Monday, August 31, 2009

On DVD: "The Simpsons: The Twelfth Season"

By the time it began its twelfth season in November of 2000 (with the customary season-opening “Treehouse of Horror” episode), The Simpsons was well established as one of the smartest, sharpest, and most consistently funny shows on television. Cynics and diehards will argue that the show’s so-called “golden age” drew to a close around the end of season seven, complaining that in its later years, the series has relied less on characterization and more on silliness. To that, this viewer calls bullpucky. Then as now (as it, astonishingly, enters its 21st season), The Simpsons remains fall-down funny, continuing to mine the rich comic persona of its primary family while stretching out and providing more screen time to the fullest supporting cast on television.

This is not to say that the show isn’t capable of occasional sputters—the bad reputation of episode five, “Homer vs. Dignity,” isn’t entirely unearned, and this year’s “Treehouse” episode is surprisingly weak (there’s only one really good section, the Lisa-heavy “Night of the Dolphin”). But even in those episodes (the only two of season twelve in which the writers seem off their game), there are at least mild chuckles, and the big laughs of episodes like “Hungry Hungry Homer” and “Skinner’s Sense of Snow” more than make up for those slightly muffled shows.

The “official” season opener, “A Tale of Two Springfields,” also marks the show’s 250th episode; it’s a smart and funny half hour that makes good use of guest stars The Who, and gives Homer plenty of screen time as he leads a protest over the splitting of Springfield into two area codes—a split that seems to fall among socio-economic lines. Homer also shines in “The Computer Wore Menace Shoes,” an episode that finds comedic gold in his initial computer incompetence, before turning into a smart piece of social satire when Homer becomes a Drudge-style web “journalist.”

Other highlights include “New Kids on the Blecch,” in which Bart, Nelson, Ralph Wiggum, and Millhouse are recruited by a skeezy promoter to be members of a pre-fab boy band (it doesn’t quite top South Park’s “Something You Can Do with Your Finger” episode, but few things do); “The Great Money Caper,” which turns Homer and Bart into a pair of grafters (and prompts Grandpa Abe Simpson to deliver one of my favorite lines of the season: “Now this scam was in The Sting II, so nobody’s seen it”); “HOMR,” in which Homer gets hilariously smart; and the outstanding “Trilogy of Error,” which spins Homer and Marge, Bart, and Lisa into a series of interlocking, Run Lola Run-style simultaneous storylines, and has the good sense to use the Lola music while doing so.

And again, one of the pleasures of these later editions of the Simpsons is their willingness to indulge the smaller supporting characters with subplots and episodes of their own. The presence of Comic Book Guy on this cover is no accident; his heart attack (and stomach-churning romance with Agnes Skinner) makes “Worst Episode Ever” far from it. He also dominates the opening scenes of “HOMR,” which take place at the “Totally Sick, Twisted, F***ed-Up Animation Festival”; these provide some of the concepts for the set’s ComicCon-style box layout and design. Ned Flanders doesn’t get much screen time through the early portion of the year, but his late-season episode “I’m Goin’ To Praiseland” is one of the set’s best. Krusty also gets two episodes to really shine: “Insane Clown Poppy” concerns the clown’s discovery that a distant one-night stand led to a precocious daughter (well-voiced by Drew Barrymore), while “Day of the Jackanapes,” concerning his retirement and the end of his show, lands some well-aimed inside jokes before moving on to the return of Sideshow Bob.

Throughout the season, the show’s trademark comic elements are firmly in place—quick wit, unexpected references (kudos for the Updike stuff in “Insane Clown Poppy”), dry understatement (“That ad campaign may have crossed a line,” notes Lisa, of the commercial for Itchy & Scratchy’s gruesome “Stabby-Os” cereal), throwaway sight gags (the on-screen credits for a music video by Bart’s boy band lists Ang Lee as director), and, my favorite element of the Simpsons narrative style, the wandering storyline. Their habit of using the first act as a red herring, only semi-connected to the rest of the show, is ingenious and hilarious; “Simpsons Safari,” for example, begins with an extended bit about a bagboy strike, which leads the family to desperate culinary measures, which then leads Homer to a box of animal crackers in the attic, which then leads to the discovery of a prize inside the box for the safari trip that encompasses the rest of the episode. They’d been doing this kind of thing for years, but it still plays; what’s more, they’ve begun to acknowledge it, and wink about it. “Tennis the Menace” begins with Homer and Abe making Abe’s burial plans; five minutes later, when the elder Simpson exclaims “I can’t believe we went through all that just so you could get a tennis court,” Homer’s response (“I’ll bet you didn’t see that comin’!”) is more for the audience than for his father. A moment like that is The Simpsons at its best: smart, knowing, and ridiculously funny.

The Simpsons: The Twelfth Season arrives on DVD, as the last several seasons have, with two packaging options: a standard, slim keepcase (which I was sent for review), or the controversial “cartoon head” box, which looks cool but takes up a lot of shelf space. Inside is a pull-out disc holding case, with art of the cast of characters at a comic book/sci-fi convention, “Bi-Mon-Sci-Fi-Con”; the discs themselves are illustrated in a similar comic book-inspired style.

The Simpsons: The Twelfth Season offers a healthy dose of the pop-culture references, witty guest shots, and inspired silliness that have helped make it the longest-running series in primetime. These early 21st-century episodes may not approach the sheer perfection of “Marge vs. the Monorail” or “Mr. Plow,” but then again, what on this earth does? These “lesser” years of The Simpsons still represent the best of modern television comedy, and Fox’s latest batch of episodes offer the expected first-rate quality and top-shelf bonus features.

"The Simpsons: The Twelfth Season" is currently available on DVD.

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