While writing this review a few days ago, I noticed that by coincidence, the cable channel, Bravo, is repeating the episode of "Inside The Actor's Studio" which featured the cast of "The Simpsons" that I watched a couple of months back. Cool! Just in time for the release of "The Simpsons: The Complete 3rd Season" DVD set. For those who are not familiar with this Bravo series, it is an hour-long interview program hosted by James Lipton, who sits down with accomplished actors and directors to discuss about their work. This particular episode, to commemorate the 300th episode of "The Simpsons" turned out to be a hilarious outing for everyone involved. In it, Lipton interviews Dan Castellaneta (voices of Homer Simpson, Homer's father Abe, Krusty the Clown and Mayor Quimby), Julie Kavner (voices of Marge Simpson, Marge's mother Jackie Bouvier, chain smoking siblings Patty and Selma Bouvier), Nancy Cartwright (voice of Bart Simpson), Yeardley Smith (voice of Lisa Simpson), Hank Azaria (voices of Police Chief Wiggum, barkeep Moe Szylak and Indian store owner Apu) and Harry Shearer (voices of billionaire C. Montgomery Burns, Simpsons neighbor Ned Flanders, principal Skinner and Reverand Lovejoy). In a twisted case of life imitating art, Lipton himself made a cameo appearance in the episode of "The Simpsons", titled "The Sweetest Apu", which aired on May 5th, 2002. As I sat there in awe, admiring the amount of voice talent on display, I couldn't help but lament the fact that many professional voice actors often go unnoticed throughout their careers. You may know the voice but you can't put a real face to it. Thus it is somehow just that this group receives their due recognition with a little publicity from this interview show.
Creator Matt Groening's foray into animation started out with a comic strip called "Life In Hell" starring a lonely bunny named Binky. In 1985, Groening was asked by James L. Brooks to work on some animated projects for The Tracy Ullman Show. Coming up with the idea for "The Simpsons", Groening's most famous creation first made its debut on the show as fillers before and after the commercial breaks. These animated shorts became wildly popular. So much so that in 1989, the then-fledgling Fox television network, looking for a hit show, ordered thirteen full-length 30-minute episodes of "The Simpsons" and the rest, as they say, is history. And what a history it will be as the series is far from seeing its end. As each new season passes by, "The Simpsons" have continued to break new ground as well as a number of television broadcasting records. For example, in 1997, the show passed everyone's favorite prehistoric family, "The Flintstones" as the longest-running prime-time animated show (166 episodes). Early this year, Fox inked a deal to carry the series for two more seasons, at least until May 2005. This will make "The Simpsons" the all-time longest-running situation comedy, surpassing "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet", which ran from 1952-1966. Of course, there is the mother of all longevity records, currently held by "60 Minutes", for the longest-running prime-time show of any kind. Amazingly, this news show has been running since 1968. Will "The Simpsons" catch up to it? Highly unlikely but who knows.
In my "Futurama Volume 2" preview that I posted a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that Fox only sent two discs out of the 4-disc set for online DVD publication sites to review. Alas, Fox has done the same with "The Simpsons: The Complete 3rd Season" DVD set. Only Discs 1 and 4 were received by us. So, in all fairness to our readers, I will only review these two discs and reserve my judgment on the other two discs that I do not have in my hands.
Season 3 of "The Simpsons" aired between September 1991 and May 1992. The following six episodes appear on Disc 1:
Stark Raving Dad
Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington
When Flanders Failed
Bart The Murderer
Like Father, Like Clown
Disc 4 contains the following episodes:
Dog of Death
The Otto Show
Cart's Friend Falls in Love
Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?
Over the many years that I have followed the series, I have come to learn that absolutely nothing is sacred on "The Simpsons". On the first disc, any topic, from pork barrel politics to Judaism to the Mafia, is fair game for parody. My favorite episode on Disc 1 is "Like Father, Like Clown" where Bart and Lisa try to reunite Krusty the Clown with his estranged father, Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky. Jackie Mason, a prominent Jewish comedian provides the voice for the rabbi. Not only does this episode contain lots of funny bits, it is also a heartwarming one. As a sign of their meticulous preparation and to make sure that they get the many Jewish references correct, the producers even hired two rabbis as special consultants on this episode. In the episode "When Flanders Failed", the writers are able to craft a downtrodden tale for the perpetually clueless Flanders family that serves to illustrate how dark emotions can eventually be overcome by Homer's guilt. A memorable episode. An uncredited appearance by Michael Jackson in "Stark Raving Dad" caused many fans to wonder if The Gloved One actually voiced the character of John Jay Smith, Homer's mental institute roommate. Everyone connected to the show is legally bounded not to comment on MJ's appearance but over the years, it has become an open secret. The highlight of this episode comes at the end when Jacko performs a duet with Bart, singing a birthday song to Lisa.
On Disc 4, I thoroughly enjoyed the episode, "Colonel Homer", a tribute to Elvis and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Although it does not contain the usual amount of Simpsons humor, the rich character development itself makes this episode worth multiple viewings. However, anyone allergic to country music should give this one a pass! Kelsey Grammer (Frasier) makes a return trip to "The Simpsons" with another great performance as Sideshow Bob in the episode "Black Widower". I can't get over Sideshow Bob's evil and conniving tone of voice, all delivered in a pseudo-Anglophile accent. Also in the same episode, I found Selma's addiction to the TV series MacGuyver hilarious as it reminded me of mine ages ago. Although not a very particularly good episode, "The Otto Show" features everyone's favorite fake English rock group, Spinal Tap. Harry Shearer, who provides the voice of Mr. Burns, reunites with his other Spinal Tap buddies Christopher Guest and Michael McKean to perform in Springfield.
"The Simpsons" is the only TV series I know of, which has an opening title sequence that is as heavily scrutinized by fans as the episode itself. Every single opening sequence offers a different take on Bart's blackboard punishment phrase, Lisa's saxophone solo, Homer's terror on the driveway and the whole family on the couch. Some of these sequences may be more noticeable than others but I bet that some of you who are reading this are going to start looking at the opening sequence more closely from now on!
Many of the episodes of "The Simpsons" are clever commentaries on society, politics and pop culture. Actually the show itself has become an indispensable American cultural icon that is as respected as it is sought out by established celebrities and those who are looking for their 15 minutes of fame. You know you have made it in showbiz if you are parodied on "The Simpsons". The list of celebrities appearing on the show is impressive. In season 3 alone, apart from those that I have mentioned above, also look out for Joe Mantegna as mobster Fat Tony, Danny DeVito as Homer's half-brother, singer Beverly D'Angelo as a country singer, a bunch of baseball stars, Sting, Aerosmith, Phil Hartman and many others.
Like the previous two season's DVD releases, the video is presented in full frame format measuring 1.33:1. Although not as good looking as the "Futurama" video transfer, this season 3 release improves slightly over the previous season's. I would not entirely fault the DVD video transfer process for this slightly lower quality but it is rather the limitation of the source material that is to blame. Colors are bright and detailed with solid black levels. Some episodes do look better than others but the majority is clean with little noise. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
Fox has done fans of this series a huge favor by encoding the audio for every episode since season 1 in Dolby Digital 5.1. Originally produced in stereo, the new digital audio mix is not as active or as discrete as one would expect it to be. Rear channels are rarely used and even when they are active, they only offer weak responses. Most of the audio is concentrated in the front. Again we are seeing the limitations of the older source material hampering our full enjoyment of this DVD set. Other audio options available are Spanish and French language audio in Dolby Surround 2.0.
The extra features are where this DVD set shines. Every single episode comes with an audio commentary included. Sometimes featuring up to six or seven people sitting in a room commenting on a particular episode, these commentaries can be hilarious, hectic and confusing, all at the same time. Many times, several different people are talking at once and you can hear the passion for their work in their voices as they try to get their two cents in! In total, all of the audio commentaries are both informative and highly enjoyable.
On Disc 1, apart from the audio commentaries, you can also view five Butterfinger commercials featuring Bart, Homer and Lisa, Matt Groening's storyboards from the episode "Homer Defined" (with or without audio from the episode) and "Scene Specific Sketches" from the episode "Like Father, Like Clown" (to be activated during the episode when a special symbol appears).
Again, we have audio commentaries on all the six episodes on Disc 4. A jukebox feature kicks off the extra features on this disc, which contains a total of thirteen songs culled from all the episodes in season 3. The songs are "Ben", "Happy Birthday Lisa", "Lotsa Fun", "Walk This Way", "Flaming Moe's", "We're Sending Our Love Down the Well", "Talkin' Softball", "Bagged Me a Homer", "Bunk With Me Tonight", "Break Like The Wind", "Spanish Flea", "Hail to the Bus Driver" and "We Like Rockin'". Playing any of these songs will also trigger the scene from the particular episode that the song is taken from.
The "Scene Specific Sketches" feature is available for the episodes "Dog of Death", "Colonel Homer" and "Black Widower". Next is a set of Matt Groening's storyboards is available for the episode "Black Widower". An interesting feature called "Pop-Up Simpsons" is available for the episode "Colonel Homer", where interesting facts about that episode pop up periodically while it plays. Also for the episode "Colonel Homer" is an extra feature called "Promo With Unseen Footage".
The popularity of "The Simpsons" is never in doubt. After more than a dozen seasons, the series is still going strong without any chance of it slowing down in the near future. I must commend the various writers of this show, who are able to come up with such good comic material and engaging stories that more often than not, pokes fun at some aspects of our lives. Writing about things that everyone can relate to, is key to the show's continuing success.
Looking forward, the only major complaint that I have with the DVD releases of this excellent series is the extremely long lead-time between each season's DVD release. Fans of "The Simpsons" are looking at possibly 12-15 years total before the entire series is released on DVD. And this assumption is based on the fact that the series will not go past the year 2005. We could all still be adding season DVD sets of this series to our collection well into the next decade! So, maybe future season releases should be speeded up a bit, huh? What do you say, Fox?