If you have a Blu-ray player, choosing "The Simpsons: The Thirteenth Season" in HD over the DVD version is a no-brainer. Fox has gotten cheapo on their DVD packaging, opting for cardboard sleeves instead of more protective plastic lock-down holders, and that's a huge incentive for fans to switch to Blu-ray. So is the picture quality, which offers sharper edges than the DVD.
But who says 13 is unlucky? After "The Simpsons" slipped a bit with weaker 11th and 12th seasons, the writers came back with a strong 13th, which includes the classic episode "Weekend at Burnsie's" and the controversial "Blame It on Lisa."
Still, what's "slipping" for a show of this quality? If there's a smarter, consistently funnier show on television, I don't know of it. And "The Simpsons" have been entertaining audiences with their irreverent, politically incorrect humor for 21 seasons now. Twenty one! Over that distinguished run, the series has won close to 30 Emmys. It was also honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and named the top TV series ever by Time magazine.
Details that make the difference. In one episode this 13th season, you get the classic Dracula's castle in the background with dark-and-stormy-night audio-visual effects, while a sign on the road leading to the castle reads, "Springfield Republican Headquarters." And when Marge rails against sugar, upset that it's made Springfield the fattest city in the world, and she confronts the head of a sugar corporation, we catch a glimpse of his planner: Monday - Evil deeds, Tuesday - Evil Deeds, Wednesday - Evil Deeds, Thursday - Racquetball, Friday - Evil deeds. Micro jokes like these make "The Simpson's" one of the funniest TV shows ever produced. Add that type of humor to the wordplay, the jokes that derive from the outrageous characters, the parodies of pop culture/current events, and the corkscrew plots that feel as if they were all conceived in the Sixties under the influence of peyote, and you get an unparalleled comedy.
And what a career for creator Matt Groening and his Twentieth Century Fox voice talents, who at this stage are as multi-talented as the voice actors from the golden age of Warner Brothers cartoons. Don Castellaneta deftly juggles the voices of Homer Simpson, Grandpa Simpson, Krusty the Clown, and Barney the boozer, while Nancy Cartwright is Bart Simpson, Ralph Wiggum and various children, and Hank Azaria does Moe the bartender, Apu the Indian Quickie-Mart owner, and police chief Wiggum, while Harry Shearer is nuclear plant owner Mr. Burns, Principal Skinner, hyper-Christian Ned Flanders, Reverend Lovejoy, and the cheerfully inept Dr. Hibbert. Yeardley Smith is the only voice actor who handles just one character: Lisa.
It's almost a chicken and egg question, though, when it comes to putting a finger on what makes the show successful. Are the characters the anchor that makes all the plots and jokes and gags work, or is it the other way around? I'm inclined to think that everything is equally important. The concept itself is an endearing one, as The Simpsons are America's first family of dysfunctional relationships. Homer is the anti-dad: lazy, self-absorbed, permissive, and inattentive. Marge is the long-suffering wife who tries to be happy with the man she married and the children they had. Bart is a 20th century version of Peck's Bad Boy and then some. Lisa is the saxaphone-playing brainiac who wonders how she was born into a family of otherwise low-intelligence members. And Maggie, the perpetual pacifier-sucking baby, is counterbalanced by Grandpa Simpson, who gives the writers plenty of opportunities for old-people jokes. But each person in Springfield is based on a stereotype that's based, in part, in truth--from the Kennedyesque mayor too the punk Snake.
It's too bad that Fox has gotten into accordion-style paper packaging, because collectors aren't wanting to slip frequently watched discs between two layers of cardboard. It's too easy for them to get scratched. Fox has done this for the last several seasons, and apparently fans haven't rebelled loudly enough. I've heard plenty of complaints, but what will it take to get back to plastic holders? C'mon, Matt. Use your sway. How is it bad for the environment to use plastic for collectibles that no one has any intention of recycling?
Twenty-two episodes (each with six scene selection points) are contained on three discs, described here as they are in a full-color collectible booklet:
"Treehouse of Horror XII." In this annual trilogy of terrifying little tales, Homer incurs the anger of a gypsy and brings horrifying fates to all he loves ("Hex and the City"), a computer installed to run the Simpson household falls in love with Marge ("House of Whacks"), and the Springfield schoolchildren enter an academy of wizardry not unlike Hogwarts ("Wiz Kids").
"The Parent Rap." When Bart is arrested for joyriding, a no-nonsense judge orders Homer to be shackled to his son.
"Homer the Moe." When Moe returns to bartending school, Homer is put in charge of the bar. When Moe returns and attempts to "hippen up" his bar, a disgruntled Homer leads the barflies to his own makeshift watering hole.
"A Hunka Hunka Burns in Love." Homer becomes a fortune cookie author and writes a fortune that inspires Burns to go out and find love. But the love Burns finds is a woman who turns out to be the girlfriend of the violent convict Snake.
"The Blunder Years." Undergoing hypnosis, Homer recalls a dead body he saw years ago. Trying to resolve the mystery leads him on a trail back to Mr. Burns. Meanwhile, Marge gets a crush on the handsome man on a paper towel wrapper.
"She of Little Faith." When Homer and Bart's attempt at model rocketry go awry, they enlist the help of nerds who soup up the rocket so much it destroys the church. To raise money, Rev. Lovejoy turns his finances over to Mr. Burns, who commercializes the church so much an offended Lisa leaves and becomes a Buddhist.
"Brawl in the Family." When the Simpsons are confined to their home, they begin to brawl violently and a social worker is called in. He solves their problems--only to have Marget get more upset than ever when the waitress Homer married in Vegas shows up at the door.
"Sweets and Sour Marge." Springfield enters the Duff Book of World Records as the world's fattest town, leading Marge to attempt to place a ban on sugar.
"Jaws Wired Shut." Homer's jaw is broken when he runs into a statue. Unable to speak, he becomes a better man, which surprisingly leads Marge to miss the old him.
"Half-Decent Proposal." Marge's old beau, Artie Ziff, now a high-tech billionaire, offers Homer a million dollars if he will let Artie spend a weekend with Marge to try to convince her she made a mistake.
"The Bart Wants What It Wants." Bart starts dating Rainier Wolfcastle's daughter, which Homer loves but Bart is not all that thrilled about. When Bart dumps her and she starts dating Milhouse, Bart travels to Toronto to try to win her back.
"The Lastest Gun in the West." Fleeing a dog that hates him for no reason, Bart meets a faded Western star. With Marge's help, Bart tries to get him off booze and start him on a better life.
"The Old Man and the Key." To impress a woman he fancies at the senior home, Grampa borrows Homer's car, which he wrecks. He flees with Bart to Branson, Missouri, where the Simpsons encounter forgotten stars of yesteryear.
"Tales from the Public Domain." In this retelling of three classic tales from world history, Homer goes on the original Odyssey, Lisa meets a fiery fate as Joan of Arc, and Bart becomes the procrastinating prince of Denmark, Hamlet.
"Blame It on Lisa." A huge phone bill leads the Simpsons to discover that Lisa has been sponsoring an orphan in Brazil. Traveling to Rio, they encounter multicolored rats and rampaging monkeys in the episode that offended a nation.
"Weekend at Burnsies." After being attacked by crows, Homer becomes addicted to medicinal marijuana prescribed by Dr. Hibbert. When Homer and his fellow stoners fail to vote in a referendum, the drug is recriminalized and Homer must go cold turkey. (Look for Phish in this episode).
"Gump Roast." A Springfield Friars Club roast ofo Homer, featuring clips from earlier episodes, is unexpectedly broken up by Kong and Kodos. This episode features the popular and highly prophetic song "They'll Never Stop the Simpsons."
"I Am Furious (Yellow)." Insplired by a highly successful cartoonist who visits his school, Bart creates an embarrassing Internet cartoon, "Angry Dad," based on Homer. Meanwhile, Marvel Comics' Stan Lee visits Comic Book Guy's store--and won't leave.
"The Sweetest Apu." Apu has an affair with a woman who delivers Squishees to his store. The Simpsons try to help him reconcile with his wife.
"Little Girl in the Big Ten." Lisa is befriended by college gymnasts who think she is one of them. Meanwhile, Bart is forced to live in a plastic bubble, isolated from the rest of the world.
"The Frying Game." When Homer attacks a screamapiller living in his backyard, he is ordered to do community service, where he befriends a needy elderly woman. When she is killed, Homer is blamed for her murder and sentenced to death.
"Poppa's Got a Brand New Badge." Homer becomes head of a private security company that forces Chief Wiggum out of a job. When mobster Fat Tony comes to kill Homer, he is rescued by a most unlikely savior.
Guests this season include Pierce Brosnan, Matthew Perry, Marcia Wallace, Jane Kaczmarek, R.E.M., Julia Louis-Dreyfus, George Takei, Richard Gere, Ben Stiller, Jon Lovitz, Wolfgang Puck, Reese Witherspoon, Dennis Weaver, Frank Welker, Olympia Dukakis, PHISH, Ed Asner, Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger, Stephen Hawking, Ron Howard, Elton John, Lucy Lawless, Joe Namath, N-Sync, Elizabeth Taylor, U2, Stan Lee, James Lipton, Robert Pinsky, and Joe Mantegna.
As always, "The Simpsons" is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and, as I said, the picture is sharper than the DVD. But it's not perfect. There's still a little grain in some sequences that you don't see in others. Still, the colors are bold and bright as ever, the edges are sharp, and the skin-tones are . . . uh, yellow. "The Simpsons" was transferred to three 50GB discs using the AVC/MPEG-4 codec, and for the most part it's a solid transfer, despite a few shadow artifacts in some episodes.
The audio is a lively English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that humbles the Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish and French options. Though most of the shows involve dialogue, you start to notice with a superior soundtrack how often musical segues help to maintain the series' vitality.
Same as the DVD. There's a nice complement of bonus features, as usual. Groening supplies the introduction, and there's a commentary track for every episode, with Groening joined on various tracks by Mike Scully, Al Jean, Ian Maxtone-Graham, Matt Selman, Carolyn Omine, John Frink, Don Payne, George Meyer, Tim Long, Dana Gould, Joel Cohen, Kevin Gould, Tom Gammill, Max Pross, Lance Kramer, Steven Dean Moore, Bill Freiberger, Delroy Lindo, Matt Warburton, David Silverman, Mark Kirkland, Joe Mantegna, Pete Michels, Dan Castellaneta, Lauren MacMullan, James Lipton, Michael Polcino, Mike B. Anderson, Jon Vitti, Mike Reiss, Deb Lacusta, Stan Lee, Chuck Sheetz, and Robert Pinsky. Groening likes a crowd, and while it's tough to keep people straight, the commentaries do tend to be of average quality and livelier than most.
Deleted scenes are provided for 14 of the episodes, while two of them offer the option of using the angle button to view multiple animation stages. Also included is a sketch gallery, "a token from Matt Groening," and featurettes on "Ralphisms," "The Sweet Life of Ralph," "The 13th Crewman," "The People Ball," "The Games," "Commercials," and "Blame It on the Monkeys." Rounding out the bonus features are several sketch galleries.
"The Simpsons" are back in great form for the 13th season--or should I say, the writers are. And Blu-ray is the way to go.