Reviews

The Simpsons: The Complete Eighth Season

Jesse Hassenger

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

Distributor: Fox
Cast: Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: The Complete Eighth Season
Network: Fox
US Release Date: 2006-08-15
Website
Amazon

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.

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Music

Mike Stern: Trip

Photo: Sandrine Lee (Concord Music Group)

Mike Stern has fallen. Trip shows that he can get back up just fine.


Mike Stern

Trip

Label: Heads Up
US Release Date: 2017-09-08
UK Release Date: 2017-09-08
Label website
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

Guitarist Mike Stern suffered from a big owie last year. It seems that, while trying to cross a street in Manhattan, he tripped and fell, breaking both of his shoulders in the process. He underwent surgery and reports that "I still have to use glue so I can hold a guitar pick." While you're busy trying to figure out just how a jazz-fusion guitarist needs glue to hold a pick, keep in mind Stern is an embodiment of a working musician, and his chosen genre of expertise is famous for its pay-to-play, sink-or-swim business model. Such a setback can really eat into one's career. Gigs need to be canceled, which sometimes leads to venues blacklisting you in the future. And in a world where most people listen to their music via streaming services, gigging may be your only reliable source of income. Thankfully, Mike Stern, who was 63 at the time of his injury, has made a full recovery and is back to work with an impressive array of professional help. His new album is ironically named Trip. Apart from the title,

Trip makes it sound like nothing ever happened to Stern. At all. In the same way that John McLaughlin and his current Fourth Dimension band sound like a bunch of barnstormers who haven't hit 40 yet, the powerful performance of Stern and his colleagues coupled with the high quality of the material belie both age and medical condition. Now I'm aware that our very own Steven Spoerl did not care for the writing on Mike Stern's 2012 All Over the Place, but there's no way I can sling the same criticism at Trip. The opening title track alone is enough to nullify that. Stern plays the melody in unison with saxophonist Bob Franceschini, and it's all over the place. The song slinks into a B section where the chords shift from a minor vi to a major IV, and again, Stern and Franceschini drive an even meaner melody down the scale with plenty of sharply punctuated intervals. This guy fell, broke his shoulders, and now needs glue to hold a pick? Are we all sure he wasn't just replaced with Steve Austin?

Another number that, to me, offsets any concerns about the able-bodiness or strength of the material is a spunky one named "Watchacallit". This time, the B section brims with even more tension with Franceschini flying high and bassist Tom Kennedy doing little divebombs at the start of each bar. When it's all put together, it's truly a moment for you to crank your listening device of choice (in the past, we would say "stereo" right about here). But that's just two songs. There's a total of 11, spanning an hour and six minutes. Stern doesn't use every bar of every number to punch us in the gut. He still goes for the smooth bop ("Emelia"), the funky intersection of Miles Davis and Funkadelic ("Screws"), and the soothing ballad ("I Believe in You" and "Gone").

No review of Trip would be complete without mentioning the musical pedigree of Mike Stern's friends. When it comes to drummers, he managed to net Dennis Chambers, Lenny White, and Will Calhoun (yes, that Will Calhoun). Those names alone give you a money-back guarantee that the rhythm section will never, ever falter. But just to be sure, Stern summons Victor Wooten to play bass. Top shelf names like Randy Brecker and Bill Evans, in addition to Franceschini, provide Trip with soulful wind. Pianist Jim Beard pulls double duty as the session pianist. Normally, I'd wrap this up by saying that Mike Stern is under the process of pulling himself up by his bootstraps and dusting himself off after a major boo-boo. But after listening to

Trip over and over again, I'm convinced that he's beyond that. The straps are up, and the dust has cleared. He's back, playing and composing just as well as he ever did. Better than he did before the accident, perhaps? You can be the judge of that meaningless hairsplitting exercise because Trip is worth the journey no matter where your expectations may lie.

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