Watching The Simpsons has recently turned into something of a test. Followers have taken to dissecting the episodes, comparing them to the other 300, and finding any number of “worst episodes ever.” The fan judges the latest seasons harshly: it’s too cynical, overly self-referential, too fond of celebrity guests. The first third of each new episode has nothing to do with the rest of the plot, often making reference to the trend of the month before devolving into a generic plot strand. And yet, while debates rage over Maude Flanders’ death, Homer’s jerk-ass persona, and that Kid Rock cameo, The Simpsons remains one of the funniest, sharpest shows on television, surviving changes in culture, political climate, and production and writing staffs to become the longest running animated program in history.
The Simpsons’ lengthy “Golden Age” stretches from Season Three to Season Nine. Containing none of the early years’ mawkishness or later, broad gags, the middle period is nearly unimpeachable for its satiric consistency and character development. Season Six was the greatest of all.
Just released on DVD, the 25 episodes broadcast from 1994-1995 are as germane today as they were then. Although previous seasons touched on mob mentality, political corruption, and capitalism, Season Six took aim at television for its role in exacerbating those problems. In “Homer Bad Man,” Homer is accused of sexual harassment, and his subsequent treatment is a witty, hyperbolic denunciation of the “court of public opinion.” From the made-for-TV movie based on the supposed crime to the helicopters swirling over the Simpson residence, the parody is only a stone’s throw from real-life media circuses. The irony at episode’s end—that Homer is vindicated by the very voyeuristic technology that indicted him—completes the circle. With so many of today’s “news” favoring scandals and vociferous commentary over hard news and objectivity, the point remains painfully relevant.
The DVD set’s commentary tracks—one for every episode—underline such relevance. Featuring Matt Groening and different writers, producers, directors, and occasional voice actors on each track, the commentaries are often as incisive as the episodes. The “Homie the Clown” commentary points out a “blink and you’ll miss it” Maltese Falcon tribute, and the one for “Treehouse of Horror V” notes the Ray Bradbury-inspired storyline. For “Itchy & Scratchy Land,” commentators recall personal experiences that led to those parodies. This anecdotal approach is illuminating, and it extends to other aspects of the commentary. Groening discusses his protracted fight with the censors to get an unedited version of this gory episode on the air and praises his artists.
The commentary tracks repeatedly demonstrate the mutual respect and camaraderie of the Simpsons veterans. They sound like old college buddies recalling glory days—they all know the past by heart, but occasionally, a forgotten joke causes them to laugh and reminisce quite joyously. They’re also inclined to digress into unrelated personal conversations. During “Lisa On Ice,” Matt Groening, David Mirkin, Mike Scully, and Bob Anderson overextend their anecdotes, and they start talking to each other about their personal school experiences during crucial plot points. Still, it’s an admirable feat to include a commentary for every episode.
The “animatic” special features take this sort of referential detail to a more technical level. Armed with electronic pens, Groening and fellow creators Jim Reardon and David Silverman demonstrate how the “Treehouse of Horror V” tribute to Stanley Kubrick extends beyond quoting plot points or bits of dialogue. The incorporation of Kubrick’s restrained, symmetrical style into the animation is sophisticated parody.
More obvious but equally good fun, Springfield’s Most Wanted is a John Walsh-narrated parody of America’s Most Wanted that was inspired by the season’s cliff-hanger finale, “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” The oddest extra has to be the video showing a huge airplane, painted with the Simpsons family as a marketing ploy, concocted during the height of Simpsons-mania. Whenever The Simpsons dipped towards embracing the capital-driven, tabloid-chasing society it derided, publicity stunts like this ensured that the show didn’t escape parody either.
Also helpful in charting the season’s evolution, the deleted scenes are designed to show context and process. This four-disc set contains more deleted scenes than previous box sets, marked during the episodes by scissors icons in the corner of the screen; clicking them will reinsert the clip into the show. “Homer vs. Patty & Selma” includes an alternate scene of Homer throwing Patty and Selma out of his house—this time, with a smooth landing. The producers were right to leave it out of the broadcast, but for the DVD, it is a welcome peek into the visual trial and error that is necessary in brainstorming cartoon humor.
Watching Season Six inspires hope, rather than despair, for the upcoming season. In these mid-‘90s episodes, the characters gained their heart and depth. “Lisa on Ice” is as perfect as any portrait of elementary school angst, sibling competition, and parental pressure. “And Maggie Makes Three” is a touching look at fatherhood. It’s time to stop watching The Simpsons with bated breath and axe in hand, both wishing for and dreading the end of the series. Fans ought to view Season Six as its sentimental, witty, and very achievable standard.