Just as later seasons of The Simpsons have become hit and miss affairs rather than the appointment viewing of its first decade or so, so too have the DVD sets moved from must-own collections to inessential, if undeniably fan-friendly, collector’s objects. Season 13, now on DVD, finds the show settling into a sometimes amusing, often unexceptional groove, and as much fun as these retrospective box sets are, the same is true for the collected version.
At the time, the early-season showrunning transition from Mike Scully to Al Jean seemed more important than it does in retrospect. Some fans blamed Scully for taking their beloved show in a coarser direction, and hoped Jean would steer the show back to undiluted greatness. Under Jean show does improve a bit from the the worst moments of previous seasons, especially as it steps away from some of the more outlandish stories or grotesque slapstick—though the writers, in their commentary tracks, still laugh off fan complaints about gags where Homer is, say, grievously injured, rather than defending them in a meaningful way.
Jean also, like just about every showrunner before him, takes steps to bring episodes “back to the family”—there are fewer episodes about Homer finding a new job or going on a crazy adventure (though Homer does become a policeman and the family does travel to Brazil), and more about familial relationships. However, in returning to more grounded, relatable storytelling, it also foretells the level of recycling that sets in throughout the next decade or so of Jean’s still-running tenure.
Some of the individual episodes—“Little Girl in the Big Ten”, with Lisa pretending to be a college student; “Sweets and Sour Marge”, with Marge crusading against sugar, and “The Lastest Gun in the West”, with Bart and Lisa rehabilitating an old western star, among others—are quite good, with decent gag-writing and sweetness mingling comfortably with satire. The notes are already familiar: Lisa doesn’t fit in; Marge wants to keep Springfield from making stupid decisions; Bart and Lisa help a faded celebrity. Jean and company keep the show wavering between respecting its legacy and lazily mining it.
The commentary tracks on the DVD, usually a highlight of these comprehensive sets, offer less illumination than usual on the creative process of producing some very good and some depressingly lame episodes. The tracks are sometimes chummy to the point of myopia, and often overcrowded with voices. In recent sets, those voices often include guest stars from the episode, returning to reflect on the experience or, just as often, let the writers ask about their non-Simpsons accomplishments.
Depending on the guest, this can be illuminating; it’s fun, for example, to hear a bunch of nerdy comedy writers chat with Stan Lee about comic books during the comics-themed episode “I Am Furious Yellow”, even though they don’t say much about the episode itself. Yet there are just as many tangents that feel like the product of boredom. James Lipton, for example, appears in a throwaway gag unrelated to the main story or even a subplot of “The Sweetest Apu,” and so he guests on the accompanying commentary track, which consists primarily of the writers and producers interviewing him about his Inside the Actors Studio work (perhaps owing to the Studio episode he did with the cast a few years later, Lipton sits in on several other tracks, too; he doesn’t say much on those, but his presence is still puzzling).
With the right guest, though, the commentaries can be freshened up in surprising ways. Character actor Delroy Lindo, in the commentary for “Brawl in the Family”, asks some vaguely prickly questions about the show’s process, including a question about why, exactly, the show has so many credited producers. The explanation about sitcom writing hierarchies and how staffers are promoted with titles is interesting (if, again, disconnected from the episode at hand)—and turns telling when one writer appends the explanation with: “none of us want to leave the job.”
This speaks to the obvious enjoyment of creating new Simpsons episodes, but also to the complacency of a show that was, at this point, well into a two-decade-plus run. Fans sometimes complain about new writers failing to recapture the glory days of the original Simpsons writer rooms, but the show has just as many veteran staffers like Jean (even the “new” guys have often been there for five or six years). The series and its DVDs have become a versatile habit: sometimes good, sometimes tired, always difficult to shake.