The following piece was commissioned from Austin Shinn. You can find his more of his writing, critiques, and reviews at https://aflickeringlife.wordpress.com/
When I set out to look at the best episodes of The Simpsons written by John Swartzwelder, it was tempting to just say I’m looking at the best episodes of the show period. John Swartzwelder’s 59 episodes are right at the peak of the show. In a field known for group writing and regression to a standard voice, his episodes all feel very distinctly of one mind.
What is a Swartzwelder episode? The writer specialized in large conflict driven plots, such as when Springfield went to war with itself. He liked Mr. Burns, who shows up in several episodes as well as Krusty. But the best known trait of a John Swartzwelder Simpsons episode is how political they are, and fascinatingly they’re actually very conservative. Swartzwelder is a chainsmoker who advocates for gun rights (this will come up) and hates environmentalists. And because he’s funny, he’s great for it.
I’m not wasting my breath. I want to dig into the art. First: Five honorable mentions.
Whacking Day: An excellent study of why we need to always question tradition. There’s a genuine anarchy to the ideas in the episode along with some great jokes.
Bart Gets Famous: The Simpsons gets meta with a cameo by former writer Conan O’Brien. A meditation on the emptiness of fame. It’s clever but also achingly sad.
Radioactive Man: This study of big budget superhero movies is fun. Deeply shallow humor about Springfield’s greed still works.
A Tale of Two Springfields: An underrated strange episode where Springfield has a civil war over area codes. It’s Swartzwelder at his most goofy.
A Hunka Hunka Burns in Love: Famed in my house for the line “you will find true love on Flag Day,” the date of my first date with my wife, the episode depicts Mr. Burns with rare love and empathy. He’s actually sweet here.
Now onto the classics:
The Boy Who Knew Too Much: Like all Simpsons episodes at this moment, this inspired a meme, Skinner saying “no it’s the children that are wrong.” It’s a funny joke that gets to the unusually serious tone of the episode. This is a riff of 12 Angry Men and Hitchcock that actually captures the power of both. It’s a fun mystery that rests on genuine tension for Bart. If he comes clean, his life is ruined. That’s the power of many of these. There’s actual stakes. But what makes the episode shine is one of the hallmarks of Swartzwelder. It’s character driven. His version of Bart is a prankster but a kind one. Bart is haunted by guilt. And that makes this a truly great episode.
Itchy & Scratchy & Marge: John Swartzwelder represents something vital in American comedy: A conservative whose politics are important to his work but in a way that makes the art better. This episode shows why this is a good thing by examining the topic of censorship, something vital on both sides. The episode examines the question of when is it okay and I think here it’s clear that the cry is for parents to decide. Marge engages in overreach, while well meaning, and gets caught in her hypocrisy. Ultimately you can’t decide art can’t exist for everyone. It’s funny too.
The Cartridge Family: This one is wild. Because it’s very hard to view this episode as favoring gun ownership. For years it was a sacred text to me opposing gun ownership. And of course that’s not what’s intended. Swartzwelder is a guns rights advocate to the point the gun store owner is based on him. What you have here is a more complex piece then. As with above, Swartzwelder takes an issue applied in the broad and argues for the individual. Homer Simpson should not have a gun. Many arguments for guns are bad. That doesn’t mean all guns are bad. The episode is a cry for responsible ownership. It’s funny, nuanced work. This is what South Park wishes it did.
You Only Move Twice: OK, we’re getting away from politics but getting back to meta. You Only Move Twice is a perfect episode of The Simpsons. Moving episodes, and nobody ever stays moved, are built to examine why characters need their bases. Never has that been truer than here. Marge needs the broken house. Lisa needs the flawed grime. Bart needs the apathetic schools. Homer needs them happy. The episode celebrates Springfield by removing them from it. And then there’s Hank Scorpio, a likable supervillain played by Albert Brooks. I love that he’s just an affable monster in the background. This is near peak Simpsons.
Homer’s Enemy: Here is peak. I’ll say it right now: the theory that everyone from the fans to the creators have is wrong. This isn’t about what would happen if a real person entered Springfield. It’s about if a real asshole entered Springfield. Because Frank Grimes is one of the best crafted one shot characters ever. He grew up poor and he takes it out on everyone. He’s impossible to feel sorry for which makes Homer’s desperate attempts to reach out painful. The stealth genius move here was using Hank Azaria in what could’ve been a juicy guest part. Azaria sells the rage and I wasn’t shocked to learn he put far more effort in than expected. The episode works precisely because it illuminates why we ultimately love the show. Homer Simpson is a good man. By watching someone hate him, we love him more.