When it comes to The Simpsons, opinions have always varied. Best episode? Best season? Best tertiary character? A show that's been this successful with this many moving parts was bound to inspire debates and rankings, even long after the glory days. While the show was recently renewed for two more seasons, most fans will concede that the series' best years are behind us. It's the question of how many years ago that's tougher to agree on.
After originally getting their start on Fox's The Tracey Ullman Show, The Simpsons began airing as a stand-alone project in 1989 with a Christmas special, titled "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire." Before long, key writers like Conan O'Brien, John Swartzwelder, and George Meyer helped shape The Simpsons into a uniquely funny sitcom and a groundbreaking work of weekly primetime animation. So where and when did the funny finally fade?
I submit that the last completely solid episode of The Simpsons was "Marge vs. Singles, Seniors, Childless Couples and Teens and Gays," which was the eighth episode of the 15th season, airing on January 4, 2004. The plot: After a riot breaks out at a Roofi concert (meant to parody the children's singer Raffi Cavoukian), "parasitic parents" become the enemy for Springfield residents who are child-free. Refusing to see the kids of Springfield get treated so poorly, proud mom Marge stands up for them by trying to pass a "Families Come First" initiative.
The episode stands out for its use of callback humor, with an even comedic flow. Unlike later episodes, it doesn't rely on a guest star or a movie reference in order to carry itself. Plenty of Simpsons episodes have aged poorly because their plots are tied to a pop culture reference that's no longer relevant. With this episode, there are still plenty of people out there who'd prefer a child-free experience (and plenty of tired parents happy to point out that child rearing is often more rewarding than it looks). One need look no further than the current Workin' Moms/The Letdown mini-genre for proof of this enduring trend.
Also worth noting? Upon rewatching the episode for the 20th or 30th time (The Simpsons is in constant rotation at my house), I still laughed. Its jokes hold up, even years later.
As a character, Marge is primarily a stay-at-home mom. And although she makes it work, a recurring theme in the series is just how fulfilled she is when she has a job, whether it's as a cop or a real estate agent or a pretzel vendor. Trying to make a difference and stand up for something she believes in is very in-character for Marge, with plenty of opportunities to still be funny. For a character who's often the butt of the joke for being a scold, this episode is notable for giving Marge some time to shine.
Skeptical that in the fifteen years since this episode aired, none have matched its brilliance? Here are a few that came later: "My Big Fat Geek Wedding," where Edna Krabapple hooks up with Comic Book Guy (doesn't Edna deserve better?); "Catch 'Em If You Can" (which may have been less dull if you caught the 2002 movie Catch Me If You Can), and let us not forget "Simple Simpson," which features Homer as a pie-throwing superhero. Compared to the best episodes from the series' golden age, the gap in quality is pretty massive.
As we move beyond Season 15, the storylines get worse and worse. You may have tried to forget "Pranksta Rap," which included Bart faking his kidnapping to attend a rap concert, cringeworthy in part because it's yet another hobby that wouldn't live to see a secondary episode. This is true with most plots these days -- Lisa and Bart even acknowledge it with the line "Well, that's the end of Dad's wedding business" at the end of "There's Something About Marrying," but at least Homer's rotating jobs are entertaining. Bart becoming a prodigy in a new skill that quickly abandons? Not so much. Also, airing an 8 Mile-themed episode three years after the film came out only hastened its expiration date.
Despite all of this, The Simpsons' own expiration date doesn't seem to be nearing. Yes, there are many who've given up watching the first-run episodes, but still the show endures -- in large part thanks to the brilliance of episodes like "Marge vs. Singles, Seniors, Childless Couples and Teens and Gays" and those that preceded it.
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Karen Belz has contributed to sites such as Bustle, HelloGiggles, and So Yummy. Follow her on Twitter at @KarenEBelz.