Fans of the Simpsons have been anxiously awaiting the arrival of The Simpsons: The Complete Second Season ever since they made it through the 3 DVDs from Season One. Fans of the Simpsons fear not, season 2, an expanded 4-DVD extravaganza is well-worth the wait. Although the masses seems to be hailing "The Osbornes" for establishing a new, unconventional loving family model, the Simpsons have been displaying the love and dynamics of a truly unconventional family for a long time and truly come into their own during the second season. The Simpsons: The Complete Second Season is truly a wonderful experience. While fans of the series may already get a special feeling each time the opening credits begin, those who have not yet become Simpsons fans may be heartily won over after watching this 4-DVD set. Although each episode in season 2 has definite highlights, (the Simpsons is made even more impressive by the extremely low number of episodes over its entire run which were certified "clunkers") watching each of the episodes in Season 2 over a short period of time really drives home how great the writing is, how funny the jokes still are and how well developed the relationships between the characters have become after a relatively short time period.
Although from a very early point in the series, Bart has been a prime focus of the series (in the commentary accompanying the Three Eyes on Every Fish episode, the producers acknowledge that they stuck a scene with Bart at the beginning of an episode focused on Montgomery Burns). Season 2 certainly demonstrates not only the development of the personalities of the supporting characters but also a perceptible shift of the show's focus to its true protagonist, Homer. Although the episodes seem to occasionally highlight Homer's stubbornness, ineptitude, lack of intelligence, and short temper, Homer's love for his family is really the one theme that connects the majority of the episodes of the Simpsons' second season. Whether it is monkeying around to cheer Lisa up, voluntarily getting rid of his free cable hookup or jumping Springfield gorge in his son's stead, Homer's love for his family is found throughout season two and truly serves as one of the key ingredients in both the show's success and one of the reasons why the episodes are so much fun to watch.
Of course, the true gem of the series remains the writing. Almost ten years after these episodes aired, it is extremely impressive how well-written the episodes are. The themes are still fresh, the jokes are still funny, and, the few instances which do seem a bit dated, (for instance a substitute teacher who enters a classroom shooting cap guns certainly would not fly in the post-Columbine era).
As with subsequent seasons, two real treats peppered throughout the second season are the cameo appearances by a wide range of celebrities, and the cultural references. This season featured the confluence of both in a dynamic, memorable fashion. During the Treehouse of Horror episode, the Simpsons' send-up of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" is truly a show-stopper. As read by James Earl Jones, the retelling of the Raven is filled with frenetic energy and laughs and is a fitting homage. Although a number of the references to cultural works aren't as stark as the Crows in the Wheatfield image from the "Crepes of Wrath" in Season 1, they are still quite present, including Dustin Hoffman's substitute teacher, Mr. Bergstrom reenacting the "are you trying to seduce me" scene from The Graduate with Edna Krabappel. The episodes are filled with numerous other cameos, including Star Trek's George Takei, Daniel Stern (providing a fantastic "Wonder Years" style nostalgic musing, Danny DeVito as Homer's long lost brother, and Harvey Firestein.
The Second season is truly an uncommonly enjoyable treat for fans and non-fans alike. These are four DVDs filled with classic episodes. Here's a look at some of the highlights:
"Bart Gets An F" - Important Constitutional lessons, "the funnest day in the history of Springfield" a colonial sled that says "Don't Sled on Me." The Second Season starts off with a great episode as Bart is threatened with having to be kept back a year if he doesn't pass his history test. So Bart endeavors to study despite a world of external distractions until he is left praying for God to intervene so he will have one more day to study.
"Simpson and Delilah" - While not one of the classic episodes of the second season, this episode features Harvey Fierstein as Karl, an assistant who, along with a Homer's suddenly full head of hair instill a newfound confidence in Homer as, for a very brief period of time, he is on top of the world.
"Treehouse of Horror" - Although the Second Season is filled with great episodes, the classic gem of the season is the first of the Treehouse of Horror episodes. Specifically, the Simpson's send up of Edgar Allen Poe's the Raven, read by James Earl Jones is a delight. The episode also introduces views to Kang and Kodos, (who later rise to greater Simpsons notoriety after being elected president in a later season). In addition, many of the great Treehouse of Horror staples, like the altered Simpsons opening title sequence with the humerous gravestones is first introduced in this episode.
"Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes On Every Fish" After making a very brief appearance during Season One, "Blinky," the three-eyed fish, takes a much more prominent role as his capture leads Mr. Burns into a world of environmental liability from which he believes he can only get out by being elected Governor. As discussed in the commentary which accompanies this episode, the episode makes numerous references and homages to Citizen Kane, as Burns undergoes a smear campaign against his opponent and actually gain ground in the governor's race. The writers of the Simpsons have often come across as unabashedly liberal and this episode is no exception as political / social commentary takes a step closer to the foreground during this episode. Both Lisa's tremendous intellect and Marge's moral compass are probed in this episode. One clear highlight is Burn's attempts to explain away Blinky's mutation by turning to "an actor portraying Charles Darwin" who proceeds to give a speech suggesting that Blinky is merely advanced.
"Dancin Homer"- As if having James Earl Jones reading "The Raven" wasn't demonstration enough that the Simpsons had arrived, Tony Bennett singing an ode to Capital City seals the deal. At a Springfield Isotopes baseball game, Homer has a little too much to drink and begins to dance on the top of the dugout to get the Isotope fans into the game. Before he knows it, Homer becomes a mascot for the Isotopes who take Homer's inspirational, inebriated exuberance and reverse their losing streak and begin to rack up the wins. Finally, Homer gets a call to the big leagues and, after giving a speech straight out of The Pride of the Yankees, the Simpsons leave Springfield and head to that swinging town, Capital City, seeking fame and fortune. Although it has been some time since the episode first aired, lines such as "A Simpson on a T-shirt, I never thought I'd see the day" show a humorous self-awareness of the emergence of the show as cultural phenomenon.
"Dead Putting Society" One of the first episodes to stress the rivalry between Homer and Ned Flanders, this episode pits son against son as proxies for their fathers in a hotly contested round of miniature golf. Undergoing a "Karate Kid"-like training, with Lisa as his trainer, Bart prepares for the miniature golf match of his life, proclaiming "who knew someone would find an actual use for geometry." As she trains Bart, the seeds of Lisa's zen-buddhist leanings are uncovered as she and Bart debate the sound of one hand clapping and whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound, all in the name of making Bart a better golfer.
"Bart the Daredevil"- "Truckasauras! . . .One Night Only! . . . If you miss this, you'd better be dead or in jail . . .and if your in jail, break out!" So goes the announcement for the Truckasaurus monster truck rally which lands the Simpsons straight in the Truckasaurus' mouth. As Bart develops dreams of becoming a daredevil and becomes able to leap multiple neighborhood pets with a single bound, he seeks greater and greater challenges until the ultimate challenge becomes clear - jumping Springfield Gorge (Gasp!). This episode is perhaps my favorite episode of the second season. While the daredevil scenes are quite funny, this is an episode with true heart. Although he is angry that his son lied and took advantage of him, Homer steps in and acts out of the love he has for his son in a way that is really endearing. Although the end result is not a great one for Homer, the episode really helps the Simpsons stand apart from other animated and live action sitcoms and really focuses on the relationship between the characters and not just a humorous weekly plotline.
"Itchy and Scratchy and Marge"- In a not-so-subtle response to all of the groups who criticized the show as being a bad influence, Marge takes on the creators of Itchy and Scratchy after Maggie is inspired by an episode to hit Homer with a mallet. Showing both the ultra-violence of Itchy and Scratchy and the ridiculousness of the episodes in which the cat and mouse are reduced to discussing the finer points of lemonade.
"Bart Gets Hit By A Car"- Watching this episode may make viewers lament the passing of Phil Hartman and, with him, attorney Lionel Hutz. Lionel Hutz and Dr. Nick Riviera, two of Springfield's least scrupulous and most loved characters try to use their skills (however questionable) to help Bart recover a pile of money after he is hit by Mr. Burns' car. The respective stories told on the witness stand by Bart and Mr. Burns are extremely funny.
"One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish Bluefish"- In another episode focusing on Homer, Homer eats blowfish and becomes convinced that he has been poisoned and has a single day to live. The episode features Homer's three most important phrases: "Cover for me" "Oh good idea, boss" and "it was like that when I got here." This is another episode rich with sentimentality and Homer's expression of love for his family as he fears that his time is up. While all of the "chalkboard messages" are funny, this episode features a true gem. Bart writes "I will not cut corners" once and then just puts ditto marks below. Also of note is the cameo of Star Trek's George Takei as a sushi proprietor, the big bottle of Duffahama and, of course, Bart and Lisa doing a karaoke version of the Theme From Shaft.
"The Way We Was"- An episode that actually serves as the premise for an episode that aired last season, sending up "Indecent Proposal," this episode features Jon Lovitz as Marge's high school prom date Artie Ziff and shows the origins of Homer and Marge's relationship and how they fell in love. The episode also features a young Patty and Selma, a younger Marge and Marge's mother.
"Homer vs. Lisa And the Eight Commandment" - Starting out in the Sinai Dessert, 1220 B.C., this episode centers around the debate whether stealing is wrong. After Homer gets an illicit cable hookup, the whole family begins to reap the benefits until Lisa's sense of morality renders her unable to watch the television. Meanwhile, Homer invites all of Springfield over to watch the fight of the century on his pilfered cable hookup. The writing on this episode is great, including a discussion of the stealing of cable, which included reference to the "So You've Decided to Steal Cable" pamphlet that is given to Homer, which clarifies the issue, stating "Myth, cable piracy is wrong. Fact: cable companies are big faceless corporations which makes it okay. Myth: it's only fair to pay for quality first-run movies. Fact: most movies shown on cable get two stars or less and are repeated ad nauseum." As Homer himself says while watching a Sienfeldesque comedian on cable, "It's funny because it's true!"
"Oh Brother Where Art Thou"- As pointed out in the commentary track, this title was used long before the Cohen Brother's film of the same name (although both lifted it from the same source.) This episode features another great guest voice, as Danny DeVito supplies the voice for Homer's long lost brother Herb, who reenters Homer's life and solicits his "common man" prospective in building a car. Once again, Homer's sentimentality comes through.
"The War of the Simpsons"- Another great episode, featuring first, a new level of Homer's debauchery after drinking way to much at a party the Simpsons host, Reverend Lovejoy's marital retreat, and an epic battle with a legendary fish named General Sherman. Each of these portions of the episode are filled with laughs, perhaps the funniest being Homer's distorted high-society recollection of the previous night's events in which he is hailed as charming and a jolly good fellow. The episode is also notable for containing the first of Nelson Muntz's "Ha HA!" utterances, Grandpa outsmarting Bart and Lisa, numerous Old Man and the Sea references and Hitler sitting in church.
All in all, the second season of the Simpsons is absolutely jam-packed with great episodes and the episodes are even more enjoyable through the rich presentation of DVD. Many of these episodes are clear candidates for repeat viewing and the commentary track available for each episode is a fantastic feature and makes this box set even more special. Although each of these episodes aired 11 years ago, they are still quite enjoyable and haven't aged a bit. The second season provides a confluence of the initial developments of characters and their idiosyncracies and the development of running jokes (watching the whole episode, you may notice in one episode a poster saying "Give a Hoot. Read!" and in another "Give a Hoot, Brush!") and greater complexities in the jokes and the story lines.
"The Simpsons" is presented in full screen with the aspect ratio of its original television exhibition. (This makes sense in that the frames of animation are designed for television display). While the animation of the second season is not on the whole as developed as it is in later seasons, ranging during the season from those that look much like the first season and those that could air for the first time today and not seem out of place, on the whole, these episodes have never looked better. The colors are noticeably more vibrant than they appear on even the best televisions and they are a joy to watch. While there are occasional imperfections and some degree of shadowing, these are unquestionably part of the original episodes rather than part of this digital transfer.
Again, because these episodes were made for television, the audio qualities are not necessarily what one might expect from a film. Nevertheless, "The Simpsons" is presented in a 5.1 Dolby Surround Transfer that does enhance the enjoyment of these episodes on DVD. It's not the theatrical surround sound DVD aficionados are used to, but these episodes do sound better than the First Season box set and definitely better than the episodes do in syndication..
Much like the first box set, by far the most impressive bonus materials on this DVD box set are the individual audio commentaries which accompany each episode, usually featuring some combination of Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, Al Jean and individual writers. These commentaries are DEFINITELY worth listening to. They are fun, informative and enjoyable and clue the listener in to inspirations, back stories, the creative process, jokes that were cut for time or to appease the censors and pointing out the obvious and not-so-obvious cultural and literary references throughout each of the episodes. Like the First season, these commentaries are an absolute must for any Simpsons fan and go far beyond the coverage these episodes received in the The Simpsons' Episode Guide. They are also very funny. As explained during the commentary for one of the episodes, "we take a lot of shots at old people because they don't watch our show." Further, even Simpsons experts will be shocked at how many cultural, film and literary references are sprinkled throughout the episodes, while references to Ernest Hemmingway's Old Man and the Sea are quite obvious, many other references are much less obvious. Finally, giving credit where credit is due, the Groening, Brooks and the writers frequently mention and complement the voice actors for their work and the extensive range of their work.
While the first three DVDs are rather spartan in both their menus and the extra features included (excluding, of course, the fantastic commentary tracks), once again, the bonus materials are all placed on the fourth DVD. Among these special features are three Butterfinger commercials, music videos for "Do the Bartman" and "Deep Deep Trouble" (think DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's "Parents Just Don't Understand" video), both with commentary (!); a brief appearance of Bart Simpson at the 1991 American Music Awards (Nancy Cartright in a Bart Simpson Suit); a memorable appearance of the entire Simpsons clan at the Emmy Awards (during which Lisa tries to convince the members of the academy to do away with winners and losers); a short documentary with David Silverman about the 7-8 month creative process between the writing of an episode, the recording of the vocal tracks, the initial sketching and the animation process which involves sending the animation to Asia to be completed; another batch of "foreign language clips" in which partial Simpsons episodes are presented in French, Hungarian, German, Portuguese and Spanish. Also featured on the DVD are a collection of magazine covers from the second season (most highlighting the head to head Thursday night matchup between the Simpsons and the Cosby Show), early sketches and drawings from a number of the episodes and storyboards for two of the episodes (Bart Gets an F and Bart vs. Thanksgiving).
Finally, there is an interview with James L. Brooks and Matt Groening about the progression of the show, its creative process, and the origin of the characters. As a treat to viewers, Groening shows briefly how to sketch Bart's head. Groening discusses the character of Homer (named after his father), the origin of Marge's hair (combination of his mother and the Bride of Frankenstein) and the presence of Life in Hell in the Simpsons.
Once again, Fox has given the Simpsons' second season the treatment it deserves. The commentary tracks are essential for any Simpsons fan and each of the episodes during the season are easily enjoyed over and over. Although the notion of purchasing all 12 or 13 seasons produced to date is a bit daunting, picking up the second season is definitely worth the investment. Watching the second season straight through is a real treat and tremendously entertaining.