The Simpsons is a huge part of our collective pop culture. The longest running animated sit-com of all time has gone on to become as identifiable as The Flintstones or The Jetsons and the clever writing and interesting cast of characters ensures that the series is just as vital and popular today as it was when it first began to air a decade and a half ago. Though the series rarely hits the high notes that it did a few years ago, it still maintains a rabid cult following and is generally better than 90% of anything else on network television.
By the time that the eleventh season rolled around, the characters were all pretty well established and then some. That said, this season isn't quite 'more of the same' as there are some continuity altering events that take place here that would have ramifications on all of the seasons to come. The two big events this season would be when Apu and Manjula give birth to octuplets and when Maude Flanders dies at a race track.
A few season highlights include the Emmy Award winning Behind The Laughter episode that works so well as a brilliant parody of VH1's Behind The Music series in which we learn how the Simpsons fell apart after their massive success only to be unwittingly reunited by none other than Willie Nelson. Of course, the Treehouse Of Terror episode stands out as they all tend to do. This one, like so many that have come before and since, is a great blend of horror movie parody and Halloween themed fun in Springfield.
Homer has a few interesting career changes here, playing a food critic, a screenwriter, a farmer and a race horse manager - in the end though, like always, he's employed at the power planet. Bart too has a few interesting escapes this time around. He plays a jockey, gets addicted to behavior altering drugs, and enjoys a brief stint as a faith healer. Marge gets a little more attention than usual this go round, which is interesting, as she winds up helping a gang of bikers clean up their act, breaks her leg on a ski trip, and winds up possibly losing her mind. The Lisa-centric episodes tend to be the weakest for whatever reason, though her two spotlight's here are better than average as she learns how hard her mother has to work to keep house and dives into the insane world of tap dancing. Spotlight episodes on supporting characters like Flanders, Moe, Apu and Barney lend this season a really nice variety that gives it a lot of replay.
Here's a play by play of what episodes appear on each of the four discs contained in this set:
Beyond Blunderdome: Homer becomes fast friends with Mel Gibson who lets him help out on his remake of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Homer's input, which fills the movie with violence, explosions and nonsense, obviously gets the pair into trouble. Mel Gibson provides his own voice.
Brother's Little Helper: Bart's troublemaking has gone too far and he's put on a drug called Focusyn so that he'll be able to concentrate and do better in school. Things seem to be off to a good start initially but when Bart starts talking about a conspiracy involving major league baseball his family has to wonder if they've made the right decision. Mark McGuire has a cameo.
Guess Who's Coming To Criticize Dinner?: Lisa helps Homer land a new job as a good critic for the newspaper - after all, who knows more about eating than Homer? His success soon goes to his head, however, and he turns into a snob and brushes off the one person who helped him find his success... Lisa. Edward Asner shows up in this episode.
Treehouse Of Horror X: Three more great Halloween themed stories! I Know What You Diddily-iddly-Did finds the Simpsons accidentally killing Flanders in a great send up of I Know What You Did Last Summer. Desperately Xeeking Xena finds the Simpsons playing Fantastic Four style superheroes. Life's A Glitch, Then You Die pokes fun at the Y2K paranoia that was running rampant in the world when this episode was created. Guest voices include Lucy Lawless, Tom Arnold and Dick Clark.
E-I-E-I-(Annoyed Grunt): When Homer takes his new obsession with challenging people to duels, his bluff is called by a southern man with a penchant for pistols. The Simpsons flee Springfield and hide out at an old farm where Homer mixes tobacco, tomatoes and nuclear waste to create a brand new 'tomacco' which everyone finds insanely addictive. The B-52's have a guest spot in this episode.
Hello Gutter, Hello Fadder: Homer lies to Marge and goes out bowling with the guys where he bowls a perfect game. This makes him a local celebrity for a while but it comes at the cost of his relationship with his wife and children. Ron Howard, Penn and Teller, Nancy O'Dell and Pat O'Brien all guest star.
Eight Misbehavin': Apu and his wife Manjula are desperately wanting to have a baby. Homer and a few other do-gooder's slip them all some fertility drugs and before you know it, Manjula's popped out eight twin babies. At first the locals shower Apu and company with gifts but when nine babies are born the next town over, Apu has to figure out how to support his new horde. Jan Hooks and Butch Patrick appear.
Take My Wife, Sleaze: Homer wins a motorcycle at a fifties themed diner and starts a gang called the 'Hell's Satans.' Obsessed with biker culture, Homer takes a picture of Marge while she sleeps and sends it into a magazine. Unfortunately for him, another gang named the 'Hell's Satans' sees it, and wants to take their name back and claim Marge for themselves. John Goodman and Henry Winkler star.
Grift Of The Magi: Springfield Elementary is running out of money. The school is sold to a corporation that uses the school as a focus group for their upcoming Christmas season product launch. Unfortunately their latest toy, Funzo, isn't quite as cute and safe as he seems on the outside. Gary Coleman, Clarence Clemons, Joe Montegna and Tim Robbins all guest star.
Little Big Mom: Marge messes up her leg when a skiing trip ends in disaster. Stuck in the hospital and unable to take care of her family, she leaves Lisa in charge. Lisa finds that Bart and Homer are more than she can manage until she convinces them that they're sick with leprosy!
Faith Off: When Homer gets a bucket stuck on his head and Bart is able to remove it, the entire town of Springfield starts to believe that Bart has healing powers. Bart embraces his new position as a man of the Lord until local mobster Fat Tony decides that he'd like to use Bart's powers for his own devices. Don Cheadle and Joe Montegna guest star.
The Mansion Family: Mr. Burns is worried that his health is failing and so he goes on an extended visit to the Mayo Clinic and leaves the Simpsons in charge of his mansion. Homer takes full advantage of all of Burns' luxuries, including his boat, and winds up in a knife battle with a gang of pirates in international waters. Britney Spears guest stars.
Saddlesore Galactica: When Homer and Bart go to the county fair they're so impressed with a diving horse that they decide to take him home with them. Bart and Homer work together to turn him from a diving horse into a race horse and wind up getting into trouble with the jockeys. Bachman Turner Overdrive have a fun cameo in this episode.
Alone Again, Natura-diddily: When Maude Flanders is accidentally killed by a flying t-shirt shot from a cannon at a car race, Ned is understandably devastated. Homer knows that he and his family have no choice but the help Ned through this difficult time and they do what they can to help their poor neighbor.
Missionary Impossible: Homer makes a pledge to PBS that he has no intention of keeping. His actions catch up with him and he winds up having to flee the country. He winds up on a small, impoverished island where he works as a missionary and introduces casinos into the culture of the island. Betty White guest stars.
Pygmoelian: Moe's tired of his ugly mug and he winds up getting some plastic surgery done. The newly constructed and uber handsome bartender enjoys a newl life as a swinging stud and as a soap opera star.
Bart To The Future: This episode gives us a look into the future of the Simpsons where Lisa is the president of the United States of America and Bart is a lay-about who lives with Ralph Wiggum.
Days Of Wine And D'oh'ses: Barney gets completely sloshed and when he sees a video tape of just how far gone and out he was, he decides to give up the bottle for good. He sobers up and takes on a new job as a helicopter pilot - but will he be able to stay sober for good?
Kill The Alligator And Run: Homer suffers from insomnia and decides that he should take the family on vacation. They wind up in Florida for spring break and, after enjoying a Kid Rock concert, wind up killing an alligator who happens to the town mascot which lands them a place on the chain gang. Kid Rock, the late Joe C., and Charlie Rose all guest star.
Last Tap Dance In Springfield: Lisa decides to take tap dancing lessons and she enrolls in a school run by a teacher who was once a former child star. As Lisa and her teacher learn from one another, Homer decides to go and enjoy some laser eye surgery.
It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Marge: Otto's all set to get married until it comes time to say 'I do' and he splits, leaving his former bride to be no one to turn to for help but Marge Simpsons. They take her in but Marge can't quite handle the stress and starts to show signs that she may be going insane. Parker Posey guest stars.
Behind The Laughter: The season wraps up with this parody of VH1's Behind The Music. Through various flashbacks and interviews we learn the dirty laundry and unsavory secrets of all the major Simpsons players and what lead to their ride and inevitable fall. Guest voices include Gary Coleman, Jim Forbes, Stephen Hawking and Willie Nelson.
All in all, this is generally a very strong season. The writing is clever and nicely satirical and the selection of guest stars, both A and B list, make some of the episodes really stand out (the Mel Gibson one in particular). There are times when things are a little formulaic but the formula that they stick to works well so even those lesser episodes are still enjoyable enough to work as fun entertainment.
Well, seeing as each and every one of the episodes in this set (and in fact the entire series) was broadcast in 1.33.1 fullframe, it shouldn't come as any surprise to see them presented in that very same aspect ratio on this set. As has been the norm with the The Simpsons complete sets so far from Fox, the video presentation is top notch. The colors look nice and bright, the image is strong, vibrant and clean, and almost all traces of dirt, debris and print damage have been eliminated from the picture. There aren't any problems at all with mpeg compression throughout the set during playback, though there is some mild line shimmering and light edge enhancement detectable in a few spots that, while not distracting or overbearing, is definitely there. Overall though, this is a very nice presentation in terms of video quality and each and every one of the episodes in this set look better on these DVDS than they do in reruns on TV, especially in terms of color reproduction. Everything looks brighter and more vibrant which adds to the fun of the series' unique look and style.
The English language track on this DVD is presented in a very nicely handled Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix. While it's lamentable that Fox again did not include the original 2.0 stereo mixes for the purists out there, the 5.1 mixes in this set are great. They don't go completely overboard with background or ambient noise and instead use the rears to enhance what's already there in the first place with gives the soundstage a more lifelike feel. While there are instances where sound effects will come at your unexpectedly, in terms of channel separation and speaker use, there's nothing funky going on here, it all works and it all sounds pretty natural. Dialogue is crisp, clean and clear and there are no problems with hiss or distortion. The opening theme song sounds incredibly lively as it plays before each episode and the background music used throughout the shows is strong but not overpowering or domineering. Alternate language dubs are provided in French and Spanish (both in nice, robust Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround Sound mixes), subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish, and an English closed captioning option is available as well.
As is the norm with their complete season collections for the show, Fox has managed to provide commentary tracks for each and every episode contained in this set courtesy of many of the writers, animators, producers and directors from the series. If you've listened to past commentary tracks, you'll know what to expect here as it really is more of the same - which is a good thing! Seeing as most of us have seen these episodes countless times, the commentary tracks provide a reason to watch each episode all the way threw. They're packed with a lot of great information about who did what, little details and oddities to look out for, and where a lot of the ideas and inspiration for much of the material came from. Though it might seem like overkill to some, the devout fan of the show will want to take the time to go through these tracks as they're all a lot of fun and they're done with a great sense of humor as well. Here's who provides the commentary for each specific episode:
Beyond Blunderdome:Mike Scully, Ian Maxtone-Graham, George Meyer, Ron Hauge, Matt Selman, and Steen Dean Moore
Brother's Little Helper: Mike Scully, George Meyer, Ian Maxtone-Graham, Matt Selman, and Mark Kirkland
Guess Who's Coming To Criticize Dinner?: Mike Scully, Al Jean, George Meyer, Dan Greaney, Matt Selman and Nancy Kruse
Treehouse Of Horror X: Mike Scully, Ian Maxtone-Graham, George Meyer, Ron Huage, Donick Cary, Tim Long, Matt Selman and Pete Michels
E-I-E-I-(Annoyed Grunt): Mike Scully, Ian Maxtone-Graham, George Meyer, Matt Selman and Rob Baur
Hello Gutter, Hello Fadder: Mike Scully, Al Jean, George Meyer, Ian Maxtone-Graham, Matt Selman and Mike B. Anderson
Eight Misbehavin': Mike Scully, George Meyer, Matt Selman, Julia Thacker, Garry Marshall and Steven Dean Moore
Take My Wife, Sleaze: Mike Scully, George Meyer, Ian Maxtone-Graham, Julia Thacker, Dan Catellaneta and Neil Affleck
Grift Of The Magi: Matt Groening, Mike Scully, George Meyer, Ian Maxtone-Graham, Tom Martin, Matt Selman, Tim Long and Lance Kramer
Little Big Mom: Mike Scully, George Meyer, Matt Selman, Carolyn Omine and Mark Kirkland
Faith Off:Mike Scully, George Meyer, Matt Selman and Nancy Kruse
The Mansion Family: Mike Scully, George Meyer, Ron Hauge, Matt Selman, Tim Long, Michael Polcino, Donick Cary and Pete Michels
Saddlesore Galactica: Matt Groening, Mike Scully, George Meyer, Ian Maxtone-Graham, Tim Long, Matt Selman, Tom Martin and Lance Kramer
Alone Again, Natura-diddily: Mike Scully, George Meyer, Ian Maxtone-Graham, Matt Selman, Jim Reardon and Mark Kirkland
Missionary Impossible: Mike Scully, George Meyer, Ron Hauge, Ian Maxtone-Graham, Matt Selman and Steven Dean Moore
Pygmoelian: Mike Scully, George Meyer, Larry Doyle, Matt Selman, Carolyn Omine and Mark Kirkland
Bart To The Future: Mike Scully, George Meyer, Dan Greaney and Matt Selman
Days Of Wine And D'oh'ses: Mike Scully, George Meyer, Ian Maxtone-Graham, Dan Castellaneta, Deb Lacusta and Neil Affleck
Kill The Alligator And Run: Mike Scully, George Meyer, Ian Maxtone-Graham, Matt Selman, Julie Thacker, Dan Castellaneta, Diedrich Bader and Steven Dean Moore
Last Tap Dance In Springfield: Mike Scully, George Meyer, Ian Maxtone-Graham, Julie Thacker, Yeardley Smith and Nancy Kruse
It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Marge: Mike Scully, George Meyer, Ian Maxtone-Graham, Matt Selman, Larry Doyle and Steven Dean Moore
Behind The Laughter:Mike Scully, George Meyer, Ian Maxtone-Graham, Matt Selman, Tim Long and Mark Kirkland
Aside from the commentary tracks, there are a few other goodies tucked away in the supplemental sections of a few of the discs:
Deleted Scenes: Beyond Blunderdome, Brother's Little Helper, Guess Who's Coming To Criticize Dinner, Treehouse Of Horror X, Hello Gutter, Hello Fadder, Eight Misbehavin', Take My Wife, Sleaze, Grift Of The Magi, Little Big Mom, Faith Off, The Mansion Family, Saddlesore Galactica, Alone Again, Natura-diddily, Missionary Impossible, Pygmoelian, Bart To The Future, Days Of Wine And D'oh'ses, Kill The Alligator And Run, Last Tap Dance In Springfield and last but not least It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Marge all feature a couple of brief deleted scenes.
Special Language Feature: Beyond Blunderdome contains a fun option to watch the episode in a few different languages. This has appeared on a few of the previous season sets and it's always funny to see bits of The Simpsons dubbed into foreign languages (in this case, Portuguese, Czech, Italian and German).
The first disc in the set also features In Line With Matt Groening (3:44) which is basically Groening's narration over top of a bunch of clips from the season's episodes. He provides a quick synopsis and some trivia about each cartoon in the collection.
The insert booklet lists Animation Showcase features for Beyond Blunderdome and The Mansion Family as well as a Did You Know? trivia track for Behind The Laughter but where exactly these are in the set is anyone's guess as they don't appear on the menus.
As far as the packaging on this release goes, well, Fox has decided that they don't need to house the discs in plastic anymore, instead the discs simply sit inside some cardboard sleeves. While this looks cool and is obviously better for the environment, it's bound to result in scratched discs...
The Simpsons - The Complete Eleventh Season continues the tradition of excellence established by the ten volumes that came before it. The audio and video quality is quite strong and the extras are substantial and fun. While this isn't the strongest season in the series' history, it's still a very good one and the episodes themselves hold up surprisingly well. Highly recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.