“We are here to honor my old friends, The Simpsons. Tomorrow, they return to America, taking with them my gratitude, my friendship, and my heartfelt wish that they never return.” — Sideshow Bob
The Simpsons: The Seventeenth Season aired during the 2005-06 TV season. While it has become fashionable on the internet to say the show had become unfunny by this point, upon rewatch it is evident that the writers and animators worked hard to keep the show fresh and contemporary, despite its long-running status.
Homer Simpson (Dan Castellaneta, Earthworm Jim), his wife Marge (Julie Kavner, Rhoda), and their children Bart (Nancy Cartwright), Lisa (Yeardley Smith, Maximum Overdrive) and Maggie live in Springfield, USA, where they have many adventures.
This episode keeps stepping on rakes:
* “Bonfire of the Manatees”
After Homer offends Marge, she runs off and befriends a handsome, athletic animal rights activist.
Guest voice: Alec Baldwin
* “The Girl Who Slept Too Little”
When a cemetery is relocated next door to The Simpsons’ house, Lisa is plagued by nightmares, and is too afraid to sleep in her own bed.
* “Milhouse of Sand and Fog”
Milhouse’s divorced parents are on the road to reconciliation, which strains his friendship with Bart.
* “Treehouse of Horror XVI”
The annual Halloween show spoofs Steven Spielberg’s A.I., followed by a riff on The Most Dangerous Game, and a tale in which everyone transforms into their Halloween costumes.
Guest voices: Terry Bradshaw, Dennis Rodman
* “Marge’s Son Poisoning”
Riding a tandem bike together, Marge and Bart grow closer, only for Bart to later fear he’s become a mama’s boy.
* “See Homer Run”
Homer gains a new persona as the “Safety Salamander” for kids, which leads to a mayoral recall election in Springfield.
* “The Last of the Red Hat Mamas”
Marge is excited to join a women’s group, The Cherry Red Tomatoes, only to discover they have a secret.
* “The Italian Bob”
The Simpsons travel to Italy to get a car for Mr. Burns, only to discover a seemingly-reformed Sideshow Bob, now living as mayor of a small Italian town.
Guest voices: Italian actress Maria Grazia Cucinotta and, of course, Kelsey Grammer as Sideshow Bob
* “Simpsons Christmas Stories”
Another three-point anthology episode, which Simpson-ized takes on the Nativity and the Nutcracker, as well as a flashback to Christmas during World War II.
* “Homer’s Paternity Coot”
Homer suspects Grandpa Simpson is not really his father, and that his long-lost dad might be a retired British adventurer.
Guest voices: Michael York, William H. Macy, Joe Frasier
* “We’re on the Road to D’ohwhere”
Bart must attend a disciplinary camp in Oregon, but he’s on the no-fly list (long story), so Homer must drive him there, making for a father-son road trip.
* “My Fair Laddy”
Lisa attempts to teach Groundskeeper Willie to change his gruff ways and become a proper gentleman.
* “The Seemingly Neverending Story”
While trapped in a cave, The Simpsons tell stories, which have stories in those stories, which have more stories in those stories.
Guest voice: Michael Dees
* “Bart Has Two Mommies”
While Bart is temporarily ape-napped (long story), Marge turns her motherly instincts to neighbor boys Rod and Todd, hoping to get them out of their shell.
Guest voices: Susan Sarandon, Randy Johnson, Antonio Fargas, and Dave Thomas
* “Homer Simpson, This is Your Wife”
Homer and Marge appear on a Wife Swap-style reality show, switching spouses with an English couple.
Guest voice: Ricky Gervais, who also wrote the episode
* “Million-dollar Abie”
After a failed suicide attempt, Grandpa Simpson gets a new outlook on life and becomes a bullfighter.
Guest voice: Rob Reiner
* “Kiss Kiss Bang Bangalore”
When the nuclear plant is outsourced, The Simpsons are off on a trip to India.
Guest voices: Richard Dean Anderson, Meher Tatna
* “The Wettest Stories Ever Told”
Another anthology episode, based on tales of the sea. The Simpsons land on Plymouth Rock, there’s a mutiny on the Bounty, and The Poseidon Adventure is spoofed.
* “Girls Just to Have Sums”
When Springfield Elementary is divided between girls and boys, Lisa disguises herself as Guy Boyman to learn math with the dudes.
Guest voice: Frances McDormand
* “Regarding Margie”
Marge loses her memory, and can’t figure out how or why she ever fell for Homer.
* “The Monkey Suit”
Springfield is divided by controversy when the elementary school stops teaching evolution.
Guest voices: Melanie Griffith, Larry Hagman
* “Marge and Homer Turn a Couple Play”
Homer and Marge act as marriage counselors to a professional athlete and his sexy singer wife.
Guest voices: Mandy Moore, Stacey Keach
During this season, the show ping-pongs back and forth between episodes that are over-the-top cartoony and episodes that are more grounded and based on the interactions between the characters. One style is not necessarily better than the other, so it is up to you which you prefer. Some prefer a scaled back episode that keeps the action around the house with an emotional core to the story, while others prefer the characters involved in outrageous schemes and larger-than-life craziness. This season offers both.
In terms of the more zany episodes, an argument could be made that the writers have gone too far. Homer spending an entire episode in his “Safety Salamander” costume is one thing, but then getting him involved in the mayoral election — while still in the costume — it stretches credulity, and goes far beyond the show’s “suburban family just like yours” premise. On the plus side, the three anthology episodes, such as the traditional Halloween episode, gives the animators and writers the chance to tell different kinds of stories outside of continuity.
For the relatively more grounded episodes, we see the writers continuing to explore the characters and what make them tick. “The Road to D’ohwhere” is a particular favorite of mine. After so many episodes dealing with Homer and Lisa’s father-daughter relationship, it’s nice to see an episode that puts the focus on Homer and Bart, with Homer actually making some effort — in his own bumbling way — to be a better father for his son. The season is bookended with two episodes about Homer and Marge’s marriage facing tough times, and the writers on the commentaries argue that this does not have to be repeating themselves, because, they say, all marriages have their ups and downs.
Of special note is the episode “The Seemingly Neverending Story.” Basically, it’s a series of short vignettes, but ones that are layered on top of one another in an increasingly complicated structure. Again, here we see the show’s writers attempting to stretch themselves, and try something new, not content to repeat the same types of episodes they’d done before.
The Simpsons Movie was deep in preproduction during this season, with a lot of new design work and a push toward bigger, better animation. A lot of that effort bleeds through to these episodes. Although still hand-drawn and not yet fully CG at this point, computer colors gave the animators a much larger pallet to work with, and the visuals have a level of detail that are a cut above earlier seasons, so this is the best the show looked before the inevitable switch to CG following the movie. All those bright colors and small details really pop in 1080p high definition on this four-disc Blu-ray, vivid and strong with fluid animation. The audio, in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, is good, striking a clean balance among dialogue, music, and sound effects.
Why buy the Blu-rays when it’s so easy to catch The Simpsons on TV? Because of the generous bonus features. Chief among these are the commentaries, one on each episode, which continue to be excellent. A combination of writers, directors, actors, and the occasional celebrity guest star join in on the chat tracks, which means we get a variety of topics per commentary, from writing to acting to animation, with plenty of laughs along the way. There are also deleted scenes with optional commentary, a series of short featurettes, bonus episodes, a multi-angle animation showcase, a look at The Simpsons in alternate languages, and some of the artists’ original sketches. The menus this time around have a Sideshow Bob theme, complete with voice work by Kelsey Grammer.
The Simpsons: The Seventeenth Season (Blu-ray) is presented in its original full frame 4:3 aspect ratio, so on your fancy widescreen HDTV there will be black spaces (they’re not bars) on the right and left of the screen. I had no problem with this — I’m the guy that used to buy widescreen VHS — and it’s always best to preserve the original aspect ratio of any work, but those black spaces still bother a lot of viewers.
A lot of people believe The Simpsons is no longer funny, or even of quality, and nothing I can say will dissuade them. That said, this seventeenth season reveals the creators refuse to coast on their past successes, but instead worked hard to produce the best work they could…and it shows.
Not guilty. Vendetta! Vendetta!