'The Simpsons' hits a Homer run

KEVIN WILLIAMSON

, Last Updated: 6:09 PM ET

Yellow skin, goldfish eyes and three-fingered hands aside, it's no coincidence television's most enduring family -- the gleefully animated Simpsons -- is also its most human.

Compared to the truly stale, cartoonish antics of live-action TV dads John Ritter and Jim Belushi, beer-guzzling family man Homer Simpson is wholly flesh and blood, the suburban patriarch as misguided bonehead, yes, but also as long-suffering, well-intended husband and father.

Given this, perhaps it's no surprise Fox's social satire, now in its 14th season, shows no signs of slowing down as it closes in on its 300th episode, airing tonight at 8:30 p.m. on HC and W.

The ratings remain as potent as ever and earlier this year Fox announced that it had renewed the series for two more years, through May 2005. At that point, in their 16th season, The Simpsons will have outlasted The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and become the longest-running weekly comedy series on TV.

Call the citizens of Springfield ageless, sure. But in fact, they are timeless.

Not that anyone saw this coming. Certainly not viewers or critics who embraced the Simpson clan from the start, but could be excused for believing it would at some point falter or be forgotten. And certainly not its creator and executive producer Matt Groening.

"I didn't expect to be on the air this long," Groening told critics in California recently.

From the outset, when The Simpsons debuted as the first primetime animated series since The Flintstones after a string of shorts on the Tracy Ullman Show in 1987, the series towered creatively over its three-dimensional competition.

But the funny thing is, it got better.

For those of us who recall Do The Bartman or those Don't Have A Cow, Man T-shirts, there was a time when the show centered on 10-year-old smartass Bart Simpson, a skateboarding, spike-topped underachiever who drove his teachers and parents crazy.

But as the show grew, so did the role of Bart's dad, Homer, a doughnut-scarfing nuclear power plant worker whose pained cry of "D'oh!" became the show's signature and television's most-mimicked expletive. Rounding out the clan is anchor and loving mother Marge, sax-playing second-grade intellectual Lisa, and omnipresent, ever-silent infant Maggie.

Grow, too, did the cast of supporting characters who populate the fictional town of Springfield: God-fearing neighbour Ned Flanders, bungling Police Chief Wiggum, store clerk Apu, and countless others who round out the Simpsons' classmates, teachers, relatives and friends.

In broadening its horizons, so too did the writers better sharpen their scathing social commentary.

No one is safe -- educators, politicians, doctors, lawyers and even the Fox network itself are frequent targets of the show's merciless wit. So too are the countless celebrities who lend their voices to the show.

Tonight's episode finds Bart in court to win emancipation from his parents.

"Best episode ever?" Nope, probably not by a longshot.

But look at what it's up against: 13 years of the canniest, craftiest writing the medium has ever seen, with a laugh-per-episode ratio that may never be surpassed.

Compiling the list that follows, then, was both the easiest and most daunting of tasks.

Easy, because there is so much to choose from. Daunting, because how do you rank your favourite Simpsons? Because a single line of dialogue resonated over time more than others? Because it gave your favourite Springfield resident his or her chance in the spotlight? Because it had an Adam West cameo? Or because it managed to cram in one or two more laughs than the others?

Each of the 10 episodes register for their own reasons, doling out equal doses of humour and, yes, humanity.

1. MARGE VS. THE MONORAIL

When huckster Lyle Lanley (Phil Hartman) sells the easily-fleeced residents of Springfield a faulty monorail, only Marge can avert disaster. Penned by Conan O'Brien before he was a talk-show host, this one has it all. And by all, I mean a runaway monorail, an escalator to nowhere, suddenly-separated siamese twins, Homer-as-hero, a Music Man-inspired musical number and a mortified Leonard Nimoy.

2. ROSEBUD

Mr. Burns, the miserly Mephisto who has everything, finds himself pining for his long-lost childhood teddy bear.

As Burns and faithful assistant Smithers scour the globe for the object of the tycoon's affection, it falls into the innocent clutches of pacifier-sucking baby Maggie.

The lengths Burns goes to to reclaim his cherished toy, as well as those Homer goes to to ensure Maggie's happiness, reveals surprising heart from both boss and buffoon, although, predictably, neither sentiment lasts long. The episode is perhaps the series' most audacious, spanning centuries --from Mr. Burns' infancy to a Planet of the Apes-like finale in which a bodiless Burns still longs for his teddy.

3. FLAMING MOE'S

All the talk of humanity aside, Homer and his gang of fellow degenerates are at their best when they're at each other's throats. Some might favour Mr. Plow, in which Homer and Barney battle for Springfield's snow-plowing business, yet I side with this classic tale of jealousy and greed, written by Calgarian Rob Cohen.

With business at Moe's Tavern at an all-time low, Homer invents a new drink with a special ingredient: Cough syrup. It proves a smash but complications ensue when Moe takes credit for the concoction as rivals circle, hoping to identify that elusive secret ingredient. Aerosmith turns up for a cameo, years ahead of the Rolling Stones.

4. A STREETCAR NAMED MARGE

As pitch-perfect eviscerations of community theatre go, this tops Waiting for Guffman. Marge is ecstatic when she wins the starring role in a musical version of A Streetcar Named Desire. But parallels between Marge's on-stage storyline and her real life -- namely, she's married to an insensitive brute in both -- begin to take a toll.

5. THE LAST TEMPTATION OF HOMER

What elevated The Simpsons above its early Fox running mate Married ... with Children was that, for all the belching and butt jokes, it tempered the boarish, bratty males with brainy, good-natured women. There's no better evidence of this than in those episodes devoted to Homer and Marge's rocky but enduring marriage, the most exquisite of which was this ode to aborted adultery.

Michelle Pfieffer voices Mindy Simmons, the plant's new female employee who the hilariously-anguished Homer can't stop thinking about.

6. LAST EXIT TO SPRINGFIELD

Just when Lisa needs braces, Mr. Burns tries to ax the union dental plan at the nuclear plant, forcing Homer to become a labour leader. All the elements of classic Simpsons are here: Satirical swipes (unions), cunning reflections upon adolescent humiliations (the contraption with which Lisa is outfitted) and a faceoff between the crafty Burns and clueless Homer who, for once, wins the day.

7. $PRINGFIELD (OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE LEGALIZED GAMBLING)

This time it's Marge, not Homer, in need of intervention when Mr. Burns opens a casino. Homer lands a gig as a blackjack dealer, but it's upright Marge who spirals into a gambling addiction. Homer's final, desperate babbling tirade -- which snaps Marge back to her senses -- comes up aces.

8. BEHIND THE LAUGHTER

Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie are under the celebrity microscope for this lampoon of VH1's celebrity-biography series Behind The Music. Viewers follow the Simpsons from their humble beginnings to white-hot fame to bankruptcy and scandal to their resurrection as show-business powerhouse. Behind The Music makes for an admittedly easy target, but that doesn't make the end result any less enjoyable.

9. A FISH CALLED SELMA

"Gay? I wish!" cries Troy McClure (Hartman again), the hack actor who's a closeted fish fetishist. To convince the world he's just a normal guy, he marries Marge's sister Selma.

McClure's musical production Stop The Planet of the Apes, I Want To Get Off! is a standout.

10. WHO SHOT MR. BURNS?

Sometimes the most heavily-hyped episodes are the most overlooked in hindsight. Like the "Who Shot J.R." Dallas episodes it clearly references, this two-part episode garnered plenty of publicity when it aired in 1995.

Mr. Burns, in very short order, gives the entire population of Springfield reason to want him dead and when he's shot, the evidence mounts against a member of the Simpsons' household.

And don't miss: Groundskeeper Willy's interrogation scene which sees the kilt-wearing janitor do Basic Instinct's Sharon Stone proud.

THEY SAID IT...

HOMER: "Oh, look at me! I'm making people happy! I'm the Magical Man from Happy-Land in a gumdrop house on Lollipop Lane! Oh, by the way, I was being sarcastic."

COMIC BOOK GUY: "But Aquaman, you cannot marry a woman without gills. You're from two different worlds."

HOMER: "Weaseling out of things is what separates us from the animals ... except, of course, the weasel."

MARGE: "Homer, your growing insanity is starting to worry me."

POLICE CHIEF WIGGUM: "OK folks, back away! Nothin' to see here ... Oh my god, a horrible plane wreck! Hey, everybody crowd around! Come on, don't be shy, crowd around."

TROY McCLURE: "Hi, I'm Troy McClure. You might remember me from such telethons as Out With Gout '88 and Let's Save Tony Orlando's House."

HOMER: "Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is: Never try."


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