The Simpsons deals with the serious issues -- repression, crises of faith, and fractured families -- that most sitcoms either ignore or confine to "special" quasi-dramatic episodes.
The Simpsons is firmly established as one of the finest television shows ever produced. Likewise, its full-season DVD collections are models of how to treat fans. Their centerpieces are commentary tracks for every single episode, featuring a wide range of participants: writers, directors, actors, guest stars, and creator Matt Groening, with each season's executive producer/showrunner guiding the proceedings.
As an animated comedy without the ongoing subplots of a Friends or Seinfeld, The Simpsons doesn't appear to be easily analyzed on a season-by-season basis. But for Season Eight, co-showrunner Josh Weinstein (who appears on every commentary, sometimes with his producing partner Bill Oakley) describes a specific creative direction.
The Season Seven set commentaries, also presided over by Weinstein and Oakley, described that their goal was to take the show "back to the family," creating emotionally involving stories about Homer and Marge and their kids. On the new DVD set, Weinstein explains that their goal was to explore the "inner lives" of the show's enormous supporting cast. And so they made episodes that looked into the pasts of upbeat neighbor Ned Flanders ("Hurricane Neddy"), Reverend Lovejoy ("In Marge We Trust"), and the parents of Bart's best friend ("A Milhouse Divided"). The writers take these opportunities to deal with the serious issues -- repression in "Neddy," crises of faith in "Trust," and fractured families in "Divided" -- that most sitcoms either ignore or confine to "special" quasi-dramatic episodes.
But well-used gimmicks have their place, too. Weinstein repeatedly mentions his desire to contribute a handful of format-busting episodes that push "the envelope, conceptually" to each of his seasons. For Season Eight, this means the hallucinatory "El Viaje Misterioso De Nuestro Homer," in which Homer ingests a "Guatemalan insanity pepper" and has a surrealistic vision about finding his soul mate.
While the hallucinations of "Viaje" are outlandish, and its overtones druggy (they seem less druggy after listening to the brainy creative team), the episode remains an uncontroversial fan favorite. Weinstein places another format-bender, "Homer's Enemy," in his "personal top three" Simpsons episodes. In it, Frank Grimes, a new worker at Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, is enraged to discover that a lazy bumbler like Homer Simpson has gone through life without any of the hardships that Grimes has endured (he was critically injured in a silo explosion and lives "above a bowling alley and below another bowling alley"). Some fans despise this episode because they feel that Homer's treatment of Grimes is obnoxious, or that the episode is overly self-referential or turns mean-spirited. The final meta-gag has Homer getting affectionate laughs during Frank Grimes' funeral.
Though the episode remains fascinating for exactly the reasons some fans hate it, the commentary doesn't go far enough in defending its honor. Weinstein and company give due appreciation, and Hank Azaria reveals that he modeled the Grimes voice and attitude -- his "seething passion under total calm" -- on William H. Macy. But the speakers brush off fans' reactions, as they do the nerd backlash against another episode, "The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show," that rejects fanboy entitlement ("They've given you countless hours of entertainment for free," Bart says at one point of the fictional Itchy & Scratchy writers. "What could they possibly owe you?"). I'm not longing for the fans' misgivings to be addressed so much as smacked down.
Despite frequent "entertainment value," the commentary for Season Eight is somewhat less excited, the pauses more frequent than for previous seasons. The show was about to pass its golden years (Seasons Three through Nine); maybe the DVD sets are heading that way, too. Of course, saying that the commentaries in this DVD package aren't as fresh or insightful as earlier season sets is about on par with calling a Season 18 Simpsons episode less hilarious than a Season Eight installment. It is true, but meaningful only for a superfan. For any casual viewer, the Simpsons commentary tracks remain exemplary: intelligent but not self-serious, packed with information but conversational in tone.