“Trab Pu Kcip! Trab Pu Kcip!”
“Last Exit to Springfield” is not the greatest episode of The Simpsons in the world, but this is just a tribute… nonetheless.
This episode aired 20 years ago today (March 11, 1993), and many folks who are very much into cataloging the existence of the Saturday Night Live of animated TV (I guess I’m still part of that mix, aren’t I?) have long considered this episode to be one of the best, if not the best, episodes in the show’s almost-quarter-century run.
Given the shortcomings of the show’s recent seasons (too dull, too formulaic, too meta, too reliant on celebrity guest stars or “we’re still relevant!” publicity stunts), “Last Exit to Springfield” is often lionized and deified in the Simpsons fandom as The Perfect Episode. Thing is, though, it’s no island.
It aired in the show’s sweet spot, season 4. While seasons before and after it also produced great memories, virtually every episode in season 4 was a home run, and some of the moments in those episodes are some of the most oft-reminisced among Simpsons fans. “A Streetcar Named Marge” and its wacky re-imagining of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Burns and Smithers holding Tom Jones hostage in “Marge Gets a Job.” Bart, using a VCR, pinpointing the moment Ralph’s heart breaks in half in “I Love Lisa.” Lionel Hutz’ paean to “bourbon, brownest of the brown liquors” in “Marge in Chains.” A flashback episode done perfectly in “Lisa’s First Word.” A clip show— ye gods, a clip show— done well in “So It’s Come to This.” This is the season book-ended by “Kamp Krusty” and “Krusty Gets Kancelled,” two episodes that gave some depth to a character we probably didn’t expect depth from before. And on top of all that, season 4 gave the world “Whacking Day,” “Marge vs. the Monorail” and “Mr. Plow”— episodes so ingrained in the cultural zeitgeist of the Simpsons generation I don’t even need to explain them further. You know them and love them. Probably.
So it somewhat bewilders me that “Last Exit to Springfield” gets cherry-picked as The Perfect Episode, but I get it. It’s everything people want in a Simpsons episode. It has a down-to-earth plot that most people relate to, involving labor issues and unions, as well as a family’s need to keep their finances in check (Lisa needing braces). It has cultural references that are timeless rather than timely, invoking Yellow Submarine, Chuck Jones’ TV adaptation of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Tim Burton’s Batman (“The mirror. THE MIRROR!”), Citizen Kane, “Classical Gas” and Moby-Dick. It has Homer in the role he’s best in: as an unwitting, bumbling (but not too bumbling) hero. It has Mr. Burns as a perfect villain, who puts his power to good (evil) use by cutting Springfield’s power when the union wouldn’t cooperate. It has some of the greatest memorable laugh-out-loud moments, such as Homer acting out on his threat to punch Lenny in the face, or Grampa and his story that goes nowhere about onions on his belt, which was the style at the time. It has Dr. Joyce Brothers, making a cameo appearance out of left field (she brought her own mic). It has monkeys that can’t spell. It makes fun of the British.
To me, it’s not The Perfect Episode, but rather A Perfect Episode to Rule Them All. I consider many of the episodes from seasons 2 through 8 pretty darn perfect, even as the show began to evolve and warp with different showrunners. Perfect mixes of clever stories and well-done jokes. I could go into the show’s decline into madness, but nobody wants to read that right now. Instead, I simply tip my hat to “Last Exit to Springfield,” still great after two decades.