[26 August 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The Simpsons was never a solo effort, no matter the recognition and raves creator Matt Groening has earned from the animated sitcom’s phenomenal success. The venerable Sunday night favorite, a Fox fixture since the days of The Cosby Show, Reaganomics, and the laser disc, is really the combined result of dozens of talented individuals. If one element underperforms - writing, directing, voice acting, drawing - everything suffers. It’s one of the reasons that the show’s continued creativity (and commercial appeal) is such an amazing thing. Every week, these funny business facets must be in place, properly calibrated via collaboration, or America’s favorite family becomes nothing more than a bunch of bozos.
While it would be nice if the studio stepped up the DVD release schedule and gave us more Simpsons more often (at this rate, any Blu-ray release schedule will more than likely outlast the format), it’s safe to say that no other digital presentation is this concerned about giving each aesthetic cog in their multifaceted machine a chance to be heard. The Season 12 set, just released on 18 August, continues in the tradition. Each of the brilliant 21 episodes offered is peppered with commentary tracks, outtakes, deleted scenes, animatics, and other added content that really explains the entire Simpsons process. From who pitches what idea to how some sequences get completely rewritten, the men and women as part of the process are more than happy to share their experience. Clearly, they love what they are working on.
And so do we. Sure, the naysayers love to argue about which portions of the Simpsons’ protracted popularity are better than others, but said grousing is never really a question of quality. It’s more like nostalgia wrapped in a need to play contrarian to the current cultural whims (call it “Armond White Syndrome”). If The Simpsons: Season 12 were representative of any other series, the messageboards would be lighting up with unqualified praise. It’s just impossible for any TV show to maintain such a high level of hilarity - and yet, surreal or not, stepping outside the typical suburban family dynamic the show started with, this ‘version’ is still a satiric gem. It even acknowledges the constant criticism by giving the show’s leading cynic, Comic Book Guy, his own love story themed installment…and calling it “Worst Episode Ever”.
Elsewhere, Season 12 sees the family visiting Kenya (“Simpson Safari”), helping neighbor Ned Flanders build a religious-based theme park in honor of his dead wife (“We’re Going to Praiseland”) and picking up the ‘sport of kings’ (“Tennis the Menace”). Family patriarch Homer is up to his ‘everything old is new again’ tricks, starting a gossip website (“The Computer Wore Menace Shoes), a day care center (“Children of a Lesser Clod”) and a hunger strike to keep the local baseball team from moving (“Hungry, Hungry Homer”). He also becomes a ‘prank monkey’ for Mr. Burns (“Homer vs. Dignity”) and learns why he’s so stupid (“HomЯ”) while wife Marge vouches for a prisoner with a penchant for art (“Pokey Mom”). Lisa takes local ecological matters into her own eight year old hands (“Lisa the Treehugger”) while uncovering the secret to bullies (“Bye, Bye Nerdie”), Bart learns the art of grifting from his grandfather (“The Great Money Caper:”) and joins a boy band (“New Kids on the Blecch”).
In between, Krusty becomes an accidental dad (“Insane Clown Poppy”), the students of Springfield Elementary get trapped inside the school during a blizzard (“Skinner’s Sense of Snow”), the city splits over differing area codes (“A Tale of Two Springfields”) and Sideshow Bob returns to wreck even more havoc on the tiny town (“Day of the Jackanapes”). There is also the traditional Halloween show, offering a spectral Homer, evil fairy tale characters, and killer dolphins, as a take on traditional folklore offering Tall Tales revolving around Paul Bunyon, Johnny Appleseed, and Mark Twain’s Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer. The gaggle of guest stars include rock band The Who, comedian Kathy Griffin, Drew Barrymore, Stephen King, Patrick McGoohan, Tom Savini, Venus and Serena Williams, and mega-music stars (at least, at the time) N’Sync.
As a nearly eight hour experience straight through (473 commercial free minutes, to be exact) The Simpsons’ 12th Season is stunning. It is loaded with classic lines (“more mouth-watering monkeys”) and moments that rank right up there with the series’ best. Certainly, some of the storylines go off on tangents that are purposeful middle fingers to the audience (Grandpa’s early funeral arrangements turns into a new tennis court for the back yard???) and unless Al Jean’s working on the story, the simplistic days of pure familial interaction are long gone. Some could successfully argue that at this stage in the show’s popularity, the minds behind the mayhem thought they could get away with pretty much anything. The commentary tracks included here argue for concept taken to bizarre extremes, while others were purposefully forgotten and tossed aside as being way too “out there”.
It’s also interesting to hear the creators revisit these shows some eight years after they were made. They all pre-date 9/11, which leads to some interesting insights, and every time a butt crack is show, everyone explains how Fox has since mandated no more nudity. The Simpsons Movie is mentioned, as are the graduates of the Springfield School of Animation Hard Knocks who have gone on to work at places like Pixar. In many ways, this DVD set is more than just a keepsake of a classic comedy. It’s a document of a specific time and place, as well as a history lesson surrounded by inside jokes and personal jabs. Certain no-shows - Nancy Cartwright, Harry Shearer, longtime writer John Schwartzwelder - always spike curiosity. One can definitely support their desire to stay silent. But with everyone (and in some cases, their droll 14 year old son) joining it, their absence seems odd.
Even with the MIA members of the Simpsons’ camp, the DVD of Season 12 is sensational, loaded with laughs, insights, unexpected treats and much, much more. Of the installments offered, more than a couple stand out. “Tale of Two Springfields” does a great job of illustrating the show’s hidden class subtext, while “Homer vs. Dignity” is a delicious take on the classic comic novel The Magic Christian. “Skinner’s Sense of Snow” is loaded with memorable moments (“Di di Mao, Seymour, di di mao!) while “New Kids” has some of the best fake pop songs ever conceived for a TV show. In between hobo sponge baths and dancing Texans, there is something here for everyone. And the best thing about The Simpsons - as long as they maintain the group effort in all they do, they can go on as long as they want. Even halfway through their unplanned legacy, the show is still great.