The Simpsons Thanksgiving marathon: the 25 best episodes to gorge on

To mark FXXs 600-show marathon this holiday weekend heres our must-see episodes guide, from Homers brush with God to a vision quest with Johnny Cash

The Simpsons is television, critic Matt Zoller Seitz observed, and hes right. In many ways, its a more accurate portrait of the fluid, heterogeneous United States than any novel, film or play could hope to be. At more than 600 episodes and 28 seasons its scope has been huge and over two weeks, cable network FXX will air every episode of the show back-to-back-to-back, ending on 7 December. Weve picked the 25 best episodes of its lengthy run for your consideration.

The concentration of incredible writing talent in the shows golden years means that a lot of these are from the same few seasons in the 1990s, but they remain remarkably timely, quotable, and uncomfortably accurate in their portrayal of the huge swath of America that gets lost in the cracks in so much coastal culture.

1. Homer the Heretic

Season four, episode three, written by George Meyer

God visits Homer in a dream to tell him its cool with him if Homer stays home from church to watch football. Photograph: Fox

Homer skips church, giving him the time to make his patented space-age moon waffles (ingredients: caramels, waffle batter, liquid smoke), win a call-in radio contest , watch the Three Stooges, and all while his family is freezing in church listening to Rev Lovejoy read a passage from The Lamentations of Jeremiah, long version.

Homers brief atheism ends after a brush with death and a rescue led by Ned Flanders, among others. Its one of few full scripts by George Meyer, lead rewrite guy for the shows classic years and its arguably its best: funny, adroit, with a core of surprising seriousness about religion. And a cameo by God himself, who, by the way, has five fingers to the rest of Simpsonworlds four.

2. Marge vs the Monorail

Season 4, episode 12, written by Conan OBrien

Lyle Lanley and Lisa. Photograph: Fox

As with everything Simpsonian, Marge vs The Monorail is a heartfelt character study this time of Marge, whose stick-in-the-mudness saves the town from a huckster Lyle Lanley (played, as are all the shows hucksters during its glory days, by Phil Hartman), who sells the town a bunch of empty promises about new jobs and great infrastructure projects and delivers a dangerously unstable monorail system. Lanley is one of the shows great one-off characters, a charmer who knows how to pander to Lisas vanity, Homers laziness and, unsuccessfully, Marges community spirit.

The script by Conan OBrien is filled with great gags, notably Homers early-episode noodling to the tune of the theme from The Flintstones: Simpson Homer Simpson! Hes the greatest guy in his-to-ry. From the town of Springfield, hes about to hit a chestnut tree. AAAAH!

3. Much Apu About Nothing

Season 7, episode 23, written by David S Cohen

Who needs the infinite compassion of Ganesha when Ive got Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman staring at me from Entertainment Weekly with their dead eyes? Photograph: Fox

Hank Azarias portrayal of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon has drawn criticism as the series has outlived the conventions that gave birth to it, but if the accusations of lazy racial humor ever go to trial, Exhibit A for the defense will be Much Apu About Nothing. The episode is a heartfelt ode to the American immigrant thats peerless. After a bear menaces well, wanders around Evergreen Terrace, corrupt Mayor Quimby raises taxes to pay for an unnecessary bear patrol, and then decides to blame immigrants for the tax hike and holds a referendum on whether or not they ought to be deported.

The referendum passes and Apu, who is in the country illegally, has to scramble for his citizenship. Homer, having repented of his vote to deport his buddy, gives him disastrously bad advice on how to pass his citizenship test.

Taken one way, its a harsh poke at people who reflexively blame their woes on immigrants and refuse to learn their own history. Taken another, its pure Americana. Or both.

4. Homers Enemy

Season 8, episode 23, written by John Swartzwelder

I cant stress enough how much Frank Grimes likes to be called Grimy. Photograph: Fox

Homers surprisingly various life is the subject of more than a few throwaway gags throughout the series at one point Marge lists all his various careers, at another, all the times hes been arrested but one character is utterly vexed by his good fortune, namely Frank Grimes, or Grimy, as he likes to be called.

Grimes, played by Frank Azaria, has had to fight for everything hes ever had. Homers ability to coast through life, therefore, seems like a personal insult. Things just get better from there, for Homer at least.

The episode is written by John Swartzwelder, one of the shows longest-running writers and such a recluse that one theory holds that he doesnt exist at all. A fellow Simpsons writer, Dan Greaney, disagreed in a 2001 New York Times feature on the show by critic A O Scott: Write this down, Greaney demanded: John Swartzwelder is the best writer in the world today in any medium.

Principal Skinner: This dessert is exquisite. What do you call it?
Mrs Krabappel: Applesauce. Photograph: Fox

5. Grade School Confidential

Season 8, episode 19, written by Rachel Pulido

When exactly the writers give themselves permission to more or less totally abandon the family of the title is a matter for much scholarly debate, but arguably the two richest non-Simpsons characters during the series most fertile period are Edna Krabappel and Seymour Skinner.

The hard-bitten teacher and the naive principal are a perfect match for each other, comically and romantically, and as their relationship blossoms before a horrified Bart, the show finds odd pathos among two embittered public servants who suddenly realize amid their self-pity that they actually have each other.

6. You Only Move Twice

Season 8, episode 2, written by John Swartzwelder

Homer gets a new job in a town far away from the madness of Springfield, working for an innovative company in a planned community where Lisa is stimulated, Bart is included at school, and Marge is pampered. It turns out none of the family wants any of those things, or at least not enough to want to lose the ability to complain about not having them. Its a lovely journey of self-discovery, punctuated by hints then clear warnings then explicit demonstrations of something Homer probably should have picked up on: Homers new boss, Hank Scorpio (an excellent Albert Brooks), is a mad scientist bent on world domination.

7. Lisa the Vegetarian

Season 7, episode 5, written by David S Cohen

Lisa is devastated when she visits the petting zoo and realizes that the food on her plate and the animal in the zoo are one and the same. Homer couldnt care less about where his meals come from but he loves his daughter, even when she goes much too far and ruins his barbecue. It sounds serious, but it also has some of the shows best gags, notably a Meat Council propaganda film the students watch to dispel wild rumors vegetarians might be spreading.

8. In Marge We Trust

Season 8, episode 22, written by Donick Cary

As the series goes on, The Simpsons develops something its writers call plot drift, in which its various plots and subplots become increasingly disconnected from each other and themselves. There may be no purer expression of plot drift than In Marge We Trust, in which Marge accidentally usurps the blase Rev Lovejoys pastoral role in the Springfield church community, and Homer seeks the answer to one of lifes great mysteries: why is his head pictured on a box of Japanese soap?

9. Lisa the Iconoclast

Season 7, episode 16, written by Jonathan Collier

Lisa discovers that the towns founder, Jebediah Springfield, was in fact a bloodthirsty pirate named Hans Sprungfeld, and she sets about showing the townspeople the error of their ways. There are a lot of good Homer-and-Lisa episodes in the Simpsons canon, but this one is particularly cromulent: the father-daughter team, so often at odds, finds itself united against the world, Homer because he loves his daughter and theres lots of stuff he doesnt understand, Lisa because she loves her dad and thinks shes knows better than everyone.

10. Bart Gets an F

Season 2, episode 1, written by David M Stern

Theres a lot of unexpectedly gut-wrenching stuff with Bart in The Simpsons, and in this, the earliest episode on the list, perhaps the saddest moment is his breakdown in front of his teacher Mrs Krabappel. I tried this time! I really tried! he sobs, having failed her class by a single point. This is as good as I could do but I still failed! The episode has a great turn from Marcia Wallace as Edna Krabappel, too, as the embittered but not-quite-heartless teacher most of us had somewhere along the way.

11. A Milhouse Divided

Season 8, episode 6, written by Steve Tompkins

One of the funniest half-hours of The Simpsons is also one of the bleakest: Kirk and Luann Van Houten, Milhouses parents, call it quits after years of marriage. The consequences are predictable: Kirk loses his job at the cracker factory, Luann starts dating an American Gladiator, and Milhouse begins to lash out.

Unusually for the time, the show doesnt end with the Van Houtens getting back together Kirk does his best to win his wife back, but shes sick of him. Instead, its the Simpsons themselves, shaken by the dissolution of a marriage so close to them, who find closure.

12. Homer the Great

Season 6, episode 12, written by John Swartzwelder

It turns out Lenny and Carl are in a secret club very much like the Freemasons, from which they get special perks. Homer wants in, of course and when he joins, he discovers that the club, called the Stonecutters, are basically the Illuminati, with a catchy theme song into the bargain: Who controls the British Crown? Who keeps the metric system down? We do! We do!

13. I Love Lisa

Season 4, episode 15, written by Al Jean and Mike Reiss

Lisa discovers something we all discover sooner or later: sometimes someone loves you and you dont love them back. In this case its the dim but wonderful Ralph Wiggum, to whom no one but Lisa is kind enough to give a card on Valentines Day. Lisa eventually has to shut Ralph down, and the moment is captured on video: Watch this, Lise, Bart says while watching the replay. You can actually pinpoint the second when his heart rips in half.

14. Deep Space Homer

Season 5, episode 15, written by David Mirkin

Nasa discovers a problem: its astronauts arent relatable enough. Homer picks the right moment to call the administration to complain about its boring space launches, and hes been feeling down anyway he was due to win Employee of the Month, which his union contract guarantees him at least once regardless of incompetence, gross obesity or rank odor, but the plant gave the prize away to an inanimate carbon rod. Homer makes it into space, where he nearly wrecks everything, but dont worry the rod saves the day.

15. El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Homer

Season 8, episode 9, written by Ken Keeler

Homers quest to be the toughest guy at the chilli-eating contest leads him to consume Guatemalan insanity peppers. The peppers send him on a vision quest to learn who his soul mate is. Is it Marge, or someone else? The psychedelic sequence, with surprisingly non-invasive guest star Johnny Cash as Homers familiar, gives the show some of its most beautiful animation to date. And the reconciliation between Homer and Marge at the end is genuinely moving.

16. Flaming Moes

Season 3, episode 10, written by Robert Cohen

Homer gives Moe a drink recipe that makes Moes bar the hottest spot in town and Moe takes all the credit. There are amazing moments throughout this one, notably the Cheers-esque title sequence mid-episode, but the standout has to be Bart calling Moes and asking Moe to ask around for a Hugh Jass who answers the phone.

Hugh: Hello, this is Hugh Jass.

Bart: Uh, hi.

Hugh: Whos this?

Bart: Bart Simpson.

Hugh: What can I do for you, Bart?

Bart: Uh, look. Ill level with you, mister. This is a crank call that sorta backfired, and Id like to bail out right now.

Hugh: All right, better luck next time. (He hangs up) What a nice young man.

17. Sideshow Bob Roberts

Season 6, episode 5, written by Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein

Sideshow Bob calls Birch Barlow, a character legally distinct from Rush Limbaugh, to complain about his treatment in prison and ends up running for mayor against six-term winner Diamond Joe Quimby, a notoriously corrupt politician pilloried by Barlow as an illiterate, tax-cheating, wife-swapping, pot-smoking spendocrat. Americans, as anyone whos been watching the news knows, remain terminally curious about the devil they dont know.

18. Mr Plow

Season 4, episode 9, written by Jon Vitti

Homer and Barney start competing snowplow services, Homer after hes tricked into buying a plow with the insurance money he collected after totaling his car, Barney after asking Homer how he became a success. Barneys service trumps Homers, not least because Linda Ronstadt agrees to star in an ad for the service. (Weve been looking for a project to do together for a while, Barney explains.) Homer and Barney eventually reconcile, proclaiming that not even God can stop them now.

19. Mother Simpson

Season 7, episode 8, written by Richard Appel

Homers mom Mona (Glenn Close), whom his dad always told him had died, mysteriously shows up again, and under circumstances that cause Bart and Lisa to suspect that she might be a con artist. The truth is more complicated, as is Monas relationship with Grampa Abe Simpsons. The family has to unite to save Mona from the same forces that have kept her away for so long; its a funny episode, but it may have the saddest ending of any single show in the series.

20. Bart the Fink

Season 7, episode 15, teleplay by John Swartzwelder and story by Bob Kushell

Bart writes a check to his hero, Krusty the Clown, in the hopes of getting the signature off the back, only to discover Krusty has signed with a stamp for his Cayman Islands holding corporation. Upset, he goes to the bank to complain and sees Krusty hunted down for tax fraud, whereupon the embattled entertainer fakes his own death.

The episodes combination of bizarre hijinks, celebrity parody and scattershot humor is perfectly Simpsonian, from the Lionel Barrymore-style banker who cant discuss that clients secret, illegal accounts to Handsome Pete, the bizarre little man who dances for nickels at Sea Captain Horatio McCallisters shanty.

21. Homer vs the 18th Amendment

Season 8, episode 18, written by John Swartzwelder

Ah, Prohibition. When Springfield outlaws alcohol after the spectacle of a drunken Bart shocks the populace at a St Patricks Day parade, Homer decides to take matters into his own hands and start a distillery and a distribution network. It is, even Marge admits, the most inventive Homer has ever been, and his operation outside the law gives him the jump on the actual Duff brewery, who decide to try non-alcoholic beer.

22. Treehouse of Horror VII

Season 8, episode 1, written by Ken Keeler, Dan Greaney and David S Cohen

Its hard to pick one Treehouse of Horror, but this year, one stands out: season 8s electoral extravaganza, or as TV news anchor Kent Brockman calls it, Campaign 96: America Flips a Coin.

The episode is probably best remembered for its memetic best line Dont blame me, I voted for Kodos, a riff on the voted for Bush bumper stickers that a bitter half of America plastered to their cars. But theres other good stuff here, too, like Barts less-evil-than-advertised twin, and Lisas accidental creation of a tiny world, which she visits in shrunken form.

23. 22 Short Films About Springfield

Season 7, episode 21, written by Appel, David S. Cohen, Collier, Jennifer Crittenden, Greg Daniels, Brent Forrester, Greaney, Rachel Pulido, Steve Tompkins, Weinstein, Oakley, and Groening

Its another episode that starts off as a parody and goes somewhere wholly original: mimicking the checkerboard structure of mid-1990s arthouse hits like Pulp Fiction, Short Cuts and of course 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. The episode features 22 one-minute stories by 11 writers, notably a Spanish-language-only look into Bumblebee Mans home life, and an exchange between Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers about whether or not Skinners house is on fire. (It is.)

24. Trash of the Titans

Season 9, episode 22, written by Ian Maxtone-Graham

Steve Martin guest-stars as Ray Patterson, the sanitation commissioner Homer decides to oust using good old-fashioned dirty tricks politicking and insults. Homers reasons for doing literally everything in this episode are terrible he insults the towns garbage collectors for no reason, runs against Patterson entirely because he doesnt want to apologize, and when he wins, doubles down on all his crazy promises so he wont have to back off on them, either.

25. Clown in the Dumps

Season 26, episode 1, written by Joel H Cohen

A touching 2014 episode with the shows trademark wry take on a serious subject, in this case, the death of an elderly parent. Like most men, Krusty worries hes disappointed his father; like most people, he takes a while to comes to terms with it and with ageing. Its also worth including for the unbelievably beautiful two-minute long couch gag intro sequence by legendary arthouse animator Don Hertzfeldt, who shares with us visions of The Sampsans in its [you know what, you do the math] season in the year 10,535.

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