Reviewing the thirteenth season of
The Simpsons, I feel more in danger of repeating myself than ever
before. Last year, I
wrote about the series' good but not great twelfth season, with an acute awareness that the show had
begun a slow but irrevocable death spiral. Although the twelfth
season remains amusing and entertaining on the whole, there's a change
in feel and a reduced focus on character. Still unsure as to what
I should reasonably attribute The Simpsons' unmistakable decline
in overall quality - Changes in show management? New writers?
The rise of Seth MacFarlane? - the thirteenth season is further proof
of the regrettable change in comic tone that the series took on in the
early part of the last decade. More important than the uptick
in one-off jokes and shock gags is the fact that The Simpsons
begins to repeat itself quite unapologetically. The thirteenth
season contains a surprising number of jokes and situations recycled
from earlier episodes; these aren't clever inside references for fans,
either - the show's makers were simply re-using old material and
hoping we wouldn't notice.
Despite several good scripts by the
prolific and consistent John Swartzwelder, The Simpsons' style
takes a turn into territory that is clearly - and unfortunately -
influenced by Family
Guy, a place where
throwaway jokes lead to hyperlinked mini-scenes of the "It's like the time
Yogi Berra had cocktails with Yoda" variety. It's strange
to reflect on the perverse injustice of The Simpsons being so
impacted by Family Guy - a show that began life as a transparent
rip-off of The Simpsons, but with gross-out jokes. Both
are Fox properties, which likely had something to do with it - although
that doesn't explain it, exactly, because Family Guy had poor
ratings in its first two seasons, after which it was temporarily cancelled
by Fox. Maybe staff at The Simpsons saw Family Guy
as the way of the future and consciously tried to piggyback elements
of its style. The true explanation lies well outside the purview
of this review, but the fact is that the influence of Family Guy
is an important factor in the show's changing tone.
At the beginning of this year, Fox
Simpsons: The Complete Twentieth Season
on DVD and Blu-ray in an opportunistic attempt to capitalize
upon the show's first high-definition season. In reviewing season
twenty, my multi-talented colleague at DVD Talk, Jamie S. Rich, wrote a warm, honest, and very
funny break-up letter to
the series, bemoaning its frustrating decline in wit and invention.
In a lot of ways, many of Jamie's observations apply directly in the
case of the thirteenth season. The fact is, I stopped watching
the show regularly around 2001, and it was my first time seeing many
of these episodes. I was reminded all over
again of how I felt a decade ago: that the show had grown stale, repetitive,
and overly reliant upon its reputation and past brilliance.
From the vantage point of ten years
on, The Simpsons' thirteenth season looks like a show caught
in the midst of an uncomfortable identity crisis. It's impossible
to argue with the ingenious entertainment that The Simpsons generated
without exception for a good solid ten years. Any program that
stays on for twenty - and almost none do - is bound to struggle
with freshness. The thirteenth season offers its fair share of
laughs - especially in the episodes "A Hunka Hunka Burns in Love,"
"She of Little Faith," and "I am Furious (Yellow)" - but our
main characters no longer drive the stories the way they used to.
The long and short of it is that The Simpsons remains recognizable
and entertaining in the thirteenth of its (so far) 21 seasons, yet this
isn't the family we fell in love with.
Fox has packaged The Complete Thirteenth
Season somewhat oddly. The four discs are housed in an accordion-style
set of fold-out sleeves, festooned with some very nice original artwork.
But the slipcover is inside a flimsy box that, strangely, has closures
on both sides. So instead of sliding the disc sleeve out of one
side of the slipcover, you have to open a flap. Not a big deal
- just weird.
As always, the full-screen transfers of these episodes are fantastic.
Bold, bright color and heavy blacks are unwaveringly clear, with no
evidence of digital break-up. This is what we've come to expect
from Fox's releases of The Simpsons, and they've accomplished
more fine work here.
Lively Dolby Digital 5.1 surround tracks on each episode do a lot
to pull us into the show. Sound design has always been a major
part of the show's success, from the use of consistently hilarious
sound effects to Alf Clausen's eclectic, witty score. These
tracks are without exception well-mixed and enormously engaging.
Once again Fox has bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon the
thirteenth season with an array of features that will keep fans busy
Each episode contains a full-length
commentary track, with participants from every corner of the show's
creative team, including writers, directors, animators, voice cast,
and guest stars. Creator Matt Groening used to appear in almost
all these tracks, but his absence from all but a few of season thirteen's
episodes is conspicuous. Still, the commentaries make good listening;
they tend to by funny and packed with production detail. Most
episodes also feature deleted scenes, which are accessible via
a branching feature.
Apart from the commentaries, the bonus
features break down as follows:
A Token from Matt Groening (1:52)
Animation Showcase is available on "The Parent Rap," which
allows the viewer to watch the episode in storyboard and/or animatic
Special Language Feature offers "Treehouse of Horror XII"
with optional dubbed tracks in German, Czech, Japanese, or Portuguese.
Animation Showcase is available on "Sweet and Sour Marge."
The People Ball (1:15) explains a particular animation challenge.
The 13th Crewman (1:40) shows the creation
of a gigantic sail bearing Bart's image.
Sketch Gallery I (3:10)
Blame it on the Monkeys (1:40) discusses the Brazilian controversy.
The Games (8:02) appears to be a compilation of footage from
different Simpsons-inspired video games over the years.
Unfortunately these gameplay clips don't tell us which games we're
Deleted Scenes (14:41) are playable here in a big bundle, with
or without commentary.
The Sweet Life of Ralph (6:11) is a short biography in clips
of the beloved goofball.
Sketch Gallery II (3:10)
There are also a number of easter
eggs, spread across all four discs.
Dating from 2001-2002, the thirteenth
season of The Simpsons is funnier and more entertaining than
most television comedies currently in production - including, by the
way, The Simpsons! Still, long-term fans of the show will
be disappointed (if they aren't already) by the show's marked decline
in standards, less intelligent humor, and fewer episodes that are truly
character-driven. Nonetheless, the thirteenth season has been
assembled with the usual assortment of goodies and an excellent technical
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.