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On The Simpsons' 30th Anniversary, Revisiting a Perfect but Overlooked Episode

'Guess Who's Coming to Criticize Dinner?' deserves more praise than it gets

Liam Mathews

Tuesday, Dec. 17 marks is the 30th anniversary of the premiere of The Simpsons, the longest-running American scripted prime-time series. It's aired 672 episodes and counting and has been on TV since before the collapse of the Soviet Union. It's an institution on par with the Postal Service or Krispy Kreme, both of which have collaborated with The Simpsons' mighty licensing department. I could go macro on the 30th anniversary and look at the show's cultural impact or rank its episodes, but I thought I'd take a tight focus instead and celebrate my personal favorite half-hour: the Season 11 episode "Guess Who's Coming to Criticize Dinner," an episode that rarely figures into rankings of the greatest Simpsons episodes but has stuck with me as much as more heralded episodes like "Marge vs. the Monorail" or "27 Short Films About Springfield."

I would not argue that it's the best or most important episode of The Simpsons, but I would argue that it demonstrates the enduring appeal of Springfield and the characters who live there, and it possesses all the components of a classic Simpsons episode. It's also the one that's left the most lines stuck in my head since I first saw the episode almost 20 years ago.

"Guess Who's Coming to Criticize Dinner" premiered on Oct. 24, 1999. It was directed by Nancy Kruse and written by Al Jean, who had recently returned to the show from a sojourn at Disney, and would ascend to sole showrunner status in Season 13, a position he still holds (he was co-showrunner with Mike Reiss on Seasons 3 and 4). As the third episode of Season 11, it's right at the beginning of the show's post-Golden Age period, which is generally considered to comprise the first 10 seasons. The jokes in the episode are, in my estimation, Golden Age strong. I didn't watch it when it premiered, but I watched it numerous times a few years later, when every day after middle school I would come home and watch two episodes of The Simpsons in syndication. The Simpsons was extremely formative in the development of my sense of humor and taste in comedy, as it has been for millions of people, and will surely continue to be, especially now that it's easily accessible to the youth of today on Disney+.

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And maybe this particular episode was especially formative for me, in some subconscious way, as I'm now a critic. And I give this episode eleven thumbs up.

The episode begins with Homer chaperoning a school field trip to the offices of the Springfield Shopper newspaper (1999 was one of the last years local news was a viable business, and this episode wouldn't have been doable a few years later. Now, Homer would be a food vlogger, and Lisa would help him style the food in his videos, and a visit to the Shopper would be horribly depressing). While there, he can smell that there's a cake in the building with "farewell" and "best wishes" written on it, and he crashes the retirement party for the paper's food critic. The editor, voiced by Ed Asner in a riff on his character Lou Grant from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, senses that Homer is a man of the people who won't immediately pooh-pooh everything that's set in front of him ("No, it usually takes a couple hours," Homer says), and hires him as the new critic.

Homer, of course, is barely literate, so he needs Lisa's help to write the reviews. And at first, things go well, as Homer's glowing reviews of everything inspire all of Springfield to eat like Homer, which in turn makes them look like Homer. But then the paper's snootier critics make Homer feel dumb for giving only positive reviews, so he starts panning everything and being really mean about it ("So come to The Legless Frog if you want to get sick and die and leave a big garlicky corpse. P.S., parking was ample," he dictates). His cruelty not only causes Lisa to quit but also provokes the town's restaurant owners to concoct a plan to assassinate him for hurting their businesses. They'll do it at the Taste of Springfield festival, with a pastry packed with a million calories and "chocolate so dark that light cannot escape its surface," and also poison.

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At the festival, Bart overhears two of the chefs talking about the plot, and tells Lisa and Marge, and they split up to try to warn Homer before he eats the poison pastry. Lisa reaches him first, and when she tells him that the pastry is low-fat, he throws it into Hans Moleman's gruel stand, causing it to blow up. In the end, Homer and Lisa reconcile, and then the still-angry restaurant owners beat him up. A perfect Simpsons episode structure.

The episode plays to many of classic-era Simpsons' strengths: a cynical streak (Lisa is excited to visit a paper's bustling newsroom where intrepid journalists track down scoops, but really everyone is just desperately trying to sell subscriptions), well-deployed side characters and guest stars (Ed Asner sounds like he could have been a cast member), and a Homer-Lisa core, the show's richest relationship. But really, it's great because it's packed to the gills with gags.

In honor of The Simpsons' 30th anniversary, here are 30 screenshots from "Guess Who's Coming to Criticize Dinner" that will make you laugh.

Sometimes it's hard to know how to end an article. Screw Flanders!

(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)