|By its fourth season, The Simpsons had come far enough where Lisa could make a self-referential joke about Dustin Hoffman and Michael Jackson's pseudonymous guest voice appearances in seasons 2 and 3, respectively. In this season, no less than Elizabeth Taylor (in two episodes), Bette Midler, and even the reclusive Johnny Carson blessed The Simpsons with their iconic presences. Awhile back, Entertainment Weekly ranked The Simpsons' Top 25 best episodes ever. Five gems from season 4 cracked the top 12, including the (debatable) choice for No. 1, "Last Exit to Springfield." Other episodes that loom large in the Simpsons legend are "Mr. Plow" (you know the jingle: "Call Mr. Plow / That's my name / That name again is Mr. Plow"), "Marge vs. the Monorail," featuring a Music Man-style extravaganza, and "A Streetcar Named Marge," the episode that outraged New Orleans residents, who heard their fair metropolis referred to as "a city that the damned call home."
The Simpsons smartly subverts traditional family sitcom convention, but anyone who thinks the show doesn't have a heart is advised to watch "I Love Lisa" and "New Kid on the Block," two fourth-season gems that absolutely nail the agony and ecstasy of unrequited crushes ("You won't be needing this," a heartbroken Bart fantasizes his babysitter saying while dropkicking his heart into a wastebasket in "New Kid"). While the Simpsons' celebrated ensemble gets all the glory, we must pause now to praise the peerless writing staff, among them, George Meyer, Al Jean, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, David Silverman, and Conan O'Brien. One can only marvel in astonishment at the alchemy that went into creating, week after week, such essential episodes as "Kamp Krusty," "Streetcar," the profane and profound "Homer the Heretic," and "Lisa the Beauty Queen" (And that's just disc 1!). The animators, too, rose to the occasion, particularly in "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie," with its dead-on, ultra-violent sinking of the seminal Disney cartoon, "Steamboat Willie." And another benchmark in The Simpsons' rise to the TV pantheon: Its very first clip show. What Homer says about donuts in "Monorail" holds true as well for The Simpsons itself: Is there anything this show can't do? --Donald Liebenson