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The Simpsons Folder

The Simpsons Folder
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DVD a Must for Rabid Fans
October 09, 2001, John Deibuss, Scripps Howard News Service

What is the greatest TV series of all time? Is it “The Twilight Zone”? “The Honeymooners”? “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”? One could make an argument for those and many others. But episode after episode, year after year, has any show been as creative, inspired and just plain hilarious as “The Simpsons”?

The Simpsons mania of the early 1990s – with its bootleg “Black Bart” T-shirts and its “Do the Bartman” hit novelty single – faded long ago. But thanks to the DVD explosion, there’s still plenty of marketing and merchandising to be done with Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie and the other denizens of Springfield, where the nuclear power plant is a top employer, where Bleeding Gums Murphy is a revered jazzman, and where the Springfield Mall offers such spending opportunities as The International House of Answering Machines and The Ear Piercery.

Thus, we now have “The Simpsons Season One Collector’s Edition DVD Box Set,” a three-disc collection from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment that contains the first 13 episodes of the series that proved that “Comedy, thy name is Krusty.”

Each episode – beginning with “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” the Christmas special originally broadcast on Dec. 17, 1989 – includes an alternate commentary track featuring such participants as Simpsons creator Matt Groening, producer James L. Brooks, and various other directors, writers and animators.

Other bonuses include clips of foreign language versions of the cartoon, sketches and stills, complete scripts for three episodes, the first Simpsons short to air on “The Tracey Ullman Show,” and outtakes from the notorious rejected version of the episode “Some Enchanted Evening,” in which the Simpsons wiggle around with the rubbery look of Looney Tunes characters.

Packaged in an attractive slipcase with a TV screen-shaped cutout in its cover, “The Simpsons Season One Collector’s Edition” is a must-have for any diehard fan. However, the set actually is pretty skimpy: Each episode is about 23 minutes long, so at least two seasons easily could have been spread out over the three discs, with room for extras, besides. And why include only one “Tracey Ullman” cartoon?

Well, as Groening writes on the inside cover of the box: “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!”

“The Simpsons” is now in its 13th season, and these 1989-1990 episodes are far from the best in the history of the series. As Groening writes: “If Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie look weirdly off-model, if their voices sound spooky and different, and if the animation seems particularly glitch-filled, just remember this: we didn’t know what the hell we were doing back then.”

(Proof: during Year One, the animators didn’t even bother to come up with a new “couch gag” to open each episode.)

Still, there are plenty of classic moments here, not to mention such milestones as the first time Bart says “Ay, Caramba!” and “Eat my shorts”; the first appearances of such characters as Principal Skinner and Chief Wiggum; and the introduction of Bart’s favorite TV stars, including Krusty the Clown, Krusty’s evil sidekick Sideshow Bob, and the bloodthirsty cartoon adversaries “Itchy & Scratchy” (one of the wonders of the animated world of “The Simpsons” is that viewers automatically understand that “Itchy & Scratchy” are “cartoons” while the other characters are “real”).

Plus, let’s not neglect Season One’s two Elvis references. In the blackboard gag at the beginning of the episode titled “The Telltale Head,” Bart writes: “I did not see Elvis.” And in the episode “Krusty Gets Busted,” a documentary about the clown’s life alludes to his “humble beginnings as a street mime in Tupelo, Mississippi.”

Also in “Krusty Gets Busted,” Marge expresses concern over the violent cartoons her children enjoy. Replies Lisa: “If cartoons were meant for adults, they’d put them on in prime time.”

“The Simpsons” proved Lisa to be correct. The series not only saved the Fox network but it became the first successful animated program in prime time since “The Flintstones,” paving the way – for better or worse – for “The Ren & Stimpy Show,” “Beavis and Butt-head,” “King of the Hill,” “The PJs,” “The Critic,” and so on.

No doubt one reason adults took to “The Simpsons” was that it eschewed the surreal visuals of most previous cartoons. As Groening states in one of his commentaries, the series aimed for “consistent anatomy and realistic sound effects” even though its characters were yellow-skinned caricatures.

The “anatomy” of the Simpsons’ environment is consistent, too. One of the problems with the jettisoned original version of “Some Enchanted Evening” is that objects behave as they do in old cartoons. For instance, when a door is slammed, it bounces around like rubber, to emphasize the action. Although “The Simpsons” is delightful to look at, the show de-emphasized funny pictures in favor of wit, whether in its dialog (“You must really love us to sink so low,” Bart says when he discovers Homer is moonlighting as a department store Santa) or in such details as the “Brideshead Revisited” and “Anatoly Karpov” lunchboxes carried by high-IQ kids in the episode “Bart the Genius.”

Often, Simpsons gags combine verbal and visual humor. In a Scrabble scene in “Bart the Genius,” Homer looks at his collection of tiles and sees O-X-I-D-I-Z-E. “How can anyone make a word out of these letters?” he moans.

Part of the genius of “The Simpsons” is that the program is able to take “Ozzie and Harriet” conventions and give them a cynical, sardonic, self-aware twist while not alienating viewers (after all, does any TV character – live-action or cartoon – inspire more genuine affection than Homer Simpson?).

In the Christmas episode, for instance, Bart enthuses: “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 gonna happen to us!” Replies Homer: “Who’s Tiny Tim?”

Also, as social satire, “The Simpsons” was astute from the start, taking on politics, “family values,” consumerism, pop culture and even religion (“Will there be cavemen in heaven?” Milhouse asks).

In the episode “Moaning Lisa,” a music teacher admonishes Lisa for her saxophone improvisations. “There’s no room for crazy bebop in ‘My Country `Tis of Thee,”‘ he says. “But Mr. Largo,” Lisa replies, “that’s what ‘My Country’s’ all about.”

Homer’s definition of “The Code of the Schoolyard” for a bullied Bart also has lost none of its sting, or relevance. Recites Homer: “Don’t tattle; always make fun of those different from you; never say anything unless you’re sure everyone feels exactly the same as you do.”

As Groening’s note concludes: “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!”