The year is young, but when we look back on 2010, we may still come to the conclusion that Fox's The Simpsons: The Complete Twentieth Season is the most befuddling release of these twelve months. The studio began putting out DVD seasons sets for the durable cartoon comedy back in 2001 with (predictably enough) season one, and continued to put out a season or two per year, right up to last August's release of The Twelfth Season. Now, suddenly, they're skipping most of the previous decade, rushing the most recent season into the marketplace, bereft of the copious special features that have been a trademark of the box sets to date (more on that later).
Why the jump? Theories abound that the studio was attempting to capitalize on the press surrounding the show's literal twentieth birthday (it was a midseason replacement), and the big anniversary special that aired a week or so back. So, if everyone's talking about the Simpsons turning 20, the best possible sales would be generated by a set with a big "20" on the front of it, I guess?
You can go crazy trying to read the tea leaves with TV people (as anyone following the late night battles can tell you); suffice it to say, whatever the reason, seasons 13 through 19 will presumably be revisited. (We hope?) The twentieth season did mark an important turning point for the show: midway through, with the episode "Take My Life, Please," the series finally made its long-awaited changeover to HD broadcasting, which is presumably why the season 20 set marks the series' Blu-ray debut.
But enough about the marketing logistics; how is the show this year? Surprisingly robust. There are few things in this world that stay funny for 20 years (ask Jay Leno), and while the notion that The Simpsons passed its golden age a good decade ago persists, just about every episode here delivers the expected giggles and guffaws. "In The Name of the Grandfather" is vintage silliness, an episode that manages to begin with Homer and Grandpa Abe at a three-legged race and proceed, with perfect Simpsons logic, to have the father and son running a pub in Ireland. "How the Test Was Won" plays beautifully off the always-fertile comic soil of Lisa's insecurities about her own braininess. "The Burns and the Bees" visits Mr. Burns at a billionaire's retreat (and takes a quick but well-aimed shot at their boss, Rupert Murdoch); as someone whose hometown invested in an ill-advised and unnecessary arena, I particularly liked Burns' line at his new sports arena's opening game ("Welcome to the American Dream: a billionaire using public funds to construct a private playground for the rich and powerful!"). "Waverly Hills 9-0-2-1-D'oh" features Ellen Page in a clever send-up of Hannah Montana, while "Mypods and Broomsticks" features not only some trenchant and funny social commentary (via Bart's friendship with a Muslim kid), but a terrific B-plot giving the business to all of us Mac users. The season's highlight, though, is "No Loan Again, Naturally," an expectedly irreverent take on the housing crisis, in which we find out that Homer has taken out a high-interest home loan every year to fund his elaborate Marti Gras parties.
Sure, not every episode is a winner. I've never been a particularly big "Treehouse of Horror" fan, and "Lost Verizon" is a rare show where they can't seem to come up with anything clever to do with their celebrity guest voices. "Eeny Teeny Maya Moe" goes past silly and into the realm of stupid, while "Four Great Women and a Manicure" never seems to have gotten much farther than the good idea stage.
But those episodes are aberrations. For the most part, even as it approaches drinking age, The Simpsons remains a potent mix of goofy storytelling, uproarious non-sequiturs ("Flowers!" Homer snorts. "The painted whores of the plant world"), surprisingly biting social satire, and good old-fashioned family comedy. The jokes are inventive and the writing is strong, and they continue to find ingenious ways to exploit the richest supporting cast on TV. Say what you will, but this show is still one of the greats.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The Complete Twentieth Season packs the year's twenty-one episodes onto two 50GB Blu-ray discs. Though I was somewhat concerned that they hadn't spread the episodes out to three Blus to give them some room to breathe (as is usually the case with half-hour show sets), there's no evidence here of too-tight compression. As in their original Fox airings, the first nine episodes are seen in 1.33:1, while the rest of the season (after the HD switchover) is in anamorphic 1.78:1. Even the full frame episodes look pretty good--colors are bright and lines are clean, though there is certainly some softness to the image. But the mid-season switch is downright startling; the saturation pops and the image is smooth and quite pleasing. Once the set passes that first stretch, the show looks about as good as I've ever seen it look.
Most of the DTS-HD Master Audio track is kicked towards the front, with dialogue clean in the center channel and bouncy music and effects in the sides. Rear channels don't get much of a chance to come out and play, but them's the breaks, more often than not, with TV comedy mixes. The track won't exactly rumble your speakers, but it's certainly acceptable for the material.
The episodes are also available in French, Spanish, and Portuguese 4.1 Dolby Digital, and English SDH, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are included.
Here's the rub. In contrast to previous Simpsons sets, which offered an embarrassment of bonus feature riches, we get exactly one extra: "The 20th Anniversary Special Sneak Peek by Morgan Spurlock" (3:31). No commentaries, no deleted scenes, no animation showcases, no featurettes, no nothing--just a commercial for a special that aired on January 10... two days before the set's release. What exactly is the response they're hoping for to this "sneak peek"? "Hey, I sure will watch that! When's it on?... What? Two days ago? D'oh!"
The lack of bonus features contributes a rather thrown-together feel to The Simpsons: The Complete Twentieth Season, and that's a shame; the talent behind the show have always treated fans right when it came time to plunk down the dollars for these sets, but this one feels like a rush job that will probably get a second pass down the line. It's still worth having, of course, but be prepared to grumble about it in a couple of years.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.