With every great television series, there comes a point at which its quality hits a peak that, from then on, it will never again be able to reach. For many shows, this occurs at some point during its first couple of seasons. The Simpsons proved to be something of an exception to the rule, in that, for its first few years, it saw a steady rise in quality, with each season managing to outdo what preceded it, until Season 5, which in my mind is not only the greatest achievement of The Simpsons itself but also the finest season of any animated sitcom, ever. Therefore, for me it was during Season 6 that the show began its downward spiral. Everyone has their own opinion as to when the show's quality started to diminish, and while I realise that I am in the minority in considering that the show was past its prime this early (relatively speaking) in its long life, there is no doubt in my mind that Season 6 was noticeably weaker than Season 5 - a trend which continued with each subsequent year until it finally hit rock bottom at some point during the thirteenth season.
Season 6 begins with two "hold-overs" from the previous year: Bart of Darkness, a parody of Rear Window, and Lisa's Rival, which sees Lisa confronted by a girl even brainier than here, voiced by Winona Ryder, one of the show's more prominent guest stars. Ever since the second season, The Simpsons has generally operated on the principle of writing a couple of episodes that will not actually be put into production until the next production run takes off. As a result, the humour of these episodes is very much in the same vein as the previous season, generally focusing on the dynamic of the Simpson family and their neighbours. Once the "season proper" takes off, however, there is a noticeable shift in terms of focus. The family go outside their natural environment more often - for example, Bart vs. Australia sees them jetting off to the land Down Under, while in A Star is Burns another Fox-produced animated show, The Critic, intrudes on the world of The Simpsons as movie critic Jay Sherman arrives in Springfield. It is this widening of the horizons that causes the show to suffer, in my opinion. The comedy becomes less reliant on characterisations of the Simpsons themselves and more on the world around them, with a frequent emphasis on current affairs - always a bad move, because references to real life events and pop culture tend to date horribly, and even when they don't, they are usually annoyingly self-conscious to begin with. Sideshow Bob Roberts is a good example of this: a satire of the Republican party, it is too smugly self-aware to be satisfying and gives the impression of the story being created to support the gag rather than the other way round.
Another problem this season is a trend towards the gratuitous showcasing of guest stars. While there is nothing as skin-crawling as Season 3's Homer at the Bat, an annoying trend that began to take off during the fifth season, in which various celebrities appear as themselves without any real connection to the plot, continues here in an even more obvious manner. Steve Allen, Tito Puente, Mel Brooks and Larry King, among others, all show up, usually only so that one of the regular characters can point at them and cry "Wow! You're Tito Puente!" or "Look! It's Steve Allen!" One of the worst examples of this comes in Fear of Flying, where the majority of the cast of Cheers, for seemingly no reason, appear in a stand-alone scene that recreates the setting of that particular show. When guest stars voice a character rather than themselves, as is the case for the aforementioned Winona Ryder, as well as the likes of Meryl Streep, Patrick Stewart and Ann Bancroft, the results are overall much more palatable.
Another problem, which has become more and more apparent with every passing season, is the gradual stiffening of the animation. The Simpsons was never a work of art - right from the early days, the animation was really only ever functional - but during the last couple of seasons, with the move of the animation services to a new studio, Film Roman, the quality of the animation had become more fluid and, particularly during the fifth season, more exaggerated and expressive... more cartoony, some might say. The best examples of this are the wonderfully-animated Treehouse of Horror IV and the hilariously extreme poses Homer assumes during his heart attack in Homer's Triple Bypass, and they definitely pointed towards an animation team that was not only becoming more adept at their craft but also being given the opportunity to experiment, rather than being constrained by the typical woodenness of writer-driven animation. Starting with the sixth season, however, it seems that the animators were reined in. The animation immediately becomes flatter and less expressive, with only the bare minimum of movement and a tendency to rely on stock poses again and again. It has been said that this was the decision of creator Matt Groening, but regardless of who mandated this change, it makes the show significantly less visually interesting. It is perhaps not surprising that, starting with the next season, many of the original directors and artists began to drift away from the show. Rich Moore was already gone by this stage, and over the next couple of years, many other prominent individuals, including Wes Archer (who went on to supervise the animation for the even more lifeless King of the Hill) and Brad Bird (who is often credited for helping to create the decidedly cinematic straging that characterised The Simpsons in its early days), would elope.
For all these criticisms, though, it is difficult to deny that The Simpsons was, at this point, still decidedly better than virtually anything else on television. Despite there being, in my opinion, numerous faults with this season, it is a far cry from the soulless dreck that is being produced nowadays. As far as I am concerned, The Simpsons was past its prime by this point, but it still had life in it and was still worth watching, if only as an enjoyable distraction.
You've probably noticed by now that, unlike the rest of my reviews, there are no screenshots to accompany the text here. This mandate comes from 20th Century Fox themselves - apparently DVD Times could face legal action if it includes any image in the review apart from the cover art. "What have they got to hide?" is probably your first reaction - and it is an entirely logical one, although we can only guess as to why this order has come through. In the absence of any screen captures, a text-based description will have to suffice, so bear with me.
These DVDs contain some of the worst examples of DVNR (digital video noise reduction) artefacts I have ever seen on a DVD. (DVNR is a system that's typically used to remove hairs and scratches from material that has been transferred from old, worn out film reels. Recently, a lot of attention has been drawn to the damage that it does to animated content, especially when used carelessly. Typically, it causes characters to blur and distort when they move quickly because the system mistakes the thin black outlines of cel animation for print damage and subsequently erodes it. You can see numerous examples of this sort of image degradation, as well as more information about the damage caused by DVNR to cartoons, at http://www.lyris-lite.net/dnr.html.) Usually, when this sort of thing crops up, it is on a cartoon at least half a century old (Betty Boop, The Flintstones, Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry have all suffered from this sort of vandalism at one point or another), but these episodes of The Simpsons have been around for just over a decade! These episodes were more or less spotless to begin with, making the use of DVNR completely unneccessary and giving a clear indication that whoever was in charge of mastering these discs didn't have the first clue about how to use the software at their disposal.
That's not all, though. The source materials used for these DVDs were obviously the show's NTSC master tapes rather than original film prints (a fairly common practice in television, given how much post production is done on video), which understandably suffered from the usual problems associated with analogue video: namely dot crawl, colour bleed and head noise. This is, of course, understandable, as better elements do not exist. These materials were then run through a standards converter to produce this PAL DVD, and in doing so, a whole other set of artefacts, this time relating to the PAL system, seem to have been introduced. (Standards conversions are a tricky thing - typically "neither fish nor foul, but still smelling of both". In other words, they introduce the deficiencies of both video systems.) The end result is that the episodes in this set display the combined failings of both PAL and NTSC, as well as a judicious amount of DVNR artefacting.
Sadly, the standards conversion isn't of the highest quality either. On numerous occasions, frames are simply skipped - look at camera pans, for instance. Die-hard fans of the show will definitely want to pick up an American or Canadian copy of the set so they can own the episodes in the video system that they were produced in. Whilst I accept that a minority of people still own televisions that are only capable of showing 50 Hz PAL video, therefore making the standards conversion necessary, it is not unknown for DVDs of certain American series to be released in their original native NTSC format even in the UK.
I must point out that this is the first Region 2 DVD release of The Simpsons that I have owned - I bought the Region 1 releases of the previous five seasons and found them to be pretty pleasing quality-wise, although constrained by the usual failings of analogue NTSC video. Therefore, I have no way of knowing if the artefacts present on this release also affected the UK versions of the previous five seasons. I know what I'm seeing here, though, and I'm not afraid to call it what it is: grade-A crap.
The audio is your usual Dolby Digital 5.1 affair which, as far as I know, is an upmix of the original Dolby Surround 2.0 broadcast tracks. The sound is fine without being remarkable in any way. The Simpsons is all about dialogue, and beyond presenting that in as crisp and clear a manner as possible (which it does), there isn't much room for flashy surround effects or subwoofer rumbling.
English subtitles are provided for the episodes themselves and for the extras.
Packaging and Menus
Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few months, you've probably heard at least something about the awful packaging that has been used for Season 6. Since the check discs I received for this review were just that - discs - I can't comment on the packaging from a position of any authority, but I can tell you that once this limited line of 50,000 "Homer heads" has run out, the set will be made available in a much more genial cardboard case, along the same lines as the previous five seasons and similar to the replacement packaging being offered to customers in the US who are unimpressed by the frankly idiotic Homer head. A number of online stores are already listing the standard cardboard case with the same release date of October 17th, and wherever possible I've linked to it in the Affiliates box rather than the Homer head version. The choice is up to you, though.
The menus on offer are similar to those of the previous two releases, and I for one am glad that they are sticking with this system, which is well laid-out and reasonably user friendly, although the menu transitions are at times irritatingly long. Furthermore, while a number of episodes have deleted scenes, these can only be accessed by going into the individual menus for each episode to find out whether or not any are featured: they do not show up on the "Bonus Stuff" menus, except for some bizarre reason on Disc 4. I should also warn you that all four discs start with that inane "Piracy: It's a Crime" trailer that has been appearing on so many DVDs of late. For a fuller account of my opinions regarding this infuriating practice, please see my review of the Extended Special Edition of Gladiator.
As has been the case for the last few Simpsons box sets, the extras begin with A confession from Matt Groening, in which he runs through the list of guest voices attached to the episodes and (as usual) states that this season is the best yet.
Once again, commentaries have been included for every episode. Generally, Matt Groening, executive producer James L. Brooks and showrunner/executive producer David Mirkin are the participants, and they are joined by a selection of writers, directors and voice actors on various episodes. The trio mentioned above are not present for every single episode - conspicuously, Groening is absent for the commentary on A Star is Burns, an episode that was designed to cross-promote another Fox show, The Critic, which angered him and led to him removing any mention of his name from the completed episode - but they appear more consistently than anyone else. The actual quality of these commentaries varies widely depending on the episode in question and who is present in the recording booth. Something that has characterised these tracks since The Simpsons first appeared on DVD is that the participants have a habit of repeating the same information again and again - a necessary evil, perhaps, given that, for all its strengths, the show is essentially formulaic and, after making their way through over a hundred episodes, it is perhaps unsurprising that they find it difficult to reveal anything that isn't already common knowledge. Still, the commentaries are, on the whole, entertaining if not exactly taxing on the brain. Indeed, in a few cases, they make weaker episodes more fun to watch. Whether you can be bothered making your way through all 25 tracks, however (and indeed whether it is worthwhile to do so), is questionable.
An animatic is provided for the first Act of Treehouse of Horror V, and for a 7-minute segment of Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part One), presenting the show in layout form (i.e. in black and white, with only the key animation poses completed). The animatics can also be viewed with an illustrated commentary, in which Matt Groening, producer/supervising director David Silverman and director Jim Reardon (and, on Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part One), director Jeffrey Lynch) discuss the episode while using the subtitle track to draw crude diagrams and bring attention to various visual elements.
Deleted scenes are included for a number of episodes, although, as I mentioned before, only Disc 4 features an option to play all the deleted materials on the disc. For the other discs, it is a matter of going through each episode menu until you find one that contains deleted materials. Even then, though, you will have to watch each episode through, because the deleted scenes have been reintegrated into the finished shows rather than being played separately.
The episodes Lisa's Wedding and Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part One) each feature an animation showcase, which, using the alternate angle feature, allows you to switch between two different variants - storyboards and animatic - while the final episode runs in a small window in the corner. Unfortunately, only a 7-minute segment of each episode is included.
A series of production sketches, comprised of a variety of different pieces of artwork, are also included in the form of an automatic slideshow. A decent number of images are included, but they seem to have been thrown on to the disc in no particular order, which can make viewing this gallery a little confusing. Additionally, text-based suspect profiles are included for a fair number of the denizens of Springfield, naturally tying into the Who Shot Mr. Burns? mystery.
The fourth disc features a number of tie-ins used for marketing and exploiting the show. Springfield's Most Wanted is a take-off of the show America's Most Wanted, featuring its actual presenter, John Walsh (who nowadays can be seen doing much hand-wringing on The John Walsh Show - ITV2 viewers take note), and investigates the case of Who Shot Mr. Burns? It runs for 21 minutes and features copious clips from both the episode in question and various other moments from the show, and I suppose some people will find this enjoyable, but I personally thought it was extremely tacky and was pitched to a lower age demographic than the show itself. The Simpsons Plane, meanwhile, runs for two minutes and features footage of a Western Pacific Airlines plane, decked out with the likenesses of our favourite yellow family, and is accompanied by commentary from Matt Groening and David Mirkin, who berate this stunt for its extraordinary pointlessness and admit that, concerned that the plane would crash, they refused to board it. Finally, three commercials are included, two using the Simpsons to sell Church's Chicken and the other for the 1-800-COLLECT service for long distance phone calls.
There is certainly a lot here in terms of quantity, and most of the material provided is reasonably entertaining to watch or listen to. However, in terms of depth, there really is not all that much on offer, and, while making my way through the vast amount of material on offer, I got the feeling that those who put the DVDs together were simply checking a list of boxes (Groening intro - check; commentaries on each episode - check; animatic showcase - check; commercials - check; gallery - check) rather than thinking carefully about what would make for the most worthwhile inclusions with regard to actual content. No-one is forcing you to watch any of it, of course, but after six seasons, a sense of repetition is very much beginning to set in. To be fair, it's very much a double-edged sword, because I don't doubt that, if Fox were to cut back on the extras, many fans would be frothing at the mouth and demanding to know where their hard-earned cash was disappearing to. However, it would be nice to think that, by the time Season 7 arrived on DVD, some more in-depth materials could be unearthed for inclusion.
Fans of The Simpsons will no doubt be rushing to pick up copies of the sixth season in droves, but I strongly advise that this UK release is definitely not the way to see it. The thoroughly incompetent visual presentation makes this version an unwise option for anyone, but particularly those with large and/or progressive scan displays. The US release, available from many of our affiliates for a very reasonable price, undoubtedly constitutes a far better way to spend your money.
The sixth season of The Simpsons arrives on DVD in a feature-packed 4-disc release. Michael Mackenzie investigates what he consider the beginning of the show's steady decline and recoils in horror when he discovers that the Region 2 UK release of this set features one of the worst video trans