Often cited by Simpsons aficionados as the best season ever initial thoughts from the staff at the time production started would have echoed sentiments of an all together different nature. Despite riding high on the wave of success previous seasons had brought, with the third especially having established the characters and broken new ground in terms of animation and character development, problems were afoot from the very start of production. Ironically the sense of despair within the writer’s offices came as a direct result of that success, with the halls looking decidedly barren as those who had made the show a success had been offered what they considered to be better deals elsewhere with higher pay and less demanding hours.
Despite these problems those holding down the fort did a tremendous job while additional writers were brought on board, including one Conan O'Brien, better known today for his work on his own late-night talk show but for most The Simpsons is where he did his very best work. On Season Four he is credited for two episodes but served as producer on many more. In his first broadcast episode, New Kid on the Block, Bart falls for the older girl next door while Homer employs Lionel Hutz to sue an all-you-can-eat restaurant, much to Marge’s embarrassment. Not only does this episode introduce another heavily stereotyped but hugely popular character in the Sea Captain, but it allows for a myriad of gags at Homer’s expense which hit the mark with great aplomb.
Conan’s most famous effort and the second episode developed by him for the series is Marge vs. the Monorail, in which the town is conned into building a Monorail system which Homer is set to captain and Leonard Nimoy beams down as guest of honour for the maiden voyage. Of course it’s a doomed journey around the scenic town of Springfield which allows for numerous gags along the way, with Nimoy poking fun at his Vulcan heritage, while Homer saves the day and introduces one of the best known Simpsons sound bites with “Donuts, is there anything they can’t do?”
Homer ends an epic brawl with Bart's 'Bigger Brother' in a compromising position.
While Conan may have been the most notable addition to the team at this period, he is but one of many that accomplished so much with Season Four. Each and every episode could be discussed at length but instead I have chosen to single out a select few, with the first coming from a team of freelance writers brought in to tackle one of the series most morbid concepts.
Following a heart attack in the opening act of Homer's Triple Bypass the chuckling Doctor Hibert informs Homer they're going to tinker with his ticker, at the expense of $30,000 to which Homer responds with another heart attack, inflating the overall price. Gags like this are utterly priceless, and this one ranks up there as the greatest medical joke seen in The Simpsons current lifetime with the exception being the memorable ending to Lisa's business escapades with Mr.Burns in a later season. Like another of the episodes I shall go on to discuss, what impresses most about this unusual escapade is the subject matter and the assured comedic approach that allows you to laugh at the most obscene moments. From the exaggerated antics of Krusty providing Homer with some words of advice and Dr. Nick outrunning numerous malpractice suits the show is grounded by some touching moments between Homer and his family that are reminiscent of those seen in Season Two’s One Fish, Two Fish.
Possibly the most unlikely candidate for a standout episode ever is So It’s Come To This: The Simpson’s Clip Show, but turning that notion on its head if there is any episode in Season Four to convince the casual viewer the talent working behind-the-scenes then its that most tired of television staples done to a standard that sees it stand proud as one of my all-time favourites. Using April Fools day as the setup, Bart is out for revenge following Homer’s early morning antics and goes one step too far when he shakes up one of Homer’s beers to such an extent it blows the poor guy into a coma. Featuring some classic lines in this opening act including a TV warning “Alcohol…causes cancer of the rectum” followed by Homer’s “Hmmm, beer” the episode moves on to several thematic clip segments that bring back wonderful memories and plenty of laughs from the first three seasons that even boast some additional animation to bolster the audience’s fun. Striking that perfect balance between perfectly selected classic moments and all new story segments the episode is only tainted by a bizarre closing joke.
The best ‘Marge’ episode this season comes in the form of A Streetcar Named Marge in which the put upon housewife decides to break free from her shackles and headline a local production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”. Leaving Homer alone to deal with the kids while Maggie is shuffled off to an oppressive daycare centre the Simpson family embark on a range of equally humorous adventures as Maggie expertly parodies Steve McQueen’s Hilts in The Great Escape before going on to feature in another wonderful Simpsons rendition of a Hitchcock classic with The Birds. Best of all however is the return of guest voice star Jon Lovitz and his wonderful musings on the art of acting as he directs Marge and Ned in their lavish musical rendition of the classic stage production.
Of the ‘Homer’ episodes this season two in particular stand out. In Homer The Heretic the dad we all wish we had finds God and discovers there is no requirement to attend Church every Sunday. Instead Homer foregoes his religion and spends the best day of his life while the family freezes in a run down old Church. Marge’s concerns over Homer’s new found heresy allow for several hilarious exchanges between the two as Homer delivers some classic arguments for his new found path in live (“If I’m wrong I’ll repent on my deathbed”). The second of the ‘Homer’ episodes is also a particular favourite of mine, Duffless, in which Homer attends a Duff brewery tour and finds himself under arrest when driving home over the limit. His license revoked and left to borrow Lisa’s bike to get too and from work Homer must also concede to Marge’s impossible to deny advances that request he gives up drinking for a month. Not only does this episode show the creators treating alcohol abuse with a sensitive and ultimately humorous approach but it goes some way to allay fears that it was considered acceptable to project Homer as a hopeless drunk who frequently drives under the influence (see another of this seasons episodes Mr. Plow for one of several examples). The ending is especially poignant, always bringing a sense of happiness to me as I watch having laughed endlessly through the many observations Homer makes during his forced sobriety.
Marge and Homer ride off into the sunset at the end of Duffless.
There are so many more episodes here to appreciate as the relationships continue to develop. Bart and Homer share a wonderful bond born out of a talent for mischief, as they sing inappropriate songs on the way to a funeral and share tips on how best to weasel out of a fight there's something touching yet endlessly amusing there which has as much to do with the quality of writing as it does the actors performances, after all it is only the latter which is consistent on American shows that use a pool of writers. Bart and Lisa continue on their path as rival siblings, sharing heartfelt moments one minute and scheming against the other the next, most appealing though in this early series is Lisa's ability to act her age and enjoy her older brother's antics - as Mr. Bergstrom told her she should in Lisa’s Substitute - but sadly in more recent seasons despite not ageing physically her mental age has become such that she appears to have lost her innocence.
Selma forgoes husband hunting this season but does endeavor to become a mother, and while Homer is bed ridden with illness takes the opportunity to sample parenthood by taking Bart and Lisa to Duff Gardens as a favour to Marge. Needless to say another Simpsons visit to an amusement park goes horribly wrong as Bart wreaks havoc on the rides and Lisa becomes intoxicated (it's hardly the most appropriate theme park for kids!). This episode is once again full to the brim with great laughs but more importantly showcases the adult humour and issues frequently tackled by The Simpsons, from Homer and Marge enjoying an erotic videotape and cavorting round the house in Greek bathrobes to Selma's choice to become a mother through any means necessary, a subject which is taken head on with light-hearted sensibilities but ultimately great care to what is a sensitive issue and tough decision in any women's life.
To have come this far and not mention Last Exit To Springfield is a travesty, so following a quick slap around the face it is with a leap of faith that I shall attempt to surmise what some rightly consider the greatest Simpsons episode of all time. Following a visit to the dentist Lisa finds she is in need of braces, but across town Mr. Burns is making plans to remove the dental plan from his employees’ benefits package. Making the connection following a battle with his own brain Homer comes to realise that he cannot afford Lisa’s braces and so becomes the working mans hero as he leads the workers union against Burns in a bid to get their dental plan back. As ever Homer’s reasons for aspiring to become a leader to his fellow man stem from a deep seated selfish desire to preserve himself, but here he once again excels in becoming the father figure Lisa is often left looking for as he effortlessly glides along to his goal via a series of accidents and good timing. Combining genius film parody (Don Homer’s “That’s-a nice-a donut” and the Batman inspired cinematography of Lisa’a brace fitting) with sublime musical segments including The Beatles Yellow Submarine homage and Lisa’s own classical jazz renditions few episodes remain as endlessly entertaining as this one does.
In a fine Godfather homage Don Homer enjoys a donut..
If there are any cracks in the writing this season then it comes from a touch of repetition as we see numerous dream sequences, occasions where Homer queries his own brain and a tendency to close on a nonsensical joke out of place with the episode they bring to an end where the family laugh as the credits roll. Baffling and lazy the latter are a rarity but stand out due to them being found on two of the most consistently funny episodes of the series, So It’s Come To This: The Simpson’s Clip Show and Last Exit To Springfield.
With a lot of focus having been paid to the writers and actors, equal praise is deserving for the directors and talented animation department, with Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) amongst others offering layout work that still impresses today, while the general range of work on show for a weekly series is often staggering and puts recent seasons to shame, with only the latest offering ambitious concepts that have been executed to great effect such as the Catch Me If You Can homage.
And on the subject of movie homage and parody I’ll bring this to an end by mentioning the range and breadth of them found within The Simpsons which remains to this day one of my favourite aspects of the show. A gag often heard on the commentaries is that certain classics such as Citizen Kane could be reconstructed using footage from The Simpsons, so many times have they now used Welle's classic as inspiration for their own modern classic in television comedy.
Episodes found in Season Four are: Kamp Krusty; A Streetcar Named Marge; Homer The Heretic; Lisa The Beauty Queen; Treehouse Of Horror III; Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie; Marge Gets A Job; New Kid On The Block; Mr Plow; Lisa’s First Word; Homers Triple Bypass; Marge Vs The Monorail; Selma’s Choice; Brother From The Same Planet; I Love Lisa; Duffless; Last Exit To Springfield; So It’s Come To This: A Simpsons Clip Show; The Front; Whacking Day; Marge In Chains; Krusty Gets Kancelled.
Grandpa Simpson's reminiscing is as disturbing as ever this season.
All 25 episodes from Season Four of The Simpsons are spread across four discs housed in a digi-pack with glossy slipcase matching the design of previous seasons. The package artwork both inside and out, along with disc labels is of a high quality and makes for a great looking set.
A glossy full-colour booklet can be found inside which details the content of each disc, with episode synopses complete with writer, director and guest star credits alongside episode number, original air date, runtime and chapter listings. Packed with some great artwork this booklet also boasts comprehensive listings of bonus materials with participants listed for each and every commentary track – it is, in a word, essential.
Strangely this season has not arrived in its original format, with at least one episode containing a syndication edit. This would be the joke in "Marge Gets a Job" where Bart is coming up with excuses to get out of a test, and Ms Krabapple says "and that unfortunate case of Tourette's Syndrome" to which Bart would erratically respond with strange noises and "Shove it Witch”. Here Tourette's Syndrome has been replaced with "Rabies", though Bart's response remains the same and therefore is quite out of place.
Picture and Sound
Presented in the original 4:3 Full Frame aspect ratio I will go out on a limb and say The Simpsons looks very good with, for the most part, no compression quibbles. There is a condition to this statement, and that is you will need a high quality player to get the most out of this set. Viewing on my regular setup of a high-end Pioneer DVD player and Panasonic CRT the image is bold, colourful and more importantly stable with little sign of edge enhancement and solid compression routines ensuring there are few occasions where macro blocking and line shimmering are visible. When I moved to a cheaper DivX/DVD player combo I found the problems often cited of past Simpsons box sets, with an instability to the image allowing for regular aliasing and line shimmering to be seen creating an altogether less satisfying image. In general terms the prints sourced are mostly clean and allow for good detail levels and natural colours to come through, but the traditional animation techniques still being employed at the time of production mean they don’t look as good as modern digitally animated shows.
As with previous seasons the original English soundtrack has been remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. I’m not sure when exactly The Simpsons began broadcasting in Dolby Surround so its hard to say how much of an upmix this is, but either way the audio quality is top drawer with a mostly front soundstage heavy mix that only brings the rears into effect for some added ambience and to project the wonderful music so often featured.
Additional French and Spanish Dolby Stereo mixes are also present alongside optional English HOH and Spanish subtitles. Audio tracks can be selected on the fly but subtitle options must be selected from the menus and so far as I can tell (not being able to switch manually) do not extend to bonus content.
Having progressed somewhat over the past season box sets the menus featured here are just about perfect to the English viewer looking to watch the episodes with or without commentary. Pop in any of the discs and a pleasant, easy to scan main menu screen displays (following the legal rubbish of course) that allows you to play any of the episodes on the disc individually or all together with or without audio commentary. Perfect! But its not, as soon as you begin exploring the bonus features or decide you want to view language options and scene selection screens the whole process becomes laborious as the animated antics of the characters onscreen begin to grate, lasting far too long and holding up your progress of finding the feature you want. It almost makes you thankful the commentaries are the only extra with true repeat value on the discs….
Ralph comes into his own in I Love Lisa, wins over the audience and leaves his dad to deliver the laughs.
Said to be the reason we are experiencing year-long waits between seasons the decision to record audio commentary tracks for each and every episode by Matt Groening and co. is something of a sore point for those impatient sods who want every episode of every season right here, right bloody now. But, complain and argue all you want, I for one love the commentary tracks which have come on leaps and bounds since the premiere season where the participants were a little stifled, unfamiliar with the episodes and generally watching them rather than discussing their time working on them. Here, as with the previous seasons Matt Groening is joined by a varied cast including show runner Al Jean, show runner Mike Reiss and numerous writers, directors and persons involved with the animation. Groening is, along with Al Jean the only person to appear on every episode but it’s the latter who often takes command and delivers the most compelling information while Groening sits back as the conductor, offering anecdotes from the functions he is more attuned to attending and asking questions of those in the room. Genuinely funny the writers and directors offer words of wisdom relating to the development of ideas while the animation guys discuss the obvious with some amusing snarling remarks at the directors who were unaware just how much time and effort is required to ‘add’ something trivial to what should have been final animation.
The stories are varied with those on meetings with the guest stars a particular highlight, but the commentary tracks are blessed with their own guest stars from time to time. Conan O’Brien makes two appearances (one on the ‘Easter Egg’ commentary track for Marge vs. the Monorail) in which he sets the room aloud with laughter, delivering wonderful commentary on the show and his experiences writing and producing the episodes featured here. Even when he’s not present the writing team will often talk of his antics in the office, always to great response. Competing with Conan in terms of laughter gained from the regular commentary team are guest stars Hank Azaria and Jon Lovitz, both of whom appear together for the A Streetcar Named Marge commentary. Again, these are two genuine comedians who along with the other commentary members make for a track that rivals the episodes entertainment value, discussing their current cinematic events over the episode and competing with each other for audience time they make for an uproarious duo.
The only negative I can offer on the commentary tracks would be the complete lack of cast members joining in the fun, as several did to quite enjoyable effect on the Season Three box set making this something of a step back in that department.
Elsewhere on the discs you will find the following extra material:
Introduction by Matt Groening: A rather pointless two-minute audio intro (over a video-montage) by the series creator where he highlights a few of his favourite moments from the season.
The Cajun Controversy: In this short two-minute audio-based feature (over a video-montage) writer Jeff Martin discusses the controversy his song about New Orleans for A Streetcar Named Marge caused, with archive letters and newspaper cuttings showcasing the furor misguided journalists created.
Special Language Feature: Watch Kamp Krusty in a variety of foreign languages including Brazilian Portuguese, Italian, Japanese and Castilian Spanish. I’ve never once sat through an entire episode so maybe on future seasons they should just cut together a few examples from episodes in different languages?
Bush vs. Simpson: Another audio-based feature (over a video-montage) has Jim Brooks discussing a series of events that led to him exchanging several letters with the then First Lady Barbara Bush. Interesting and certainly amusing for its short five-minute duration, this is yet another example of the bizarre relationship The Simpsons shared with the family of the former President of the United States.
Promotional Stuff A 14-minute clips heavy featurette that attempts to look at the shows recipe for success. There’s nothing here that fans won’t already know but its worth a look just to see on-screen appearances from Matt Groening and James L. Brooks, along with cast members at work in the recording booths – which is very surreal I must say – and comments from some of the best special guest stars including Danny DeVito, Adam West and Leonard Nimoy.
Commercials: 4 adverts running for a total of 2-minutes. Compulsion and Unforgettable Classics are promotional spots for the show, both more inventive than your usual TV Spot with the former proving to be rather amusing. The last two are for sponsors, with those awful Butterfinger bars and a great ad for a Burger King promotion.
Deleted Scenes are present for Homer’s Triple Bypass (x4) and The Front (x6). These can be viewed separately or branched back into the episode (you must hit ‘Enter’ at the appropriate time to view them), though you’re better off doing the former as though funny they rarely warrant inclusion within the completed episodes.
3 episodes include Animation Showcase features which allow you to view a selected act from each (approximately 7-8 minutes) using multi-angle technology so you can view the storyboards, animatic and completed animation via a picture-in-picture display format. Whichever option you choose fills the 4:3 frame while the other two options play along within two smaller windows so you can compare and contrast the different stages of production. Storyboards for these showcases can also be viewed separately with no picture-in-picture distractions. The episodes with this feature are: A Streetcar Named Marge, Homer’s Triple Bypass and So It’s Come To This: A Simpson’s Clip Show. For the latter you can also view the Animatic separately.
A further episode features a cut-down version of the multi-angle Animation Showcase extra with Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie allowing you to view the opening acts storyboards and completed animation via a picture-in-picture and full frame display format.
Separate Animatics are also included for A Streetcar Named Marge (17mins) and Homer’s Triple Bypass (8mins) with optional Illustrated Commentary by Rich Moore and David Silverman. These are a welcome addition and run considerably longer than the Animation Showcase segments as they are not restricted by synchronisation with the completed episode animation. This means you will find additional and alternative dialogue, rearranged timelines and more within the animatics which, in the case of A Streetcar Named Marge, extends to early musical numbers. The optional illustrated commentary is of a far more technical nature than you will find in the regular commentary tracks as the directors discuss the finer points of layout, animation and directing while doodling on the screen with their fancy pens. DVD Player beware though, as already mentioned I tested this set on both a high-end Pioneer (DV626) and low-end DivX/DVD Player (Yamada 6600), the latter struggled with the ‘Illustrated Commentary’ to the point of being unwatchable.
Homer's energies are always focused in the most obscene areas, here we see him shaping up for Whacking Day.
With at least two thirds of the episodes found in this season genuine classics and the remainder a damn good slice of entertainment there is plenty to recommend The Simpsons Season 4. Easily the best season yet in terms of episodes and disc content, we can only hope in future sets they refine the menu system and include a few more worthwhile video-based extras (the Tracey Ullman shorts anyone?).