When last we left the thirteenth season of The Simpsons, we found the show in solid if not workmanlike shape. And in season fourteen, the show would realize a landmark of sorts in its 300th episode, titled "Barting Over". There was a minor controversy at the time as to whether or not two holiday specials early in the show's life were part of the number, but as the show has been broadcasting for another decade since then, whether it was 300 or 302.
As to the show itself, the episodes, spread out over three discs, are as follows:
"Treehouse of Horror XIII" - Hundreds of Homer clones, a takeoff on "The Island of Dr. Moreau" with Dr. Hibbert cast as the villain and powermad cowboy zombies overtaking Springfield are the main components of the this annual Halloween episode.
"How I Spent My Strummer Vacation" - After another episode where a drunken Homer embarrasses the family, they feel he's stressed and send him to fantasy rock and roll camp, where Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Tom Petty (among others) are the faculty to help realize Homer's rock dreams.
"Bart vs. Lisa vs. the Third Grade" - School achievement tests result in Bart's demotion from the fourth grade and Lisa's promotion from the second, resulting in a new awkwardness between the siblings.
"Large Marge" - When attempting to get liposuction, Marge accidentally receives breast implants that she (and Homer) enjoy, but eventually they become a burden to her.
"Helter Shelter" - A joyous occasion where Lisa receives a hockey stick from a player turns into chaos when the stick has termites that infest the house, forcing the family to be part of a reality show set in a 19th century home.
"The Great Louse Detective" - Kelsey Grammer (Frasier) returns as Sideshow Bob to help the Simpsons find out who is trying to kill Homer, because it isn't Bob this time.
"Special Edna" - Principal Skinner and Mrs. Krabappel's relationship seems to be hitting a patch where they may break up, and Bart decides to nominate her for Teacher of the Year in an attempt to keep them together.
"The Dad Who Knew Too Little" - Lisa gives Homer an idea for an ideal birthday gift that he still manages to screw up, resulting in Homer spending some quality time with his daughter.
"Strong Arms of the Ma" - Marge suffers from an acute case of agoraphobia, and her reclusiveness leads to her working out on some weights that Homer bought at a yard sale. The muscle-massed Marge is a sight to behold.
"Barting Over" - Bart finds out not only was he in a commercial growing up, but Homer squandered the money from it, and successfully sues for emancipation from the parents Simpson.
"I'm Spelling as Fast as I Can" - Lisa's intellectual toughness pays off with a trip to a widely recognized spelling bee, and she finds her integrity challenged when she is asked by people to throw the contest.
"A Star is Born-Again" - Much in the style of Notting Hill, the modest Ned Flanders runs into a chance encounter with a movie actress (played by Marissa Tomei, The Wrestler). But the relationship differs in ways from the actual film, to comedic affect at times.
"Mr. Spritz Goes To Washington" - A flight path has suddenly been diverted and jets are buzzing the Simpson home with regularity, and the family resorts to using politics to try and stop it.
"C.E. D'oh" - Through a course in assertiveness, Homer attempts to ask for a pay raise at work, but when he finds out Mr. Burns' contingencies in case of any legal action, Burns promotes him instead.
"Scuse Me While I Miss The Sky" - Eric Idle (Monty Python's Flying Circus) plays a documentary filmmaker tasked to record the day to day activities at Springfield Elementary, and discovers more than he bargained for when he runs into Lisa.
"Three Gays of the Condo" - After finding something that convinces him Marge doesn't love him, Homer moves out and lives with a homosexual couple, voiced by longtime cast voice Hank Azaria and guest star Scott Thompson (Kids in The Hall).
"Dude, Where's My Ranch?" - After an introduction where Homer writes an anti-Ned song, the Simpsons go to Bart's idea!
"Old Yeller Belly" - The family dog (named Santa's Little Helper) is disowned by Homer for not saving him in a treehouse fire. The dog is filmed with a Duff beer can and suddenly finds celebrity, but that's not the hardest part of being Santa's Little Helper.
"Brake My Wife, Please" - A newfound discovery of the love (or lots of like) of walking empowers Homer until Marge accidentally runs him over with the car. Or was it really an accident? Duh duh duh!
"The Bart of War" - After he and Millhouse accidentally destroy Ned's shrine to the Beatles, Bart finds himself as part of a community involvement group with other kids, and the group vies for notoriety against a rival group that Millhouse leads.
"Moe Baby Blues" - We end the season with Moe seemingly giving up on hope and life, and accidentally saves Maggie's life after she was thrown from the car in a fender bender. And Moe finds himself caring about someone, perhaps for the first time.
In revisiting these episodes, many for the first time in years, I was impressed at some of the things being touched on in the season, particularly Homer's initial behavior towards yet inevitable acceptance of gays. In "3 Gays of the Condo," we are set up for one story and are thrown another, something not uncommon in Simpsons episodes through the years, but in the case of potentially tricky material, handled pitch perfectly.
In addition, the show's focus strayed rarely to other characters once again, with the episodes on secondary characters limited to counting on one hand. Sure, the "Simpsons Did It!" defense that South Park centered a 2002 episode on could be mentioned a couple of times during this season, with "Helter Shelter" being a prime example of trying to do something funny and falling flat. However, the writing staff as a whole seemed to be a little more daring than in previous seasons, and even if the path towards their goal might have been similar in years past, it still worked for these new forays. When they did focus on Ned and Moe for instance, the episodes were a catharsis of sorts where energies could be directed on making those characters better, rather than doing an episode on someone else for the sake of the activity. This plays out in "Moe Baby Blues" and "A Star is Born-Again" to excellent effect.
What's encouraging is that the 300th episode, whether it's "Barting Over" or "Strong Arms of the Ma," is simply a number to the writers and producers of The Simpsons at this point, rather than a finish line. As of this writing, the show is knocking on the doorstep of 500 and doesn't appear to be slowing down at the moment, and it's slight changes in focus for the show's seasons that make it worth appreciating, and this one is no different.
The Blu-ray Discs:
The Simpsons returns to Blu-ray again in full-frame and using the AVC codec in the process. Honestly I wasn't expecting to be blown away from a new presentation or anything, but the colors do look as vivid as they appeared on television and they don't bleed into other aspects of the viewing. The source material is as clean as it's going to be, and there are some moments of haloing, but they aren't a distraction from the product as a whole, and overall the shows look as good as they're going to likely be.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless track isn't shabby. Dialogue sounds balanced and consistent in the center channel, subwoofer activity is abundant through many of the episodes and directional effects and channel panning is evident as well, sounding strong and effective, with the show possessing a greater soundstage than I was anticipating. It is carried only so far by its source material, but that shouldn't be a detriment when you're listening to it, the show sounds good and the discs help illustrate that.
As is the case with previous seasons, commentaries can be found on all of the episodes. Looking past the tracks and at a non-commentary perspective, the theme of making things "Treehouse of Horror" centric seems like a smart move, and for those who prefer the older school stuff there's a nice mix of old and new(er) here. Jean heads up the commentary tracks which include a mix of the writing staff, producers, regular voice performers and guest stars. Some of the guest star inclusions on these tracks are good (such as Al Yankovic), others not so much (David Byrne), but the tracks are fun without being all that informative or substantial. Moving onto the extras by disc:
"A Haunting Invite From Matt Groening" (2:12) - The show's creator welcomes us to this year's set of discs.
"In The Beginning" (12:43) - The introductions to all of the "Treehouse" episodes, in one spot!
"It's Only Rock N Roll" (9:05) - Where we find the musicians involved with "How I Spent My Strummer Vacation" recounting their participation on the show and their thoughts on an animated interpretation of themselves, including Richards, holding what might be the biggest ashtray I've seen.
"Sketch Gallery" (2:14) - Drawings which led to the images in "Strummer."
"The 300th Episode" (1:56) - Groening reflects on the number and on the show, using a lot of "if you told me this, then" in tone when discussing it, and Hawk talks of his involvement in the ep.
"Sketch Gallery" (2:14) - More drawings in case you didn't like them the first time.
"The Halloween Classics" (8:18) - Some of the best jokes, gags and bits from "Treehouse" eps 1-13..
"Treehouse of Horror V" (22:54) - One of my personal favorite "Treehouse" eps, this is the one with Homer and the time-traveling toaster and a spoof of The Shining among the highlights.
"Animation Showcase" (5:26) - Shows us some storyboard and animatic footage from "Moe Baby Blues" and allows you to compare the various products.
"Special Language Feature" - If you were one of the people that wanted to see "Three Gays of the Condo" in German, Italian, Portuguese or Czech, this is the feature for you.
"Foolish Earthlings" (3:44) - Shows us clips through the years of many "Treehouse of Horror" episodes with Kang and Kodos.
"Treehouse of Horror VI" (22:48) - For those that might not be familiar, this is the one where Homer is turned into a 3D character.
As laid out in earlier versions, deleted scenes are sprinkled throughout the discs and on 15 of the 22 episodes, and the third disc includes them all in one area, with optional commentary by Jean (11:06), with some decent stuff to be had here. There are also a few Easter Eggs through the disc menus.
I think that if you're not up to date on your knowledge and familiarity of The Simpsons, this might be a good spot to start brushing up on things, particularly as the subsequent years ran up to the motion picture. Technically it's solid and the extras while being a little mailed in, are certainly more prevalent than in most television seasons on DVD out there. Definitely worth your time.