All 13 Very Rough Episodes of ‘The Simpsons’ First Season, Ranked
We were thisclose to not having The Simpsons. The animated family from Springfield had spent two years as a supplemental short on The Tracey Ullman Show, and veteran television producer James L. Brooks had assembled an amazing crew to transform it into a weekly series.
However, when animation came back on the first episode that was produced (see #6 below), the results were so bad that the plug was nearly pulled on the entire series. Fortunately, the remaining episodes didn’t have nearly as many issues, and the show slowly turned into the classic behemoth that somehow continues to live on today.
Due to still finding its footing with the expansion from shorts to full-length episodes, the first season drastically differed from those that would follow. In particular, the animation process was too slow to allow for the overstuffed gags that would become the series’ signature. Nonetheless, it wasn’t without a few bangers that hinted at the greatness that was to come.
Here then, are all 13 episodes of the first season of The Simpsons ranked…
Episode 4: ‘There’s No Disgrace Like Home’
Plot: When Marge, Bart and Lisa embarrass Homer at a company picnic, he takes them to a family therapy center run by Dr. Marvin Monroe. After undergoing a disastrous aversion therapy session, Monroe kicks them out of the center, giving them double their money back and a newfound sense of pride.
What Works: The shock-treatment session at the end is a classic that most fans know by heart. There are also lots of gags that involve the entire family instead of just focusing on one character.
What Doesn’t Work: Because it was one of the first episodes produced, the family dynamic is closer to their portrayal in The Tracey Ullman Show: Marge gets drunk, Lisa misbehaves as much as Bart does, and, somehow, Homer is the moral center. Mix that with the early production quality, and we get an episode that doesn’t really hold up.
Episode 7: ‘The Call of the Simpsons’
Plot: Homer buys a subpar RV to take the family camping, but it’s soon destroyed, leaving them stranded in the woods.
What Works: Albert Brooks makes his first appearance on the show as shady RV salesman Cowboy Bob. Lots of memorable gags, including Maggie getting adopted by bears and Homer being mistaken for Bigfoot by a tabloid. Homer and Bart “trapping their dinner” is absolutely hilarious.
What Doesn’t Work: Marge and Lisa have little to do other than ensure the Simpsons escape the wilderness, and most of the jokes are pratfalls. A lot of the wit The Simpsons would later be praised for is sorely missing, while most of Brooks’ best-improvised material ended up not making the final cut.
Episode 10: ‘Homer’s Night Out’
Plot: Bart catches Homer dancing with an exotic dancer at a bachelor party for a company co-worker with his spy camera and shares the photos at school. Copies are made, and one eventually reaches Marge, who kicks Homer out of the house. Homer tries to do right, taking Bart to meet the dancer. He nearly gets caught up in the show (again) but stops to express to the audience (and Bart) to remember to treat the women in their lives with respect. Marge witnesses this and forgives Homer.
What Works: The photo of Homer with Princess Kashmir is another memorable visual from The Simpsons’ first season. And the family dynamic is definitely more in line with what we’re familiar with.
What Doesn’t Work: Lenny has Moe’s voice, and Carl has Lenny’s voice. Either way, the laughs in this one are just too few and far between.
Episode 3: ‘Homer’s Odyssey’
Plot: After Homer is fired at the power plant, he plans to commit suicide. When his family shows up to stop him, he ends up saving their lives by pushing them out of the way of a speeding truck. Finding a new lease on life in public safety, he fills the town with warning signs for potential accidents. Homer then takes on his former employer, but instead of fighting back, Mr. Burns offers him a job as a plant safety inspector (with a raise), which Homer accepts, thus ending his public crusade.
What Works: The Simpsons gets real early on, with Homer attempting to take his life. (Pretty heavy for only the third episode.) Plenty of first appearances unleashed here as well.
What Doesn’t Work: Animation goofs, like a sideshow freak crowd of townspeople and a coloring error resulting in Smithers being Black, distract from an otherwise decent plot, although the script still lacks a requisite amount of humor.
Episode 11: ‘The Crepes of Wrath’
Plot: After Bart executes a school prank on Principal Skinner’s mother, he is enrolled in a foreign exchange program, sending him to France while the Simpsons take in an Albanian student named Adil. Bart ends up working slave labor for two abusive winemakers, while Adil uses Homer’s connection to the power plant to spy for the Albanian government. He’s eventually found out and deported. Bart manages to escape and expose the winemakers, is celebrated in France, and returns home.
What Works: This is veteran writer George Meyer’s first credited script and features some good gags (mostly visual), including Bart traveling through some painting scenes. Also interesting to see Agnes Skinner acting like a sweet old lady in her first appearance, in stark contrast to her later “angry old lady” demeanor.
What Doesn’t Work: Some reviewers have listed this show amongst the best of the first season, but it just doesn’t do it for me. The laughs are limited, and the story is a little over-the-top and odd, especially for a show that was trying to set itself up to be something of a true-to-life (albeit animated) sitcom.
Episode 8: ‘The Telltale Head’
Plot: While trying to earn the respect of the toughest kids in school (Jimbo, Dolph and Kearney), Bart takes their bet and secretly cuts off the head of the statue of the town’s founder, Jebediah Springfield. This backfires as it results in a Springfield-wide uproar. Bart confesses to his family, but Homer and Bart are almost run out of town by an angry mob when they’re caught trying to put the head back on. After Bart pleads for their forgiveness, the crowd relents.
What Doesn’t Work: Again, the dearth of jokes rears its ugly head. The Simpsons find themselves getting into funny enough situations, but again, there is a lack of packing in as many gags as possible into each episode. As such, many of the first season episodes move at a slower pace, including this one.
Episode 5: ‘Bart the General’
Plot: Bart deals with a school bully as Nelson Muntz makes his first appearance. With help from Grampa Simpson and kooky army surplus store owner Herman (also in his first appearance), he enlists his friends and other kids in his class to exact revenge on Nelson and his goons.
What Works: This is legendary writer John Swartzwelder’s first credited script on The Simpsons, and his trademark knowledge of American war is present throughout. Lots of great references to war movies as well and, with veteran director David Silverman at the helm, an excellent dream sequence and a satisfying finale and final speech, too.
What Doesn’t Work: It might be the point, but Grampa’s pontifications get old by the end of the episode. The whole episode feels a bit stretched out and lacking in laughs.
Episode 13: ‘Some Enchanted Evening’
Plot: Marge doesn’t feel appreciated, but Homer makes good and brings her some chocolate and flowers and takes her out to dinner and dancing. They hire a babysitter who turns out to be a wanted burglar, but the kids manage to outsmart her and tie her up for the police. Homer, however, lets her go.
What Works: Penny Marshall’s performance as Ms. Botz is perfect, and the episode contains the only performance on The Simpsons by veteran voice artist June Foray. It also features an interesting brief moment of fluid animation by Dan Haskett that doesn’t happen in any other episode in history. Overall, the episode is a great balance of humor and suspense.
What Doesn’t Work: This was the first episode that came back from Korea with terrible animation, causing a nearly total rework and a four-month delay in the show’s premiere, so it’s pretty remarkable there’s not much that doesn’t work in the final cut.
Episode 6: ‘Moaning Lisa’
Plot: Lisa wakes up sad and has a terrible day at school. She hears blues music from her window at home and follows it, leading to jazz musician Bleeding Gums Murphy playing the saxophone. He teaches her how to express herself by playing the blues. Marge finds her, takes her back home and encourages her to put on a smile at school the next day. However, after seeing Lisa getting taken advantage of, Marge changes her mind and tells her, “Always be yourself. If you want to be sad, honey, be sad. We’ll ride it out with you.”
What Works: When I was younger, I found this episode unbearable, cheesy and boring, but it’s grown on me. Lisa deals with depression, and Marge — initially advising her to keep a stiff upper lip — gives her great life advice in the end. Ron Taylor’s performance as Bleeding Gums is also a standout, and the B-plot with Bart and Homer competing at video boxing provides a great time capsule from 1990.
What Doesn’t Work: Although it’s slow in parts, not much doesn’t work. And it has more than enough heart to cover up for any shortcomings.
Episode 2: ‘Bart the Genius’
Plot: After Bart cheats on his intelligence test by switching his paper with Martin, he is labeled a “genius” by the school psychologist and moves to a gifted school. But not surprisingly, he doesn’t fit in with the other students there. After a lab explosion, he confesses to the psychologist that he cheated, and he is sent back to Springfield Elementary.
What Works: (Now) veteran Simpsons director David Silverman does a great job, with Bart’s visualization being a particularly great moment in animation. Lots of classic moments, including Bart winning Scrabble with “kwyjibo”; this was the first of many episodes in Season One that took advantage of “Bartmania.”
What Doesn’t Work: Not much that doesn’t work here either. Plenty of good small gags in addition to a nice balance of humor and story.
Episode 12: ‘Krusty Gets Busted’
Plot: While Homer is at the Kwik-E-Mart, television personality Krusty the Clown appears to commit a robbery. The police arrest Krusty after Homer identifies him in a police lineup, and the town vilifies him once he’s found guilty at trial. In the meantime, Krusty’s sidekick, Sideshow Bob, takes over his show, retooling it as an educational program. Bart is unconvinced of Krusty’s guilt and sets out to solve the case himself, eventually realizing the robber was actually Sideshow Bob in disguise. Bart exposes him on live TV, and the police arrest him and release Krusty.
What Works: One of the funniest episodes of Season One, the episode features possibly the best animation and vocal performance from Dan Castellaneta, mainly in Krusty’s on-air heart attack. This was Kelsey Grammer’s first performance as Sideshow Bob, and he nails it from the jump.
What Doesn’t Work: Although Bart and Lisa are integral to the plot, it was the first episode not to focus entirely on the Simpson family. That said, it still works very well. The pacing, writing and direction are in outstanding balance.
Episode 9: ‘Life on the Fast Lane’
Plot: When Homer gives Marge a bowling ball with his name on it for her birthday, she surprises Homer by deciding to actually go bowling. At the alley, a romantic French bowling instructor named Jacques takes her under his wing and teaches her a few tricks. Homer discovers a bowling glove Jacques gave to her and realizes Marge may be cheating on him. Meanwhile, Jacques tries to get her to come to his apartment for an affair, and she almost does. But instead, she shows up at the power plant and surprises Homer, ending her contact with Jacques.
What Works: Albert Brooks as Jacques is among the best Season One guest star appearances. Even better, unlike with his turn as Cowboy Bob, many of Brooks’ improvisations made it into the episode. This was Marge’s first main plotline in the show, and Julie Kavner’s chemistry with Brooks is *chef’s kiss*.
What Doesn’t Work: My only complaint is the slower first act, but it really takes off once Marge hits the lanes and Jacques shows up.
Episode 1: ‘Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire’
Plot: Marge spends the family savings (“the big jar”) getting a tattoo removed from Bart’s arm. Meanwhile, Homer doesn’t get his Christmas bonus from work, and realizing they don’t have any money for presents, he secretly works as a mall Santa. When he gets a measly $13 for his work, he confesses to Bart (who discovers his secret job) that he didn’t get his bonus. The two go hunting for cheap gifts but take a chance with the rest of the money at the dog track. Their dog loses (of course), but his owner gets rid of him, and Homer and Bart take him in, providing the family with the greatest gift they could’ve received — a slow dog named Santa’s Little Helper.
What Works: It’s the first episode of The Simpsons, and having this holiday special as a full-fledged introduction to the family works so well that it remains my favorite from the first season.
What Doesn’t Work: Nothing, it’s perfect. A great story, fantastic one-liners and a heartwarming ending. What more do you need, you little vultures?