Yesterday, for the first installment of this week-long set of rankings, I discussed one of my favorite types of episodes, Sideshow Bob stories. So, in the nature of balance, how about we talk about a type of episode that I’m not particularly fond of? Vacation episodes! It’s incredibly how many times the entire Simpson family have packed up and visited some foreign land or different culture, only to mock their people and beliefs. Some of them are a lot of fun. Most of them are a huge drag. More often than not we just see the Simpsons run around a bunch of landmarks, squeeze in as many celebrity cameos as possible, all while failing to tell a real story. But, there’s been enough of them that I felt it was the obvious thing to rank. Now, this is one of the categories that I had to make a bunch of judgement calls in. Because if I went by the metric of talking about every single episode that at least one of the Simpsons family left Springfield in, we’d be here all day. So, I made some ground-rules, and decides to only focus on episode where the entire family leave the town, and go somewhere else. More often than not episodes where only one family member goes somewhere it’s very different than an episode where the whole family goes. For instance, “Crepes of Wrath” isn’t really an episode about a French vacation and isn’t on this list, but “To Courier With Love” will be. Who knows if that actually makes sense, but it’s the rules I had to come up with to make this list tenable. So, without further ado, let’s talk about some vacations!
There’s so much that I dislike about this episode. Travel episodes can often grate on me, since they so easily become a slew of sight-gags and references rather than any real plot. And, when you take that model and add in a whole bunch of annoying and sanctimonious religious talk, and toss in an incredibly irritating celebrity cameo from Sacha Baron Cohen, you have the perfect storm for an episode that’s not going to work for me. I’ve been told by a commenter that Cohen’s portrayal actually is pretty spot on for tour-guides in Jerusalem, but that doesn’t really change the fact that this is a tremendously unpleasant performance. I suppose there’s also the fact that I have absolutely no interest in Jerusalem, so the majority of this episode isn’t really piquing any fascination with the locale, which means the episode then has to rely on the plot, of which there is very little. It’s just the bottom of the barrel.
“The Greatest Story Ever D’ohed” was written by Kevin Curran and directed by Michael Polcino, 2010.
Should this episode count? I’m really not sure. I went back and forth on this episode, but ultimately I decided that it met all the random self-imposed criteria that I’ve made. We have the family traveling to a new culture, they look at a bunch of landmarks, there’s not a whole lot of plot, and it’s incredibly weird. Yeah, the culture they go to is Rigel 7, and this is bafflingly not a Treehouse of Horror episode, but it doesn’t check off all of those boxes. And it sucks! This episode drives me insane. It’s just so crazy, it spends the first third making tired Disneyland gags which then means the whole alien thing has to be truncated, it makes it so that the Simpsons have literally been to an alien planet, and it’s just not funny or interesting. It end up feeling like this was intended to be a Treehouse of Horror segment that got wildly out of control, and it just lands with a dull thud. But, at least it’s not constantly griping to me about Jesus. So it’s not the worst one.
Oh, hey! I was just talking about this episode. It’s not great! So, when I was building this list I had to make some decisions about what type of episodes would be included, and which wouldn’t. I decided that since “Crepes of Wrath” was about only Bart going somewhere, and not even exploring France, that it wouldn’t count. But, this episode, where the entire family have to go to France in order to appease Marge’s fury, does count. Because we get to see the family run around Paris, make fun of the locals, and look at a bunch of landmarks. And, there’s really not much more to it. The episode has some funny gags, and it gives us some token sweetness from Homer and Lisa, but it’s just an incredibly paint-by-numbers episode. The vacation episodes are running out of steam at this point, but it wasn’t notably bad, so that’s something?
“To Courier with Love” was written by Bill Odenkirk and directed by Timothy Bailey, 2016.
We’re now in the section of this list that points out episode that are just largely boring. There’s nothing really terrible about this episode and the vacation it portrays, it’s just kind of mediocre. The idea that the Simpsons have to go to China in order to help Selma get an adopted daughter is a pretty solid one, especially considering the fact that it came from such a personal place for writer Dana Gould. Unfortunately, the episode really gets bogged down in all of the vacation tropes, letting the emotional core of the episode suffer. We have to watch the Simpsons gawk at all sorts of local culture, even going so far as to recreate the Tienanmen Square photo, which seems in rather bad taste. It just feels like they were going through the motions in this episode.
“Goo Goo Gai Pan” was written by Dana Gould and directed by Lance Kramer, 2005.
This is an episode that I struggled with placing. On one hand, it’s a pretty lackluster vacation episode, not even going through the motions of the usual tropes and barely having the Simpsons explore Cuba, other than commenting on their socialized medicine. But, on the other hand, the episode does have some really great moments with Abe that don’t have much at all to do with Cuba. It’s a decent premise for an episode, it just so happens to be wrapped up with a very dull vacation episode. It reaches the point that I wasn’t too sure if I should count it for this list, but whatever, I put it on here and I guess this is where it goes. I’m just making this up as I go, folks.
“Havana Wild Weekend” was written by Dan Castellaneta, Deb Lacusta, and Peter Tilden, and directed by Bob Anderson, 2016.
It’s not all about other countries though, folks. Because sometimes the Simpsons go to other states and insult their ways of life too! And this one is pretty lame. The first chunk of this episode, with Homer having a nervous breakdown in Springfield and slowly going insane is pretty fun. But, when they have to actually head to Florida things fall apart. They don’t exactly visit any landmarks in this episode, instead choosing to just scattershot as many Floridian experiences as possible. We get quiet old folks, Southern sheriffs, Spring Break debauchery, river-boats, and weird old hicks. It’s like Florida bingo. There’s really no subtly to it, and it struggles to be a cohesive narrative at times, but there’s enough funny bits in it to make it sort of fun. And at least they’re just making fun of fellow Americans.
“Kill the Alligator and Run” was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Jen Kamerman, 2000.
Well here’s a strange episode. Another one that’s just set in America, this is the only vacation episode where the family actually consider moving to the place that they’re visiting. And that’s probably the most noteworthy part of this episode. Because otherwise it’s just a slew of weird jabs at the city of Boston, followed up by a complete one-eighty by the family, causing them to temporarily move to the town. I just don’t know what’s up with this episode. It seems to be equal parts hate and love for Boston, and it just ends up coming across as a rather plodding episode that just didn’t seem to know what type of episode it wanted to be.
“The Town” was written by Dave King and directed by Rob Oliver, 2016.
“Blame it on Lisa” is a very hard episode to rank. Because while I really enjoy a lot of this episode, there’s a whole lot about it that feels a tad problematic. I like the idea that Lisa has insisted that the Simpsons go to Brazil in order to find a pen-pal who could possibly have befallen harm. But, the episode also features Homer being kidnapped my dangerous criminals, because of course Americans who go to South America are going to be kidnapped. The episode takes us all around Brazil, letting the Simpsons make fun of various landmarks and cultural touchstones like Carnvale, while also reminding us of that kidnapped Americans are more important than possibly kidnapped Brazilian kids.
“Blame It on Lisa” was written by Bob Bendetson and directed by Steven Dean Moore, 2002.
I don’t know if there’s any vacation episode that’s as emblematic of everything good and bad about the genre than “The Regina Monologue.” It’s kind of everything that bothers me about the vacation episodes, while also having enough parts that I enjoy to keep it from being a complete mess. It’s an episode where the Simpsons just wander around London, barely caring about any sort of plot, while looking at a litany of landmarks and a rotating roster of random guest stars. It certainly feels lazy at times, but there’s enough gags and the guest stars are funny enough to keep it all afloat, even if just barely.
“The Regina Monologues” was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Mark Kirkland, 2003.
Oh look, an episode from yesterday’s ranking! I was a tad hesitant to put this episode on the list, since I think at its heart it’s more of a Sideshow Bob episode than a vacation episode. But, I think that it’s undeniable that this episode has the hallmarks of a vacation episode. The whole family heads over to Italy, they see the sights, and they make fun of the culture. Yeah, they also run into a criminal who has been trying to kill at least one member of their family for decades there, but it’s still a vacation at heart. Hell, they even have Sideshow Bob fall into the vacation episode tropes, having him attempt to kill the family during a production of Pagliaci. Although, the episode only ranks this high because the Sideshow Bob aspect of the episode lift up what is otherwise a very lackluster vacation episode. But, we’ve already talked about all of that.
“The Italian Bob” was written by John Frink and directed by Mark Kirkland, 2005.
Oddly enough, the episode where the Simpsons go to Ireland is kind of the opposite of the episode where they go to England. “The Regina Monologues” is an episode that has essentially no plot, and where the family just wander around looking at landmarks and cameos. And “In the Name of the Grandfather” is an episode where there’s more plot than vacation, with almost no landmarks or cameos. There are still some, the creators of the show still seem to have some sort of checklist to go off of, but it works better here. I like seeing Homer and Abe dealing with Irish culture, and being saddled with a bar, it just doesn’t seem to take full advantage of the Irish setting. Most of my favorite vacation episodes follow this style of storytelling, actually telling a story, and we’re getting to the more solid portion of this list.
“In the Name of the Grandfather” was written by Matt Marshall and directed by Ralph Sosa, 2009.
We’re now in the portion of the list where we have episodes that, while I still probably like less than the average episode form their respective seasons, I have enough residual nostalgia for them that I still enjoy them. Case in point, “Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo,” and episode that I saw a bunch of times when I was younger, and that still gives my pleasant memories. It’t not perfect, and it falls into the trap of never diving deep into what it’s like to be in this other culture, instead just making fun of it and having this escalate to ridiculous points. I mean, Homer Simpson beats up the Emperor of Japan in this episode. That’s insane. Plus, several Kaiju attack their plane as they leave. It’s a silly episode, but enough of it works to keep me enjoying it over the years.
“Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo” was written by Donick Cary and directed by Jim Reardon, 1999.
Hey, speaking of an episode that is goofy enough for me to enjoy despite its flaws, let’s talk about “Simpson Safari!” This episode is so bizarre, and is littered with things that make me dislike lesser vacation episodes, but I still have a hell of a time with it. The episode doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, they seem to traverse the entire continent of Africa, and it’s absolutely over-flowing with weird stereotypes. And yet, it has enough incredibly silly jokes in it that I can overlook that and just embrace the insanity. This is a very dumb episode of the Simpsons, but it’s a blissfully dumb episode. And, while it doesn’t actually feature a lot of moments that actually would link it to a real African vacation, it’s still an incredibly solid vacation episode.
“Simpsons Safar” was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Mark Kirkland, 2001.
The granddaddy of all vacation episodes, “Bart vs Australia” was the episode that really came to define the vacation episode as a subgenre of Simpsons episode, and it’d damn near perfect. Bart’s prank gives the family a legitimate reason to travel to Australia, and we’re then treated to scenes where the family gets to journey around, taking in sights and being boorish Americans. It’s an episode that lovingly mocks everything about Australia, at least what American culture has learned about it, and it’s just so great. The episode is littered with amazing jokes and gags, and it set an incredibly high bar for all future vacation episodes to measure themselves against. And, in my opinion, all but one have failed to accomplish this. So, what’s the best vacation episode if it’s not “Bart vs Australia?”
“Bart vs. Australia” was written by Bill Oakley & Josh Weinstein and directed by Wes Archer, 1995.
Yeah, I was a little surprised too. But, when I sat down to think about how I wanted to rank all of these episodes I just had to be honest with myself and admit that I prefer “The City of New York vs Homer Simpson” a little more than “Bart vs Australia.” This episode obviously has some very challenging material in it, and the prominent featuring of the World Trade Center towers in the plot of this episode can make it a little difficult to watch in a post-9/11 world, but I think if you can get past this you’ll be able to enjoy a very wonderful episode of the Simpsons. “Bart vs Australia” set the template, showing us that you can just take the Simpsons and plop them in a different culture, letting them react to their surroundings while also telling a solid story. Most other vacation episodes didn’t learn that lesson, and instead forgo the compelling story in order to pack in a bunch of trite observations about the cities and countries that the family is visiting. But, this episode built off of the foundation and told a story that was uniquely suited to New York, but that didn’t rely on too many references or cameos. It’s just a very solid episode of the show, and I love it.
“The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson” was written by Ian Maxtone-Graham and directed by Jim Reardon, 1997.
Well, there we go. Fifteen times the Simpsons have left the safety of Springfield to both people in other cities. I know I’ve griped a whole lot about the vacation episodes during this project, and I can’t lie and say that I’ve come around on them, but they can certainly have enjoyable parts. I just don’t think there’s any type of episode that’s more formulaic than the vacation ones, and because of that they often suffer. They aren’t allowed to tell fun stories, instead forcing themselves to be bigger and crazier than the one that came before them. But, the trials and tribulations of families going on vacations is always a fertile source of comedy, so it makes sense that they return to it time and time again, despite having failed to get i right more often than not, at least in my opinion. And, speaking of opinions, I’m sure that there’s other episodes that people may feel should be included on this list, and I fully admit that my criteria may be flawed, but these are just the ones that I picked. So, if there’s an episode that you love that should have been included, let me know, I’m always happy to talk Simpsons with people.
Categories: Lifetime of Simpsons