When it came to Season 13 of The Simpsons, there was a notable change in course behind the scenes. Al Jean, one of the original writers on the show when it started in 1989, left his show runner position after Season Four to pursue other opportunities, but returned during Season Ten and reclaimed his show runner title from Mike Scully. Since then, Jean has been controlling the strings and creative direction of the show that displayed the hijinks of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie.
While seasons during the Scully era seemed a little flat and inspired, the return of Jean also seemed to bring the comedic focus within the family itself, rather than being overly distracted by some of Springfield's peripheral cast. During the season, the show's 22 episodes are split over three BD-50's, and the rundown is as follows:
"Treehouse of Horror XII" - The Simpsons spoof Harry Potter, 2001 and, I dunno, an old Twilight Zone episode in this installment. Check out guest voice Pierce Brosnan (Mrs. Doubtfire) as the charming robot voice.
"The Parent Rap" - Bart joyrides in Chief Wiggum's vehicle. The punishment for this reckless behavior? Get shackled to Homer until both have learned their lesson.
"Homer the Moe" - Moe goes back to bartender school and returns to his bar with ideas to make it more popular, but it soon rankles Homer, Carl, Lenny and Barney and risks their friendship in the process.
"A Hunka Hunka Burns In Love" - Mr. Burns tries to find a new love and Gloria (Julia Louis Dreyfus, Seinfeld), would seem to fit that bill.
"The Blunder Years" - Through a dinner show hypnotist, Homer uncovers a traumatic memory, repressed from his childhood, and hopefully Chief Wiggum and Homer's other childhood friends can help find out what happened.
"She of Little Faith" - Lisa is frustrated by Mr. Burns turning the church into a profit center, so she decides to look into the Buddhist faith. And hey, Richard Gere (Brooklyn's Finest) happens to be there!
"Brawl in the Family" - Things have gotten so bad in the Simpson household that a social worker has to help mediate their bouts of antagonism and violence. So wait, this is not the one where they sit in chairs and use shock treatments on one another?
"Sweets and Sour Marge" - The town's prodigious problem with pounds convinces Marge that the town should ban sugar in order to become healthier and wiser.
"Jaws Wired Shut" - After Homer gets himself in another sticky situation resulting in a broken jaw that is wired shut, he actually becomes a more caring husband and father, which makes Marge wonder how much fun she had with the slovenly version of Homer.
"Half-Decent Proposal" - Multimillionaire (and former prom date of Marge) Artie Ziff (Jon Lovitz, The Producers) returns with an entertaining offer for Homer and Marge to consider.
"The Bart Wants What It Wants" - Bart runs into Rainer Wolfcastle's daughter (Reese Witherspoon, Four Christmases), and she falls for him. Hard. Pity he does not return the feelings, partly due to boyish obliviousness.
"The Lastest Gun in The West" - You know how Bart would help the much older Krusty the Clown regain his stardom? Picture the same thing, but with an old television western legend.
"The Old Man and The Key" - Grandpa Simpson becomes enamored of someone at the retirement home (Olympia Dukakis, Look Who's Talking), and it forces him to do some crazy things.
"Tales From The Public Domain" - Hamlet, Joan of Arc and the Odyssey, all told with a unique Simpsons interpretation.
"Blame It On Lisa" - The Simpsons go to Brazil!
"Weekend At Burnsie's" - Despite the title, this is less a Mr. Burns-centered episode and more a Homer one, as he becomes addicted to medicinal marijuana.
"Gump Roast" - A Simpsons clip show? Say it ain't so, Moe!
"I Am Furious (Yellow)" - Nothing like revisiting the flat out funny stuff that is "Angry Dad," Bart's internet cartoon rendition of Homer.
"The Sweetest Apu" - Apu gets caught cheating on his wife. The less said about this episode, the better.
"Little Girl in the Big Ten" - Lisa takes gymnastics for a P.E. credit and meets two girls who go to college. Lisa lets them believe it. On the plus side, we get to meet the Eastern Bloc coach better known as Lugash.
"The Frying Game" - Starts as Homer protecting a caterpillar and ends as a Green Mile meets Punk'd type of story that falls apart quickly and conveniently. Definitely forgettable.
"Poppa's Got a Brand New Badge" - Homer starts a private security firm that eventually becomes Springfield's new arm of law enforcement, and runs into threats from Fat Tony, the longstanding "legitimate businessman."
Compared to some of the other episodes that occurred in previous seasons, the episodes where Homer and/or Bart were the focus seemed to have more laughs and were self-aware of the flimsy devices that would link actions together in the story. You know that one of them would get in trouble in the first act and redeem themselves in the third, so rather than make something silly and predictable, just spelling it out there makes it cuter in my opinion. Lazy? Sure, but when you're trying to put out entertaining and funny episodes on a show coming near its 300th episode, there's not much gold left to mine.
Does Jean manage to get The Simpsons to reclaim some of the tarnish off the crown? Sure, but it's not without its duds; "The Sweetest Apu" and "The Old Man and The Key" were borderline painful. At least with the premise of a clip show, the writers and Jean knew it was a break and made sure the viewer did. And perhaps letting people know of these points of stagnancy are more commendable that trying to put in an honest effort. By embracing the "Simpsons Did It" position explained so eloquently in South Park, it helps drop the demand of higher expectations and allows for different directions. While Jean might not have brought things to previous glory, he certainly righted the ship in Season 13.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Fox presents Season 13 of The Simpsons is its full-frame glory using the AVC encode. Being the first "vintage" installment of the show to get the high-definition treatment, I was not sure of what to expect, but the results are decent. The image looks much cleaner now than current syndication and endless episode reruns could ever do, and the colors look as vivid as they can get, and any oversaturation is at a minimum. I would rate this as a mild step up from the standard definition set.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless track is an accurate reproduction of the audio of the show, but more exactly, it's not a completely effective experience. Dialogue sounds balanced in the center channel, and there are moments of speaker panning when a character runs across the screen. There are even a couple of scenes where the rear channels chime in with an effect here and there. But the thing that you'll notice when watching the season is how active the subwoofer is. You forget while watching the show on television that has a lot of car crashes, explosions and general dynamically active incidents in many episodes. And on Blu-ray, the subwoofer gets its hands on most of them, making a previously harmless scene more robust. Not a distraction or anything, just something you hear almost immediately. It's a solid sound experience throughout.
Commentaries abound on all 22 episodes, though many are crew driven, with a mix and match of Jean, Groening and producers Dana Gould, Tom Gammill and Ian Maxtone-Graham, to name a few. Occasionally there is a cast appearance, but those are mainly limited to the guest stars or recurring roles, such as Joe Mantegna's Fat Tony. Stan Lee, who guest voices himself in "I Am Furious (Yellow)" makes for the veritable fanboy track with the producers asking him questions about his work here and there. On the flip side of that, Delroy Lindo (Broken Arrow), who voiced Gabriel in "Brawl in the Family," asks the producers about the work process of the show. There's a mix of entertaining information and jokey goodness to sate any fan's appetite. The rest of the extras are broken down by disc as follows:
A Token From Matt Groening (1:52) - An audio introduction to the set by Groening
"Ralphisms" (2:40) - Wiggum's greatest hits both before and during the show's thirteenth season.
Animation Showcase - A collection of animatics and storyboards for scenes in "The Parent Rap."
Special Language Feature - Wanna see some scenes from "Treehouse of Horror" in Portuguese? You're in luck here, my friend.
Animation Showcase - Much like the extra on disc one, lots of drawings and stuff abound in "Sweets and Sour Marge."
"The People Ball"(1:14) - The animators recall the challenges in doing a particular scene in "Sweets and Sour Marge."
"The 13th Crewman"(1:40) - A bunch of sailors decided to put Bart on the hull and sail of their professional racing boat, and the illustration and display of that art is shown here.
"Blame it on the Monkeys"(1:39) - The producers recall the outrage Brazil expressed when "Blame it On Lisa" aired.
A stills gallery (3:10) rounds out the disc.
"The Sweet Life of Ralph" (6:11) - Kind of like "Ralph-isms," except longer.
"The 13th Crewman" (1:40) - A bunch of sailors decided to put Bart on the hull and sail of their professional racing boat, and the illustration and display of that art is shown here.
The Games (8:02) - Looks like some old 8 bit Nintendo handheld system love for the animated family.
Commercials (2:20) are just that, while another stills gallery (3:10) is included.
The deleted scenes, which are peppered through 14 of the season's 22 episodes, are included as a "Play All" function on disc three for your enjoyment, with an optional commentary track to boot (14:13). Easter eggs can be found on all three discs, with the easier ones being found within the disc's menus, though I'll leave you to figure out where they may actually be located.
Well if you're new to The Simpsons this might not be the ideal jumping off point, but for the masses of adoring fans that love the show, the season is better than expected, despite some uneven points. Technically it's not too shabby (and the lossless track is surprising), and they throw the usual bunch of supplements onto the set, so don't hesitate in picking this one up.