Choosing a “gateway” to The Simpsons is a daunting task, and not just because the show has been on the air for more than 30 years, a solid 10 of which it was the greatest comedy in television history. The show also doesn’t really proceed linearly: no one ages, the setting and characters have mostly remained the same, and with one notable exception (“Who Shot Mr. Burns, Parts 1 and 2”), there aren’t even really multi-episode story arcs. There’s no clear starting point for the show, for many of the same reasons that there still hasn’t been an ending point, either. The question then becomes what we’re looking for as an introduction. Are we going for chronological beginnings? (The pilot episode “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” or “Bart the General,” the show’s fifth episode and, in my opinion, its first genuinely great one?) Or are we going for its flat-out best half-hours? (Too many to list, but both “Marge vs. the Monorail” and “Last Exit to Springfield” are perfect works of art.) Maybe just the purely funniest ones? (Too many again, but “Lisa the Vegetarian” and “$pringfield” are high up there.) The most emotionally affecting? (“Marge Be Not Proud,” “Round Springfield.”) The most conceptually inventive? (“The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show,” “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer.”)
Through a painstaking process that mostly involved rewatching old Simpsons episodes while being medically discouraged from leaving my house (an activity that isn’t much different than what I’d probably be doing if I were able to leave my house), I landed on an episode that combines some of all these qualities: “The Way We Was,” the 12th episode of the show’s second season. There’s a broad consensus among Simpsons fans that the show’s true Golden Age starts at Season 3, which means that the show’s first two seasons sometimes get overlooked. To some degree this is understandable: The gap in quality between Season 1 and, say, Season 4 is an absolute gorge. But Season 2 boasts a handful of early masterpieces, including “Lisa’s Substitute,” “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge,” and, perhaps most memorably, “The Way We Was,” a work of heartfelt hilarity that, at the time it aired, represented the show’s most ambitious storytelling to date.
“The Way We Was” gives us the Simpsons’ (as distinct from The Simpsons’) literal beginnings. It’s a flashback episode—the show’s first—that tells the story of how Homer and Marge first met and fell in love. It’s an episode that, in hindsight, was crucial to the show’s development: When The Simpsons first premiered in late 1989, it was a razor-sharp satire of the traditional American family sitcom, a lower middle-class, proudly dysfunctional brood anchored by the boorish, well-meaning Homer and his wife, Marge, a smart and sensible woman who is miles out of his league. And of course there were their three children: adorable baby Maggie; brainy, overachieving Lisa; and the irascible and incorrigible Bart, who quickly became the show’s breakout star. The fact that the show was animated only added to its punkish irreverence. (Check out Willa Paskin’s terrific episode of Decoder Ring on Bartmania for a fascinating dive into this context.)
It was all a great gag, but when the show shocked everyone and became an enormous hit, it could have easily grown stale and limited. In order to continue to thrive and avoid being a flash in the pan, The Simpsons needed to build a coherent and recognizable world with animated characters made out of human motivations and dimensions, something no cartoon had ever even really attempted. One of the questions at the heart of this was “What the hell would someone like be Marge doing with someone like Homer?” This is the question “The Way We Was” sets out to answer.
The framing device for the flashback is brilliant: The family’s TV breaks, forcing them to actually talk to each other, although not before we’re given our first-ever glimpse of “McBain,” the show’s sendup of 1980s action flicks that’s by now probably more well-known than 90 percent of the oeuvre it’s spoofing. Lisa asks to hear the story of how Homer proposed to Marge, but since that memory isn’t exactly family-friendly, the couple opts to tell the kids the story of how they first met instead.
The year is 1974, and Homer and Marge are seniors at Springfield High School. She’s a high-achieving, fiercely independent go-getter (Lisa, essentially); he’s an oafish ne’er-do-well with a heart of gold (closer to Bart, although Bart is never depicted as stupid). They first meet in detention, where Marge has landed for burning a bra during a political demonstration, Homer for smoking in the boys’ bathroom. He’s in love at first sight; she’s uninterested, albeit politely. He asks her out, and she declines. He persists and finally convinces her to tutor him in French, a subject he neglects to inform her that he’s not even taking. They have a fun evening. He asks her to the prom, and she says yes. Emboldened, he tells her the French thing was just a ruse—she slaps him and tells him she never wants to see him again.
I won’t spoil what happens from there, other than to say it’s one of the best third acts in the show’s history, even though the outcome is never in doubt. (The end credits, featuring Homer warbling his way through Steve Miller’s “The Joker,” are also worth sticking around for.) Viewed through the eyes of a diehard fan 29 years after it aired, “The Way We Was” is quietly dazzling in a number of respects. For starters, it’s the first episode that effectively doesn’t include Bart or Lisa, derailing a popular (and incorrect) impression that the show was primarily about the exploits of a skateboarding, spikey-haired fourth grader. But it’s also the first episode to fully commit to the idea that these cartoons had backstories, that they were a product of desires, disappointments, experiences—in other words, that they were real characters rather than satirical avatars.
And for a first-time viewer, it’s a great entry point to the show. It’s hilarious, of course. (Homer to Bart: “Bart, pay attention! You might be telling this to your son if something breaks.”) And like any great origin story, it firmly grounds you in the lives of the characters, thus guaranteeing you’ll want to keep watching. But it also confounds a lot of preconceptions of what the show is all about. If you’re a human being in 2020 who’s never seen The Simpsons, there’s probably a reason for that: You don’t normally like cartoons, it seems like a show for or about kids, or it has a reputation for being so densely self-referential that it doesn’t seem worth the effort. “The Way We Was” dispenses with all of that: You can fire it up without having watched a minute of the show and spend your next 22 minutes entertained and unexpectedly moved. And immediately after doing that, you can go back to the first paragraph of this and watch everything I mentioned there, too.