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The Simpsons: The Complete First Season

Fox Home Video

Starring Dan Castelanetta, Julie Kavner, Hank Azaria,
Harry Shearer, and Yeardley Smith

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

In the beginning, there was a smartass cartoonist named Matt Groening who drew a smartass comic called "Life in Hell" that ran in a handful of smartass, alternative newsweeklies. Starring a one-eared rabbit named Binky, it was smart, crass, violent, self-deprecating and funny as all get-out. It caught the eye of TV producer James L. Brooks, who was looking for someone to create short animated "bumpers" to run between the sketches on his new project, The Tracey Ullman Show, and who found "Life in Hell" very, very funny. The artist readily jumped at the chance (and the paycheck) offered by Brooks and the fledgling Fox Television Network — but at the last minute had second thoughts about burning his one-and-only creation in the off-chance that the project tanked, and hastily pitched the idea of a series of quickies about a family, instead. In the car on his way to a meeting, Groening realized he hadn't given his new characters names, so he used the names of his parents and two sisters — Homer, Marge, Maggie and Lisa. Thinking that calling the boy "Matt" would be too obvious, he substituted the similar name "Bart." And The Simpsons were born.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Tracey Ullman Show only lasted a few seasons, but Fox decided to invest in a half-hour, weekly version of the animated shorts. No one involved with the project expected it to last very long — there hadn't been a successful, prime-time animated series since The Flintstones, over 15 years previously. But on Dec. 17, 1989 The Simpsons hit the airwaves and it was an immediate, huge hit, eventually becoming one of the longest running and most popular shows in television history. More than cleverly composed cartoons — they weren't, in fact, even especially well animated at first — the show's strengths were it's brilliant writing and amazing voice talent, principal of which are Yeardley Smith as Lisa, Julie Kavner as Marge, Nancy Cartwright as Bart, Dan Castellanetta as Homer (as well as Barney, Krusty, Groundskeeper Willie, Mayor Quimby and Sideshow Mel), Harry Shearer as both C. Montgomery Burns and his assistant, Smithers (and Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, Rev. Lovejoy, Otto, Kent Brockman and countless others) and Hank Azaria as Apu, Moe, Chief Wiggum, the Comic Book Guy, Dr. Nick Riviera and far too many more to mention. Additional voices are provided by Marcia Wallace as Mrs. Krabapple, and voice pros Russi Taylor (Martin Prince), Tress Macneille (Jimbo, Dolph, Agnes Skinner), Maggie Roswell (Maude Flanders, Helen Lovejoy, Princess Kashmir) and Pamela Hayden (Milhouse, Rod Flanders).<

Happily and inevitably, The Simpsons have now come to DVD. A message from Matt Groening inside the handsome silver case starts, "Welcome to the first of many deluxe overpriced DVD sets of The Simpsons. With 280-odd shows in the can and no end in sight, you might be able to complete your Simpsons DVD collection just before the next format comes along. Thanks for buying!" and ends with, "So enjoy. We've got more Simpsons episodes to make, then broadcast, then re-run, then chop up for syndication, then sell to you on DVD. But you know something? We wouldn't have it any other way!" Indeed, the plan is to release a two-season set every year, until the entire show has been enshrined on disc. With 11 seasons already completed when they started the project, if the show continues to remain on the air, they'll be all caught up in ... well, you do the math.

The Simpsons: the Complete First Season is exactly that. Three discs, offering the complete, uncut episodes — 13 in all — in order that they first aired. Each episode is available with optional commentary by Matt Groening and/or James L. Brooks, and/or the director or writer(s). The comments range from the enlightening to the pointless, but are generally quite entertaining, if only for the overall theme of "Oh dear God, look how crappy the first season's animation was!" And, indeed, it was crude compared to later seasons. In addition to changes in the opening credits that were later edited out for time (now gone are Lisa riding her bike, a crowd of people running for a bus), most noticeable is how much the design of the show has been refined over time. It isn't until the third or fourth episodes that the characters were consistent, Dan Castelanetta was still finding Homer's voice, the backgrounds were often dizzyingly sloppy, and many of the secondary characters had yet to be created. And yet ... from the very start, The Simpsons had a singularly unique style and voice, smarter than the sitcoms that it parodied, and daring to take on situations and plots that no live-action show could dare try and get away with.

The episodes:

The boxed set also includes some crude outtakes that were excised from the final cartoons, some cool animatics from "Bart the General," a five-minute "making-of" blurb from BBC television called America's First Family and — most entertaining — the opening scene from "Life on the Fast Lane" dubbed in your choice of French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, and Portuguese. Audio for all episodes is available in Dolby Digital 5.1 (English or French), with English or Spanish subtitles. And keep your eyes open for a couple of Easter eggs on Disc Three.

— Dawn Taylor

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