++Addition++Steve expounds and adds a nice visual.
Those who've read this blog for awhile are probably aware of my affinity for The Simpsons. Like so many other fans of the show, I stopped making much of an effort to catch episodes from later seasons in the series. Well into the 2000s with family or friends who wanted to take one in, it would almost invariably be from the early- or mid-nineties, when the show was more a comedy on the follies of contemporary middle class suburbanites and less one offering political and cultural commentary on current events with silly single scene antics.
When I talk to other votaries about the series, sentiments approximating my own seem to be the rule, but The Simpsons is in its 23rd season now and continues to maintain impressive ratings, so there are plenty of people who find it worthwhile. I stopped watching TV when I graduated from a high school a decade ago (I don't even own one!), but if I still did, I'd probably be viewing new episodes each week with lower expectations than I had in the past.
The number of total viewers aside, I'm comfortable asserting that the show's golden age stretched from the early nineties into the latter part of that decade. Going through the tedious process of recording IMDB user ratings (the largest sample size I could find) for all 503 episodes up to Them, Robot (which is pretty entertaining, especially for those interested in speculations about the future of artificial intelligence and how humans will interact with it) and using these to compile full season averages on a 10 point scale, the following table ranks them from best to worst. The impetus for doing as much was my brother's opinion that seasons 3-9 were when the show was at its best, with the qualifier that nine is when the descent is first detectable and that he could refine that to seasons 3-8. He's a perspicacious kid:
My personal favorites are Lisa the Vegetarian ("You don't win friends with salad, you don't win friends with salad!"), They Saved Lisa's Brain ("Inspired by the most logical race in the galaxy, the Vulcans, breeding will be permitted once every seven years. For many of you this will mean much less breeding. For me, much much more."), and The Springfield Files ("Who thought a whale could be so heavy?") from seasons 7, 10, and 8, respectively. Who cares, though, about that? The show's top eight, with the season in parentheses (there's a six-way tie for the ninth spot):
1. Who Shot Mr. Burns?, Part 1 (6) and You Only Move Twice (8)
3. Homer's Enemy (8)