There are those who stand firmly behind the belief that The Simpsons has enjoyed a perpetual purple patch since its inception in 1989; however, there are others, and I belong to this group, who submit that it is a series that underwent a transition around the turn of the Millennium, suffered a dire lull for several seasons in the mid-noughties, before evolving into the show that now, in its twenty second season, continues to entertain audiences of all ages.
Season thirteen represents a time when the show was clinging to the classic humour that was derived from situations that were routed in a reality – albeit a heightened reality – which could happen to you and your family, while slowly descending into the surreal and farcical, which now represent the episodes currently being made.
The season begins with Tree House of Horror Twelve – as would become the customary premier episode – the Simpson’s annual offering of three ghoulish tales that parody horror movies, featuring the characters of Springfield. The first segment sees Homer run afoul of a Gypsy, who then places a curse on the family, turning them into mythical creatures. To reverse the curse Homer must find a Leprechaun, which leads to the first appearance of the angry, Irish creature that would became a staple from here on. And rightfully so; he is as funny as he is un-PC. The second segment parodies ‘2001’ with Pierce Brosnan giving his best acting turn since… ‘The Long Good Friday’? He plays the computer that becomes infatuated with Marge and goes on a killing rampage to have her for himself/ itself.
Finally there is the Simpsons take on Harry Potter, with good ol’ Mr. Burns playing the evil Lord Montymort.
The series continues in this strong vein with ‘Homer the Moe’, where Moe returns to bartending school after losing his passion for the business, leaving Homer in charge. Moe returns with a new lease of life, changing the grungy, down and dirty Moe’s Tavern into, ‘M’, a po-mo, trendy wine bar, that brings him success, but alienates him from his loyal customers and friends. Moe learns ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone’. It’s an archetypal story told very well and continued to show the strength of the character of ‘Moe’, who would go on to be one of the only genuinely funny characters in the following baron years for the show.
The celebrity cameos continue thick and fast; Seinfeld’s Julia Louis Dreyfus gives arguably the best of the season, playing criminal Snake’s ex girlfriend turned cop who enters into a January- December relationship with Mr. Burns. While Richard Gere is bland and dreary, he can’t ruin a great episode where the town’s church burns down, causing the residents to re-examine their faiths. Lisa finds enlightenment and fulfilment in ‘Buddhism’, causing Flanders to blurt out the hilarious, “My Satan sense is tingling”.
Then there is ‘Weekend at Burnsies’, a hilariously daring episode that sees Homer becoming a lord to a murder of Crows, who for a while do his bidding, before turning on him. The resulting injuries lead to him being prescribed medicinal marijuana. Homer high has to be experienced. Apart from being very funny, the episode also manages to make statements about Marijuana, but never becomes preachy.
However, for all of these solidly structured, superbly executed and utterly hilarious episodes that resemble The Simpsons in its glory years, there are a number of woefully weak episodes that feel contrived, rushed and handled by hacks.
‘Jaws Wired Shut’ is a prime example of this; it sees Homer running into a statue of ‘not Mike Tyson’ Drederick Tatum, and being forced to have his jaws wired shut, consequently learning how to listen and be a better person. Dull.
And the ‘Parent Rap’, which sees Homer and Bart tethered together by a judge, is an example of the farcical that the series would fall deeper and deeper into. But at least it shows some level of originality. ‘Half Decent Proposal’, the episode that saw the return of Marge’s high school prom date, turned billionaire, Artie, offer the family millions for one night with Marge is an exact rip-off of ‘Indecent Proposal’, but somehow manages to be worse that that dire movie.
This laziness continues with, yet another ‘Simpsons clip show’, which although the producers have made fun of over the years, and this particular one has a Forrest Gump homage present, it can’t help but leave you feeling cheated. And ‘Tales from The Public Domain’ has Homer reading Bart and Lisa three classic stories, ‘The Odyssey, Joan of Arc and Hamlet – all featuring members of the Simpson family, of course – which has a few laughs, but just feels half-hearted.
Perhaps the worst episode in the season, and the one that received the most complaints, not for being poor and contrived, but for its representation of Brazil, is ‘Blame it on Lisa’. When Lisa’s Brazilian pen pal stops writing to her, the family up and head off to Rio de Janeiro – money, pet and babysitting plans, inoculations, concerns about travelling to South America are not an issue, and the adventures and situations they find themselves in – Homer getting kidnapped by drug lords – are too unrealistic and more importantly, lack the humour to get you through. This of course would start the trend of sending the family to every world destination that Americans are sufficiently aware of that humour can be derived from stereotyping and parody. Bad times.
However, when The Simpsons producers are on, they are really, really on, and the episode ‘I Am Furious Yellow’, certainly is an example of this.
While Bart becoming an overnight Internet sensation with an online comic book doesn’t feel as rooted in reality as the great episodes, it is consistently hilarious. Homer’s turn as the Hulk is great, and Stan Lee gives one of the all time great cameos, appearing in Comic Book Guy’s shop, placing Marvel Comics at the front of all the racks and deterring kids from buying anything un-Marvel: “The Thing will fit in your bat mobile”, he says, before jamming a ‘Thing’ action figure into a child’s bat mobile toy, destroying it and reducing the child to tears. He then walks away, proudly humming the Spiderman theme. It’s just great comedy from start to finish.
Ultimately I can accept that any show that has been running for thirteen years – count them, there haven’t been many – will struggle to maintain perfection and a cohesive style throughout a whole season. And while The Simpsons, in my opinion, managed that for a number of years in the 90’s, the issue of a change in times and values and sense of humour must also be taken into consideration. In this season there are one or two great episodes, many good ones and some that although don’t live up to the show’s high standards and are still very funny in comparison with anything else you will find.
The problem comes from when you started to watch the show. If you were a die-hard follower in the mid-90’s you will probably find the change in tone and style far more difficult to come to grips with than someone who became familiar with America’s favourite family far more recently. Either way, there’s still enough here to justify adding The Simpsons: Season Thirteen to your library.
This is where The Simpsons people outdo themselves, and also the reason it has taken them so long to release them on DVD; if you consider they are now on season 22, and season 13 is only being released on DVD, you get some idea into the amount of work they put into these discs.
First off, the packaging is just beautiful. They have chosen an arcade motif for this season, and the artwork featuring the family and other key characters at an arcade is wonderfully detailed. The one criticism would be that the way the sleeves are laid out makes it impossible to slide a disk out without touching the back of it, and inevitably smearing it with fingerprints.
There are commentaries for every episode with everyone from Matt Groening, to the show’s directors, writers, producers and stars all featuring at some point, offering the usual insights and trivia. However, because it’s people from The Simpsons, they’re never dull or boring and make watching the episodes twice to listen to the commentary a must-do.
Then there’s the deleted scenes for each episode, which although are often funny and justifiably removed – sometimes for timing, sometimes by request by the regulator – they are inserted in a way where you have to watch them as part of the episode; every time one of them features, the disc freezes and the screen goes blank, then we have the deleted scene, then we return to the episode. It’s a jarring process, and ruins the flow of the view.
The other notable extras are a featurette that documents the history and evolution of Simpsons video games – to fit in with the arcade motif – which goes from the original slot machine ‘The Simpsons Arcade Game’ from 1991, through various ‘Bart vs…’ incarnations for the NES and SNES in the mid 90’s, to the more contemporary ‘Simpsons Wrestling’ and ‘Simpsons Racing’. Sadly these are not interactive features.
And as everyone’s favourite dunce, Ralph Wiggum, is chosen as the cover model for this season’s DVD box, he gets two feauturettes of his own, which showcase his greatest moments and best ‘Ralphisms’. My personal favourites are, “Me fail English, that’s unpossible”, and “When I grow up I want to be Principal Skinner, or a Caterpillar.” Genius.
The Simpsons Season 13 is available on DVD now.