Why the jump? Theories abound that the studio was attempting to capitalize on the press surrounding the show’s literal twentieth birthday (it was a midseason replacement), and the big anniversary special that aired a week or so back. So, if everyone’s talking about the Simpsons turning 20, the best possible sales would be generated by a set with a big “20” on the front of it, I guess?
You can go crazy trying to read the tea leaves with TV people (as anyone following the late night battles can tell you); suffice it to say, whatever the reason, seasons 13 through 19 will presumably be revisited. (We hope?) The twentieth season did mark an important turning point for the show: midway through, with the episode “Take My Life, Please,” the series finally made its long-awaited changeover to HD broadcasting, which is presumably why the season 20 set marks the series’ Blu-ray debut.
But enough about the marketing logistics; how is the show this year? Surprisingly robust. There are few things in this world that stay funny for 20 years (ask Jay Leno), and while the notion that The Simpsons passed its golden age a good decade ago persists, just about every episode here delivers the expected giggles and guffaws. “In The Name of the Grandfather” is vintage silliness, an episode that manages to begin with Homer and Grandpa Abe at a three-legged race and proceed, with perfect Simpsons logic, to have the father and son running a pub in Ireland. “How the Test Was Won” plays beautifully off the always-fertile comic soil of Lisa’s insecurities about her own braininess. “The Burns and the Bees” visits Mr. Burns at a billionaire’s retreat (and takes a quick but well-aimed shot at their boss, Rupert Murdoch); as someone whose hometown invested in an ill-advised and unnecessary arena, I particularly liked Burns’ line at his new sports arena’s opening game (“Welcome to the American Dream: a billionaire using public funds to construct a private playground for the rich and powerful!”). “Waverly Hills 9-0-2-1-D’oh” features Ellen Page in a clever send-up of Hannah Montana, while “Mypods and Broomsticks” features not only some trenchant and funny social commentary (via Bart’s friendship with a Muslim kid), but a terrific B-plot giving the business to all of us Mac users. The season’s highlight, though, is “No Loan Again, Naturally,” an expectedly irreverent take on the housing crisis, in which we find out that Homer has taken out a high-interest home loan every year to fund his elaborate Marti Gras parties.
Sure, not every episode is a winner. I’ve never been a particularly big “Treehouse of Horror” fan, and “Lost Verizon” is a rare show where they can’t seem to come up with anything clever to do with their celebrity guest voices. “Eeny Teeny Maya Moe” goes past silly and into the realm of stupid, while “Four Great Women and a Manicure” never seems to have gotten much farther than the good idea stage.
But those episodes are aberrations. For the most part, even as it approaches drinking age, The Simpsons remains a potent mix of goofy storytelling, uproarious non-sequiturs (“Flowers!” Homer snorts. “The painted whores of the plant world”), surprisingly biting social satire, and good old-fashioned family comedy. The jokes are inventive and the writing is strong, and they continue to find ingenious ways to exploit the richest supporting cast on TV. Say what you will, but this show is still one of the greats.
But here’s the rub. In contrast to previous Simpsons sets, which offered an embarrassment of bonus feature riches, we get exactly one extra: “The 20th Anniversary Special Sneak Peek by Morgan Spurlock." No commentaries, no deleted scenes, no animation showcases, no featurettes, no nothing—just a commercial for a special that aired on January 10… two days before the set’s release. What exactly is the response they’re hoping for to this “sneak peek”? “Hey, I sure will watch that! When’s it on?... What? Two days ago? D’oh!”
The lack of bonus features contributes a rather thrown-together feel to The Simpsons: The Complete Twentieth Season, and that’s a shame; the talent behind the show have always treated fans right when it came time to plunk down the dollars for these sets, but this one feels like a rush job that will probably get a second pass down the line. It’s still worth having, of course, but be prepared to grumble about it in a couple of years.
"The Simpsons: The Complete Twentieth Season" was released on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, January 12th.