Sunday, September 20th, 2009 at 11:22 am
The Simpsons The Complete Twelfth Season
Starring Dan Castellaneta, Nancy Cartwright, Julie Kavner, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria
Twentieth Century Fox
Release Date: August 18, 2009
As far back as I can remember The Simpsons has been a part of my life. Growing up with the first family of Springfield, Any State USA since their Christmas special first aired in late 1989 I could see parts of myself and my own family in Matt Groening‘s brilliant creation. Being a reader, a bit of a brain, and somehow able to stand outside the rest of my family and observe their strange behavior with the perspective of a seasoned psychiatrist, I could always relate to oldest daughter Lisa (voiced by Yeardley Smith), while my dad (who I was named after) took after intellectually challenged yet well-meaning father Homer (voiced by Dan Castellenata) somewhat (at least when he was around). Mother Marge (voiced by Julie Kavner), full of motherly wisdom and ready to be the glue that held the family together at all times, naturally reminded me of my own mom Carolyn. Then there was underachiever (and proud of it) brother Bart (voiced by Nancy Cartwright), whose tendency to raise hell without a moment’s hesitation continuously brought my own younger siblings Sean and Lisa. Little Maggie (voiced by someone sucking on a pacifier) could be representative of us all when we’re at that age. Besides them there’s the show’s sizable supporting cast. Who among us has never had a Bible-thumping neighbor like Ned Flanders, or a greedy employer like Montgomery Burns? You may have had a conservative principal like Seymour Skinner or encountered a bartender like Moe. The townspeople who populate Springfield, a city which appears to be all American cities and none of them, may have come from the imaginations of a brilliant writing staff and voice cast (not to mention some very talented animators) but most of these characters are bound to strike a few of us as a bit familiar.
The first two seasons of The Simpsons were almost as consistently hilarious as the later seasons but the start was rough and the show was still finding its comedic voice. But as the years went on the show improved mightily and each cast member evolved their character’s voice to a point where it probably never leaves their head for a split second unless they have a Zen mastery of their conscious mind, but I digress. The show also boasted the largest cast of characters on television and never shied away from giving most of these characters their own moments in the spotlight. Springfield may be a strange town where corruption runs rampant, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and the townsfolk can be mobilized at any time into forming a lynch mob, but honestly folks it’s almost impossible to name a real American city that doesn’t fit that same description. Yet The Simpsons, much like the town of Springfield (which is most likely located in the same state as Gotham City and Metropolis), has always been full of wit, warmth, and magic no matter what the quality of certain episodes were. When he was running for re-election in 1992 President George H.W. Bush dared to attack the show for not symbolizing what family values meant to him (he cited The Waltons as an example of that vision), but to this day The Simpsons remains the best show about family values television ever gave us. Besides being smart and funny the key to the show’s drawing power has always been our ability to identify with the characters and situations in our own unique way no matter how absurd they could become. The late comedian Bill Hicks, one of my personal heroes, once said that he would love to live in Springfield. So would I.
Even in its old age (20 years and counting) The Simpsons remains as fresh and timeless as the ageless Simpsons themselves. At its weakest the show is still funnier than 95% of the so-called sitcoms on television thanks to the sharp writing, classic animation, and priceless vocal work of a gifted cast and crew. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has never failed to give the first family of Springfield the royal treatment on DVD and their latest set is no exception, compiling all 21 episodes of the show’s 12th season in a snazzy four-disc set loaded with extras in beautiful gatefold packaging featuring an art layout that keeps with the geek friendly theme of a Springfield comic convention in honor of Springfield’s own Comic Book Guy (voiced by Hank Azaria), sarcastic and arrogant purveyor of all things worshiped by his fellow nerds from the confines of his store the Android’s Dungeon. The Comic Book Guy even gets his face on the cover of the DVD box in full superhero pose and a showcase episode to show this bitingly amusing character some much needed personal depth, appropriately titled “Best Episode Ever”, but his show is just one of many gems to emerge from the twelfth season. As expected Homer gets the lion’s share of the exposure since the writers will never cease to come up with hilarious ways to put him through the figurative ringer but obviously the rest of the family get their plentiful moments in the spotlight. Kicking off with the annual “Treehouse of Horror” episode that has its share of laughs but only a segment about a dolphin revolt is entirely funny and closing with another more successful anthology episode, this one revolving around a trio of Simpsons-style folk stories, this season turns out to be another solid run for this classic television comedy.
Krusty the Clown gets to meet his illegitimate daughter (voiced by Drew Barrymore) and another sweet side to this sad, lonely entertainment veteran is revealed. Bart and his friends Milhouse, Nelson, and Ralph form a popular boy band (this episode aired in early 2001 at the height of the genre’s popularity) with a little help from N’Sync. Sideshow Bob (voiced by Kelsey Grammer) returns with another plan to kill Bart, only this time he intends on using Bart to kill Krusty as well. Homer goes on a hunger strike to keep Springfield’s minor league baseball team from moving to Albuquerque but finds himself being exploited by the team’s owner (voiced by Stacy Keach). Marge befriends a convict with an artistic streak (voiced by Michael Keaton). Ned Flanders, still grief-stricken over his wife Maude’s untimely (yet darkly amusing if you’ve ever seen the episode) passing, decides to honor her memory by building a religious theme park she had always dreamed about. My personal favorite episode of the season starts out with Homer buying a home computer and starting a website devoted to spreading gossip about his fellow Springfieldians and ends when him being kidnapped and taken to an island prison in a spoof of the 1960’s cult classic television show The Prisoner (with a vocal cameo from Prisoner star Patrick McGoohan). There’s also a certain poignancy in seeing Homer temporarily cured of his staggering stupidity and able to relate to his daughter Lisa’s intellect in the episode “Homr”. Among the stand-out vocal cameos this season you’ll find Kathy Griffin, Edward Norton, The Who, Joshua Jackson, Tom Savini, Joe Mantegna, Shawn Colvin, Stephen King, Amy Tan, and John Updike.
Fox has outdone itself with another stellar DVD presentation of The Simpsons. The video and audio quality comes through beautifully with a near spotless 1.33:1 full frame that preserves the original television aspect ratio of each episode and strong English Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish and French 2.0 audio tracks. English and Spanish subtitles are also provided for each episode. The extra features kick off on disc one with a brief introduction to the DVD set by series creator Matt Groening. There are audio commentaries for every episode featuring Groening and various members of the cast and crew cracking wise and offering up stories about their work on the show. Deleted scenes for eighteen of the twenty-one episodes are spread out across the four-disc set with an option on disc four to watch every scene from the set in a single 24-minutes reel. Three “A Bit with the Animators” featurettes bring together a few members from the show’s animation staff to dissect the episodes “Lisa the Tree Hugger”, “Homr”, and “I’m Goin’ to Praiseland” with the assistance of telestrator drawings. The Comic Book Guy gets his own “best of” compilation feature entitled “Best. Moments. Ever.” (10 minutes) and it shows how Hank Azaria’s voice work as the character evolved over the years. Another feature gives us the option of watching the episode “Homer vs. Dignity” in Hungarian, Portugese, Ukrainian, and Italian. “Animation Showcase” allows us to watch the episodes “Treehouse of Horror XI” and “Day of the Jackanapes” with the option of viewing the original animatics and storyboards in a picture-in-picture window. The extras close on disc four with “The Global Fanfest” (7 minutes), which focuses on a special Simpsons event held on the 20th Century Fox lot hosted by Mark Walberg (not the former Marky Mark but a former reality show host I think) and featuring a trivia contest, a live orchestra conducted by show composer Alf Clausen, and a Q&A featuring several members of the cast and crew. A selection of commercials featuring the Simpsons endorsing Butterfinger candy bars, Burger King, and an Australian fast food franchise called Red Rooster, and a sketch gallery round out the generous bonus features.
All in all the twelfth season of The Simpsons is a sweet and hilarious pleasure. After two decades the show is still as sharp and relevant as ever and it will always remain so as long as the show continues to treat its fans like intelligent and open-minded adults. Fox has done the show well once more with an outstanding DVD box set, and the only drawback to getting season sets as generous and lovingly assembled as these is that because of the time involved in putting them together there are still eight more seasons to put out before they’re caught up. Oh well, we can all deal.