To say that “The Simpsons” were groundbreaking is an understatement of the highest order. Matt Groening and his cronies did what was once thought was impossible: they made primetime animation work again. After being pegged a ratings killer since the 60’s, no one thought that they could pull it off. Yet somehow it worked. The Simpsons have continued to bring a fresh and funny look on just about every social topic in the past ten years. Pop culture has forever been branded with the images and antics of Homer, Marge, Lisa, Maggie and Bart. Ask anyone anywhere in America who the Simpsons are and they will all have some form of the correct answer. They’re the family you never want but all represent a side of someone we know, love, or are related to.
Fox has wisely chosen to release full season box sets of The Simpsons, and it’s great to see how far along the series has come. While I don’t watch religiously as I once did, catching a recent episode will clue you in on just how far the creative team has developed the characters, plots, and ongoing storylines since these first 13 episodes. I clearly remember seeing the Simpsons on The Tracy Ullman Show, back in 1989, with their sharp and edgy animation residing over dark undertones. While the series shies away from the remnants of those first few shorts, these episodes were a building block-and more than anything, a learning experience-for the writers, directors, and voice talent to sink their teeth into a world that is still going strong.
This set divides the thirteen episodes over three discs; disc one and two have six episodes each, leaving the last episode and what little supplements are provided on the third disc. The episodes are included in broadcast order, not production order. They are as follows:
Disc 1 ^ Simpsons Roasting Over An Open Fire ^ This first episode was actually the 1989 Christmas Special the family starred in. When Bart gets a tattoo, Marge is forced to spend all of their savings on getting it removed. So how are they going to get presents? Homer comes in to save the day and this episode concludes with the introduction of the family dog, Santa’s Little Helper. Starting out long and ending quickly, this episode has a certain rushed feeling that can’t be avoided. The voice work, startlingly different from the likes we’re used to today, is so void of its familiar characteristics it’s uncomfortable.
Bart the Genius ^ Bart cheats on his IQ test and as a result of his perfect score is thrown into the middle of an Advanced Learning class. Immediately outwitted and outnumbered, through a swallowing of pride he gets his old life back and learns a few lessons. This episode’s portrayal of Bart as a weak character, one that begs for sympathy instead of the balls-to-the-wall deviant he becomes later on, is an unwelcome character move and thankfully never acts this way again.
Homer’s Odyssey ^ Homer realizes that suicide is the answer to all his problems and the family finds out just in time to come to his aid. After they are saved at the last second by Homer from a speeding car running an intersection, Homer decides it is his job to clean up Springfield’s safety violations. Of course, taking this to extreme brings the comedy and features some of the better gags of the first few episodes.
There’s No Disgrace Like Home ^When Homer takes Bart to the Nuclear Power Plant picnic, trouble is bound to arise. In what is certainly the most uncharacteristic portrayal of the Simpsons, this bastard episode of the series underlines the fact that the creators just didn’t know what they were doing here. Among other offenses, Marge is a lush, Lisa a troublemaker, and Homer spends most of his time trying to get them out of trouble instead of haphazardly causing it. The ending however is classic when Homer sells the TV to get them into a hilarious shock-therapy session.
Bart the General ^After getting pounded by Nelson for the nth time Bart decides to put a stop to it with some help from his Grandpa. A bit meandering and featuring a lot of characters that never show up again (thankfully), this mildly funny episode should’ve had another subplot to quicken the droll pace.
Moaning Lisa ^Lisa’s braniac status gets her down and she isn’t sure how to cope. She just can’t find a way to express herself or her emotions. It’s only when Lisa runs into “Bleeding Gums” Murphy and is introduced to the blues that she finds her outlet. A cool episode, not big on laughs, but sets the tone for Lisa’s character for many seasons to come.
Disc 2 ^ Call of the Simpsons ^Homer’s ego is tarnished when Flanders gets a new RV. Homer decides to get a bigger and better one of course, ending up with anything but. After getting the family lost in the woods, Homer and Bart venture off to find civilization and one of them is mistaken for Bigfoot (guess who?). A clever episode but crudely done, with lackluster drawing and shoddy voice work.
The Telltale Head ^Bart joins a gang of bullies and cuts off the head of the Jebediah Springfield statue. Once the townspeople find their town icon headless, they’re out for blood. This episode tends to go a little too far in how bad Bart can get, but nevertheless has some funny lines and classic moments.
Life on the Fast Lane ^Easily the best episode of the set, Homer buys a beautiful bowling ball for Marge on her birthday hoping that he’ll get to use it himself. Marge however wants to prove him wrong in his accusation that she can’t bowl and gets lessons from Jacques, a French bowling instructor. Soon after Jacques begins seducing Marge, Bart and Lisa try to deal with the idea that their parents may split up while Homer freaks out over the situation. It ends in the ever-classic line: “Tell him I’m going to the back seat of my car, with the woman I love, and I won’t be back for ten minutes.”
Homer’s Night Out ^ When the boys at work want to throw a bachelor party for a soon-to-be husband, Homer gets carried away and is inadvertently caught with stripper Princess Kashmir by way of Bart’s new Spy Cam. After the picture gets distributed all over town it is Homer’s job to convince Bart that women aren’t just sex toys and the comedy is thrown into high gear. While it lacks the punch of better episodes, none of the Simpsons break character here and the antics are well done.
The Crepes of Wrath ^Bart’s prank combining a cherry bomb, Principal Skinner’s mother, and a flushing toilet backfire when he is sent to France and his exchange student turns out to be a spy. The fish-out-of-water antics concerning the exchange student trying to get information on the nuclear power plant are the best segments, and Homer’s reaction to his obvious spy activity is always amusing.
Krusty Gets Busted ^ The Kwik-E Mart is robbed and Krusty is soon the prime suspect. Bart and Lisa, sure of his innocence, do some snooping to find out who really did it while Homer, the only eyewitness, has a morality crisis on whether to tell the truth. Who really robbed Abu? The answer may surprise in one of the best episodes of the set. Funny, fast paced, and surprising, this is one of those great moments in the annals of Simpsons adventures.
Disc 3 ^ Some Enchanted Evening ^ Homer attempts to show Marge how much he loves her after hearing her lament about his unloving ways on a radio talk show. But when the sitter, Ms. Botz, turns out to be the Baby Sitter Bandit, the kids have to escape her grasp before they’re the next victims. The first episode produced, but the last aired. The commentary is a must for this one, telling the history of how this episode was created and why it was the last shown.
VIDEO ^ Presented in the original 4:3 full frame ratio (no Simpsons episode has ever been filmed in widescreen), the quality varies per episode. On some the colors are wonderfully vibrant and the blacks are rock solid. On others they run amok with horrible edge-enhancement, noise, and contrast that can’t stay still. Word has it that Fox was going to release the first season on Laserdisc until DVD appeared and they delayed the set. Considering the quality of these transfers, and clunky appearance of the extras, it’s very likely that these are Laserdisc masters placed on DVD and the increase in resolution makes their flaws more noticeable. Either way, you will still find a 200% increase in image quality over any VHS releases and certainly broadcast quality viewing.
AUDIO ^ Remixed from mono to full Dolby Digital 5.1, the underwhelming mono remix sounds like…a mono remix. Everything is processed, from voices to effects, with a front-heavy bass-less mix leaving the surrounds vacant. What surround use that is included is gimmicky at best leaving much to be desired. On the other hand, the 2.0 Stereo track is quite good. The score is balanced well, and the effects and voice work are all locked into the center channel, providing a nice, solid soundtrack that neither over or under whelms the viewer. ^ Also included is a French 2.0 surround dub, English and Spanish subtitles and English Closed Captions
EXTRAS ^ While the extras certainly look good listed on the back of the package, the actual content is somewhat lacking, once you get around the interesting commentaries.
Screen-Specific Audio Commentary for each Episode ^ Every episode contains a commentary with Matt Groening or James L. Brooks as well as the directors and writers. This includes writers Jay Kogen, Al Jean, Wallace Wolodarsky, Mike Reiss, George Meyer, and Jon Vitti, and directors David Silverman, Wesley Archer, Rich Moore and Brad Bird. Now if I’m not mistaken, the same Brad Bird featured here directed the amazing “The Iron Giant,” one of the highlights of 1999 and a most excellent film that no one has seen. Bird now works at Pixar.
Anyway, these commentaries are a treat, if not a tad bit annoying. While they do disclose a lot of great information such as what person each character is based on, alternate plot lines, or the odd color schemes they attempted early on, a thread of “Wow, don’t these old episodes look lame” runs through every track. The writers and directors are all sticklers for the “old style” Simpsons look and comment on it at least ten times per episode. If you can get around their complaining you’ll find some great information, such as the development of each episode as well as how anything the least bit risqué got the censors attention.
Four Complete Scripts ^ Scripts are included on Disc 1 for “Bart the General,” “Moaning Lisa,” and “Bart the Genius.” On Disc 3 they tacked on the script for “Some Enchanted Evening.” It’s cool to see the actual pages from the shooting script, which includes scribbled-out lines as well as interesting doodles on the margins, but what’s puzzling is the fact that they are for viewing using your DVD player only with no DVD-ROM print feature included. Call it a missed opportunity.
The Making of the Simpsons: America’s First Family (6:00) ^ This very short 6-minute piece seems part of a longer documentary that will no doubt get its share of the limelight in the latter season box sets (much like Fox is doing with its “X-Files” releases). Taking us on a quick tour with Groening and friends in the creation of the series, this Cliff Notes-like overview is a great, if not a tad bit fluffy, piece that leaves one salivating for more.
Bart the General Animatic (2:00) ^ A short segment, complete with commentary by David Silverman and Matt Groening, featuring a pencil test version of a scene from the corresponding episode, “Bart the General.” This quick animatic is a prime example of how the Simpsons were developed in this crucial first season.
Outtakes (7:00) ^ Not outtakes but instead a (very) rough cut of “Some Enchanted Evening” with optional commentary by Brooks, Groening and director David Silverman. Some truly horrible video on this one, the rough animation is awful and it’s summed up best by Brooks’ comment that if this was how the series was going to look “we wouldn’t have a show.” He leaves after a couple of minutes in, too disgusted to keep watching.
The Art of the Simpsons ^ This section is split in two. “Matt Groening’s Life In Hell” has but a single still, the original Life In Hell cartoon that caught Brooks’ eye and eventually led to him producing the Simpsons. The other section, “Early Sketches and Drawings,” holds the first concept drawings, around 40 or so, for the family in rough pencil sketches.
Good Night Simpsons (3:00) ^ The original Tracy Ullman Short, this dark nursery rhyme is funny and disturbing. Homer’s voice is totally off the wall, nothing like it stands today, and it’s interesting to see how far they’ve come since these early forays into animation.
Foreign Language Clips (1:00) ^ “Life on the Fast Lane” clips in different languages such as Spanish and Portuguese. Funny, but not really included for any other reason but novelty.
Albert Brooks Audio Outtakes (5:00) ^ Albert Brooks goes nutty with his Jacques voice from “Life on the Fast Lane” over a still of the character shaving in the bathroom. Kind of funny, but just…really…odd; listen at your own risk.
Easter Eggs ^ You’ll find a few of these lurking, including a still montage of magazine covers and a news report on those wacky kids who wear Bart Simpson T-Shirts to school. I remember this uproar and I too got ragged on by parents and teachers for wearing said t-shirts. If you lived through it, the hunting is worth the trip down memory lane.
OVERALL ^ This set is a solid start to a great series. The commentaries are gold and the packaging is study enough to last a good long time. More behind-the-scenes footage, particularly some video of the voice work going on, would’ve been a welcome treat, but what’s included is enough to wet the appetite for what is to come. The Simpsons Complete First Season is easily recommended to die-hard and casual viewers alike.
OVERALL (DVD): * * * * – 4 Stars ^ MOVIE: * * * * – 4 Stars ^ VIDEO: * * * ½ – 3.5 Stars ^ AUDIO: * * * – 3 Stars