Technically every new episode of The Simpsons is a record breaker, in that they break the record the show set the previous week as the longest running show on prime time. It’s easy to dismiss anything post Season 10 or so as being unwatchable dreck, but if you’ve stuck with the show, you’ll know that while the quality has gone up and down over the years, it can still deliver when it wants to.
Season 31 was a pretty decent season by modern standards, and the number one pick here is knocking on the door of Golden Era quality; something that hasn’t happened since Season 27’s Halloween Of Horror. Aside from that, there’s a handful of pretty good eps, a lot of watchable ones and a couple probably not worth repeating. With so much negativity out there right now though, it’s best to focus on the positives, so on with the top five.
5. Warrin’ Priests – Part 1
It’s difficult to judge Warrin’ Priests – Part 1, because it’s only half an episode. It revolves around Bodi, a new priest, arriving in Springfield and refreshing the faith of the town, alienating Lovejoy and Flanders in the process. The episode leaves the Simpsons themselves as side characters, focussing instead on how Bodi rejuvenates the town.
We see Lisa’s faith in, well, faith restored, but aside from that, Bodi gets room to breathe. Unfortunately, Part 2 fizzles, throws too much spotlight onto Lisa and gives a terribly tepid resolution to the titular Warrin’ Priests, with Bodi forced out of town so that everything goes back to normal. Part 2’s failure to put it away hurts Part 1’s ranking, and pulls it down to fifth, when a better ending could have seen it as high as second.
It’s a great example of how good the show can be when they let loose, but the second part is also emblematic of how formulaic the show has become.
4. The Hateful Eight-Year Olds
The star studded penultimate episode features the voices of Joey King, Lilli Reinhart, Camilla Mendes and Madelaine Petsch. It’s an old idea at its heart – Lisa makes a friend, things go wrong, resolution – but has a fresh tone to it. There’s no secret or twist to their relationship, with Addison really liking Lisa but also using her as a buffer against the bullying of the older girls.
Lisa and Addis’s relationship is well balanced, and the bullies, while caricatures, serve as good villains. The show probably spends too long kicking Lisa when she’s down, especially given that this is a rare outing of Lisa actually acting like a little girl. You could definitely argue that Bart coming to rescue her – while himself overcoming a childish fear of horses – redeems the episode’s treatment of Lisa, however.
The b-plot feels a little like filler though, and the ending rushed, but all in all, it’s a great entry in Season 31.
3. The Way Of The Dog
A Carolyn Omine episode usually means The Simpsons is about to deliver. The best writer currently on staff has consistently raised the bar over the recent years, and it’s great to see her being tossed the season finale. By building it around Santa’s Little Helper and managing to tell a compelling story which digs into his origins without relying on nostalgia, Omine proved it was the correct call.
It sees Santa’s Little Helper getting all shades of sad, angry, lonely and confused around his old Santa hat, and as the episode unfolds we learn he connects the hat to his abusive first owner, but also to his mother, whom he was snatched away from as a pup. The dog psychologist bit tries to do too much – her lover adds nothing to the story – but it’s good to see a new character come in without needing to just be a flat plot device or joke. Like Bodi, the psychologist slips into the town and becomes a key part of the story.
The resolution sees the family rescue Santa’s Little Helper’s mother and bring her home, but we’ll have to wait until Season 32 to see if she sticks around. Watching their relationship develop past this point will give The Way Of The Dog more weight and it’s a small change to the family dynamic, so here’s hoping.
2. Todd, Todd, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?
Todd, Todd, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? is quite possibly the archetypal post-Season 24 or so quintessential Simpsons episode. It comes in with a fresh idea, does some pretty interesting things with the concept, but is too concerned with wrapping things up just as they were at the start than they are with taking risks. The Old Blue Mayor and Girl’s In The Band are probably the two strongest examples of this from previous seasons.
The bold idea at the heart of this one is that Todd has lost his faith, struggling to process the loss of his mother. It’s a very human idea, one which challenges Todd’s character but in a very realistic way; it’s the sort of concept the Golden Era repeatedly did with The Simpson kids. The problem is, in the Golden Era they were brave enough storytellers to switch things up. After Lisa The Vegetarian, Lisa remained a vegetarian. Had they took the last five or so minutes off here and wrote a real resolution rather than circling back to the start, this would have been a much stronger episode.
As it stands, they did enough for me to get to the number 2 spot, but I can understand people leaving it off their list entirely too.
1. Thanksgiving Of Horror
There was no other contender for the number 1 spot for Season 31 but Thanksgiving Of Horror. It might be the best episode the show has done since Season 27’s Halloween Of Horror, another riff on the classic Halloween formula. These days, most of the Treehouse segments are less horror stories than they are simple parodies of popular movies, but without the heart and craft of The Shinning.
Thanksgiving Of Horror goes back to the roots of the idea, telling three distinct Thanksgiving stories (past, present and future) with horrific twists. There’s shades of Alien in the third one, and the second is a straight up Black Mirror parody, but it does feel like the gloves are off. There’s none of the forced humour of the new Treehouses, and it seems like everyone in involved had a lot of fun.
That’s clear in the ways the stories push characters just far enough, and manage to tell three brilliant (maybe two brilliant and one pretty good) stories around Thanksgiving but with a horror twist. I don’t want Thanksgiving 2 next season, but I do want them to play with old tropes and make them come to life again.