The Simpsons: The Complete First Season (DVD)

Don’t have a cow, man!

Hi. My name is Mike, and I am a Simpsons addict. If Simpsons fans were the sort to dress up like their favorite characters and attend conventions, I’d attend as Dr. Nick (“Hi everybody!”) or Disco Stu (“Disco Stu likes disco music!”). I’d ridicule and put down everything with a pithy “worst episode ever!” like the unbeloved Comic Book Guy. At the mention of anything food-related, I’d say something like “Mmm…floor pie.” See, because basically that’s what I do in real life anyway, except the dressing-up part. Rare is the occasion that I cannot muster a Simpsons quote with which to greet it. Just to let you know, so you can thank me by the time you reach the end of this review, I thought about writing it entirely out of quotes from The Simpsons. Then I thought about interspersing them liberally in the text. Then I figured you didn’t need to suffer through that level of geeky fandom.

I can’t remember exactly when I started watching The Simpsons. I know it was sometime in the second or third season, definitely during the few seasons where it aired on Thursdays. I still remember the media thinking it was nuts that a niche animated show on an upstart network went head to head with the NBC family powerhouse: The Cosby Show. Guess which show is still on the air, and who can’t even land Jell-O ads any more.

The Simpsons: The Complete First Season contains — prepare for a shocker — all 13 episodes of The Simpsons produced for its first season.

* “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”
It’s Christmas time, and money is tight in the Simpsons household. The entire Christmas savings had to be spent removing a tattoo Bart decided to get in honor of his mother. Plus, Homer did not get a Christmas bonus as planned. He takes a job as a mall Santa, but the Christmas Eve paycheck is too small to buy anything. So, he goes to the racetrack, where he loses (of course), but finds a special present for the entire family.

* “Bart the Genius”
Bart cheats on an IQ test, and finds himself in a school for gifted nerds. He must keep his wits about him to escape this hellhole.

* “Homer’s Odyssey”
Homer loses his job at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. Despondent, he finds a cause he can rally behind: he becomes Springfield’s self-appointed Safety Guru. When all other hazards have been vanquished, he turns his attention to the nuclear plant. His newfound convictions come into question when Mr. Burns, the megalomaniacal plant owner, offers him his job back.

* “There’s No Disgrace Like Home”
When the family embarrasses Homer at his company picnic, he takes them to Dr. Marvin Monroe, family counselor. Hilarity ensues.

* “Bart the General”
The pure warrior…a magnificent anachronism. Nelson Muntz, school bully, has picked on Bart for the last time. Bart rallies the other children, training them for a glorious battle with the Vest-Wearing Bully.

* “Moaning Lisa”
Lisa has the blues, and only her love of jazz can pull her through.

* “The Call of the Simpsons”
This episode is perhaps the first use of a Simpsons hallmark: the first act misdirection. Homer is tired of living in the economic shadow of neighbor Ned Flanders. When Flanders buys a motorhome, Homer rushes out to get a bigger and better one. Unfortunately, with his credit he can only purchase a run-down camper. Undaunted, he takes the family out for a weekend in the wilderness. Of course, the camper goes over a cliff, and the Simpsons must live by their wits to return to civilization.

* “The Tell-Tale Head”
To impress the other juvenile delinquents, Bart cuts the head off the statue of Jebediah Springfield, founder of the fair town of Springfield. Only his wits can save him from angry mob justice.

* “Life on the Fast Lane”
Albert Brooks provides the first of many celebrity cameos on The Simpsons. He plays a bowling instructor trying to woo Marge into an affair.

* “Homer’s Night Out”
Bart’s spycam catches Homer cavorting with a belly dancer at a bachelor party. The picture spreads around town, even without the help of the Internet, and lands Homer in hot water with Marge.

* “The Crepes of Wrath”
A prank lands Bart into the only logical punishment: a foreign student exchange program. He’s flown to France, where he ends up a slave for wine makers, while a young Albanian boy tries to take advantage of Homer’s job in the nuclear power plant to act as a spy.

* “Krusty Gets Busted”
Sideshow Bob! The evil clown frames Krusty in a convenience store robbery, and it’s up to Bart and Lisa to prove his innocence.

* “Some Enchanted Evening”
While Homer and Marge enjoy a night on the town, it’s a night of terror for Bart, Lisa, and Maggie, left at home with a baby sitter…who just happens to be featured on “America’s Most Armed and Dangerous”!

Charles Addams’s “Addams Family” New Yorker comic strips introduced the macabre Addams clan, but his comics did not flesh out their world — some of the characters didn’t even have names! It wasn’t until the television show went into production that their world was solidified into what we are all now familiar with. The Simpsons is very similar. The show developed out of a series of short cartoons on Tracey Ullman’s variety series. These shorts were in very rough form, because Matt Groening and the other artists were accustomed to working with comic strips, not animation. Like the Addams, some of the characters — Marge in particular — didn’t even have names. For the series, the animation was cleaned up, and the Simpsons were given a fleshed out world in which to live. Even then, the thirteen episodes were produced very nearly simultaneously. The first one to arrive was the one planned to be the pilot, “Some Enchanted Evening.” When the producers saw the crude animation, they scrapped about 70 percent of the episode and had it redone, and postponed it until the end of the season. It is the only episode in this set that is close to the animation we’ve seen from the second season on.

It wasn’t just the animation that changed for later seasons; the characters themselves have undergone changes both gradual and abrupt. In the first season, Homer is clueless but affable; it wouldn’t be until later that he would become a loveable dunce. The focus is almost entirely on Bart; later seasons would focus more on other characters, though the trend in recent seasons has seen the focus shift almost entirely to Homer. Lisa would not become Mensa material until later. Many important secondary characters were not introduced until later, like Principal Skinner’s mother, Professor Frink, Kent Brockman, Comic Book Guy, Dr. Nick Riviera, and many others. Especially noted for their absence are any of the characters brought to life by Phil Hartman, like Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure. Some secondary characters are not polished, like Police Chief “The law is powerless to help you” Wiggum.

The writing also isn’t as strong in the first season. A friend once called The Simpsons the purest form of humor in the universe, and it’s a sentiment I also share. The first season shows that potential, but does not quite live up to it. A few of the episodes — “Homer’s Night Out,” “Life on the Fast Lane,” “Bart the Genius” — are little more than animated sitcom episodes. “Homer’s Odyssey” and “The Crepes of Wrath” show The Simpsons‘s capability for animated mayhem and the extent to which the writers could carry hyperbolic humor. “There’s No Disgrace Like Home,” while not quite as humorous as later episodes, exhibits the chutzpah of the writers and animators, and shows that they understood exactly why this show was animated and not live action: you can get away with things in animation you can’t do in live action.

Fox has blessed us with a three-disc set of our favorite family’s first season on television. The thirteen episodes are split with six each on the first two discs, with the remaining one on the third disc with the extras. The episodes are presented in their full frame original aspect ratio. They look clearer and have greater clarity than on broadcast or cable TV, but still won’t be mistaken for anything other than television animation. No digital artifacts are visible. Audio is available in Dolby two-channel surround as well as remixed Dolby Digital 5.1. The 5.1 audio has a little more oomph, but the two tracks are virtually identical — very forward-centric.

For extras, each episode has a commentary track provided by alternating members of the production staff, including Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, Sam Simon, Brad Bird, and others. Disc One contains scripts for “Bart the Genius,” “Bart the General, and “Moaning Lisa.” Most of the set’s extras are on the third disc. It contains outtakes of the abandoned animation from “Some Enchanted Evening,” a documentary, various clips of a scene in foreign languages, a short from the Tracey Ullman show, Al Brooks audio outtakes, an art gallery, and the script for “Some Enchanted Evening.” The documentary is entitled “The Making of The Simpsons: America’s First Family,” and was prepared by the BBC. The art gallery contains some pencil sketch animatics for “Bart the General,” as well as a few glimpses of early designs and Matt Groening’s “Life in Hell.” (By the way, that’s a great comic. It’s much more mean-spirited than The Simpsons. A local free newspaper here in Eugene, Oregon runs it weekly, and there are several collected volumes available in fine bookstores everywhere.) Also, be on the lookout for the Easter eggs spread across the three discs. I found only one of them, so there are more to uncover!

My only complaint with the set is Fox’s navigation. Each episode is presented individually, and at the end of each one you are subjected to the long DVCC logo animation. It would have been nice if they had included an option to play all the episodes on a disc sequentially, rather than forcing you back to the menus after each one is over. On the flip side though, I am glad that they ordered the episodes according to airdate rather than production order. Fans know them by the order in which they aired, and it’s nice to see them presented that way.

Now comes the point where I have to give a recommendation. You probably won’t find a bigger fan of The Simpsons, but on the other hand I’m not that crazy about the first season. I didn’t have to purchase this set, and if it had been my $39.98 on the line, I might have passed on it and waited for the second season set to come along. Then again, it is my favorite television show, and any Simpsons is better than no Simpsons. You get an nice audio and video presentation of the show’s earliest episodes, certainly better than you can see them on TV, and maybe that’s all a fan needs expect. Maybe if sales are strong enough, Fox will rush out the second season set, which will contain one of my favorite episodes: the first “Treehouse of Terror” Halloween special with their parody of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.”


Stupid sexy Flanders…acquitted!


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