"The Simpsons" easily surpassed "The Flintstones" as the longest running animated sitcom, tripling that popular prime-time show's output. It's won more Emmys than the 19 years it's aired, and still manages to pull in big audiences. The show has earned Matt Groening's goofy yellow family their own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Time called "The Simpsons" century's best TV series, Bart made that magazine's list of 100 most influential people ("Don't have a cow, man!"), and TV Guide ranked it number eight on its list of 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. Not bad, for people obviously affected by having to live in the footprint of a nuclear power plant.
Though "The Simpsons" flew pretty low under the radar when it debuted in 1987 as a series of short sketches on "The Tracy Ullman Show," it really took off when Fox gave the characters their own prime-time half hour in 1989. So what made America fall in love with this dysfunctional cartoon family? My guess is that it came near the end of the reign of "The Cosby Show," with its perfect parenting and idealized family situations that made us all feel as if we could never measure up. It was refreshing (and yes, liberating) to watch a family that was so bad it made your own look like the Huxtables. And what has kept the show fresh is that it was grounded in topical humor, cranking out episodes that spoofed movies, TV shows, movie stars, and just about every aspect of American pop culture. Whether it's Duff (as in, "sit on yours and drink it up) Beer or a magazine called "Better Homes Than Yours," the writers planted gag after gag in every episode.
Now, there's hardly anyone in America who doesn't know bad-boy Bart Simpson, his overachieving "goody-goody" sister, Lisa, the perpetual baby Maggie and her pacifier, mother Marge's blue "Bride of Frankenstein" hair, and Homer Simpson's catch-phrase, "D'oh!"
So how is it that it took close to 20 years for people to milk this phenomenon by producing a big-screen version? Somebody must have been wearing one of those Bart t-shirts that say, "Underachiever, and proud of it, man."
This 10th season collection features a sneak peek from the new "Simpsons Movie" and freewheeling commentaries on every episode. Though the series itself has varied slightly in quality from week to week since the mid-Nineties, the DVD packaging keeps getting stronger. This one comes with a thick, full-color booklet that tells you all you need to know about the episodes. With the title "Studio Tour," it's a fun-themed way to navigate and reminds you up-front of which famous folk appeared in which episodes. Even scene-selection titles are listed, which can jog your memory of the subplots and funny moments. It's really well done.
Some of this season's plots we've seen before in different incarnations, while others are pretty far-fetched, so it's no surprise that the best are those that catch us off-guard or take emotional risks.
"Lard of the Dance" features Lisa Kudrow as Alex, a popular new girl who takes Lisa's friends away from her because she has a cell phone, wears perfume, and thinks hopscotch and other Lisa pastimes "babyish." Homer, meanwhile, pulls Bart out of school to help him with his latest venture, siphoning grease from various places to sell at a rendering plant. It's not bad, but both the "A" and "B" plots are recycled from earlier shows.
"The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace" is better, with Homer inspired by Thomas Edison to become a great inventor, with hilarious results and strong writing.
"Bart the Mother" is one of those episodes you're either going to love or hate, because it shows Bart in a rare moment of soul-searching. Bart accidentally kills a bird and his mother shames him into raising her eggs. I personally find it a memorable episode.
"Treehouse of Horror IX" continues the fan-favorite Halloween tradition, this time with "Hell Toupee," which finds Homer turning into a killer after he gets the electrocuted Snake's hair transplanted onto his vacuous head. Ed McMahon, Jerry Springer, Kathie Lee Gifford and Regis Philbin guest.
"When You Dish Upon a Star" is one of the funnier episodes, with Homer somehow becoming the personal assistant to celebrity couple Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. Brian Grazer and Ron Howard also guest.
"D'oh-in' in the Wind" guest stars George Carlin and Martin Mull as Homer gets involved with two Ben and Jerry counterculture-turned-entrepreneur types in another funny episode.
"Lisa Gets an 'A'" finds the brainy Simpson in a can't-study bind, and she buys an exam from Nelson to maintain her high grades. But the real fun in this episode comes from Homer's attachment to a lobster he brings home.
"Homer Simpson in 'Kidney Trouble'" isn't an episode that takes place entirely at Moe's. The family goes West to a town where everything was about prostitution and learns that Grandpa needs a kidney transplant. Not knowing what's involved, Homer volunteers, and then backs out . . . make that, runs away.
"Mayored to the Mob" is one of the funnier episodes. It stars Mark Hamill, who plays himself at a geeky Sci-Fi-Con and makes the mistake of trying to push Sprint instead of talking about "Star Wars." Homer has to save him and the mayor, and it leads to the unlikely job of the mayor's bodyguard.
"Viva Ned Flanders" shows Homer and Ned on a road trip to Las Vegas, where they get plowed and marry two waitresses . . . that they now have to explain to their wives. The Moody Blues guest in a brief Vegas showdown moment.
"Wild Barts Can't Be Broken" has the kids rebelling by broadcasting all of the secrets they've learned about the adults in Springfield. Cyndi Lauper guests. Pretty decent.
"Sunday, Cruddy Sunday" is a funny episode we've actually seen before on "The Bob Newhart Show" in another variation. Homer and his buddies make a Super Bowl pilgrimage, discover their tickets are fake, and end up in jail. Marge, meanwhile, tackles an arts and crafts project recommended by Vincent Price. Tons of celebrity voices this episode, including Troy Aikman, John Madden, Dan Marino, Rosey Grier, Pat Summerall, Dolly Parton, Rupert Murdoch, and Fred Willard.
"Homer to the Max" finds Homer's double intruding on OUR Homer's world, forcing him to change his name. Ed Begley, Jr. guests in one of the weaker episodes.
"I'm with Cupid" is funny because it has a plot we recognize from our own lives. After Apu puts Homer to shame with the attention he gives his wife, Homer is pressured to do something big for Marge. Elton John guests.
"Marge Simpson in: 'Screaming Yellow Honkers'" introduces Marge to road rage. Hank Williams Jr. appears as the celebrity voice in this funny episode.
"Make Room for Lisa" marginalizes the brainy Simpson when Homer learns he can make money by letting the telephone company use her room, which stresses poor Lisa out something fierce. An okay episode.
"Maximum Homerdrive" gets Homer on the road as a Big Wheeler and learning a few things about the truck-driving fraternity. Back at home, in this funny episode, Marge and Lisa are on a mission to buy a doorbell.
"Simpsons Bible Stories," like "Treehouse of Horror" episodes, offers the Simpsons in sketches apart from the usual. Here, Principal Skinner is the Pharaoh, Bart and bully Nelson are David and Goliath, and Homer and Marge are Adam and Eve. Risky? You bet. But some of the scene selection titles ("You're pretty uptight for a naked chick," "Talk to the whip," and "I smoted him good") give you a pretty good idea of the humor.
"Mom and Pop Art" is one of the stronger episodes, with Homer "discovered" as a naïve artist after a failed attempt at building a barbecue pit turns into a goofy, twisted thingy that puts him at the center of the trendy (and fickle) art world. Artist Jasper Johns guests.
"The Old Man and the 'C' Student" finds Bart costing Springfield the Senior Olympics and having to make it up to the local oldsters through community service. Homer's latest entrepreneurial vision ends up stuck in pal Lenny's eye. An okay episode.
"Monty Can't Buy Me Love" is as far out as this season gets. When town rich guy and nuclear power plant owner Monty Burns frets that he's not as loved as adventurer-billionaire Richard Branson, he plots to get the public on his side by capturing the Loch Ness Monster. Some funny moments, with Michael McKean guesting.
"They Saved Lisa's Brain" is one of the better episodes. In it, Lisa and the town's Mensa members use their brains to try to make a utopia of Springfield, but of course brains aren't everything. Stephen Hawking guests in some very funny vignettes.
"Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo" sees the Simpsons going to Japan, where they lose their money and have to go on a game show to earn plane fare home. Some funny moments.
All-in-all, it's another fun season.
"The Simpsons" is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and aside from some ragged edges on some of the bright colors--What am I saying, this show is all about bright colors!--the quality is pretty decent.
The audio appears to be Dolby Digital 2.0--nothing fancy, but clear, nonetheless, and with no distortion.
In an introductory letter printed in the "Studio Tour" booklet, Groening welcomes "Simpsons Obsessives" and summarizes the bonus features: "the usual snickering audio commentaries on each and every episode; new-fangled illustrated lectures by the long-suffering animators at Film Roman; lots of deleted scenes that still haunt us; and a bunch of TV commercials, foreign-language features, and Hidden Easter Eggs."
"Snickering" is a good way to describe the commentaries, which, as I said, are pretty freewheeling. Somehow, amid the jokes and laughter, we actually learn a few things. It's good that the groups offering commentary is varied, because it changes the dynamics and keeps things fresh. The one complaint I have is that the sound on the episode is so low that you can't really hear it . . . which is problematic because the commentators often refer to jokes that were spoken, but which we missed due to low volume.
I won't say who takes part in every single commentary, but here's an alphabetized list of all who contribute: Neil Affleck, Mike B. Anderson, Richard Appel, Nancy Cartwright, Donick Cary, Don Castellaneta, David X. Cohen, Larry Doyle, Dan Greaney, Matt Groening, Mark Hamill, Ron Hauge, Al Jean, Mark Kirkland, Nancy Kruse, Tom Martin, Ian Maxtone-Graham, George Meyer, Pete Michels, Steven Dean Moore, Jane O'Brien, Dominic Polcino, Jim Reardon, Swinton O. Scott III, Mike Scully, Matt Selman, Yeardley Smith, Julie Thacker, and Mark Whitmore. Apart from hearing the creator himself, the most enjoyable, for me, was listening to Yeardley Smith and giggling at how her natural voice is pure Lisa.
The "new-fangled illustrated lectures" on animation are quite good, but the remaining supplementary materials--those deleted scenes, Easter Eggs, and advertising clips that Groening talked about--are mostly curiosities. But everyone seems to have just as much fun putting these DVDs together as they do the shows themselves. It's just too bad that they didn't list the episodes that are included on each disc, because you have to keep referring to the "Studio Tour" to see which one to pop in.
Matt Groening has come a long way from his college-syndicated comic strip, "Life in Hell," which featured bizarre-looking rabbits, crude drawings and gags that were thinly disguised complaints. The edge is still there, but "The Simpsons" takes rants about life in our particular cultural hell to interesting new levels. Season Ten is a solid one.