himself with laughter. We can only hope that story is true.
Lisa’s Wedding (Season 6)
While Lisa’s First Word proves some of the show’s best sentimental episodes look to the past, Lisa’s Wedding looks to the future, as a fortune teller shows the young Simpson a vision of her chance at meeting the perfect guy for her – only to discover he can’t stand her family, particularly Homer. An increasingly funny prediction of the then-distant 2010, this is one of the show’s most touching episodes.
Lemon of Troy (Season 6)
Lemon of Troy, which explores Springfield’s rivalry with neighbouring town Shelbyville, is another perfectly plotted episode. Have a watch of video essayist Patrick Willems’ excellent look at this episode specifically, titled ‘How Does a Perfect Simpsons Episode Work?’
Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Season 6 and Season 7)
This entry is a bit of a cheat as it’s actually two episodes that closed and opened their respective seasons, allowing for a summer of intrigue as audiences tried to work out which Springfield suspect shot Mr. Burns in a fit of revenge for his latest misery-bringing machinations. A spectacular parody of the likes of Dallas, Twin Peaks, Basic Instinct and The Fugitive, both instalments of this two-partner were the showrunners trying ambitious things to great success.
Mother Simpson (Season 7)
A faking of his own death leads to Homer discovering that his mother, thought to have died when he was a child, is very much alive, though on the run for a historical crime she won’t divulge. Naturally, it involves Mr. Burns somehow. Glenn Close as Homer’s mother ranks among the show’s finest guest appearances, and the final scene among the show’s most moving.
Marge Be Not Proud (Season 7)
After Bart is caught shoplifting, Marge believes her “special little guy” may have slipped away from her somewhere along the line, thinking she may have mothered him too much. To repair their estrangement, Bart works to regain Marge’s love and trust. As the show’s plots grew increasingly offbeat – and the quality hit rate dropped – some of the finest episodes were those that stuck with the simplest premises.
Summer of 4 Ft. 2 (Season 7)
The Simpsons stay at neighbour Ned Flanders’ beach house, leading to Lisa befriending some local kids in a town she doesn’t know, under the guise of a personality much different from how she usually presents herself. Yeardley Smith, who voices Lisa, has cited this Season 7 finale as one of her favourite episodes ever, and it’s another ostensibly simple tale that allows for some of the show’s most moving portrayals of adolescent struggles.
You Only Move Twice (Season 8)
As much as zanier plots eventually contributed to the show’s downfall, when great examples work, they really, really work. Albert Brooks voices one of the most popular one-off characters in the show’s history: Hank Scorpio, Homer’s new boss in the seemingly sleepy town of Cypress Creek, to which the Simpsons family has moved. Unbeknownst to Homer, his super-friendly and super-supportive employer is literally a supervillain in the vein of Goldfinger and Dr. No, in an episode that explicitly parodies the James Bond series. One of legendary Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder’s very best contributions to the show.
The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show (Season 8)
When the producers of The Itchy & Scratchy Show realise that viewers have become tired of the same old formula, they introduce a new character: Poochie, a “hip” skateboarding and rapping dog, voiced by Homer. Poochie, cobbled together by network executives who think they know what kids want, is resoundingly rejected by the fanbase and public at large. One suspects this episode’s meta interrogation of network interference in animation was particularly close to the bone regarding The Simpsons’ own standing at the Fox network.
Homer’s Enemy (Season 8)
Perhaps the darkest Simpsons episode ever, Homer’s Enemy has one of the most divisive legacies of any storyline from the golden years of the show, among both fans and staff.
A bitingly meta episode that explores what would happen if an ostensibly ordinary, hard-working person from a more grounded world – albeit a very resentful person in the form of the character Frank Grimes – were to find themselves employed alongside Homer, becoming enraged by his incompetence and how he reaps rewards in life from doing even less than the bare minimum. In trying to expose Homer as a fraud in his very existence, Frank brings about his own catastrophic demise.
Simpsons writer George Meyer once posited in an interview, albeit jokingly, that the series lost its moral grounding after the conclusion of this episode. One contributor to The Verge, in a 2014 article, makes a case for how this episode resolves itself being the moment the show “jumped the shark”, even though they consider it among their favourites. Perhaps it should have been the series finale. That it is the last episode on this list might speak to that.
The Simpsons: Season 1 to 30 is available on Disney+, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription or a £59.99 yearly subscription.