Once again, we're tackling another show in TV Blend's weekly series "___'s Best Episode." Each week a different writer will pick out a different episode of a TV show and argue why it is definitively, absolutely the best thing the show ever did. Arguments will be started, tears may be shed, but we're here to start some conversations and make some arguments for really, really good TV. Kelly took on The Office’s best episode last week and this week Eric continues things by looking back at the Fox’s long-running animated comedy series The Simpsons. Read below, argue with us in the comments, and enjoy the new series!
The Simpsons is not the same show today that it was a little over a decade ago. Whether you think the change has been for better or for worse, the change itself is undeniable. While the more modern episodes tend to focus more on jokes and gags and less on story, the first ten seasons of the show were actually an astounding representation of average American family life. Rising above the stereotypes of the medium, The Simpsons was a cartoon not just for kids, but for adults as well. The episodes had something incredible that the current run just doesn’t have: heart. And never is that element more apparent than in the third season premiere “Stark Raving Dad,” the best episode that the show ever produced.
When I refer to “heart” I am specifically talking about the relationship between Lisa and Bart, which is elevated to a height that hasn’t been matched in the 456 episodes since. Concerned about her approaching 8th birthday, Lisa begs her older brother to finally remember and get her a present, something he has never done. While Bart does end up forgetting – distracted by other events in the episode – he ends up making it up to her with one of the show’s most authentic emotional moments, writing and performing the beautiful original song, “Happy Birthday Lisa.”
What prevents the episode from seeming artificial or manipulative is that the writing in the episode earns the earnest moments. While Bart has always been scripted as a crafty little monster, this episode perfectly illustrates his selfishness, from throwing his red hat in with his father’s white shirts to spreading the word that his father’s famous new friend is coming to Springfield. So when Bart sees that he has upset his sister and makes a real effort to make up for it, the audience recognizes how much he cares to makes reparations and responds to it in kind.
As I’ve been carefully alluding to above, this particular episode of The Simpsons also has a powerhouse guest star, an element that has been a major part of the series from the beginning. I am, of course, referring to the late, great Michael Jackson. While the crediting is one of the strangest in the show’s run (the star is credited as John Jay Smith and all of the singing in the episode is credited to impersonator Kipp Lennon), it’s one of the best examples of self-reflexivity, as all of the characters make a big deal out of Jackson’s presence and it turns out that he’s just a bricklayer from Paterson, New Jersey named Leon Kompowski who likes to make people happy. The legendary performer’s appearance on the show isn’t one of the best simply because it was such a huge get, but because the writers used the opportunity perfectly.
While strong emotions might be the hallmark of “Stark Raving Dad,” it would be a sincere mistake to ignore how funny it is. From the opening scene in which Bart acts with surprised relief when he learns that his father is still alive to the first interaction between Homer and his new roommate (“Hi, I'm Michael Jackson, from The Jacksons.” “I'm Homer Simpson, from The Simpsons.”) the entire episode is filled with tiny, hysterical bits. More importantly, though, the jokes come organically from the plot. Everyone’s favorite cartoon dad isn’t taking a Rorschach test and freaking out when he sees Bart’s image because it’s part of a stupid psych evaluation that will play no part in the rest of the episode; it’s because he’s being admitted to The New Bedlam Rest Home for the Emotionally Interesting and blames his misbehaving son. Throw in some great cultural gags for good measure – namely from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest – and you have one of the most well-balanced shows in the series’ run.
When first preparing to write this feature, I did a search for “Happy Birthday Lisa” on YouTube and discovered something fascinating. While still a great, catchy tune, it doesn’t have the same emotional resonance that it does when viewed as part of the whole episode. “Stark Raving Dad” is perfectly constructed, is filled with both deep belly laughs and tears, and is simply the greatest episode of The Simpsons.