There are adults alive today who have only lived in a world when The Simpsons has been bad. To be clear, peak Simpsons is probably the greatest TV show ever created - and is unparalleled in terms of quality and consistency.
But ever since the “real” Seymour Skinner was sent packing on a train, and the Springfield townsfolk agreed to never mention Armin Tamzarian again, the quality of the show has been in decline. That was in 1997. Literally 20 years ago.
Today - amazingly - The Simpsons continues as what fans have dubbed “Zombie Simpsons”. The characters are the same, the show looks the same but… something is wrong. Sure, there are occasional glimpses of what made the show great - but most of the time it is just further trashing its own legacy.
If you want proof that Zombie Simpsons is a very real phenomenon, you only need to look at the IMDB scores. The above chart is a plot showing what happens if you take every episode of The Simpsons’ average user score, and plot the episodes out ordered by score - with the lowest first. Then if you split the list into percentiles representing 10% of the 618 episodes each, we can use the stacked bar chart to see the proportion of pre- and post- season 9 episodes in each percentile.
And as you can see - all of the lower scoring groups are overwhelmingly full of Zombie Simpsons episodes - with all of the pre-Season 9 episodes clustered at the top of the distribution, representing the best episodes.
And this made us wonder: what actually are the best and worst episodes of The Simpsons? And do fans agree? So to find out, we took all of the user scores for each individual episode from IMDB, and aggregated them together to make a big list. We then used a technique borrowed from our analysis of the most controversial films to discover something we don’t think anyone has done before: find out which are the most controversial episodes amongst fans.
And of course, because of the strange phenomenon of Zombie Simpsons, we’ve split things in two - so we’ll be comparing Seasons 1-9, and then all episodes over all, to cover all bases.
Best Episodes (S1-9)
A surprise winner as the fan-voted best episode perhaps: Who Shot Mr Burns? Part One is great, we’re not going to argue with that - but best? What’s clear from the rest of the Top 10 is that it is pretty obvious why the writers of the series quickly realised that it is Homer and not Bart who is the real main character - given that Homer dominates the list.
What’s also interesting is that it turns out the general public are damn wrong about something: Last Exit To Springfield is nowhere to be seen - and it is regarded by critics as possibly the best episode ever. Even rewatching now, 30 years on, the density of jokes wrapped around a compelling story is phenomenal.
It’s also interesting to see the ranking of 22 Short Films About Springfield, which does away with the usual episode format and focuses on some lesser-known characters. And crucially, it includes the now shitpost-tastic Steamed Hams.
Best Episodes (All)
Now here’s the episodes that IMDB users think are the best over all 28 seasons we’ve included in this. Oh wait - it's identical to the one above, because no later episodes have managed to break into the top rated episodes.
In fact, the highest ranked post-Season 9 episode is in 29th place - Trilogy of Error. That’s the one where we see the story unfold from three different perspectives, culminating in Bart and Milhouse getting wrapped up in a firework-smuggling operation with the Mafia.
In 32nd place is the next post-season 9 episode - Barthood, from season 27. This is actually a rather recent episode - first airing in December 2015, and parodying the film Boyhood. At the time, it was praised for recapturing some of the lost magic - so perhaps this explains the sympathetic scoring.
Worst Episodes (S1-9)
So what do fans think are the worst? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the top two entries are both clip shows - the first showing songs from the previous nine seasons, and the second, which was self-aware enough to explain during the show itself just how lame clipshows are.
Third is The Principal and the Pauper, the one described above when the writers decided to throw all established continuity out of the window and retcon Skinner’s backstory, much to his and the show’s detriment.
As for the other episodes listed - well, apart from the Spin-Off Showcase - these are relatively early in the show. Perhaps the fan consensus is that it hadn’t quite found its groove yet?
Worst Episodes (All)
So what about the worst episodes overall? With the exception of the worst ranked clipshow above, these are all episodes deep into Zombie Simpsons territory. Worst ranked is Lisa Goes Gaga, which is an episode essentially built around a guest appearance from Lady Gaga, rather than any coherent story. The Great Phatsby is a parody of The Great Gatsby, but with a hip-hop twist, and also features a bunch of guest stars. The Musk Who Fell To Earth is essentially a 22 minute advert for guest star Elon Musk. Spotted a pattern yet?
The second oldest episode on the list is Gump Roast, another clip show that annoyingly appears to introduce Kang and Kodos into non-Halloween Simpsons canon. If you’re outraged just remembering this, then complaining is probably pretty futile: the episode first aired in 2002 and there are kids today who can drive who weren’t born when the episode was made.
Most Controversial Episodes (S1-9)
So we know the best and the worst - but which episodes are the subject of the fiercest debate between fans? To find out, knowing how the votes fell on each episode we were able to calculate the standard deviation (SD) for each episode’s score. This is a measure of spread - so a higher SD means more disagreement, and a lower SD means that scores are closer in agreement.
So here’s the most controversial episodes limited to seasons 1-9:
This is an incredibly interesting list: It contains many of what are thought of as the worst episodes, such as the All Singing, All Dancing clip-show - but also a number of what I had assumed were stone cold classics. The Principal and the Pauper we can understand - but You Only Move Twice - the Hank Scorpio one?! And the Sherry Bobbins one?! And what do viewers have against Frank Grimes?
Notably too, most of the episodes in this most controversial top 10 are from the later (good) years: Seasons 8 and 9. Could this be a sign that the critical fortunes of the show were about to turn? The episodes listed here, apart from the clip-shows, are definitely more surreal, parodic or out-there than more traditional Simpsons. Could it be that fans don’t want Bond parodies, or the family travelling the world - and simply want normal family stories?
Most Controversial Episodes (All)
And finally here’s the most controversial episodes including Zombie Simpsons too. Lisa Goes Gaga still sits in pole position, and The Great Phatsby’s two parts are also there. But the other choices are interesting and it is easy to see why they could be controversial.
That 90’s Show was an attempt to retcon the show’s timeline, in order to make everything consistent with the characters’ ages, despite the show having been on for literally a generation. So we saw Marge's previously unmentioned college years, in which she inadvertently invents grunge. Homer Simpson, This Is Your Wife is an episode that was supposedly entirely written by Ricky Gervais, who also guest starred, so it is easy to understand why it is polarising.
Moe Goes From Rags To Riches apparently includes the voice of Jeremy Irons, playing the rag. Every Man’s Dream takes “Marge and Homer splitting up” to a show-breaking new extreme, and Elementary School Musical appears to be an ill-advised musical parody.
So there we go - now we know what the internet thinks are the best, worst and most controversial episodes of The Simpsons. We’re looking forward to updating this post in 2047 to include another 30 seasons of Zombie Simpsons already.
James O'Malley is Interim Editor of Gizmodo UK and tweets as @Psythor.