The Simpsons: The Complete First Season
Fox Home Video
Starring Dan Castelanetta, Julie Kavner, Hank Azaria,
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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.
- "Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire" Amazingly, this Christmas episode was the very first half-hour Simpsons episode aired. When he doesn't get his Christmas bonus and Marge has to spend all the Christmas money to get Bart's tattoo removed Homer secretly gets a job at the mall as Santa. But on Christmas Eve, Homer discovers that, after taxes, the pay only comes to thirteen dollars. Barney gives him a hot tip on a greyhound, so Homer takes Bart to the racetrack, where he impulsively bets on a dog called "Santa's Little Helper," who's running at 100-to-1. The dog loses and gets the boot from his owner, so Bart and Homer take the dog home with them, thus saving Christmas. Notably funny moments include Homer reciting the names of Santa's reindeer (Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Nixon, Comet, Cupid ... uh, Donna Dixon") and Bart's entreaty, "Come on, Dad, this could be the miracle that saves the Simpsons' Christmas. If TV has taught me anything, it's that miracles always happen to poor kids at Christmas. It happened to Tiny Tim, it happened to Charlie Brown, it happened to the Smurfs, and it's going to happen to us."
- "Bart the Genius" Bart switches his intelligence test with brainiac Martin Prince and ends up being sent to the Enriched Learning Center for Gifted Children ("Discover your desks, people," says the teacher). Bart, understandably, doesn't fit in, and the kids at his old school have decided he's a "poindexter." When his science project explodes, Bart confesses what he did and Homer chases him around the house. This episode contains the hilarious scene with the family playing Scrabble, in which Bart comes up with the word "KWIJIBO" - a "fat, dumb, balding North American ape with no chin," and Bart's contribution to a class discussion on paradoxes: "Well, you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't."
- "Homer's Odyssey" Bart's class takes a field trip to the nuclear plant, during which Homer takes his eyes off his driving and crashes into a radioactive pipe. After he's fired, Homer gets depressed ("All he does is just lie there like an unemployed whale," Bart says), writes a suicide note, and leaves home to go jump off a bridge. When the family runs to stop him, they're almost hit by a speeding truck, but Homer pulls them out of the way and saves them. This inspires Homer to embark on an obsessive crusade of public safety, plastering Springfield with warning signs, safety posters and speed bumps and then takes on the power plant, leading the entire town against Mr. Burns. So Burns offers Homer the job of Safety Supervisor (with a large pay increase), and Homer tells the town that he will make the plant safe for everyone. Among the highlights are Homer's speech, "Our lives are in the hands of men no smarter than you or I. Many of them are incompetent boobs. I know this because I've worked alongside them, gone bowling with them, watched them pass me over for promotions time and again ..." and the first appearance of Blinky, the three-eyed fish.
- "There's No Disgrace Like Home" Homer takes his family to the company picnic at Mr. Burns' estate, and has the opportunity to compare his own wife and kids to other happy, loving families. Convinced that the Simpsons are losers, he goes to Moe's, where he sees a commercial for Dr. Marvin Monroe's Family Therapy Center and decides that's just what the family needs ("When will I learn?" he says, when he sees the commercial. "The answers to life's problems aren't in the bottom of a bottle. They're on TV!"). So he pawns the TV set over the family's objections (Marge: "Homer, couldn't we pawn my engagement ring instead?" Homer: "Now, I appreciate that honey but we one hundred and fifty dollars here.") When Dr. Monroe's normal methods prove ineffective, he straps them all into electrified chairs hoping to teach them not to hurt each other; instead they start shocking each other uncontrollably. Dr. Monroe honors his "double your money back" guarantee, and Homer takes the happy family off to but a new TV. Best moments include Homer, praying to God: "You're everywhere. You're omnivorous"; Marge getting drunk on punch at the picnic ("I don't want to alarm anyone, but I think there's a little al-kee-hol in this"); and Homer to Moe, "You know, Moe, my mom once said something that really stuck with me. She said, 'Homer, you're a big disappointment,' and God bless her soul, she was really on to something."
- "Bart the General" Bart gets into a fight with Nelson, the school bully, while protecting Lisa and her home-baked cupcakes. Nelson beats Bart up and tells him that he'll be waiting for him the next day. Bart goes to Homer for advice, and Homer tells him to fight dirty. So Bart tries it, but gets beaten up again. Grandpa Simpson introduces Bart to Herman, a creepy veteran who runs an army surplus store. Herman advises Bart on the art of warfare, and Bart rallies all the other bullied kids together to assault Nelson. Using water balloons (Bart: "Is it okay if they say 'Happy Birthday' on the side?" Herman: "Well, I'd rather they say 'Death from Above,' but I guess we're stuck") the kids defeat the bullies, take Nelson prisoner, and make him sign an armistice treaty. The episode ends with Bart, speaking directly to the camera: "Contrary to what you've just seen, war is neither glamorous or fun. There are no winners; only losers. There are no good wars, with the following exceptions: the American Revolution, World War II, and the Star Wars trilogy. If you'd like to learn more about war, there's lots of books at your local library, many of them with cool gory pictures."
- "Moaning Lisa" Lisa wakes up one morning with the blues, and nothing will cure it. Hearing distant music, Lisa sneaks out of her room and follows it until she finds a soulful saxophone player named Bleeding Gums Murphy, who teaches her how to channel her sadness through music. The next morning, Marge drops Lisa off at school, with the advice that she should smile no matter how she feels inside ("It's what shows that counts. Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down, past your knees, until you're almost walking on them. And then you'll fit in, and you'll be invited to parties, and boys will like you, and happiness will follow.") But she quickly reverses that, and tells Lisa to just be herself which makes Lisa happy again. Meanwhile, Homer battles to defeat Bart at a video boxing game and almost beats him when Marge unplugs the TV to announce Lisa's recovery. At show's end, the family goes to a blues club to hear Lisa play with Bleeding Gums Murphy. Among the show's funnier moments are when Lisa's music teacher, Mr. Largo, tells her that there's "no room for crazy be-bop in 'My Country 'Tis of Thee'" Lisa: "I'm wailing out for the homeless family living out of its car. The Iowa farmer, whose land has been taken away by unfeeling bureaucrats. The West Virginia coal miner, coughing up his " Mr. Largo: "Well, that's all fine and good, Lisa, but none of those unpleasant people are going to be at the recital next week."
- "The Call of the Simpsons" Homer is jealous of Ned Flanders' new mobile home, so takes the family out to buy one. With his lousy credit, he can only get the most beat-up, run-down piece of crap on the lot. When he takes the family out on a trip, he loses control of the camper and almost goes over a cliff; the family gets out just in time to watch the camper plummet to its demise. Stranded, Bart and Homer set out for civilization, lose their clothes in a river and use plants and mud to cover themselves. An unsuspecting nature photographer mistakes Homer for Bigfoot and takes his picture. Soon the forest is overrun with Bigfoot hunters and souvenir stands. Reporters find Marge and warn her about the Bigfoot, Maggie (who followed after Bart and Homer) is taken in by a family of bears and Homer is shot with a tranquilizer gun. Homer is observed by scientists, who are unable to agree whether he's human or not (Scientist: "I think it a man. The eyes have some glimmer of intelligence." Other scientist: "Glimmer in the eyes? What about the sloping ape-like forehead?"). Homer is allowed to return to the family until his species can be determined. The episode features many funny moments, like this father-daughter exchange: Lisa: "Remember, Dad. The handle of the Big Dipper points to the North Star." Homer: "That's nice, Lisa, but we're not in astronomy class, we're in the woods."
- "The Telltale Head" Bart takes up with a group of troublemakers, headed up by Jimbo. After sneaking into the movies and throwing rocks at the town's statue of Jebediah Springfield, Jimbo says he wishes someone would cut the statue's head off. Wanting to be cool, Bart sneaks out of the house and saws off the head. When the vandalism is discovered, the whole town is out for blood and Bart's new buddies are as upset as anyone else (Jimbo: "I mean, throwing rocks at a statue is one thing, but I'd never cut the head off a guy who iced a bear with his bare hands.") Bart confesses to his family, and Homer takes him to the authorities, but before they can get there, they're confronted by an angry mob. Bart tells the crown that his act has united the town and taught them to appreciate their heritage, so he's forgiven. Among the highlights are Jebediah Springfield's disembodied head appearing to Bart like in Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," and Homer reading The Bowl Earth Catalog at the kitchen table Homer: "Look at this one! (reading) 'It will send your pins to ... Valhalla?'" Lisa: "Valhalla is where the Vikings go when they die." Homer: "Ooh, that's some ball."
- "Life on the Fast Lane" For her birthday, Homer presents Marge with a bowling ball with his own name engraved on it. (When she asks while the holes aren't even drilled to her size, Homer responds, "Well, I couldn't very well chop off your hand and bring it to the store, could I?") Furious, Marge takes up bowling just to spite him, and meets a womanizing bowling pro named Jacques, who offers to give her lessons. As he continues his attentions and they become closer, Marge considers having an affair. Homer suspects that something's wrong, but can't express his feelings (the closest he comes is complimenting her on the way she makes his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, because "the jelly stays right in the middle where it's supposed to.") On her way to Jacques' apartment, Marge changes her mind and goes to the nuclear power plant instead. As the music from An Officer and a Gentleman" plays, Marge marches up to Homer, he sweeps her into his arms and carries her through the plant, announcing to his cheering co-workers, "If anyone asks, I'm going to my car with the woman I love and I won't be back for ten minutes!") One of the most consistently hilarious episodes in the show's run, the credit apparently goes to guest star Albert Brooks as Jacques. According to the commentary by Groening, Brooks ad-libbed most of his lines, including his classic description of "brunch" in his syrupy French accent to a flustered Marge: "It's not quite breakfast, it's not quite lunch, but it comes with a slice of cantaloupe in the end. You don't get completely what you would at breakfast, but you get a good meal."
- "Homer's Night Out" Homer goes out to a stag party for co-worker, and Bart receives a mail-order spy camera, and Marge takes the kids out dinner coincidentally, at the same restaurant as the stag party. At the party, Homer dances with a stripper named Princess Kashmir, and Bart takes a picture with his spy camera. He gives a copy of the picture to Milhouse, who duplicates it and distributes it around the school. Soon the picture is all over town, and Marge kicks Homer out. When he begs to return, Marge tells him that he needs to teach Bart that women aren't sexual objects, so Homer takes Bart to the strip club where Princess Kashmir is performing. He lectures the crowd on the importance of women to men ("You know something, folks? As ridiculous as it sounds, I would rather feel the sweet breath of my wife on the back of my neck as I sleep than stuff dollar bills into some stranger's G-string") and the men in the audience go home to their wives. The episode features Homer stepping onto the bathroom scale and moaning, "Two-hundred-thirty-nine pounds?! I'm a blimp! Oh, why are all the good things so tasty?"
- "The Crepes of Wrath" Bart frustrates his parents and Principal Skinner to the point where they mutually agree to place him in a Foreign Exchange Program. In France, Bart quickly realizes that he's been brought there to be used for slave labor by two sleazy characters named Ugolin and Cesar, at a run-down "winery" in the French countryside. Meanwhile, the Simpsons take in an Albanian ("You mean all white with pink eyes?" Homer asks) named Adil Hoxha, whom plays up to Homer by asking him to show him where he works. Bart is forced to work long hours, sleep on the floor of a barn, and sample cheap wine laced with anti-freeze to test whether it will make him go blind. Meanwhile, Adil takes pictures of the power plant and secretly relays the information back to Albania. Bart flags down a policeman when he's sent to town to buy more anti-freeze (amazing himself by suddenly speaking fluent French) and Ugolin and Cesar are arrested. The FBI detect a satellite transmission by Adil, and he's taken away; Bart returns a hero.
- "Krusty Gets Busted" On a run to the Kwik-E-Mart, Homer witnesses a robbery and identifies Krusty the Clown as the culprit. Krusty is fired and Sideshow Bob becomes the star. Bart, however, refuses to believe that Krusty is a crook ("He's my idol," Bart says. "I've based my whole life on his teachings.") Bart and Lisa search for clues at the Kwik-E-Mart, and notice on the surveillance footage that Krusty used the microwave something the real Krusty could not have done, they reason, because he has a pacemaker. They also note that Krusty wouldn't have been reading at the magazine rack because he's illiterate. On live TV, Bart reveals that Sideshow Bob had the most gain by framing Krusty and Krusty is set free. The show features Krusty's "Howdy Doody Show" homage, interacting with his audience: Krusty: "Hey kids! Who do you love?" Audience: "Krusty!" Krusty: "How much do you love me?" Audience: With all our hearts!" Krusty: "What would you do if I went off the air?" Audience: "We'd kill ourselves!"
- "Some Enchanted Evening" Feeling unloved by Homer, Marge shares her feelings on the radio with Dr. Marvin Monroe ("Marge, it's what I call harsh reality time. Your husband sees you as nothing.") Homer hears the show, and fears that Marge will leave him. After a pep talk by Moe "You're a pig. Barney's a pig. Larry's a pig. We're all pigs. Once in a while, we can crawl out of the slop, hose ourselves off, and act like human beings" Homer arrives late with candy and flowers, but Marge is furious. So he sweet talks her and promises to take her to dinner. The babysitting service sends over a Mrs. Botz, who the kids recognize on the show "America's Most Armed and Dangerous" as the infamous Babysitter Bandit. Before they can do anything, Mrs. Botz ties them up and sets to robbing the house. Maggie escapes from her crib, unties Bart and Lisa, and they subdue Mrs. Botz, then go for help. Homer and Marge return home to find the babysitter tied up and assume the worst about Bart and Lisa. they untie her, pay her triple the normal fee, and Homer waves goodbye just as the reporters and the police arrive. Highlights include Lisa commenting on Bart's dismissal of her Happy Little Elves cartoon ("You're just like Chilly, the elf who could not love") and Marge's ending reassurance to Homer: "The way I see it, if you raise three children who can knock out and hog-tie a perfect stranger, you must be doing something right."
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.
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