Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Mildly Better Second Excursion Into Springfield: The Simpsons Season Two!

The Good: Increasing quality of the animation, Better character flow, Some humor still remains
The Bad: Much of the season does not hold up for real fans by this point.
The Basics: More original than the first season, this second boxed set of The Simpsons on DVD still suffers from overplaying for genuine fans, though there are enough bonus materials to recommend.

While it might not be clear from my failure to recommend the first season of The Simpsons on DVD (reviewed here!), I am and have been a big fan of the series almost from the very beginning. The thing is, as a such a big fan, I watched two episodes of The Simpsons five nights a week and one episode on Sunday for almost a decade. Thus, there is little value in owning so many of the early seasons. Why? I've seen them so many times I know many of them line by line. There's nothing funny about them anymore. Owning - and watching - the DVDs at this point would be the equivalent of listening to that five year-old kid tell the one joke he knows to every adult in the neighborhood at a neighborhood event. Again. At some point, one just starts to wince and wish for death. The Simpsons - The Complete Second Season on DVD is another set of DVDs that reveals for the seasoned viewer what a shaky start this series had - while it was still primarily focused on Bart. What throws this particular set over the edge (into recommend) is the quality of the bonuses and the sheer number of them.

The second season of The Simpsons finds the all-American Simpson family struggling less to stay together and focusing more on getting ahead. As a result, Bart is forced to work harder in school, Marge gets some moments of spine and character, Homer gets ahead at work through hair implants and follows his dream to be a team mascot, Lisa's love of learning is increased by a crush on a substitute teacher and Maggie begins her life of violence through inspiration from cartoons.

When The Simpsons works best, it is doing so because it is poking fun at familiar institutions and/or making exceptional social commentary. In this season, the hints of greatness to come are alluded to with such strong episodes as "Itchy & Scratchy & Marge." In that episode, The Simpsons tackle the issue of television violence (specifically animated violence) when Maggie hits Homer on the head with a hammer. The episode is smart, well-written and takes a bitingly satirical and honest look at the issue. The Simpsons take on politics ("Two Cars In Every Garage, Three Eyes On Every Fish" - which has a wonderful commentary track!), cable theft and the religious implications ("Homer Vs. Lisa And The 8th Commandment"), and big business ("Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?"). As well, this season has a clever tale of paranoia ("Three Men and a Comic Book") and marks the start of the "Treehouse of Horror" series.

The problem is, it also has several complete duds, like "Principle Charming" where Skinner dates Patty (Marge's sister), and "The War of the Simpsons" where Homer and Marge go on a marital retreat (which essentially revives the pretty tired first season marital problem plot). Many of these episodes do not hold up over ten viewings - which most die hards have already done before this boxed set was released.

Moreover, season two marks the beginning of The Simpsons relying heavily on established celebrities to appear on the show as characters to sell the concept. While some of these are wonderful and welcome - James Earl Jones narrating Poe's "The Raven" in "Treehouse of Horror" is a gift to this day and George Takei as the Japanese waiter in "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish" is inspired - some of them now seem dated (Tom Poston) or obvious (Tony Bennett singing in "Dancin' Homer"). This season features Danny DeVito as Herb Powell, Harvey Fierstein, Larry King, Tracy Ullman, Audrey Meadows, Dustin Hoffman, Ringo Starr and Cloris Leachman. While some of them are genuine treats, others merely trade on celebrity to get viewers to watch and that's a disappointing and desperate trick.

Because of the episodic nature of The Simpsons, episodes are hit-or-miss in general and season two is no exception to that. What keeps the show worthwhile when there is little or no character development is the situations that the character get themselves into. The Simpsons - The Complete Second Season" finds the show still heavily focused on Bart (out of the 22 episodes, he has the a-plot in 6 and a strong b-plot presence in an additional 5) with Homer a close second (6 a-plots, strong b-plot in 2) and the first episodes where supplemental characters like Grandpa Simpson and Principal Skinner are given a-plots.

Because the characters are so important to keeping the show viewable, here is how the second season finds the main characters:

Bart Simpsons - Struggles to pass the fourth grade (though he manages to stay in 4th the entire series, it seems!) and takes up fishing and miniature golf. Bart memorably becomes a daredevil and threatens to jump Springfield Gorge, learns a valuable lesson at Thanksgiving and fights for cartoon violence. As the season winds down, he comes back with a love of comic books and decides to do a good turn for Mr. Burns,

Lisa - Strikes out on her own more by falling in love with a substitute teacher, taking on Homer as his moral barometer, and becomes furious at Bart for destroying her centerpiece at Thanksgiving,

Maggie - Illustrates a preponderance towards violence when she takes a cue from Itchy and Scratchy and attacks Homer with a hammer,

Marge - The matriarch gets episodes that give her character! Marge takes on corrupt political candidate Mr. Burns, television violence and resurrects her love of painting. As well, she and Homer relive their early days together by explaining how they fell in love (take 1 for the series!), continues to be the voice for humanity and compassion in the family,

Principal Skinner - Begins to bloom as he steps out from behind his desk and falls in love with Marge's sister, Patty. Otherwise, he continues to pressure Bart to fly right at school,

Grandpa Simpson - Falls in love with a wealthy woman, fights the terrible living conditions at the nursing home and functions as a terrible babysitter for the kids when Homer and Marge need to go away. As well, he reveals a family secret to Homer that sends Homer to Detroit in search of his half-brother,

and Homer Simpson - the buffoon continues to bumble into hilarious situations as he becomes a mascot for the local baseball team, struggles to keep his job at the nuclear power plant that he's completely incompetent at, and begins his long-standing feuds with neighbor Ned Flanders. As well, he tries to keep Bart from hurting himself, is victimized by Maggie and provides no practical guidance for Lisa (in fact, her moralizing guides him).

This is the season where the writers seemed to realize that it was Homer who had the most potential to keep this series an enduring classic. The best episode is "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" where Homer meets Herb with hilarious consequences.

What keeps this boxed set just worth getting (watching at the very least) is the commentaries and the oodles of extras. There are more easter eggs on these four discs than almost any other DVD set I've ever seen! For those fans who have seen these episodes ad nauseam and cannot conceive of watching them even once more, they are worth tracking down (via NetFlix or your local library, yea local libraries!) for the commentaries which are insightful, funny and just enough to kill the tedium of watching most of these episodes yet again.

While fans of The Simpsons are likely to be tired of most of this material, this is an excellent season for fans who have not started watching The Simpsons and who have not started collecting the DVDs. Because the show is episodic, there's nothing truly lacking by starting one's collection here as opposed to with the first boxed set.

For other works with Hank Azaria, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Smurfs
Love And Other Drugs
Year One
Run Fatboy Run
The Simpsons Movie
Along Came Polly
America’s Sweethearts
Mystery Men
Cradle Will Rock


For other television reviews, visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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