The 10th season of The Simpsons represented one turning point for the now almost two-decade-old show, and that season comes to DVD at another such point. The show has recently, finally made the jump to the big screen with The Simpsons Movie, finding great box-office and critical success.
The achievement represented by Season 10 is less decisive. In some ways, it was a second win for the series: the ratings surged a bit around this late-’90s period, ensuring that Fox would keep the show around for years to come (in fact, going by the extensions Fox enforced on The X-Files and Beverly Hills, 90210, you could mathematically project the demise of The Simpsons as somewhere around Season 30). Season 10 marked the beginning of the show’s metamorphosis from mere long-running comedy series to cultural institution.
Yet when watching these episodes on DVD alongside earlier sets (and the new movie), it’s clear that this batch represents the show’s first significant dip in quality, a step away from its golden era. Other seasons may vary from each other by a degree or two, but Season 10 showcases a slightly coarser, less precise Simpsons, with broader gags and more outlandish plots.
This is not to say that these episodes are without their charm; many, in fact, are laugh-out-loud funny and characteristically smart. “Bart the Mother” explores the show’s sweet and dark sides simultaneously as Bart, remorseful after killing a bird, tries to care for orphaned eggs that turn out to hold ravenous lizards. “Lisa Gets an A” hands an ethical dilemma to the normally studious child prodigy. “Thirty Minutes over Tokyo” is one of the funniest of the show’s many travel-themed episodes, as the writers gleefully brainstorm gags around Japanese pop culture, including seizure-inducing robots and “Godzilla-related turbulence.” In other words, there are still plenty of classic moments to go around.
This season also, for better or worse, has greater unity than many that came before. Past seasons have been described on commentaries as taking the show’s focus back to the family, or exploring the lives of the other Springfield residents; though the commentaries don’t exactly own up to it, Season 10 is mainly about Homer Simpson taking on new jobs and/or personas with wacky results. In the span of just 23 episodes, his roles include inventor, bodyguard, hippie, celebrity gofer, truck driver, outside artist, and lard profiteer. The “Homer gets a new job” story has been a staple at least since Season 3, but Season 10 makes it a motif, whether through a satirist’s desire to explore Homer’s innate everyman qualities and weaknesses, or a lazy comedy writer’s desire to, as easily as possible, think up a new vocational slapstick each week.
The show’s wackiness has less ambiguously creative dividends, too: Season 10 forged a new kind of Simpsons plot that would give up as much as a third of the episode to tangential set-up, then arrive at the “main” plot only to make a hard turn into left field. “Mayored to the Mob” begins with a lengthy, gag-packed spoof of science-fiction convention gatherings; then Homer gets (yes) a new job as the mayor’s bodyguard, before running afoul of a mafia school-milk scam. In “Homer to the Max”, a television cop show eventually causes Homer to change his name to Max Power, which somehow leads to a climactic environmental protest with the Springfield elite. At the time, many fans decried these stories as nonsensical and cartoonish, and some episodes are, but the absurdist plotting is undeniably imaginative in the way it upends sitcom conventions with freewheeling abandon.
It seems almost as if an antsy writing staff was itching for bigger, weirder stories, chafing at the show’s 22-minute format. But rather than make the jump to the movies back in 1998, the show scattered itself. For a substantial period starting with Season 10, the show careened from blatant surrealism to sweet humanity to rehashed stories to gruesome slapstick and cruelty, sometimes within the span of a single episode, without past restraints that kept the series grounded. The Simpsons has since retreated from a Family Guy-style abyss, but the recent film still functioned more as a relaxed, witty return to form rather than the charging expansion seemingly attempted here.
Though The Simpsons Movie was not yet in the planning stages during Season 10, the DVD’s commentary tracks were recorded while the film was in production. When, during “When You Dish Upon a Star”, a star-struck Homer laments that Marge “couldn’t open a movie if [her] life depended on it”, one of the writers can’t resist a sly “we’ll see”, and another adds “July 27, 2007” for good measure (Marge was at least somewhat vindicated; the film’s opening was huge).
These commentaries are part of an ongoing quest to record tracks for every episode of the series. As the DVD sets continue, this task becomes increasingly impressive — and daunting. The writers, directors, producers, and occasional actors are still engaging to listen to, but less compulsively than on earlier sets. If you seek acknowledgments of the show’s passing of its peak, you’ll have to listen between the lines. On that “Star” track, for example, we hear the writers discussing a debate over a joke that characterizes Homer as illiterate. The final justification for the joke’s inclusion (despite ample evidence that Homer is not actually illiterate) is that the joke “killed in the room”, meaning the writers’ room. In the wake of the show’s many hit-and-miss seasons since, the anecdote sounds more like comedy dudes trying to top each other than the careful, exacting writing of the show at its best.
Still, just as weaker Simpsons seasons are superior to most television, less forthcoming Simpsons commentaries still trump most DVDs. The standard additional bonus features — deleted scenes, details of the animation process — are fan essentials, as always. Maybe moreso — in its uneven way, Season 10 begs for more examination than the usual Simpsons genius that preceded it. Though many great episodes followed this season, the accomplishment of a funny, humane, rapid-fire Simpsons movie starts to look all the greater.