For over a decade, one of the best shows on television has been an a show that seemed unlikely to succeed right from the start…a cartoon for adults. While the heavy content of social commentary that has been the show's staying power developed largely in later seasons of the show, the writing that made the show a surprising success is showcased wonderfully on "The Simpsons: The Complete First Season."
Although Homer, Marge, Lisa, Bart and Maggie haven't aged much over the entire length of the show, a viewing of the first season demonstrates just how much everyone in Springfield has changed. It seems Waylan Smithers used to be black, Mr. Burns used to be a lot less feeble and a bit younger, Ned Flanders used to be a materialistic guy who seemed to be living the good life and the Simpsons used to have an elderly couple as neighbors who loved to comment on everything.
Starting with the Simpsons' Christmas Special, the first season is filled with truly classic episodes. Presented commercial free and looking as good as these episodes have ever looked, this DVD box set is a real treat. Viewing these episodes it is easy to tell how the show became almost an overnight success. While Simpsons' fans are likely quite familiar with these episodes already, watching them is a nice reminder of just how good these episodes are and how many enjoyable hidden jokes and cultural references enrich the texture of the episodes. Just seeing Van Gogh's "Crows in the Wheatfield" in the middle of the "The Crepes of Wrath" episode is enough to remind the viewer just how intelligent, sharp and witty the creative team behind these episodes is and how well made even the early episodes are.
For Simpsons' fans revisiting the entire first season is a tremendous treat, as the viewer is reminded of the first appearances of many characters who have become more central figures in the Simpsons' universe, from Otto the bus driver, to Sideshow Bob, to the bully Nelson Muntz, to Ralph, who interestingly enough did not actually become Ralph Wiggum until a later episode when Ralph developed a crush on Lisa.
While the episodes on this DVD are regularly in syndication, as discussed below, they have never been presented better and the commentary tracks for each episode truly contribute to making this quite a collectible. Loaded with insight to the creative process, inspiration for many of the characters, hidden jokes, rewrites and scrapped ideas. The commentary tracks are filled with nuggets of Simpson trivia and their own share of laughs.
Here's a look at the episodes included in the box set:
"Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire"- The episode that launched the series, this episode shows some of the magic and charm that built a nationwide cult following. The animation is a quantum leap over the animation from the Tracey Ullman Show shorts but still in relatively rough form for this first episode. No matter how many times one views the episode, the "Ow! Quit it!" bit is still funny. From the first episode, the entertaining dynamic of the relationship between Homer and Bart is present and funny, and Homer's lovable ne'er do well personality is also well represented as he seems to fail miserably in almost every attempt to give his family a wonderful christmas.
"Bart the Genius" - The shaping of the psyche of Bart takes an irrevocable turn in the show's second episode. In an episode most famous for launching an email virus ("Kwyjibo"), Bart's mischievious side comes to the forefront as he switches IQ tests with Martin and ends up being placed in a school for child prodigies. Again, the relationship between Homer and Bart is a treat and there are a number of laughs to be had in this episode.
"Homer's Oddysey" - This episode features Homer's crusade for safety as he seeks to put signs up warning of all the dangers which surround the people of Springfield. This episode features a mysterious graffiti artist named, "El Barto" and quick appearance by Blinky, the three-eyed fish. The episode also features the elderly neighbors of the Simpsons who seem to comment on everything, but who disappeared shortly after the first season.
"There's No Disgrace Like Home" This episode is yet another one considered to be a classic- the family trip to Dr. Marvin Monroe's family counseling center had me howling and the episode showcases a theme that would become a recurring one, namely the family's deep love for the television. From each episode to the next, the rich texture of the family's relationship gets better and better defined and is truly a treat. Equal parts All in the Family and The Flintstones, these relationships have been as much responsible for the show's success and longevity as has the sharp writing.
"Bart the General"- Introducing Nelson Muntz as a real terror, after confronting a bully who was bothering Lisa, Bart incurs the wrath of Nelson, a bully who seems to have the whole school living in fear of him. Bart, after seeking guidance from Grandpa, Bart leads a revolt against Nelson with his school mates armed with water balloons. The people in the Simpsons' universe expands dramatically in this episode and only seems to get bigger in later episodes.
"Moaning Lisa" An episode that adds many layers of depth to the Lisa's character we are introduced to both her sense of angst and the colorful character of "Bleeding Gums" Murphy. As pointed out in the commentary, the show takes a bit of license, with Lisa out on her own late at night to meet Murphy and her presence in a blues club, but this is another complex and endearing relationship that is built between Lisa and Murphy over their common love for the saxophone.
"Call of the Simpsons"- Not quite as memorable as some of the other first-season episodes, this is still a very entertaining episode in which the Simpsons buy an R.V. after being inspired by Flanders' RV purchase (this is the pre-hardcore pious Ned Flanders) and head for the wilderness. After falling into the mud, Homer is mistaken for the legendary bigfoot.
"The Telltale Head" Notable for its introduction of Jebediah Springfield, town founder and bare-handed bear killer, and Jimbo Jones, henchman of Nelson Muntz who proudly proclaims that he has been kicked out of all 4 "Space Mutants" films, one of the funniest things about this episode is the explanation in the commentary track that the writers used a nonlinear chronological approach because the vast majority of the funny parts of the episode were orignially at the end.
"Life on the Fast Lane"- "Those trophies are not for bowling, they are for lovemaking." One of the great lines of all time comes from this episode in which a birthday present from Homer to Marge (a bowling ball with "Homer" engraved on it) drives Marge to bowling lessons and nearly the arms of another man. A real treat in this episode is the came of Albert Brooks as Jaccques, the bowling, lovemaking frenchman who tries to woo Marge.
"Homer's Night Out"- By the time I viewed this episode, I was truly impressed with how many of the episodes in even the first season were laugh-out-loud funny, and this episode is no exception. Featuring a bachelor party gone wrong. A Simpsons' oddity, if one looks closely, one will see Waylan Smithers out with a woman, accompanying Mr. Burns who also has found himself a female companion.
"The Crepes of Wrath"- Yet another episode featuring another classic exchange, "Please, please kids, stop fighting. Maybe Lisa's right about America being the land of opportunity and maybe Adil has a point about the machinery of capitalism being oiled by the blood of the workers." This episode features an Albanian exchange student who comes to live with the Simpsons as Bart is shipped off to France. As mentioned above, this episode is one of the first Simpsons' episodes to incorporate famous works of art in its animated landscape, here it's Van Gogh's Crows in the Wheatfield. This episode also demonstrate the willingness of the show's creators to take chances- as a fair portion of the second half of the episode is in French.
"Krusty Gets Busted"- This episode features an introduction of a personal favorite character- the nefarious, erudite, Sideshow Bob. Voiced by Kelsey Grammar, Sideshow Bob's hatred toward Krusty the Klown is showcased in this episode, as is Bart's ascendance as the bane of Sideshow Bob's existence.
"Some Enchanted Evening" The last episode of the first season, this episode features Penny Marshall as Mrs. Botz, the "Babysitter Bandit." As Homer and Marge go out for a night to bring romance back into their relationship, they leave the kids with a babysitter (the only one they could get) who ends up being on America's Most Wanted. The episode leaves the viewer on a positive note, as Marge summing up the Simpsons' familial dynamic "The way I see it, if you raise three children who can knock out and hog-tie a perfect stranger, you must be doing something right."
All in all, these great episodes have never looked and sounded better. Even though most media markets have Simpsons' reruns on television daily, this box set is still well worth the money. The commentary tracks are extremely informative about the creative process and are a lot of fun. All in all, these three DVDs are jam packed with laughs, and both casual and die-hard Simpsons' fans are going to want to watch each episode and the commentary for each episode at least once. That equates to over 12 hours of entertainment. This box set has me anxiously awaiting the release of the Season 2 box set and each season thereafter.
"The Simpsons" is presented in full screen with the aspect ratio of its original television exhibition (1.33:1). (This makes sense in that the frames of animation are designed for television display). While the animation of the first season is not nearly as developed as it has been in later seasons, these episodes have never looked better. The colors are noticeably more vibrant than they appear on even the best televisions and they are a joy to watch. While there are occasional imperfections and some degree of shadowing, these are unquestionably part of the original episodes rather than part of this digital transfer.
Again, because these episodes were made for television, the audio qualities are not necessarily what one might expect from a film. Nevertheless, "The Simpsons" is presented in a 5.1 Dolby Digital Transfer that does enhance the enjoyment of these episodes on DVD. The episodes are presented in somewhat limited surround sound, these episodes have still never sounded better.
By far the most impressive bonus materials on this DVD box set are the individual audio commentaries which accompany each episode, usually featuring some combination of Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, Al Jean and individual writers. As mentioned above, in each instance, the people involved seem to be having a great time, have a lot to add and really supplement the enjoyment of each episode nicely. They generally discuss the inspiration for the episode and various characters, pointing out various "first appearances," inside jokes, and other humorous moments throughout the episodes. These commentaries are an absolute must for any Simpsons fan and go far beyond the coverage these episodes received in the The Simpsons' Episode Guide. Just some of the information which is learned includes the aforementioned rearranging of the Telltale Head episode so all the laughs weren't at the end, the fact that in the opening credits, a tire factory was supposed to be on fire, the interesting inspiration for Otto, the origin of Homer's middle initial (from Bullwinkle J. Moose) the origin of Mrs. Krabbappel's name (Crab-apple- inspired by the Little Rascals) and a whole ton of other extremely interesting inside information that make the commentaries a must.
While the first two DVDs are rather spartan in both their menus and the extra features included (excluding, of course, the fantastic commentary tracks), Disc 3 contains a number of bonus materials, both disclosed and undisclosed including the "Good Night Simpsons" skit from the Tracey Ullman Show, a run through of "The Art of The Simpsons" a script to the "Some Enchanted Evening" episode, complete with sketches, scribbled notes and last minute changes, subtractions and the first inkings of "Duff Beer," Julie Kavner and Albert Brooks' very funny audio outtakes from the "Life in the Fast Lane" episode, a short documentary entitled "The Making of the Simpsons: America's First Family," foreign language clips of the show in French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese and Portuguese (all the same scene), outtakes from the "Some Enchanted Evening" episode with commentary showing very early efforts of Groening, Brooks and company, and the rough Animatic pencil test sketches for the "Bart the General" Episode with commentary regarding the process by which episodes are made, and finally two "easter eggs," a short documentary from 1990 on the Simpsons T-shirt controversy (a number of schools tried to ban certain Bart Simpson T-shirts they found offensive), and a short run through of various magazine covers featuring the Simpsons..
The "Making of the Simpsons: America's First Family" is a short documentary which is actually quite interesting and enjoyable, featuring a short interview with James L. Brooks in which he recounts receiving a copy of a Life in Hell comic and seeking out Matt Groening, an interview with Matt Groening in which he reveals the inspiration for the characters- his father Homer, his mother Margaret, and his younger sisters Lisa and Maggie (He changed Bart's name from Matt to Bart just so people wouldn't necessarily know it was him). Groening even explains why the Ullman shorts look so different (he thought they were going to clean them up, but all they did was trace Groening's drawings) and discusses the show's early popularity.
Among the other extra features a few stand out as extremely enjoyable. The Art of the Simpsons features Groening's original Life in Hell artwork and sketches of various versions of Simpsons characters, showing how certain characters developed. Also enjoyable are the outtakes Albert Brooks recorded as "Jacques" the French bowler/ lover in the "Life in the Fast Lane" episode, in which Brooks really takes the role and runs with it..
I have long felt that "The Simpsons" is one of the best programs on television. This DVD box set provides treatment of the first season of the show in a manner commensurate with its greatness. While the show demonstrated even more improvement over the next few seasons, the first season is filled with truly enjoyable episodes, each of which I would watch more than once. The commentary tracks which accompany each episode are fantastic and are definitely a must for any dedicated fan of the show. Finally, the additional bonus features round out this box set nicely. A rare occasion in the world of DVDs, a viewer paying full price for this DVD would still get their money's worth. The only negative aspect of this DVD is that it will make fans of "The Simpsons" far more eager for the release of the Season 2 box set.