|Simpsons, The: Complete First Season|
|DVD TV Shows|
|Written by Tara O'Shea|
|Tuesday, 25 September 2001|
Fourteen years ago, the Fox Network was born and the Simpson family was a part of it almost right from the start. The wacky, slightly grotesque but basically loveable clan were created by cartoonist Matt Groening after "Tracey Ullman Show" executive producer James L. Brooks asked Groening to produce animated "bumpers," or brief 10-15 second animated clips, for use between acts of the sketch comedy series. At first toying with an animated version of his "Life In Hell" strip, at the last minute, Groening presented Brooks with a cast of characters he named after members of his own family. The doughnut-loving patriarch, Homer, his blue bee-hived wife Marge, sax-playing smart kid Lisa, pacifier-sucking Maggie, and smart-aleck fourth grader Bart (an anagram of "Brat") became an instant hit, prompting the fledgling network to put up $10 million for an initial season of 13 half-hours of animation.
The first primetime animated sitcom since "The Flintstones," "The Simpsons" has proved a phenomenon, spawning a vast merchandising empire as well as a second Groening half-hour sitcom for Fox, "Futurama." Viewing the first 13 episodes, it's easy to see why "The Simpsons" became a cult hit. The series skillfully balances the mundane details of family life with the fantastical elements that animation gives the writers the opportunity to explore in a way live action never could. In the first episode aired, "Simpsons Roasting On an Open Fire," nuclear power plant safety inspector Homer can't confess to his family that he will be receiving no Christmas bonus check, so he secretly takes a second job as a department store Santa to try and ensure that his family will have a happy holiday season. A heartwarming tale that ends with Homer blowing his meager Santa earnings at the dog track and returning home to his family with an abandoned greyhound named "Santa's Little Helper," the episode serves as an excellent introduction to the town of Springfield and its most beloved citizens.
While the animation is at times stilted and crude, and the pacing slower than you'd expect, by the seventh episode, "Call of the Simpsons," the series has definitely found its footing. The Simpsons' camping trip is full of surreal moments, from Maggie being raised by bears to Homer being mistaken for Bigfoot, and the tone and pace of the show is firmly set. Although the series was considered controversial in 1990 -- particularly the antics of trouble-seeking Bart -- the episodes now play with an incredible sweetness that is never cloying but rather entertaining, precisely because of the family's many flaws. Unlike Fox's other hit family, the Bundys, at the heart of "The Simpsons" is the family's love for one another. Homer and his brood may be failures, but they always stick together, as evidenced by episodes such as "Bart the General" where Bart defends little sister Lisa from a schoolyard bully and endures a week of beatings, and "Life in the Fast Lanes," where Marge is tempted by a French bowling instructor only to rediscover her love for lunkish Homer in a sweet and funny spoof of the climactic ending of "An Officer and a Gentleman."
The first season DVD collector's series comes in a silver box set lavishly adorned with Groening artwork and three discs comtaining the 13 episodes, each with extras such as commentary tracks, scripts, clips in French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese and Portuguese, and a series of animatics from "Bart the General" that show pencil-tests of key animation compared with the finished segments, with commentary from Groening and director David Silverman and, perhaps most shocking of all, the (barely recognizable) Simpsons' very first appearance in the "Tracey Ullman Show" sketch "Good Night Simpsons."
Rounding out the special features are galleries of storyboards and character designs, audio outtakes from celebrity guest voice Albert Brooks, a brief "making-of" segment produced by the BBC, and "never before seen outtakes" in the form of the original animation from the first episode produced, "Some Enchanted Evening," which became the last episode of the season to air, as 70% of the episode had to be re-animated because it was so terrible the creators actually feared for the series' future.
The true joy of this box set is the episode commentary from Groening, Brooks, and individual writers and directors (including director Brad Bird, who went on to direct Warner Bros. "The Iron Giant") as they revisit the episodes after over a decade of producing "The Simpsons." A great deal of time is spent bemoaning the characters' crude appearance (as the Korean animators were frequently "off-model" in the early days), discussing Dan Castellaneta's finally finding the "Homer voice," as well as the evolution of the main title sequence and whether Bart ever actually said "Cowabunga!" (the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fateful catchphrase was indeed uttered by a skateboarding Bart in "The Telltale Head"). But for Simpsons fans, as well as animation fans, the commentaries are chock full of fascinating insights about the characters and the production, as well as fascinating factoids such as the origin of the chalkboard and couch "gags," the inspiration for supporting cast members such as Otto the bus driver (modeled after "Simpsons" writer Wallace Wolodarsky) and Krusty the Clown (based on a Portland, Oregon TV clown, Rusty Nails, who both Groening and Bird remember from their childhoods), and the evolution of the characters.
Originally mixed for television, the soundtrack on the episodes has been re-mixed for 5.1 and on the whole sounds very good. Dialogue and sound effects such as baby Maggie's pacifier are in the center channel, while Lisa's saxophone and other featured sound effects are in the mains. The music score is spread to the mains and rears. The DVD menus can occasionally be confusing--the commentary tracks, for example, are under "languages" rather than "special features," and to select the sound format, the viewer must first pick the episode and then proceed through the "language selections" menu. Also, while the packaging is slick, the insert which provides an episode guide with airdates and credits does not list the set's special features. Additionally, at times the commentary tracks can be difficult to hear over the individual episode's dialogue and music tracks.
However, as creator Groening notes in his introduction, with over 280 episodes of the series currently produced, true "Simpsons" fans should just be able to complete their DVD collection before the next format rolls around ... And this is box set definitely an excellent start.