Believe it or not, I have never watched The Simpsons on broadcast television. Sure, I knew about it; it would be almost impossible not to. But I'd never actually seen any of the episodes until they started coming out on DVD. Then I thought I'd see what all this enthusiasm was all about. I was floored. The Simpsons wasn't just a funny show, it was pure brilliance. It wasn't just a great comedy, it was a deadly accurate critique of contemporary U.S. mass culture. And Season 4 builds on the success of the earlier seasons to be, amazingly enough, even better.
What makes The Simpsons: The Complete Fourth Season so good? One thing that comes immediately to mind is how fresh and new the show feels, which is no small achievement in a series' fourth season. Each episode is jam-packed enough imaginative, clever, funny elements to fill two or three "ordinary" half-hour comedies, and there's absolutely no sense of routine: each episode is a unique little gem of storytelling, and you can never predict where any particular one is headed. The narrative structure varies a great deal, sometimes setting up a plot immediately, and sometimes playfully wandering all over the place before starting to settle down, as in "Lisa the Beauty Queen." You never know quite what to expect, which makes each episode stand out; who would expect "A Streetcar Named Marge" to include a delightful parody of The Great Escape, starring Maggie? In fact, movie references and deadpan parodies are everywhere, along with other sly cultural references, emphasizing that it's adults who are the real audience of The Simpsons, even if Bart's antics are also funny for the younger set.
The characters in The Simpsons are marvelous because they capture the essence of modern-day suburban life, and yet do so while still being real characters with their own, likable personalities. Have you ever met cartoon characters with as much personality as Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa? I'll go farther, and say that you'll have a hard time finding any comedy with as many great secondary characters as The Simpsons, like Apu, Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, Grampa Simpson, Patty and Selma... and so on. The Simpsons may star the Simpson family, but it's set in a wildly creative world peopled with great characters, which of course makes for a perfect setting for the stories told in The Simpsons.
But it's something more than just creativity and a fantastic sense of humor that makes The Simpsons truly great. More than just a funny show, The Simpsons is a positively wicked social satire... highlighting all the foibles and absurdities of contemporary suburban life in the U.S., making them an essential part of the comedy, and somehow doing all this without raising anyone's hackles. From small asides like Homer's imagined retirement aspirations in "Marge Gets a Job" to the ongoing satire of violence on TV with the "Itchy and Scratchy" cartoons, from the full-blown send-up of organized religion in "Homer the Heretic" to the jab at corporate sponsorship in "Lisa the Beauty Queen," not an episode goes by without some jab at our complacent, materialistic, self-absorbed society.
It seems to me that in its wholehearted embrace of The Simpsons, mainstream U.S. culture couldn't possibly have known what it was watching. How else can you explain the proliferation of theme merchandise for a show that brilliantly skewers the premise of product placement and product tie-ins with Krusty the Clown? Could it really have been missed how The Simpsons was providing a devastatingly funny critique of the very people who were avidly tuning in each week?
Maybe it's that very quality of being packed full of content that lets the social satire slip in, almost as an aside. Groening and company also have another trick up their sleeves: the fact that they can speak through their characters with (it seems) no one the wiser. Take "Treehouse of Horror III," for example, with its hilarious introduction by Homer in which he makes fun of the kind of people who get offended by TV shows instead of just choosing not to watch them. This is the sort of thing that would have people up in arms if it were delivered in a serious tone by, say, Groening himself (precisely because it does jab right at a sensitive area), but here, it can slip by with a chuckle, because that's silly old Homer saying it!
I could go on, but you get the point. The Simpsons is amazingly funny. It's witty, original, wildly imaginative, very intelligent, and extremely sharp in its insight into the banality and absurdity of everyday suburban life in the U.S. The earlier seasons were fantastic; Season 4 is even better.
The Simpsons: The Complete Fourth Season is a four-disc set, packaged in a fold-out cardboard holder that fits into a glossy cardboard slipcase. A booklet listing the episodes (with plot synopses) and special features is included.
The Simpsons: The Complete Fourth Season looks stunning, and certainly is vastly superior to the earlier seasons that I've seen. The image is crisp and clean, with bright, bold colors and solid blacks. No edge enhancement raises its ugly head here, and no print flaws or noise appear either. All the episodes appear in their original aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
The Simpsons is presented with a clean Dolby 5.1 soundtrack that serves the episodes quite well. Dialogue is universally crisp and natural-sounding, with a nice depth to it, and the Simpsons theme music sounds great as well.
The one thing that will come immediately to your attention as you start navigating through the set is how annoying the menus are. There are cute little animations on each menu screen... which is all well and good, except that the animations are unskippable. And long... long enough to make you wonder "Did I really press the button to select that?" So soon enough you'll be gritting your teeth every time you have to deal with selecting anything.
The main selling point in terms of special features is the fact that each episode has a commentary track. All the commentaries feature multiple people who were involved with the episodes, and all but one ("Homer's Triple Bypass") includes Matt Groening.
A miscellany of other bonus materials is spread across the four DVDs. Disc 1 has a brief introduction to the season from Matt Groening; it does contain spoilers, though, so watch out. "A Cajun Controversy" is a two-minute segment detailing the brief controversy that arose because of a song in "A Streetcar Named Marge," while the five-minute piece "Bush vs. Simpson" fills viewers in on the back-and-forth between The Simpsons and Barbara Bush and President Bush (senior)... they weren't fans. A "Promotional Stuff" section includes a 14-minute featurette with Matt Groening talking about The Simpsons in general.
Disc 2 contains four commercials featuring The Simpsons. Deleted scenes can be found on Disc 3 (four for "Homer's Triple Bypass") and Disc 4 (six for "The Front"); these deleted scenes can be watched separately, or viewers can choose to watch them incorporated into the full episode, with commentary.
Each disc also has a section of "Art and Animation" for one episode: "A Streetcar Named Marge" on Disc 1, "Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie" on Disc 2, "Homer's Triple Bypass" on Disc 3, and "A Simpsons Clip Show" on Disc 4. These storyboards and animatics will be of mild interest to most viewers, but those who are intrigued by the cartooning process will find them worthwhile viewing.
The Simpsons is a brilliant mix of hilarious humor and wicked social satire... the latter being what really gives the spark to the former. Season 4 offers twenty-two absolutely dazzling episodes, in a transfer that looks and sounds fantastic, and a hefty slate of bonus materials to boot. It's no surprise that The Simpsons: The Complete Fourth Season walks away with a DVDTalk Collector Series recommendation.