It's official. The Simpsons is now the longest-running prime-time show in television history, and is the godfather of all the other animation shows that have cropped up during the past decade-plus. Although its popularity has waned in recent years, it is undeniably a television institution. However, for all of its tenure and accolades, it still must be judged season by season, just like any other show. With 20 seasons now in the can, is the show still a vibrant part of the schedule?
It wasn't quite the best of times, but it certainly wasn't the worst of times either. They were times; and The Simpsons were there. Such is the twentieth season, where we see just how far the writers of the show can reinvent the standard wheels we've come to expect from the inhabitants of Springfield. From a pure content standpoint, the show still has some merit. Its mix of rapid-fire jokes, satire on current events, quick jabs at pop culture, and the show's own self-awareness still make it more interesting than the majority of comedic television. But does anyone really have time for that much television to begin with?
There are moments in season 20 when its fairly easy to remember the halcyon days of the show. Episodes such as "In The Name Of The Grandfather," "Eeny Teeny Maya Moe," and the annual "Treehouse of Horror" episode are just good fun. Not brilliant, and with predictable plots, but still fun. Even "Coming To Homerica," one of the token issue episodes, gets by on the strength of the overall world of Springfield. Even the low points of the show aren't super-low, they're just over-used. "Father Knows Worst" – where once again Homer has to step up to the parenting plate in Marge's absence – and "The Good, The Sad, and The Drugly" – where once again a girl comes between Bart and Milhouse's BFF relationship – are good examples of how the plots are often just on auto-pilot.
Similarly, the show works best when it isn't desperately trying to shoe-horn in celebrity guests for a quick ratings hit. With all due respect to Denis Leary, Mark Cuban, and Marv Albert, the Simpson family and their quirky community shouldn't need outside help (especially from B-list guests). And it's at these times that the show drags unnecessarily. Homer's incompetence, Marge's near-Stepford calm and devotion, and the kids' brazen individuality offer enough cornerstone excuses for situations and scrapes. After all, this is comedy, not brain surgery (and certainly not an appropriate place for the marketing department).
The Simpsons seems to operate a bit more like a brand name than it does a dedicated collective. Sure, Matt Groening still exec produces everything, but he's not a day-to-day force for the show, and hasn't been for many years. Instead, there is a vast network of directors and writers, and they are the ones who truly determine the wit and reach for storylines each season. Because of this morphing body, there is always hope and anticipation (sprinkled in with enjoyment and disappointment) for each episode. Most would probably agree that the show has never regained the heights it achieved during much of its first decade. But the twentieth season contains episodes that are far from its worst, and a few that remind us why we keep tuning in all these years on.
The two discs of the set are split between shows that happened before and after the HD switch of the series. And there is a night and day difference between the two. The nine episodes on the first disc, which occurred before switch, are a touch better than the upscaled DVD quality we're used to. But only slightly. But with the 12 episodes on disc two, the animation is far more distinct and sharp. Outlines are much more crisp, color shading is much more exact and far less fuzzy, and overall the image is just more stable. The more pronounced takeaway is that, going forward, the show will look very good. But if you're hoping for a noticeable upgrade in the future for earlier seasons, the first disc doesn't show that as being too promising. You're probably going to be fine just hanging on to your standard-def DVDs and upscaling them.
The audio, on the other hand, feels like a more consistent improvement all around. Although the channel separation can sometimes feel exaggerated, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track brings considerable life to all the episodes. Generous surround activity accompanies the show's sound effects and music track. And while the dialogue is still more or less front and center, there is so much else going on in an episode – on a sonic level – that all boats rise. The only criticism is that the mix often suffers from over-eager engineers. A screeching tire or explosion can pan to the back simply because they can do that sort of thing now, and not because it's entirely balanced with the other elements going on at the time. Hopefully the mix engineers will begin to balance more judiciously in the future.
What's more funny than many of the episodes within this set is what FOX tries to pass off as supplemental material. With the exception of a glorified advertisement for the twentieth anniversary special, hosted by Morgan Spurlock (HD, 3:31), there aren't any. All of those great episode commentaries and deleted scenes and commercial appearances and animation workshops and… all of that is gone. Since this set appears oddly out of sequence with the normal release schedule for the series, it's highly likely that all of that stuff will eventually see its way into the "special edition" version that we're used to a few years down the line. Until then, this is merely a convenience vehicle for the shows in high definition, and nothing more.
The twentieth season of The Simpsons is difficult to get overly excited about. The show may have lost much of the hilarious satire and comedic bite from its first decade, but it's still enjoyable, and flashes of brilliance sneak in just often enough to continue giving you hope. But as far as a collection for purchase, there are a lot of trade-offs with this set. Not all of the episodes really take advantage of the high definition format, bonus materials are nonexistent, and there aren't really any "must have" episodes. For more die-hard fans of the show, the episodes here are presented as well and as complete as they're going to get, so there's no practical reason to avoid it, other than simply the hope of "more" in a few years time.