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Series


The Simpsons is now apparently the ‘longest-running American primetime, scripted television series’ (though its episode count hasn’t quite hit the sheer number of Gunsmoke, and won’t for another eight or so years). This is saying a lot for an animated show especially. The amount of production that goes into animation, especially animation of such solid quality, dwarfs almost every other brand of television entertainment, where actors, sets and props can be re-used. Documentarian Morgan Spurlock interestingly explored exactly why the series has connected so fervently with audiences the world over in The Simpson’s 20th Anniversary Celebration, which just aired on Fox, but the fascination is now officially extreme enough to perhaps require a book for proper explanation.

Simpsons: Season 20
Perhaps Fox just won’t let the The Simpsons die. Surely the show’s staff has no interest in ending the gravy train, even if the question of ‘why’ hasn’t given them a bit of pause. I’m reasonably sure there’s no one out there that thinks the series is keeping up with its standards from a decade ago, but perhaps the naysayers—myself included—are a little too concerned with the past. I can state without fear of hyperbole that the series writers have lost most of their interest in basic storytelling. Things haven’t devolved into Family Guy level episodic humour yet, but there are more cutaways and one-off gags than there used to be, and the three-act structure has, on average, been tossed out the window. Things were definitely better when the writers were most focused on building an entire twenty-two minute episode around a central plot point, but there are at least two belly laughs per episode, and they’re never boring. In a weird way the utter lack of stuff to write about has made the show sort of interesting again because the writers are forced to deal with really weird stuff.

The show gets back on track, if not a little too ‘old school’ with episodes like ‘Mypod’s and Boomsticks’, ‘The Burns and the Boomsticks’, and ‘Lisa and the Drama Queen’ (a way after the fact Heavenly Creatures spoof), but never reaches classic heights. ‘Four Great Women and a Manicure’ continues the grand Simpsons tradition of doing a classic adaptation anthology episode, this time culminating in a brilliant rendition of Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’ (enacted by babies), while ‘Coming to Homerica’, which satires America’s obsession with closing the Mexican border, brings things to a decent, though not exactly rousing finale. ‘Gone Maggie Gone’ is probably the season’s strongest episode, including a relatively original plot line (Maggie is pseudo-kidnapped by nuns and no one can tell Marge), and side gags that don’t totally stop the plot, but serve it (Maggie is left in front of the church as part of an elaborate puzzle gag).

Simpsons: Season 20
Still, the writers aren’t above repeating the same basic ideas ad nauseum, such as Marge and Homer’s marriage problems and Bart’s behavioural problems. I believe ‘How the Test Was Won’ marks the third time Springfield Elementary’s thugs have been rounded up to make the school look better, ‘The Good, The Bad and the Drugly’ sees Bart trying to impress an older good girl, and ‘In the Name of the Grandfather’ features the family both buying something they can’t afford, travelling to a foreign country and ignoring grandpa. The episode does get points for its brief Once spoofage, though.

Simpsons: Season 20

Video


I’m sure there’s an interesting explanation about this season being split in half between high definition and standard definition episodes, but it still seems an odd choice. The first disc in this two disc set features 1080p up-converted, standard definition 1.33:1 episodes. The opening credits look pretty awful, with their colour impurities, bleedings, and chunky digital artefacts, but the new footage looks pretty good and consistent. The pure colours are sharp and full, and there are almost zero compression artefacts, save a few minor banding issues, and slightly blocky bright reds. The black lines are a little inconsistent in thickness and darkness, and the frame rate is a little fluttery (specifically during panning shots), but the show’s stylistically so low on fine details the lack of definition doesn’t really matter. The second disc features 15 episodes in actual 1080p HD, and 1.78:1 framing. These episodes are pretty much picture-perfect, including brighter hues, deeper blacks, and smoother movements. Some of the backgrounds feature slightly sloppy black edges, like those of a photocopy that has been enlarged too much, but the colours are pretty consistently clean. Even during busier shots things remain clear of blocking, or even minor noise (which is a problem when the show broadcasts in HD).

Simpsons: Season 20

Audio


The Simpsons has always sounded good on television (in Dolby Surround), and on DVD (in Dolby Digital), so there was no reason to expect any different from Blu-ray disc. Every episode here is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and the difference in video quality has no noticeable effect on the audio quality. The stereo and surround channels aren’t exactly consistently active, but there’s plenty of basic cartoon ambience throughout each episode, and many frontal directional effects. The rear channels don’t get in on the action in an obvious fashion very often, but are regularly made a part of the musical score, even if only in an echo fashion. The centre channel effects are sometimes disproportionally loud to the stereo and surround effects, music, and dialogue, and the problem is a little less noticeable on the foreign language tracks (which are standard Dolby Digital, and otherwise not as clear and loud). The music is the regular star of each episode, including the classic Simpsons score, and plenty of acquired pop and rock items. The LFE supports the music most obviously (you never quite notice those opening titles drums when the show airs on TV), but rounds out some of the more bombastic sound effects as well.

Simpsons: Season 20

Extras


The only extra is a sneak peek at the Morgan Spurlock directed 20th Anniversary documentary (03:30, HD). It’s an ad, which is disappointing, but it does feature quite a bit of footage that wasn’t on the televised version of the doc, so perhaps a feature length STV version is in the cards somewhere.

Simpsons: Season 20

Overall


I suppose the biggest issue in purchasing this particular season of The Simpsons is that as the only HD season (or at least half HD season) these episodes have been rerun to death over the last year and a half. I’m guessing the same thing will happen next year. Fox wants to run HD episodes, and even after the 21st season ends they’ll still only have so many. But most buyers are probably going to be collectors, and who can turn down the first ever Simpsons Blu-ray release? Even if half the episodes are up-converted standard definition, the extras are non-existent, and it messes up the release order of the other DVDs. I’ve got no real problems to report, but do reiterate that not all the episodes in this set are truly high definition, just in case readers missed that part of my review, and the back cover art.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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