Springfield’s favorite yellow family returns to Fox this Sunday for their 27th season, making this the perfect opportunity to look back upon 26 years of The Simpsons and rank all the season premieres. As it turns out, I have never missed an episode of The Simpsons, so this is basically the article I’ve been waiting to write my entire life.
To clarify things a little, we are looking at the first regular episode of each season. For several years, The Simpsons kicked off with a “Treehouse of Horror” episode, but we’re not counting those here. (“Treehouse of Horror” specials deserve their own list, so it’s a good thing we did that last year!)
Some of the later seasons have even made it into the top ten because I think that The Simpsons has always found new ways to stay relevant and top itself. So, before the 27th season of The Simpsons begins with its controversial opener, “Every Man’s Dream,” let’s look back at how the last 26 season premieres stack up, counting down to the best premiere!
#26. “Bart the Genius,” Season One
Original air date: January 4, 1990
What Happens: Bart swaps aptitude tests with Martin Prince and is sent to a school for the gifted. Alas, that’s one place Bart can’t fake it, so he doesn’t fit in at all.
How It Stacks Up: Give ‘em a break, they were just getting started. It took until season three to really find the satirical groove in Simpsons stories. The Simpsons is best when it works on multiple levels, but in the early days it was just one level. And this was when it was still shocking to hear a cartoon say “damn.”
#25. “The Parent Rap,” Season 13
Original air date: November 11, 2001
What Happens: When Bart steals a police car, a new judge (Jane Kaczmarek) holds his parents accountable too. Her creative punishment is to tether Homer and Bart together to force Homer to discipline his kid.
How It Stacks Up: The idea of literally tying Homer and Bart together seems funny, but it really only pays off in animated slapstick. “The Parent Rap” doesn’t have the intelligent bite that the best Simpsons episodes have, and — as much as we want someone to discipline Bart — but the laughs don’t always justify the punishment.
#24. “Bart Gets an F,” Season Two
Original air date: October 11, 1990
What Happens: After failing so many tests, Bart faces repeating the fourth grade. So in order to avoid an extra year of school, he actually tries to pass a test.
How It Stacks Up: This is getting there. This episode is actually about something. Bart really tries, but he still fails. The humor is simple, with the biggest laugh coming when Bart kisses Mrs. Krabappel and proceeds to spit it out.
#23. “The Falcon and the D’Ohman,” Season 23
Original air date: September 25, 2011
What Happens: Homer tries to make friends with Wayne (Kiefer Sutherland), the new guard at the power plant, but it turns out that Wayne is actually repressing his past as a covert agent.
How It Stacks Up: Despite an homage to A History of Violence and Sutherland guest-voicing, the jokes don’t seem to land in this episode. Random references to horror slasher killers, superheroes, and The Terminator don’t always have a point. There’s an uncharacteristically long setup to a dumb joke about sticking mashed potatoes in your ears.
#22. “The Mook, the Chef, the Wife and Her Homer,” Season 18
Original air date: September 10, 2006
What Happens: The Simpsons meet Fat Tony’s son, Michael, who really wants to become a chef. Bart and Lisa help Michael tell his dad that he’d rather make food than kill people.
How It Stacks Up: There are some solid spoofs of The Sopranos and The Godfather, but too much of the episode relies on mob jokes and Italian stereotypes. It’s still worth seeing for the “truck truck truck” though.
#21: “All’s Fair in Oven War,” Season 16
Original air date: November 14, 2004
What Happens: A new kitchen inspires Marge to develop recipes and enter a cooking contest that she’ll do anything to win. Meanwhile, Bart finds Homer’s old naughty magazines and opens a Playboy Club for his friends.
How It Stacks Up: A perfectly harmless but unmemorable episode, it has a moral (don’t cheat) and a strange fantasy sequence of Homer murdering a food mascot. James Caan cameos as himself because he never misses a Playboy party, even if Bart doesn’t know what a playboy is yet.
#20. “He Loves To Fly and He D’ohs,” Season 19
Original air date: September 23, 2007
What Happens: Flying on a private jet motivates Homer to aim higher, but failure to land a cushy job makes him feel even guiltier about disappointing his family.
How It Stacks Up: As the first season after The Simpsons Movie, this represents a period where The Simpsons was reinvigorated with new creativity. We’re treated to an opening credits featuring wreckage of the dome and Spider-Pig. Stephen Colbert is kind of wasted as Homer’s life coach, but Lionel Richie gets the real laughs replacing his lyrics with the word “beer” for Homer.
#19. “A Tale of Two Springfields,” Season 12
Original air date: November 5, 2000
What Happens: When Springfield creates two separate area codes, rivalry leads the new area code to secede. Homer becomes mayor of New Springfield and lures The Who to perform there instead.
How It Stacks Up: Taking a simple premise and escalating it to absurd extremes is classic Simpsons. The Who cameo fits into a long line of rock stars being self-deprecating in animated form (see “How I Spent My Strummer Vacation.”)
#18. “Lard of the Dance,” Season 10
Original air date: August 23, 1998
What Happens: A new student (Lisa Kudrow) pressures Lisa to dress more adult and use her cool lingo. Meanwhile, Homer and Bart start a grease bootlegging business.
How It Stacks Up: Would you believe both stories come together in a school dance overflowing with stolen grease? Lisa’s story is still relevant today as we’re asking kids to grow up too fast, and Homer and Bart’s story is plain ridiculous as they face off against a naked Groundskeeper Willie.
#17. “Bonfire of the Manatees,” Season 17
Original air date: September 11, 2005
What Happens: Homer owes the mob money so he lends them his house to shoot adult movies. Marge storms out in anger and becomes obsessed with saving the manatees.
How It Stacks Up: The way a ridiculous scheme of Homer’s leads Marge into a real story is The Simpsons storytelling at its best. Alec Baldwin plays the manatee activist and it’s adorable how Marge angrily calls the porno a “snuggle film.”
#16. “Sex, Pies and Idiot Scrapes,” Season 20
Original air date: September 28, 2008
What Happens: Homer becomes a bounty hunter with Flanders as his partner. But when Homer becomes the bounty, will Flanders turn him in?
How It Stacks Up: This episode has everything. There are fun moments with supporting characters such as Snake and his baby-mama. There’s cartoon action in Homer and Flanders’ bounty chases. Flanders’ Christian rock cover of AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds.” Wolf the Bounty Hunter. And of all the crazy jobs Homer has done, bounty hunter is relatively normal.
#15. “Clown in the Dumps,” Season 26
Original air date: September 28, 2014
What Happens: It was supposed to be a surprise who died in the season premiere, but given the title, it was easy to figure out that Krusty’s father, Rabbi Krustofsky (Jackie Mason), didn’t survive to season 26. Even though his dad always disapproved of Krusty’s comedy, Krusty is finally able to get closure.
How It Stacks Up: This is what The Simpsons is all about: heart with bite. Krusty finds out a friend has been telling his dad Krusty’s jokes and making him laugh. But when Krusty realizes that his dad did love his jokes all along, Bart points out, “I guess he just hated your delivery.”
#14. “Elementary School Musical,” Season 22
Original air date: September 26, 2010
What Happens: Lisa goes to arts camp where she feels at home with the counselors (Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie) and other campers (Lea Michele, Cory Monteith and Amber Riley). Meanwhile, Krusty wins the Nobel Peace Prize, but ends up extradited for international crimes.
How It Stacks Up: New Flight of the Conchords music and Glee cast recordings are highlights, as is a military choir singing the “Itchy and Scratchy” theme song to Krusty in the subplot. This episode also reveals the truth about artists (they’re poor).
#13. “HOM?RLAND,” Season 25
Original air date: September 29, 2013
What Happens: In a Homeland spoof, Homer comes back from a convention in Boise a different person. Of course, it’s all back to normal by the end.
How It Stacks Up: This episode makes fun of Homer by undoing all of his sloppy trademarks. It also makes fun of paranoia cliches and features Agent Annie Crawford (Kristen Wiig), a parody of Claire Danes’ Homeland character. Marge’s Cheetos and pork spit-take and Homer’s meta prayer (praying for a climax payoff) are highlights.
#12. “My Mother the Carjacker,” Season 15
Original air date: November 9, 2003
What Happens: Homer discovers his long lost hippie mother (Glenn Close) is still out there, and tries to help her catch up on lost times. But when Mr. Burns wants revenge, she has to go on the run again.
How It Stacks Up: A lot of minor characters get great lines, like the waitress refusing to aid and abet without a tip. Remember Jay Leno’s “Headlines” bit? Homer tries his own headlines but doesn’t get it. This episode uses the plot to lay up random Simpsons jokes, like a super cliche ‘60s montage and Homer’s letters to movies (“Dear Die Hard…”).
#11. “Moonshine River,” Season 24
Original air date: September 30, 2012
What Happens: Bart goes to New York to find his old girlfriend (Zooey Deschanel). While there, Marge tries to see the New York sights on a budget.
How It Stacks Up: The Simpsons is great at undercutting every bit of sweetness with a joke. It’s impressive that they managed to get all of Bart’s other exes (Anne Hathaway, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Natalie Portman) to come back, and they’ve also got all new New York jokes to compete with their other NYC-based season premiere below!
#10 “Homer the Whopper,” Season 21
Original air date: September 27, 2009
What Happens: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote this episode in which Hollywood turns Comic Book Guy’s character, Everyman, into a movie, casting Homer as the lead. Rogen plays a personal trainer trying to get Homer into shape.
How It Stacks Up: Considering there is a classic episode about making the Radioactive Man movie, it’s miraculous how Rogen and Goldberg found a whole new story to tell about a comic book movie. Of course, in the years since Radioactive Man, there’s a whole new slew of comic book movies to make fun of. Also, Comic Book Guy meeting studio executives!
#9. How I Spent My Strummer Vacation,” Season 14
Original air date: November 10, 2002
What Happens: Homer goes to a rock n’ roll camp run by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards featuring instructors Lenny Kravitz, Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, and Brian Setzer. When it’s over, Homer thinks he’s going onstage with them, but they make him their roadie.
How It Stacks Up: The best part of this episode is actually the beginning, where an episode of “Taxicab Conversations” reveals that Disco Stu doesn’t even like disco. You have to love when background characters get to go deep. Plus, the guest cast is hilariously self-deprecating, with Jagger and Richards showing they’re real sticklers for paperwork.
#8. “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet,” Season Five
Original air date: September 30, 1993
What Happens: Speaking of Homer’s random jobs, he used to be a singer! Bart and Lisa find a record of Homer’s old barbershop quartet and so Homer tells the story of the rise and fall of The Be Sharps.
How It Stacks Up: We’re getting into the all-time classic Simpsons episodes now. This is a standout episode for Simpsons music with the original song “Baby on Board,” plus some barbershop standards. The Be Sharps are a spoof of The Beatles with a “Bigger Than Jesus” and Yoko joke. (Note, this flashback takes place in 1985. Now a long-ago flashback is set in, like, 2005.)
#7. “Kamp Krusty,” Season Four
Original air date: September 24, 1992
What Happens: Bart and Lisa are excited to attend Kamp Krusty, but it turns out to be a dump with only unconvincing Krusty impersonators. Conditions get so bad that Bart ultimately leads a revolt.
How it Stacks Up: This is one of the most memorable classics about everything wrong with corporate licensing and the childhood expectations that everything they’re selling you will be great. Bart was born to lead a revolution, and Krusty’s reparations are appropriately sleazy.
#6. “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson,” Season Nine
Original air date: September 21, 1997
What Happens: As a designated driver, Barney ends up driving the Simpsons car to New York City and leaves it there to collect parking tickets and a boot. Homer and the family go to New York to get it back and they explore the landmarks of the Big Apple.
How It Stacks Up: Normally, the Simpsons visit fake places that closely resemble real ones for the sake of comedy. Here they get to actually make fun of the real New York. Broadway musicals, highbrow magazine offices, street crime, the subway, and Woody Allen are just some of the New York traditions that get skewered, Simpsons-style.
#5. “Beyond Blunderdome,” Season 11
Original air date: September 26, 1999
How it Stacks Up: To put this episode in cultural context, this was when Mel Gibson was a beloved American icon and Anne Heche was Ellen Degeneres’ girlfriend. Seeing the Simpsons in Tinsel Town is great, as is the Homer-inspired new ending of Gibson’s movie — a vicious satirical stab at selling out for Hollywood.
#4. “Who Shot Mr. Burns? Part 2,” Season Seven
Original air date: September 17, 1995
What Happens: In the season six finale, Mr. Burns is shot for blocking out the sun in order to force Springfield residents to use more nuclear energy. The cliffhanger is finally resolved as a surprising shooter is revealed. Of course, Mr. Burns survives.
How It Stacks Up: This is literally the episode we waited for all summer. Well, every season premiere is that for the die-hards, but this one had fans betting on suspects from May to September. The mystery plot gives lots of the suspects funny ways to prove their innocence until the final culprit is revealed.
#3. “Bart of Darkness,” Season Six
Original air date: September 4, 1994
What Happens: After Bart breaks his leg at a pool party, he is confined to his room in a cast for the summer. Looking out the window, he thinks he sees Flanders murder his wife.
How It Stacks Up: A Simpsons spoof of Rear Window? Yes, please. But now that you know Flanders has not been incarcerated for murder the past 20 seasons, and his wife dies for real in season 11, it’s not such a spoiler to reveal that all turns out to be a hilarious misunderstanding.
#2. “Stark Raving Dad,” Season Three
Original air date: September 19, 1991
What Happens: Mixed laundry makes Homer’s shirt pink, and Mr. Burns has him committed because what kind of lunatic wears a pink shirt? In the institution, Homer meets Leon Kompowsky (Michael Jackson).
How It Stacks Up: This is the one with Michael Jackson, only he called himself John Jay Smith.Yes, it was him. MJ wrote “Happy Birthday Lisa,” but didn’t sing it. They could get Jackson’s speaking voice and songwriting services, so it was Kipp Lennon who did the singing, and Lennon later performed the song at the Simpsons Hollywood Bowl concert in 2014.
#1. “You Only Move Twice,” Season Eight
Original air date: November 3, 1996
What Happens: Homer gets a great new job for Hank Scorpio, who turns out to be a Simpsons-ized James Bond villain. That would be fine with Homer, but Marge, Bart, and Lisa have a hard time adjusting to their new lives.
How It Stacks Up: This is one of the all-time greatest episodes of The Simpsons. Marge has nothing to do because the oven cleans itself and Bart gets a case of the “spose’das.” This episode actually ruined the real Goldfinger for me. Now every time I see it, I want Sean Connery to flip a coin into the laser like his animated alter-ego does in this episode.
Fred Topel has written over 20 reviews of The Simpsons for CraveOnline, including his column “Best Episode Ever.” Having seen every single episode of The Simpsons, he will defend the later seasons to the death — or at least until he sees a dog with a fluffy tail. Follow Fred on Twitter at @FredTopel.