[This list is being crossposted on the terrific Simpsons-centric blog Dead Homer Society. Go check them out!]
“Don’t cry for me; I’m already dead.” – Barney
Back in June, I composed a list of “10 Scary Simpsons Moments.” This is a companion piece of sorts, demonstrating the show’s emotional breadth with ten of the sweetest, tenderest, and most touching moments of the show’s run. Although renowned for its cynicism and satire, The Simpsons always had powerful, James L. Brooks-influenced emotion at its core. It was never just about hollow laughs; instead, each episode was invested in relationships, families, and the oft-painful quirks of human behavior.
But it also never took the typical sitcom shortcut of cheap schmaltz: its emotional arcs were steeped in character development and real-life resonances. The Simpsons, at its best, was about well-rounded human beings with foibles, feelings, and heartbreaks. Here are ten tear-jerking, heartstring-tugging examples…
10) “Dog of Death”
This episode has a twofer: its first act confronts the agonizing facts of pet mortality (and middle-class penny-pinching), while the rest is devoted to Bart searching for the lost, brainwashed Santa’s Little Helper. It climaxes with a montage celebrating pet/child rapports and the merciful restoration of the status quo, reaffirming the lesson of Old Yeller and all those Lassie movies: few emotional forces are more potent than the relationship between a boy and his dog.
9) “Lisa on Ice”
Bart and Lisa’s sibling rivalry was a staple of the show’s B-plots, but no other episode exploited their love/hate relationship as skillfully as “Lisa on Ice.” Most of the episode teeters toward the “hate” end of that dynamic, but as with “Dog of Death,” all that conflict leads to a hug-it-out climax and an adorable montage of Bart and Lisa’s shared childhood. This being The Simpsons, though, their heartfelt reconciliation plays out with a hockey riot raging in the background.
8) “I Married Marge”
The flashback episodes are gold mines of masterfully orchestrated sentiment. “And Maggie Makes Three,” with its “DO IT FOR HER” ending, nearly made this list, as did “The Way We Was” for Homer’s closing monologue. But “I Married Marge” has Homer and Marge’s tragic separation as newlyweds when Homer goes off to become a man, and their reunion in the Gulp ‘n’ Blow drive-thru with the words “Pour vous.” It’s a note-perfect, bittersweet back story for Our Favorite Family.
7) ” ‘Round Springfield”
Poor Lisa, condemned to lose every positive male role model (see #2). The loss of Bleeding Gums Murphy really hurts; he’s such a gently paternal presence, and he’s Lisa’s only mentor as a jazz saxophonist. (Mr. Largo, his passion dulled by years in the public school system, could never come close.) Unlike a certain gimmicky, ratings-grabbing death from Season 11, Murphy’s passing is handled with tact and humor, making it all the more painful.
6) “Bart Sells His Soul”
This episode topped my “scary” list, and the same spiritual fears that feed its horror also make it an emotionally heavy experience. Bart’s prayer at the end is a tour de force for Nancy Cartwright; she cuts right through his “underachiever and proud of it” schtick, revealing the lost little boy underneath. “Bart Sells His Soul” delves into the anxiety and loneliness that constitute dark side of childhood, and the redemption that lies just beyond.
5) “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily”
After a diabolically brilliant first act that degenerates into a nightmare, “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily” tests the Simpson family’s mettle like no episode before or since. But the intensity of their trial by social services fire makes the resolution that much more gratifying (and emotionally overwhelming), and Marge’s climactic line can still bring tears to my eyes: “Oh, Maggie, you’re a Simpson again!”
4) “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish”
When Homer ingests some potentially deadly sushi, he gets put through the existential wringer: as Dr. Hibbert informs him, he only has 22 hours to wrap up his life on earth. His attempts to do so are tragicomic, as he earnestly carries out some tasks while botching others; however, the episode goes all-out emotionally for Homer’s last night. Sitting awake in the living room, he’s no longer a wacky TV dad. He’s just a working stiff, staring into the abyss. Powerful stuff.
3) “Like Father, Like Clown”
You’d think that estranged parents and Jewish culture, thorny topics for any show, would prove impossible for an animated sitcom. But leave it to The Simpsons to entangle the two in its hilarious, heartfelt riff on The Jazz Singer. The ending is utterly moving, as Krusty and his father join in singing “O Mein Papa”—just the kind of big, emotional finale you’d expect from a larger-than-life showbiz figure like Krusty.
2) “Lisa’s Substitute”
“You are Lisa Simpson.” Such a simple sentence, but it rings so true. Coupled with Dustin Hoffman’s understated performance as Mr. Bergstrom, it’s enough to put a lump in my throat every time I watch the phenomenal “Lisa’s Substitute.” A touchstone for brainy kids everywhere, the episode makes the tragic acknowledgment that loss is part of personal growth, but no easier for it. We’ll miss you, Mr. Bergstrom.
1) “Mother Simpson”
The other episodes on this list tell some pretty heartrending stories about loss and reconciliation, but nothing can match the emotional scope, gravity, and finesse of “Mother Simpson.” Homer’s long-lost mother may disappear again, but he learns that she loves him, and that’s enough. The ending, with Homer pensively stargazing, is both a model of restraint and a signal to start crying. It’s a sobering reminder of how powerful silence can be.