Why is The Simpsons quite possibly the greatest show in the history of television? After all, it's animated, which in the past hasn't set a benchmark for TV classicism (the adventures of Fred and Barney aside). It's also so jam-packed with pop culture references and media lampoons that it runs the risk of insulting or isolating the very audience it is trying to entreat. Then there is the actual family dynamic present, with an oafish bum of a dad pawning off his parental duties on a dense, disconnected wife who lives for the household. Add three broad bratlings who use their own impulsive personalities to completely indulge their egotistical id (yes, even baby Maggiego with me here), an angry old man left to rot in a nursing home, and a couple of callous sisters-in-law who smoke and stank of overdue skank, and the recipe is ripe for refutation, not joking.
But something strange happens when all these elements converge in Matt Groening's view of the really nuclear family. The Simpsons blossoms, becoming omniscient, able to read into each and every viewer's psyche and tap the funny/familiar bones inside. It is one of the best written, best voice acted, and well conceived shows in the history of the medium and consistently passes the test of all great comedy: it's funny even after repeat viewings. Parent company 20th Century Fox is slowly unfurling this masterpiece onto DVD, and if you were never a fan before, it's time to belly up to the buffoonery and take a deep, cleansing breath of bemusement. The Simpsons is the funniest television show ever.
If you don't know them by now, you should. If for some reason, the enchanted pixie that cursed you in 1987 finally decided to let you regain human form and consciousness and you really have no earthly idea who the Simpsons are, then here is a brief character course. Homer Simpson is married to Marge. He works at the local nuclear power plant as a safety engineer while she stays at home and raises the kids. Bart is their eldest son and is a self-proclaimed underachiever (and damn proud of it), while middle daughter Lisa is a near genius with a very radicalized sense of purpose. Baby Maggie is merely a toddler, yet she always seems to express what the rest of the family is thinking.
Homer's father, Abe, lives in an old folk's home, and Marge's sisters, Patty and Selma, are ugly single career gals living together. They all reside in Springfield, which is more or less a state of mind rather than an actual city in an actual recognizable locale. Or maybe it's Kentucky.
The episodes offered for Season Five are split up over four discs. The installments and a brief description and rating score for each are as follows:
"Homer's Barbershop Quartet": While rummaging through some junk at a local flea market, Bart and Lisa come across an album featuring their father's face. Thus we learn about how Homer became an overnight sensation as part of a barbershop quartet. Score:*****
"Cape Feare": Sideshow Bob, one time sidekick to Krusty the Klown (Springfield's premier kid vid entertainer) is getting out of prison. And he has a score to settle with the person who sent him up the river...one Bart Simpson. Score: *****
"Homer Goes to College": When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission learns that Homer is dangerously under-qualified, he is given a mandate: He must go to college or loose his job. Our near-incompetent company man then heads to the local university to matriculate his butt off. Score: *****
"Rosebud": Richest man in town Mr. Burns misses his favorite stuffed bear, Bobo. Lost long ago, he feels his life has been incomplete without it. So when Maggie ends up with the moldy old toy, the brash billionaire wants it back. But will Homer's price be too high to pay? Score: *****
"Treehouse of Horror IV": In three separate Halloween related stories, Homer sells his soul to the Devil for a donut, Bart witnesses a gremlin try to dismantle the school bus, and Mr. Burn's is discovered to be the most famous bloodsucker of all time, Dracula. Score: ****1/2
"Marge on the Lam": When Homer once again fails to show for something Marge is interested in, our harried housewife turns to next door neighbor Ruth Powers for companionship. Naturally, they end up on the run from the law, with the police in hot pursuit. Score: ****
"Bart's Inner Child": Self-help guru Brad Goodman makes a stop over in Springfield, a town in desperate need of a mega-dose of therapy. And what solution does the pseudo-charlatan have for the hamlet? They all need to be exactly like his ideal role model Bart! Score: ****1/2
"Boy Scoutz N The Hood": After going on a massive sugar bender, Bart learns he has joined the Junior Campers. While earning merit badges and bathing the elderly become second nature to the scout, the potential Father and Son camping trip with Homer has him in a blind panic. Score: *****
"The Last Temptation of Homer": When Mindy Simmons is hired on at the Power Plant, Homer falls into an instant infatuation with the fetching red-head. Suddenly, his home life doesn't seem so great, and Mindy appears to be equally interested in the fat, balding buffoon. Score: *****
"$pringfield (or how I learned to stop worrying and love legalized gambling)": In an effort to bring some much needed revenue to the city, the town decides to allow gambling. Mr. Burns opens a casino, and wouldn't you know it, Marge discovers she has a crippling addiction to gaming. Score: ****
"Homer the Vigilante": When a rash of cat burglaries strikes the town, Homer sets up a posse to protect the people's property. Unfortunately, the motley crew of miscreants let the power go to their head, and they appear to cause more problems than they prevent. Score: ****
"Bart Gets Famous": When he accidentally stumbles onto the set of Krusty's TV show, a miscue and a catchphrase turn Bart into an overnight sensation. But the young boy soon learns that fame and fortune are fleeting, and not very fun at all. Score: ****
"Homer and Apu": When Apu gets fired from the Kwik E Mart for selling expired meat products, he feels the karmic need to make it up to the food poisoning victim - Homer. But life as a lackey for a total tub of lard is just not as rewarding as working in a convenience store. Score: *****
"Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy": When her favorite doll starts spouting sexist drivel, Lisa is determined to correct the toy-based injustice. With the help of Stacie's original creator, Lisa will manufacture and market her own action figure, one that will instill more politically correct values. Score: *****
"Deep Space Homer": When NASA learns that their rocket launch ratings are the lowest in history, they decide to let regular schmoes go up in space. And who are the first two down to earth dudes bucking for the trip into orbit? Why, Homer and his alcoholic friend Barney. Score: *****
"Homer Loves Flanders": When irritating, God-fearing Ned Flanders invites him to the championship football game, the genuine gesture causes Homer to have a change of heart regarding his hated next door nemesis. But too much of Homer's affection can be a tough cross to bear. Score: ****1/2
"Bart Gets an Elephant": After winning a radio contest, Bart refuses the cash prize, instead insisting on the gag gift an elephant. At first, the family makes due with the less than pleasant pachyderm. But with the animal eating them out of house and home, something must be done. Score: ****1/2
"Burn's Heir": Feeling his mortality, Mr. Burns sees the need to determine who will inherit his vast fortune. Eventually, Bart is chosen. Initially, the boy is uncomfortable with his role as beneficiary. But the lure of massive wealth has him abandoning his family for Burn's massive mansion. Score: *****
"Sweet Seymour Skinner's Badasssss Song": Bart brings his dog to school for Show and Tell. The resulting melee gets Principal Skinner fired. When Ned Flanders takes over the duties of running the school, Bart learns that he misses his old nemesis, and plots to get him back. Score: ****1/2
"The Boy Who Knew Too Much": While playing hooky from school, Bart witnesses a strange incident between Mayor Quimby's nephew and a French waiter. When the case goes to trial, Bart's testimony could save the day. But then Principal Skinner would learn of his truancy. Score: ****1/2
"Lady Bouvier's Lover": After they're seen sharing some minor affection at Maggie's Birthday party, Homer and Marge decide to match up their sad single parents. But Grandpa Simpson soon has a rival for Grandma Bouvier's affections the loathsome Mr. Burns. Score: ****1/2
"Secrets of a Successful Marriage": After being told he is "slow" Homer decides to prove everyone wrong and gets a job teaching an adult education class on marriage. Too bad that the only way he can keep his students' attention is by dishing the dirt on his marriage to Marge. Score: ****1/2
Season 5 represented a true turning point for the constantly gaining in popularity program. The Simpsons had ridden out time slot changes, mass media controversy, and even a bit of bewildering backlash before slowly becoming a beloved, much talked about cartoon classic. Yet behind the scenes, longtime writers were leaving, suffering from burnout or the possible pursuit of greener pastures. It was up to the new faces to quickly step in and try to hold down the funny fort. One of the biggest defections came when producer and writer Conan O'Brien received the news that he was being offered the old Late Night slot at NBC. Taking over for David Letterman put even more strain on the show, since O'Brien (in the middle of writing some scripts for the series) had to divide his time between the two wildly divergent camps. With Season 4 so well received (many consider it to be The Simpsons at its most pure and complete) there was fear that with all the turmoil, changes, and unfamiliar creative voices, the show would suffer, or simply drift into derivativeness.
The opposite happened instead. Like anyone coming in to a long standing entity, the newbies wanted to make their mark on the show, and indeed, Season 5 is where The Simpsons, as it still exists today, finds its formative roots. Gone are the perfectly fine forays into real life problems and the family dynamic. Bart is no longer the primary focus. Instead, he gels back into the entire clan to take his place in an ensemble of amusement. The novelty voice-overs from superstar celebrities are now better incorporated into the overall mix, meaning that James Woods can play himself as a convenience store clerk (as research for a role) and intermingle flawlessly with the rest of the cast. George Harrison can help sell the Fab Four feeling of the barbershop quarter queerness, and not seem like total stunt casting. Season 5 is where the series stopped being an amalgamation of divergent elements and actually blended into a masterpiece of merriment. Throughout the entire running time of this devastatingly delightful DVD box set, you will witness some, if not the best that TV has to offer, animated or otherwise.
Disc 1 is perhaps the closest to comedy perfection as any series has every gotten. The run of ridiculously rich episodes just screams for repeated viewings. The four-part harmony of hilarity presented in "Homer's Barbershop Quartet" gets a flawless mop top modeling, while the 'baby vs. billionaire' brilliance of "Rosebud" plays as both humor and heart tugging. Bringing up the classic nerd vs. jock dichotomy and peppering it with all manner of anarchic academy humor hi-jinx, "Homer Goes to College" is a classic, while the same can be said for the combination of garroting and Gilbert and Sullivan found in "Cape Feare". The traditional Halloween episode is also a winner, a joke filled folly taking pot shots at Satan, overly stylized horror films and a spiky little gremlin who means to kill all the kids in Springfield.
The spectacular shows just keep arriving, as Disc 2 bears two certified masterpieces from the show's entire run. "The Last Temptation of Homer" is that rarity in the cartoon kingdom a non-step jest fest loaded with insight into the human heart and hilarious over-the-top goofiness. "Boy Scoutz N the Hood" takes this concept a step further, adding Broadway style musical montages, a delirious fever dream about dancing lollipops and the most inconvenient fast food restaurant in the history of the marketplace, as props for its powerhouse entertainment. Guest stars (and there will be many throughout the course of Season 5) get a chance to strut their stuff in "Homer the Vigilante" (Jurassic Park's Sam Neill plays the elderly cat burglar) and "Bart's Inner Child" (funnyman Albert Brooks has never been better as the slimy, sleazy self-help charlatan), while another famous freak obsessive compulsive rich kook Howard Hughes gets a right roasting in the crazy casino frenzy of "$pringfield".
With all these famous faces, familiar settings and obvious parodies parading around, the overt changes in the show's focus on Disc 3 may be hard to see at first. But they are there, and genuinely astounding nonetheless. The fact that these shows all play as fabulously as one's built around recognizable elements highlights The Simpson's utter brilliance. During this far more personal presentation, Homer is at the center of a trio of titles. He proves he has just a smidgen of the right stuff (or maybe that's the "ripe" stuff, given the heinous hygiene issues surrounding him) in "Deep Space Homer". He tries his best to help a displaced Apu win his job back ("Homer and Apu") and proves he can love thy neighbor with the best of them ("Homer Loves Flanders"). In each case, the comedy comes directly out of the character and the situation, helping to ground the occasionally dada-esque aspects of the show (creator Matt Groening likes to believe that the Simpson's live in a pliable, alternating reality).
Bart's problems with massive mammals and sudden fame make up two of the better installments on Disc 3 as well. "Bart Gets and Elephant" has so many quotable lines and memorable moments (just how many animals has Homer has his head inside?) that it rates right up there with the series best, while "Bart Gets Famous" does a nice, noticeable job of referencing the similar rise in popularity of a certain animated family. Last but not least, Lisa gets a chance to strut her studied stuff as she takes on sexism, corporate incompetence and middle-aged malaise as she resurrects a pickled toy maker (voiced in genuine genius fashion by Kathleen Turner) to take on the conglomerate who is tainting her favorite doll. Though some people might find this episode preachy and far too self-important, the pop culture references are priceless and the commentary on the callousness of companies who manufacture and market towards kids is dead on.
The personal perspective continues on the final DVD in the set, but this time the focus is on ancillary figures, not our favorite family (the final marital meltdown of "Secrets of a Successful Marriage" being the sole exception). Mayor Quimby, almost always mired in scandal, takes a backseat to his bilious nephew Freddie as a lawsuit goes lunatic in "The Boy Who Knew Too Much". Mr. Burn's miserable, miserly lot in life is highlighted when he tries to win Bart over with cash instead of caring in "Burn's Heir". The unfortunate personal Hell that it principal Seymour Skinner's life is accented, and very affecting in "Sweet Seymour Skinner's Badasssss Song!" And the resident elderly, always floating around the edges of the series, get a Graduate style showcase as Abe Simpson woos the befuddled Marge's mother as part of "Lady Bouvier's Lover". Add in the first real fight Marge and Homer have ever had and the ersatz cliffhanger resolution to said storyline and you've got a series that is no longer coasting on cleverness or novelty.
Indeed, Season 5 of The Simpsons is where the show finally branched out, embracing the remainder of its randy population and finding the funny in even the most unimportant (read: Hans Moleman or Luigi the Pizza Man) subsidiary facets. It is here where Skinner becomes a truly sad mama's boy, buried in the bitterness of his nattering matron. Apu turns from borderline stereotype (the old 'immigrant as convenience store clerk archetype) into one of the more endearing individuals in the show (his scene stealing song "Who Needs the Kwik-E-Mart" is a stunning bright spot of Season 5). Other relationships are deepened and made more complex (Homer and Flanders, Marge and her Sisters, Grandpa and the entire family) and a far more clever, consistent level of insanity replaces the reliance on the easy gag. Season 5 is where the show began to experiment with a more surreal sense of setting, allowing Springfield, the Simpsons' home and any other aspect of the series the opportunity to be remolded or retrofitted to serve the ever-increasing strangeness of the circumstances. While many would lament this change over from the pragmatic to the phantasmagoric, it was revolutionary reinventions like this and the others in the season that prepared the show for a longevity it could only have previously dreamt about.
It is also interesting to note how many of the installments in this season are built upon knowing parodies of famed film and pop culture icons. From the Thelma and Louise elements of "Marge on the Lam" to the straight ahead Beatles burlesque of Homer's days in a successful barbershop quartet, the references are resplendent and right on the money. It really is hard to top the Citizen chi-Kane-ery of "Rosebud" or the note-for-note redux of Cape Fear (in both the classic and DeNiro recast form). When Animal House in the guise of Homer's attendance at a local University can sit along side The Twilight Zone, and Bram Stocker's Dracula as possible spoof proof, you realize the amazing amount of talent it takes to always find the humor in the classics being deconstructed for the sake of the show (as well as how often other shows fail to fulfill their lampoon promise). Nothing is too sacred (2001, Star Trek) or arcane (got to love that direct title take-off on Melvin Van Peebles blaxploitation classic) and when an entire entity can't be matched, minor facets from its familiarity (devious Deliverance like backdrops and the Friday the 13th style ending for "Boy Scoutz N the Hood") are used to amplify the anarchy.
It is all part of The Simpsons's plan. This is a show that has no other deep desire than to make you laugh, regularly and hard. Sure, there are some hidden agendas in some of the writing, and a decidedly skewed view of some of the issues in the world (the media and its manipulation, for one), But for the most part, The Simpsons is pure pristine comedy, humor harnessed and helped by a myriad of influences and inventions. There is not a single aspect of wit left out of the show's seminal mix. It milks tired puns and interesting improvisations, classic put downs and pinpoint observations into a slurry of silliness that can't be matched.
Building its bedlam on the backs of the famous farces like Monty Python and SCTV, and raiding the standard sitcom scenarios for only the juiciest jocularity, creators Matt Groening, Jim Brooks and Sam Simon have done the literally impossible. They've created a benchmark entertainment that plays perfectly, even some 10 years after its initial time on the air. Every season set of The Simpsons is a collector's item in tone and content, a timeless testament to the power of performance (all the voice acting is fantastic), the wisdom in the written word (no series has been so consistently literate) and the victory of visualization (no show, before or since, has quite looked like The Simpsons). Though it's basically a simple series about some below average people, The Simpsons rates as the best comedy series of all time. No other entity comes close, and frankly, none ever will.
Image wise, Season 5 of The Simpsons is perhaps the best the series has ever looked on DVD. It is very rare when we witness any specific defects. More times than not, we see shadowing from the cell layering, or a single distinct shimmer of an optical printer problem. There are a couple of episodes that appear to have less than stellar stock elements (Bart and Lisa look really fuzzy toward the beginning of "The Boy Who Knew Too Much") and we can still see some of the hand drawn dimensions that would be eliminated once the show switched over to digital compositing and desktop cartoon creation. Still, for something nearly 11 years old, and played out in syndication several hundred times a day all over the world, the episodes provided here are amazingly detailed and, for the most part, drop dead gorgeous. As with any psychotropic trip, The Simpsons is a visual sensation.
Originally broadcast in straight ahead stereo, Season 5 of The Simpsons gets a nicely remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that is marvelous. There are lots of directional elements, spatial clarity, and a real sense of ambience in the aural attributes. The Simpsons relies a great deal on music (created and conducted by the great Alf Clausen) and masterful sound effects, and the mix here maintains their necessary integrity perfectly. The dialogue is always understandable and distinct, with lots of detailed characterization coming through in the multi-channel showcase. While the commentaries can be a varying volumizing mess (some voices are much louder than others), the overall presentation of The Simpsons is stellar from an auditory standpoint.
The best thing about collecting The Simpsons on DVD is that you can avoid commercials from the original broadcast transmission, as well as witness at least 50 minutes of missing, syndication sliced, extra episode footage. It is a truly shocking experience to watch the shows as they were originally aired and see just what is removed from installments before they are rerun. Occasionally, great jokes or awesome subplots are completely undermined by these trims, and for those who have only just recently stepped onto The Simpsons's bandwagon, this missing footage will be completely new to you.
The second biggest bonanza for fans of the show will be the full-length audio commentaries contained on each episode in the set. Featuring a veritable who's who from the series, these enjoyable reunions are always a hoot. While they are not known for providing insights or distinct information, Season 5 proves to be a recorded rarity. We actually get lots of backstage drama (Conan O'Brien is back to discuss his part in the series and his departure to NBC) and some sensational stories about celebrities who turned the series down (Richard Simmons, Michael Caine and the Planet Hollywood triumvirate of Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone all said "nyet").
Generally, many of the participants are viewing the episodes for the first time in many years, so they spend a great deal of each episode laughing at jokes they had long forgotten, and marveling at how well the shows have held up. Yes, some minor secrets are revealed (where certain names come from, what the occasional obtuse reference means) but the contextual consensus is that everyone had a good time making these shows and really loved working with the cast and crew. And if that's all you expect from a commentary track, the 22 installments here won't let you down.
In addition, a few episodes are festooned with deleted scenes not just material missing because of local reruns or otherwise mandated removals. These occasionally hilarious lost moments can be found as part of each show on which they are offered, as well as in one giant collection (with commentary) at the end of Disc 4. When viewed with a particular episode (you turn this feature on in the menu), there will be a "scissors" icon that comes on at the bottom right-hand side of the screen. Clicking "enter" on the remote gives you a nearly seamless branching experience. Occasionally, the deleted material can contradict what is actually happening in the show (Skinner makes TWO returns to normal life after his time in the barbershop quartet), but for fans anxious to see these lost gems from their favorite show, the inconsistencies will be unimportant.
Finally, there are several pencil tests, "animatics" (basic line drawing animation for a show or scene, without color or detail) storyboards and sequence breakdowns one can access on each disc. The best is a picture-within-a-picture presentation where a single scene can be viewed from three different perspectives. Along with galleries, a collection of commercials (did you know the Simpson once shilled for Ramada Inn?) a video introduction by Matt Groening (though he is not seen) and a similar recollection on the show's incredible success by co-creator Jim Brooks (again, only heard, not seen), this is a very substantial set of DVDs. Even the menus have hidden surprises and their own animated scenes. So wait before you make a selection and you'll get to experience even more Simpsons silliness.
The history of Hollywood is rife with attempts to bring the family dynamic to television via animation. Wait 'til Your Father Gets Home, a 1972 offering starring Tom Bosley as a conservative father dealing with radical offspring, was a toned down 'toon All in the Family, without any of that sitcom's controversy or acting. Where's Huddles?, another Hanna-Barbera throwback to their previous Flintstones success, had a couple of professional football players as friends and neighbors. Yet it too could do nothing more than rip-off other, more successful shows. Later post-Simpsons sagas like Capital Critters, Dog City, and Family Dog strived for originality, but outrageousness was substituted for subtlety, and many of these fiascos found their way into the annals of bad animation faster than the ink could dry.
Only South Park has come close to recreating The Simpsons' sense of rebellion and disrespect, but they have chosen a potty-mouthed (yet equally effective) way of expressing their views. As early as Season Two, The Simpsons were ready to teach the entire television community that an animated show could be funny, clever, timely, stupid, smart, political, religious, important, and insane. The Simpsons was, is, and continues to be the best TV show ever, and The Simpsons: The Complete Fifth Season is a definite DVD Talk Collector's Series selection and a must own box set.
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