From the appearance of Armin Tamzarian to last week’s Ke$ha montage.
Most television shows are only on air long enough to experience one tragic shark jump into stupidity, blandness, contradiction, or self-parody. Double-decade survivors like The Simpsons, however, have all the more time to betray the principles on which they were built. America’s favorite yellow family started slipping sometime after season six (or seven, or ten, or four, depending on whom you’re talking to), but they’ve always managed enough good episodes to keep us from giving up on the show entirely. Unfortunately, that means we still feel bruised every time the show’s writers forget Homer and the gang’s core values. Here are the ten worst examples.
1. "To Surveil With Love"
Last week’s episode, "To Surveil With Love," eschewed the famed Simpsons intro sequence for a musical number in which characters inexplicably lip-synched to the vapid Ke$ha party anthem "Tik Tok." The clip began with Lisa Simpson happily playing along, which seemed odd given her aversion to all things trashy. The "Tik Tok" bit seemed to exist only so it could become an Internet talking point the next morning. To add insult to injury, the characters’ clunky mimicking barely matched the song (and let’s face it, Ke$ha is barely singing).
2. "Homer and Ned’s Hail Mary Pass"
One of the better Simpsons running gags was their refusal to brand the obese pile of bitterness known as Comic Book Guy with a Judeo-Christian name. (The character was based on a real-life roommate of voice actor Hank Azaria, who went only by "F.") "Homer and Ned’s Hail Mary Pass," which aired in 2005, jabbed a nail into that comedy tire by giving CBG the unremarkable moniker of Jeff Albertson. Jeff Albertson? That’s far from the hilarious names this show has given us in the past (i.e. Max Power, Rembrandt Q. Einstein, Leslie Hapablap). Worst. Reveal. Ever.
3. "Gump Roast"
You’d think by 2002 The Simpsons would’ve generated enough cash for FOX that they were no longer beholden to archaic penny-saving concepts like the clip show. You’d think that, but you’d be dead wrong! 2002’s "Gump Roast" became the fifth clip show in Simpsons history, beginning with a decade-late Forrest Gump parody that segued into an unexplained roast of Homer. The "We Didn’t Start The Fire" parody at the end of "Gump Roast" elicited a few giggles, but the apology preceding the credits was just enough of a "fuck you" to get the blood moving. Why bother airing an episode if you have to smack a mea culpa on the end?
4. "All About Lisa"
Krusty the Clown needed a new assistant in this 2008 entry, and Lisa Simpson got the job. The tables turned soon after Lisa was hired, though, when our most forward-thinking Simpson accidentally usurped her grease-painted employer’s fame. Sound familiar? Perhaps you’ve seen the identical (but much funnier) 1994 episode "Bart Gets Famous," wherein Lisa’s older brother rockets from lowly clown lackey to flavor-of-the-month TV star. It’s inevitable any program will revisit plot lines twenty years in, but a complete rip of a classic outing is pretty rank.
5. "The Principal and the Pauper"
This is a moment many fans cite as the earliest and most egregious shark jump in Simpsons history. 1997’s "The Principal and the Pauper" informed us that the Principal Skinner we had come to know and love was an imposter. He was, in fact, one Armin Tamzarian, a reformed James Dean-type who’d served with the real Skinner in Vietnam. The real Skinner went missing in combat and was presumed dead; Tamzarian returned to Springfield and assumed his friend’s identity. That plan worked great until Real Skinner turned up alive and crashed Springfield Elementary. Okay, um, so how did Seymour’s mom not realize this person wasn’t her son again? The voice of Principal Skinner, Harry Shearer, hated the Tamzarian story line, which, with its nonsensical meta-comedy, seemed to betray the reality of the show itself. Shearer claims the writers refuse to discuss the episode to this day.
6. "Co-Dependent’s Day"
Homer J. Simpson has unintentionally upset his wife on thousands of occasions, but the 2004 episode "Co-Dependent’s Day" featured Homer purposely framing poor, beleaguered Marge for a DUI that almost proved fatal. This Homer wasn’t a sometimes-insensitive-but-
7. "How I Spent My Strummer Vacation"
Early Simpsons episodes rarely employed guest stars who weren’t playing an actual character. (Even Michael Jackson played a big fat white guy who thought he was Michael Jackson). That changed sometime after the tenth season when the big-name celeb cameos began pouring in almost too quickly to count. "Strummer Vacation" could be the ultimate example of this trend, shoehorning six rock stars into a Homer-recaptures-his-youth story. Granted, that’s not as many guests as appeared in the baseball-centric 1992 episode "Homer At The Bat," but that episode actually gave the nine sluggers something to do. I think Brian Setzer spoke all of three words in "Strummer Vacation." And the episode’s namesake, Joe Strummer, wasn’t even in the fucking thing!
8. "24 Minutes"
Airing one day before the season-six finale of 24 in 2007, this by-the-numbers Simpsons parody of FOX’s number-one crime drama stank of cross promotion. Of course, Springfield had seen this kind of thing before; the 1995 Simpsons episode "A Star Is Burns" was basically just an ad for the short-lived Jon Lovitz cartoon The Critic. That one at least had gratuitous Barney Gumble and Hans Moleman, two characters who have never failed to amuse. Here? Not even a smidgen of Disco Stu. Disco Stu does not like being marginalized!
9. "The Frying Game"
This 2002 episode eighty-sixed the chance to nail a great murder mystery akin to "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" in favor of topical humor. Homer and Marge are arrested for the suspicious death of their Meals on Wheels customer Mrs. Bellamy. Any honest suspense is shattered at the program’s end when Mrs. Bellamy is revealed to be Carmen Electra in disguise; the whole murder was a stunt, nothing more than the gag of a reality show called "Frame Up." A truly stupid cop-out ending from the usually great writer John Swartzwelder. Guess he was hitting the Tomacco too hard when he penned this one.
10. "That ’90s Show"
A Weird Al cameo wasn’t enough to save this unforgivable 2008 retcon of Marge and Homer’s youthful romance. In "That ’90s Show," the Simpson parents recall their courtship not in the mid-1970s (as explored in the classic season-two episode "The Way We Was") but in the early 1990s (when, mind-fuckingly enough, The Simpsons itself defined the zeitgeist). Suddenly, Homer was in a grunge band, Marge was in a Jennifer Aniston haircut, and warm vomit was all over hardcore fans’ Fat Tony t-shirts.