Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Simpsons Ascending; Why The Fourth Season Is The First "Must Own" Boxed Set!

The Good: Consistently funny, even after several viewings, Good bonus features, Decent plots, Good guest voices
The Bad: A couple of the early episodes rob the season of perfection
The Basics: With consistent and lasting humor, along with excellent DVD bonus features, The Simpsons - The Complete Fourth Season" makes a great addition to any DVD collection.

The producers of The Simpsons on DVD (Fox Home Video) has some combination of the smartest p.r. and advertising people and the most loyal customers. I say that because the success of Family Guy on DVD made perfect sense; so many people missed the show in first airings (the timeslot kept getting changed), it was not put into syndication (there were too few episodes for most networks to bother syndicating it and Cartoon Network picked it up after the DVDs started selling) and it had a very loyal following. The Simpsons never had such problems. While the first season was controversial, it seemed like there was a long period where The Simpsons was getting better and better and growing its audience. Indeed, I doubt it would surprise the reader to learn that episodes of The Simpsons are syndicated so heavily that every hour of every day, the show is playing somewhere in the world in syndication (I just made that fact up, but because I'm calling it a "fact," it must be true and therefore should impress the reader). The same fans (largely) who made The Simpsons a success in first-run airings, also made the show a moderate success in the 6 - 8 P.M. bracket in syndication, so this show - in addition to surviving and thriving for 18 seasons - is basically one of the heaviest watched and rewatched series' of all times. It's probably why even average fans of The Simpsons can quote large chunks of dialogue from the show. So, to manage to sell the boxed set DVDs of the seasons of The Simpsons to such an audience takes genuine class or Alec Guiness (okay, that's not this season!).

The Simpsons - The Complete Fourth Season on DVD is the first set that is an essential set to fans of The Simpsons because the episodes hold up incredibly well over multiple viewings. While the first few seasons suffer most for the avid fan of The Simpsons simply by the fact that they have been replayed so many times on television before the DVD sets were released (and presumably rewatched by the fans) that most of the jokes simply aren't funny any longer. With season four, the jokes remain funny, despite multiple viewings. I operate on the assumption that the average fan of The Simpsons, like me, caught the episodes approximately ten times before the DVD sets were released or purchased. With that in mind, it's something to be able to say that this boxed set still remains funny and relevant; the episodes (and the humor) endure.

For the most part. Season four opens with "Kamp Krusty," which lost its edge rather quickly (its resolution is funnier than most of the episode) and "New Kid On The Block" (where Bart falls in love with his babysitter) doesn't have the same kick as most of the episodes of the season. Even so, on DVD, they are fun to watch with the commentary tracks and that's worth something.

For the most part, though, season four of The Simpsons is when the show begins to hit its stride by creating an enduring series that does stand up over the test of time and multiple viewings. This is the season where Homer skips church because God tells him he can, Marge comes to work at the power plant, Lisa gives Ralph Wiggum a valentine, Bart engineers a comeback special for Krusty the Klown and Maggie's first word is teased. In this season, the show takes on a very balanced feeling. While earlier seasons have focused on Bart, then Homer, season four gives the various members of The Simpsons their due. So, while Homer retains the focus of the show (essentially seven a-plots are Homer stories and he is the focus of three b-plots), and Bart maintains a strong presence (he has five a-plots, with a strong presence in two b-plots), Lisa and Marge begin to pick up a lot of airtime and episodes. Lisa has three episodes out of the 22 in season four that focus on her, with a strong b-plot presence in another three. Marge is the big winner here; she has three episodes where she is the focus with a strong supporting role in another four. Even Selma (Marge's sister, a supporting character) gets an episode in season four!

As with the prior seasons, The Simpsons mixes its humor trying to balance between timely topical humor and timeless observations on the human condition. So, while the show continues to poke fun at religion ("Homer The Heretic"), comment on childrearing ("Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie"), muse on the nature of love and obsessions ("I Love Lisa") and explore animal rights ("Whacking Day"), a lot of jokes throughout the episodes comment on America in the early 1990s. This takes the form of innumerable cultural allusions, some of which now seem very dated. So, for example, in "Krusty Gets Kancelled," stars like Luke Perry (who've likely had their fifteen minutes) and Johnny Carson (currently deceased, but always an allusion that would go over the head of young children) make appearances. While none of the episodes are strongly dated (though it makes one sigh with envy now to see the foundation repairs in "Marge Gets A Job" costing only $8,000) or focus exclusively on timely humor, a lot of individual jokes reference current events of the time. The closest the series comes to addressing the merchandising phenomenon that was The Simpsons (this far into the series anyway) comes in "Kamp Krusty," though it's still funny without knowing how deeply merchandised the series was at this point. Most of the humor still stands.

And The Simpsons is truly about humor and, because the show is episodic and not serialized, the situations that the characters get themselves into. So, while the characters do not so much grow and learn from their experiences, at least interesting things happen to them. Some of the most intriguing and enduringly interesting things happen to the characters in The Simpsons in the fourth season. Here is how the fourth season finds them:

Homer Simpson - After learning to respect Marge when she gets a job and takes up acting, Homer skips out on church after meeting the divine in a dream and prevents Bart from seeing "The Itchy and Scratchy Movie." As well, he starts his own plow business, has a heart attack that nearly kills him (two, actually), goes to work on Springfield's new monorail, and becomes a union boss. He also takes on a little brother to make Bart jealous,

Marge Simpson - This season finds Marge striking out on her own as she gives drama a chance by getting into a production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," gets sent to jail for stealing from the Kwik-E-Mart, and goes to work at the Springfield Nuclear Plant. As well, she disciplines both Homer (for drinking) and Bart (for his usual pranks) and finds herself turned on by Homer's Mr. Plow outfit,

Lisa Simpson - Wins (of all things) a beauty contest, survives a stay at Kamp Krusty, watches the Itchy And Scratchy Movie without Bart and recalls how she began to speak. Her plans backfire when she gives a pity valentine to Ralph Wiggum, tries to determine who is smarter between Bart and a hamster and ghost writes an Itchy and Scratchy episode with Bart. As well, she gets a crush on Corey (and his 900 number), protests Whacking Day and aids Bart in getting The Krusty The Klown Show back on the air,

Maggie - Says her first word (sort of),

and Bart - Fights for freedom and fun by taking over Kamp Krusty, fights his punishment when his negligence almost kills Maggie, and fights for the heart of his babysitter. He gets a big brother when Homer neglects him, is experimented upon by Lisa, and nearly kills Homer on April Fool's Day. As well, he and Lisa ghost write an "Itchy and Scratchy" cartoon and work to save Krusty's career.

This season also features a "Treehouse of Horror" Halloween episode, which is by now a standard of the show.

As with the previous seasons, The Simpsons The Complete Fourth Season utilizes voices from various celebrity guest stars. This season features the legendary Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Bette Midler and Liz Taylor. It also featured musicians Tom Jones, Linda Ronstadt, David Crosby, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Other celebrities include Leonard Nimoy, Dr. Joyce Brothers and Hugh Hefner.

This boxed set is great for anyone who enjoys a good satire and clever comedic writing. It holds up very well and the commentaries, deleted scenes, commercials and easter eggs increase the entertainment value of a fairly solid season. Even people who like comedy but have never necessarily gotten into The Simpsons will find The Simpsons The Complete Fourth Season accessible, humorous and worthwhile.

For other works with Yeardley Smith, please check out my reviews of:
The Simpsons Movie
Dead Like Me - Season 2
As Good As It Gets


For other television show reviews, check out my TV Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the seasons of television I have reviewed!

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