The Simpsons is a couple of weeks away from becoming the longest running sitcom in the history of television, preparing to bump The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet from the top spot when its fifteenth season kicks off on November 2nd. With several hundred episodes having been produced, the series' sluggish release on DVD has left a number of fans kvetching endlessly on various message boards. With one set being released a year, by the time the DVD sets catch up to the current season, a high-definition DVD-style format will probably be the dominant force on the market, and we'll all be driving flying cars and live in subterranean lairs on the moon or whatever. To stave off the twelve month span between releases, Fox has started to churn out low-priced compilations of Simpsons episodes, beginning last month with a Treehouse of Horror disc and continuing with this holiday-themed set of five episodes.
Simpsons Roasting On an Open Fire: Between Bart's tattoo and Homer not receiving his usual end o' the year bonus, it looks like it's going to be a lean Christmas for the Simpsons. Homer tries to do the best he can with the limited resources on-hand, keeping his financial woes and his part-time gig as a mall Santa a secret from his family.
Mr. Plow: After trashing his car, Homer snags an automobile that'll make money instead of haemorrhage it. He goes into business as Mr. Plow, finally enjoying a taste of success and the adoration of the townsfolk of Springfield. Homer's inspirational words come back to haunt him when Barney -- with Linda Rondstadt in tow -- takes all of his customers away. To exact his revenge, Homer tricks Barney into heading out of town, inadvertently setting his pal up to be trapped in an avalanche.
Miracle on Evergreen Terrace: Bart sneaks out to the Christmas tree in the wee hours of the morning to get a sneak preview of his holiday haul, melting the fake plastic tree and destroying the family's presents in the process. He weaves a story about a burglar to cover up the crime, inspiring the generous people of Springfield to open up their hearts and checkbooks to give the Simpsons a much better Christmas than they really deserve. When Bart's misdeeds are discovered, the townsfolk decide to take back what's rightfully theirs.
Grift of the Magi: A wheelchair-bound Bart, quarter-century-old government regulations, and greedy mob contractors bring Springfield Elementary to the brink of financial ruin. A toy company steps in and foots the bill, secretly enlisting its students to design the perfect holiday present.
She of Little Faith: Mr. Burns turns the local church into a money-making machine, disenchanting Lisa with Christianity. Thanks in part to guest star Richard Gere, Lisa embraces Buddhism, and her family tries desperately to bribe her to return to the fold.
Christmas With the Simpsons isn't a particularly strong compilation. For starters, "Simpsons Roasting On an Open Fire" had already previously been released on DVD, and the inclusion of "Mr. Plow" is kind of a mixed blessing. On one hand, yay, 'cause it's easily the best episode on this set. On the other, it's not a Christmas episode; I don't think the word is so much as uttered once in its twenty-two minutes. I guess the ample presence of snow was enough to warrant its presence here, but it strikes me as kind of odd since season seven's "Marge Be Not Proud", which is heavily centered around the holiday, was left off. Those middle seasons would probably have been the most welcome to have represented on a disc like this. Anything much older is either on DVD or will be soon (season four, with "Mr. Plow", should be out sometime next summer, assuming the pattern holds), and anything much newer is recent enough to still be in rotation on TV. "Miracle on Evergreen Terrace" is a passably decent episode, offering a few solid laughs, though it's not anything particularly memorable. The two more recent episodes, "Grift of the Magi" and "She of Little Faith", are both satires about the commercialization of Christmas in particular and religion in general, respectively. "Grift..." has a couple of good gags (Gary Coleman chatting on the phone being my favorite) but is quickly forgettable, and "She of Little Faith" was so excruciatingly dull and laughless that it took a concerted effort to keep from nodding off. I'd seen all five of these episodes during their original run, and though "Mr. Plow" and "Miracle on Evergreen Terrace" have held up well to repeat viewings, my interest waned during "Grift of the Magi", and "She of Little Faith" was difficult to sit through a second time.
The Simpsons season sets have had a lot going for them: oodles of episodes, commentaries on each of 'em, Dolby Digital 5.1 remixes, creative menus, and a smattering of other extras. This disc, on the other hand, offers none of that. The relatively bare-bones Christmas With the Simpsons doesn't offer anything more than a handful of episodes, with a couple of clunkers among them. Although I've picked up the first three season sets the morning of their release, I would've passed on Christmas With the Simpsons if a copy hadn't found its way into my mailbox. I don't think I'd recommend this DVD to anyone but Simpsons completists, as well as the more casual fans who for whatever reason want an assortment of Christmas-themed episodes.
Video: All five episodes are presented full-frame, just as they've originally aired on Fox over the past fifteen years. The episodes are presented in chronological order, and there's a noticeable increase in quality as they progress. Early episodes like "Mr. Plow" aren't much more than an incremental improvement over how the original broadcasts probably appeared, while the much more recent "She of Little Faith" offers substantially more in the way of crispness and clarity. There are no major flaws of note, but regular viewers are unlikely to consider the presentation to be a marked improvement over what they're accustomed to seeing on Fox every week.
Audio: Unlike the six-channel season sets, Christmas With the Simpsons is presented only in stereo (192Kbps). Surround activity is light, and the lower frequencies are rarely represented. The dialogue is the most important aspect, of course, and it comes through cleanly and clearly.
There are also dubs in French and Spanish, as well as closed captions and subtitles in French and Spanish.
Supplements: The only extra is "Mr. Burns' Finest Moments", three minutes or so of brief clips featuring -- yup, as the title so subtly suggests -- Mr. Burns. The commentary for "Simpsons Roasting On an Open Fire" from the first season box set hasn't been carried over, nor are commentaries available for any of the other four episodes.
Christmas With the Simpsons comes packaged in a yellow keepcase, featuring a set of static 4x3 menus. A "play all" feature would have been welcome, but one has not been provided for this release. The set I received also didn't come with an insert, in case the usual "give me inserts or give me death!" crowd is curious. Whether or not retail copies will have that beloved flap of paper tucked inside, I have no idea.
Conclusion: Christmas With the Simpsons is a fairly bland and uneven collection of holiday-themed episodes. There are enough laughs to make most of these worth viewing, but I'd just as soon wait for the full seasons, to be honest.