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"The Simpsons" Season 14 (Blu-ray): Not a Disaster, But Not Groin-Grabbingly Good

by on December 19, 2011

Ah, what a powerful thing peer pressure can be. This is especially true when it comes to The Simpsons. If you want to be part of the “cool” crowd, will say that there are literally no good moments after a certain point in the series (usually season 8 or 9, depending on the individual), and will dismiss the majority of the series’s run as unwatchable crap. And if you dare to like anything from the post-“classic” era, you’re an idiot who has no standards. Ouch.

Now obviously, comedy is subjective, so I’m not going to sit here and say these individuals are wrong for disliking later seasons (and for the record, I definitely agree that The Simpsons has gone downhill), but season 14 isn’t the shlock-tacular disaster some would claim. In fact, it got me to laugh quite a few times.

And Season 14 is an improvement over season 13, which is one of my least favorite seasons ever. True, season 14 doesn’t expertly balance comedy and drama like the Oakley/Weinstein seasons did, and some conceptually lame gags still sneak in, and it still has that “throw a bunch of things at the wall and see what sticks” feel. That said, more jokes hit the mark, and I was engaged by more storylines than in the previous season.

Favorites from season 14? I enjoyed “How I Spent My Strummer Vacation”, which puts the many rock guest stars (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Lenny Kravitz, etc.) to good use, and Homer has a plausible frustration that I’m sure many of us can relate to (that is, unfulfilled dreams of a “fun” career). “I’m Spelling As Fast As I Can”, concerning Lisa in a spelling bee, has a lot of amusing gags and lines, helped by the comic timing. “Large Marge” gets mileage out of Marge accidentally getting breast implants, and contains some funny visuals, such as Maggie being unable to see Marge’s face since her gigantic boobs are in the way. “The Strong Arms of the Ma”, up until the disastrous third act, is actually a very effective character study on how Marge reacts to getting mugged and her resulting agoraphobia. “A Star is Born Again”, about Ned dating a celebrity, has perhaps the best characterization of Ned Flanders since the earlier seasons, even though his religion is still very overt. “‘Scuse Me While I Miss the Sky” has two plots that meld together nicely: Lisa wanting to decrease light pollution so she can see the stars at night, and Bart removing hood ornaments to fit in. “The Dad Who Knew Too Little”, while yet another Homer and Lisa bonding episode, nevertheless works quite well, especially with the fresh execution (that is, Homer hiring a private dick to tail Lisa so he can find out her interests). And “The Great Louse Detective” offers something new for Sideshow Bob episodes: Bob has to help Homer capture a killer, in a nice nod to The Silence of the Lambs.

“Treehouse of Horror XIII” is the best annual Halloween special since the ninth one. “Send in the Clones” (about Homer cloning himself ad nauseam to get help with household chores) is a creative idea and has many laugh-out-loud moments, and “The Fright to Creep and Scare Harms” (about zombies of legendary criminals holding the recently gun-free Springfield hostage) is a nice twist on anti-gun sentiments. Only “The Island of Dr. Hibbert” is less than ideal.

What episodes don’t work? “Helter Shelter”, despite a few good digs at reality TV and turn-of-the-century living, feels like familiar territory in more ways than one–a point that is even addressed in the audio commentary. “Bart vs. Lisa vs. The Third Grade” is a reasonably funny episode for the first two acts but completely falls apart in the final act. Also, it has a contrived premise to begin with (Bart is sent back to third grade? Only in a sitcom). “Three Gays of the Condo”, besides being yet another “Homer and Marge have a married squabble” episode, has some tired gay stereotypes, and Weird Al’s cameo is the only highlight. “Dude, Where’s My Ranch?” is a mess, as it awkwardly segues from Homer creating a hit song to the family going to a dude ranch to Lisa falling in love with a pre-teen cowboy. It even manages to work beavers into the plot. “Brake My Wife, Please” is similarly disjointed: Its plot wanders all over the place and feels incredibly unfocused; you know you’re in trouble when you can’t describe the plot in one sentence. Most of its jokes miss the mark, too. And some episodes aren’t necessarily bad, but merely mediocre, such as “Mr. Spritz Goes to Washington”, “Old Yeller Belly”, “The Bart of War”, and “C.E.D’oh”, which have a few laughs but not enough of them. The last one is particularly disappointing, since it’s the first Mr. Burns-centric plot to heavily feature the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant in quite a while.

To sum up, I’d say the ratio of episodes I like versus dislike is 1:1. Is that enough to recommend the season? Hard to say. If you want consistency, I’d have to say no, but on the other hand, I can’t deny that many moments in season 14 made me laugh, especially in the first half of it. So make of that what you will.

The artwork in season 14, depending on who you ask, is either an improvement or another nail in the coffin, all thanks to the crew switching from cels to digital coloring. One criticism that I’ve repeatedly heard about the switch to digital coloring is that The Simpsons feels less “organic”. And while I can definitely see (and agree with) the points, it’s hard to deny things just look so much sharper thanks to the switch. Some have accused the later seasons of having stiffer animation, but really, go back and look at the earlier seasons. They frequently had stiff animation as well (not to mention bits of reused animation from previous episodes to cut corners, which doesn’t occur nowadays). And stiff animation and digital coloring don’t necessarily go together, anyway.

All that said, I will say that if you’re a videophile, season 14 is a big leap up from previous seasons, thanks to said digital coloring. On Blu-ray, the line crispness and wider palette of colors really stands out from the earlier seasons on DVD, which suffered from a general softness and dot crawl at times. A few holdover episodes were colored the traditional way, but they benefit from the Blu-ray treatment as well.

Packaging is just the way I like it: a single-disc-sized Blu-ray keep case with a swinging hinge middle to house the three Blu-ray discs. No horrid “slide the discs out of paper sleeves” nonsense that was seasons 11-13 on DVD. The cover features a picture of Kang (or is it Kodos? I always get the two mixed up), since this season is Halloween-themed for some reason.

Because the set is Halloween-themed, we get quite a few “Treehouse of Horror”-based extras, most of them merely repeats of what we’ve seen on previous sets. For instance, there’s a compilation of every “THOH” opening sequence, there’s a series of random moments from the specials, and there’s also a collection of Kang and Kodos-centric clips. In addition to these, we also get the full episodes of both “Treehouse of Horror V” and “VI”. While it’s nice to have those two episodes in high def, I’m puzzled why the clip compilations were necessary. Chances are, those who are buying season 14 have already bought the previous sets as well, so this is repeat material that’s easily skippable.

Actual new content includes:

* An introduction by Matt Groening. If you’ve watched the other season sets, you know the drill: Matt quickly rattles off some favorite moments and the guest stars from the particular season in question. I would say skip this, but it’s only a couple minutes, so it’s not a huge waste of your time and is a good way to kick off the set.

* The expected audio commentaries on every episode. They are a step up from the Mike Scully-era commentaries, which were too often disappointingly dull. Not surprisingly, the recurring subject addressed in these commentaries was the switch from traditional cel animation to digital coloring. It’s interesting to hear how some directors on the show prefer cels, while others easily prefer digital, and both make their cases well. I also enjoyed a story that Nancy Cartwright (voice of Bart) tells about being mentored by legendary voice actor Daws Butler. And, as usual, I enjoyed hearing the genesis of each episode. The commentaries aren’t as strong when they merely laugh at what’s on-screen (many of the participants, despite having worked on them, hadn’t seen these in ten years), or talk about random stuff that has nothing to do with the footage. Still, the tracks are worth a listen if you’re a Simpsons buff.

* More behind-the-scenes footage of the rock stars from “How I Spent My Strummer Vacation” recording their lines, including a few brief interviews. This feature runs nine minutes, and was enjoyable.

* Deleted scenes, which can be played with the episode this time around (a scissors icon appears on the bottom right of the image at the moment where the scene would’ve been). That’s a nice touch, and it’s always interesting to see what was cut, even if it doesn’t hit the mark.

* A featurette on the 300th episode (technically, 302nd), “Barting Over”, which runs just under two minutes. Matt Groening, Tony Hawk, and Blink 182 (guest stars in the episode) are briefly interviewed, and we also get some behind-the-scenes footage of the celebrities doing the voice overs. It isn’t much.

* Multi-Angle Animation Showcase: A five minute clip from “Moe Baby Blues” can be viewed picture-in-picture in either storyboard or animatic form.

* Special Language Feature: “Three Gays of the Condo” is available in German, Czech, Italian, and Portuguese. I wish Japanese was in there as well, but no dice.

* Original sketches: A series of sketches from “How I Spent My Strummer Vacation” and “Barting Over” can be viewed while music plays in the background.

There are also a few easter eggs, which can be accessed by finding hidden THOH icons on the menus. Of note is an abridged commentary by Elvis Costello, and an unused intro to “Treehouse of Horror VII” that’s an Exorcist parody. Frankly, given how dull the intro to the finished episode was, they should’ve gone with this Exorcist parody instead.

So, despite the repeat clips, there’s still an acceptable amount of new material here.

While I wouldn’t call the 14th season of The Simpsons a resounding success, I can’t deny that I laughed quite a bit. If that makes me a cretin with no taste, so be it. That said, this was also during the era when the quality could vary wildly from episode to episode, so if you want every episode to be a guaranteed slam dunk, season 14 might not be for you.

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