With their X-Files box sets already the model of how best to release a TV series on disc, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has pushed the envelope even further with their latest television show release: The Simpsons: The Complete First Season box set. The three-disc set continues in the X-Files DVD tradition by collecting the entire 13-episode first season of the show, while also raising the bar for TV programs on DVD by providing audio commentaries for each episode a first for the format.
The Birth of One of the Best TV Shows Ever
The set kicks off with the first disc, consisting of episodes one through six and starting with "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire," the first episode aired which also served as a Christmas special. When Homer doesn't get his annual Christmas bonus, he's forced to take a job as a department-store Santa in order to buy presents for the family, but an atypically (for The Simpsons) heart-warming finale is in store for all. "Bart the Genius" sees the eldest Simpson child winding up in a "gifted and talented" school, to the horror of everyone. "Homer's Odyssey" sees the head of the household becoming a citizens' rights activist, while in "There's No Disgrace Like Home" an uncharacteristically self-aware Homer yearns for a better-adjusted family, finding that shock treatment is the only solution. "Bart the General" depicts the kids of the neighborhood leading a revolt against Nelson the bully, and "Moaning Lisa," the sixth and final episode on the disc, introduces Lisa's jazzman friend, Bleeding Gums Murphy (James Earl Jones). The disc also includes original scripts for three of the episodes, including handwritten notes by series creator Matt Groening.
The second disc contains another six segments, starting with "The Call of the Simpsons," one of the best-remembered of the early shows, wherein the Simpsons go camping and Homer winds up getting mistaken for Bigfoot. "The Telltale Head" is told in flashback, as Bart and Homer find themselves being chased by an angry mob after decapitating the statue of town founder Jebediah Springfield. Marge flirts with Albert Brooks and the prospect of marital infidelity in "Life on the Fast Lane," while a compromising photo of Homer with a belly dancer causes more marital strife for the couple in "Homer's Night Out." "The Crepes of Wrath" is one of the best of the first season, as Bart is shipped off to France as part of an exchange program but instead winds up working as an indentured servant at a winery. The last episode on disc two is the first in what has become a tradition for the series. Kelsey Grammer provides the voice of Sideshow Bob in "Krusty Gets Busted," as Bart sees his hero Krusty the Clown go to prison and decides that he must clear Krusty's name.
The 13th episode, "Some Enchanted Evening," is found on disc three. Penny Marshall guest stars as a psycho babysitter who learns a lesson or two from Bart and Lisa. The rest of the disc consists of extra features, starting with another original script for that particular episode. Several minutes of outtakes are also included from the original version of "Some Enchanted Evening," which was the first episode to come back from the animation factory in Korea. As Groening explains in his audio commentary during the outtakes, this footage looked so horrible that the producers feared that the show would never make it to air. Luckily, the re-shoots were much better, and the rest is history.
13 Episodes, 13 Commentaries
Plenty of other extras are found on the third disc. An animatic segment, also with commentary, comes from "Bart the General," and a four-minute making-of short from the BBC called "America's First Family" is interesting in that you actually get a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes talent for a change. Foreign language clips demonstrate what the show sounds like when broadcast in French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, and Portuguese, and the first Simpsons short to air on The Tracey Ullman Show, "Good Night Simpsons," is also found here. The audio outtakes with Albert Brooks from his turn in "Life on the Fast Lane" are funny, and the "Art of The Simpsons" gallery is fairly extensive, including only one example of Matt Groening's Life in Hell comic strip (the one that got him noticed by executive producer James L. Brooks in the first place), but plenty of early sketches and drawings from the show itself. Another gallery, this time of Simpsons-related magazine covers, can be accessed through an "Easter egg"; another egg brings the viewer to a brief ABC news clip from the early days of the show, about some small controversy regarding Bart Simpson T-shirts and their "negative influence" on America's kids.
While all of these extras are nice, it's the inclusion of audio commentaries for all 13 episodes that truly makes this set one of a kind. Groening, Brooks, director David Silverman, writer/producer Al Jean, writer Jon Vitti, and plenty of others kick in on the episodes they specifically worked on, and the result is great. The commentaries can be lightweight and rambling, but any true fan of the show will delight in listening to them. In a recent interview, Al Jean hinted that he expects all future episode collections on DVD will continue this trend; we can only hope so. Finally, the discs feature Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround audio options, and the full-frame transfers look great.
Much of the animation of the first season is rough and awkward, and the characters are slightly off when compared to how we know them today. But the stuff that makes The Simpsons so great is already here in abundance: satire, pop-culture references, and a willingness to treat the characters as more than just cartoons. What other animated television show, prior to Groening's, could claim that its lead characters actually had a sex life, for example? For that matter, the Simpson family often proves deeper even than their human counterparts on sitcoms today, as the show is about to enter its 13th season. Amid the laughs and pratfalls and zingers, Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and even little Maggie have proven time and again that they're some of the most interesting and human characters on TV.