If anyone thinks I’m going to start this review by saying the fifteenth season of The Simpsons is the absolute best ever, might I commend you for being able to read, because your brain has obviously leaked away. I can say that, because I know I was speaking to no one just then. These 22 episodes from 2003-2004 fall smack dab into the middle of a period of Simpsons hatred. It was the third year into Al Jean’s showrunning ascent from the fan-scathed death pit that was Mike Scully’s tenure. Is it a great season? No, but it probably beats any other show’s fifteenth season, and that’s how I choose to see my half-full glass.
I was seven years old when the show began, and I’ve been a fan since, so like many people, I look at The Simpsons as the extended family I can see when I want. I’d just turned 21 when this season started, so if you can imagine, the combination of drinking anywhere and an absence of recent classic episodes meant I barely caught any when they aired, although I’ve since seen them all online or in repeats. That said, this season forces fans to watch a family that’s almost unrecognizable. Who are these people?
At this point in its run, The Simpsons can mainly be judged by a couple of great episodes a year, and the plethora of celebrity guest stars that appear in all but a couple of episodes a year. So why would I try and judge it any differently? The annual “Treehouse of Horror” is conceptually successful, though many jokes fail, but is completely memorable due to Jerry Lewis playing the father of Professor Frink, who was conceived as an homage to Lewis’ Nutty Professor role. Things get highbrow and lowbrow political when Lisa discovers Skinner secretly reducing the school’s budget and Bart moons the flag. They get religious when Krusty realizes he’s never had his bar mitzvah, and drunkenly sci-fi when Bart and Lisa sneak away from Homer and Marge’s new boozy lifestyle to go and rag on the “Cosmic Wars” filmmaker for his lame prequels.
I loved any time Jon Lovitz brings Marge’s old flame Artie Ziff back to the picture, and watching him romance Selma is unwatchably fun. I really enjoyed the Catch Me If You Can-inspired episode where the kids track Homer and Marge as they attempt to spend a night alone; the film’s opening titles being aped here made for some of the best animation from this season. I enjoyed Lisa’s panic when she realizes that Maggie may be the smartest Simpson, though Simon Cowell appeared in the episode. And there’s nothing wrong with seeing Flanders’ escalation in aggravation when Homer is inspired to become Springfield’s anti-Scrooge.
You can’t have a year of latter-day Simpsons without some sentiment shoehorning. It works best when Milhouse moves away and Bart is forced to consider life without his best friend (except Milhouse becomes a trendy cool guy who uses Bart as his nerdy friend). Homer and Marge tells stories about their first kisses, only to realize their paths entwined earlier in their lives than they thought, which didn’t disappoint.
These are mainly just the better plotlines. There are some bad episodes, too, such as Homer’s Pie Man superhero and his attempt to win Bart’s love by winning fights in a robot competition. Regardless of plot-quality, the show is still barely nudging itself out of “terrible joke” territory. This was right after Family Guy’s cancellation had left a dearth of shovel-fed mounds of non-pithy jokes on Sunday nights, so one might have thought the writers had seen their hill to climb and stuck a flag of sub-genius wit into it. But no, they just flooded the year with childishly witless arguments, bland sight gags, non-whimsical set pieces, and wordplay comparable to Helen Keller’s early years. Their trip to London should have been a masterpiece, instead of the crumpet’s crumbs that it is. I actually still liked most of the season, but the bad bits never allowed me to believe I was watching anything from the old days, or the minimized renaissance of the last few years.
Having gotten my true feelings out, I still can’t deny how quickly I would run out and buy this set. I’m a completist, and these sets are dependable, high-quality releases. The lush (though annoying) cardboard packaging is as beautiful as ever. The one downside is that the bonus features are less expansive this go-around.
Of course, every episode gets the must-listen commentary treatment with all the usual suspects, with cast members Dan Castellaneta, Yeardley Smith, and Nancy Cartwright appearing, as well as special guests including writer/comedian Dana Gould and documentary pole-splitter Michael Moore. Over half of the episodes get a few deleted scenes to watch, and as usual, some are funnier than the lame duck entries that avoided deletion.
The best feature on the set is “The Unusual Ones,” which features animators and directors giving new commentary over a montage of the strangest and most vivid animated sequences from the show’s history thus far, I’m assuming inspired by Otto’s packaging presence. “Living in the Moment” is a scrapbook slide show of photographs capturing the 500th episode celebrations, as well as Matt Groening getting his Walk of Fame star. And “The Wandering Juvie” gets the lone animation showcase, with storyboards and an animatic to follow along with.
In summation, there’s always next year, guys! Until then, just keep watching the episodes with Charles Napier’s soothing voice to relax your nerves.
Length: 484 mins.
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Release Date: 12/04/2012
Starring: Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer
Created by: Matt Groening