Recently, another writer at TechRadar highlighted 'When You Dish Upon a Star' as being one hint of The Simpsons’ decline, and he’ll get no complaints from me. He offers up a handful of other examples from Seasons 9-12, and again, I agree: the episodes in question have gaping flaws. Personally, I’d even argue the rot goes back even further, to Season 8’s 'My Sister, My Sitter'.
That said, I’d also argue that the golden age seasons of The Simpsons are the greatest seasons of any television show anywhere, and that it’s unfair to hold any show – even later seasons of The Simpsons – to those high standards.
No, later Simpsons seasons aren’t necessarily great, and yes, you can easily pick out a handful – even handfuls – which are downright bad. But there are so far around 226 full 'golden age' episodes (encompassing seasons 1-10), and 457 post-golden era episodes. That’s a huge chunk to ignore because of otherwise inconsistent later seasons, and some individual episodes are good enough that they meet the average quality of the golden age episodes.
Out of morbid curiosity, if nothing else, it's worth venturing past the shuddering descent of seasons 11-14 to see what else waits for you on Disney Plus. Here are just ten of the wonderful episodes the later Simpsons seasons have to offer.
Behind the Laughter (season 12, episode 22)
It feels like cheating the spirit of the list to load up on seasons immediately after the golden age, so after this we'll go deeper into the later seasons. 'Behind The Laughter' however, a fourth wall-breaking documentary episode, is experimental and offers something genuinely new.
It details the rise and fall of the family in a VH1-style pop documentary format, with the premise that the family are all simply actors in Homer’s scripted reality show. Lisa was fed anti-ageing medication, Homer became addicted to pain pills, Bart grew into a Hollywood wild child... The golden age was phenomenal, but it rarely took risks like this.
Trilogy of Error (season 12, episode 18)
Another episode on the periphery of the golden age, here, before we take a leap to the much later years, 'Trilogy of Error' took a step outside the usual comfort zone, just as Behind The Laughter did. It tells us Homer’s story, then Lisa’s and then Bart’s, all of which intertwine throughout the episode. The inspiration appears to be the Tom Tykwer movie Run Lola Run.
Rather than a standard chronological A and B plot, we see each plot unfold in turn, and it’s not until the end that we see the whole picture. It’s clever storytelling peppered with jokes, and the best episode of season 12.
24 Minutes (season 18, episode 21)
Leaping forward now to Season 18, 24 Minutes is a 24-style parody which even features a cameo from Kiefer Sutherland himself. Bart is the Jack Bauer of this one, with Lisa his tech wiz assistant and Skinner running the CTU (Counter Truancy Unit).
The bullies have a stink bomb and are planning to ruin the school bake sale. Can Bauer Bart track them down and stop them in time? Is there a traitor in their midst? This one does a wonderful job of playing with the conventions of 24, while keeping the humor and detailed characterization of The Simpsons.
Eternal Moonshine of The Simpson Mind (season 19, episode 9)
This episode parodies parts of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, The Game and Memento to provide one of the trippiest episodes in The Simpsons canon. Homer awakes one morning to find the house empty, with no recollection of what has occurred.
After retracing his steps to Moe’s, redrinking one of Moe’s Forget Me Shots helps him enter his memories. With only brief elements of the previous night becoming clear, Homer tries to piece everything together before it’s too late.
Eeny Teeny Maya Moe (season 20, episode 16)
Moe episodes become fairly frequent from season 15 or so onward, and 'Eeny Teeny Maya Moe' is the pick of the bunch. It features a romance for Moe, after he meets Maya online. She’s a little person, and their relationship is built up naturally with zero tasteless jokes, although Moe is reluctant for his friends to meet Maya, fearing they’ll mock her.
It fleshes out Moe’s character well and with real heart, as he wonders “how a little woman could make him feel so big.” Unfortunately, it lets itself down with an ending that favors the status quo over character development, a persistent issue with The Simpsons' approach to storytelling. Aside from that, this one has an almost vintage veneer to it.
The Squirt & The Whale (season 21, episode 19)
Some post-season 10 episodes age Lisa’s maturity up past plausibility, or make her the villain unnecessarily, or both. 'The Squirt & The Whale', though, ranks as one of the series' best Lisa episodes for tapping into the greatest elements of the character.
It sees her sensitive and optimistic side on full display, as she desperately tries to save a beached whale in Springfield. Naming the whale Bluella, Lisa stays by its side all day and all night, keeping it safe and secure while the town rallies around to come to the poor whale’s aid.
Holidays of Future Passed (season 23, episode 9)
This episode is technically non-canon, though that doesn’t stop it from being great. As a follow-up to season 16's 'Future Drama', it has Bart, Lisa and Maggie as adults all home for Christmas.
The episode mostly revolves around the theme of parenthood. Maggie is pregnant with her first child, while Bart struggles to connect with his 10 year-old sons and Lisa feels pushed out by her teenage daughter. With Bart learning from Homer and Lisa from Marge, the whole family becomes closer over the holidays.
As with any future-set episode rife with pop culture references, some of the prediction jokes don’t particularly land, but aside from that it’s a timeless tale of love and togetherness at Christmas.
Even if season 6's 'Lisa's Wedding' remains the champion of future-set Simpsons episodes...
Brick Like Me (season 25, episode 20)
That’s right: The Simpsons did a Lego episode. You might not need anything else to sell you on watching this one on Disney Plus, but 'Brick Like Me' has a lot more to offer than a cheap gimmick. Like golden age highlights 'Lisa The Iconoclast', 'Lisa The Greek' and season 12 gem 'HOMR', it speaks to the deep bond between a father and his daughter.
It’s built around Homer and Lisa’s relationship, and packs in tons of Lego references and great gags alongside a very sweet story. There are similarities to The Lego Movie, which the episode even winks at – but there’s more than enough originality here to make this an all-time great.
Halloween of Horror (season 27, episode 4)
Treehouse of Horror episodes remain tentpole episodes of any Simpsons season, even if these days they frequently fall back on lazy movie parodies. In season 27 however, while the producers kept a Treehouse episode, they also added 'Halloween of Horror', and stepped outside their comfort zone to deliver a fantastic, frightful feast.
It revolves around Lisa getting freaked out at a haunted theme park, forcing her and Homer to stay home on Halloween. When 742 Evergreen Terrace is hit by home invaders, though, the scares become real.
If this hits the spot for you, check out 'Thanksgiving of Horror' when Season 31 comes to Disney Plus as well, which will probably happen by late summer.
Barthood (season 27, episode 9)
'Barthood' is a truly phenomenal episode of The Simpsons, tied for the 61st best episode ever on IMDb with classics Marge Be Not Proud and I Love Lisa. That’s before you even consider that modern episodes are typically graded more harshly.
A loose Boyhood parody, the episode details Bart’s life from early childhood to his early twenties, taking a fresh, more serious look at his relationship with Homer. It also rebuilds Bart’s connection with his grandfather into something touching and heartbreaking. There are a few laughs here, sure, but you need to watch this one for how emotive it is. A true must-watch for any Simpsons fan.