First broadcast in 1995-1996 The Simpsons seventh season offers a balance of humour and storytelling that is only showing a few signs of deteriorating into the mess it became from Season 12 onwards. As the show runners this season (Josh Weinstein and Bill Oakley) highlight on numerous occasions throughout the commentary tracks, they went into the seventh year looking to bring the series back to its roots by offering warm family based storylines that in some cases even manage to further the characters we all know and love, and to their credit Season 7 includes some of the most memorable character based episodes, be they central or secondary roles.
Obvious highlights this season include strong Homer-centric episodes such as Mother Simpson, in which Glenn Close provides the heart to one of the most emotional stories The Simpsons has ever dare tell. Through a combination of physical comedy excellence, dialogue that ebbs and flows between raw genuine feeling and sharp comic parody the story of how Homer finds and then loses the mother he never knew he had is at all times highly entertaining and more frequently than you might imagine heartfelt and genuinely touching. The credit roll which utilises a moonlit desert scene and soft piano accompaniment is one you’re unlikely to skip over, as the episode settles in time after time.
Elsewhere you’ll find Homer up to no good in King Size Homer as he discovers a clause in his contract that allows him to work at home should he weigh more than 200 pounds. The glee to which he takes to the challenge and the enthusiasm which Bart brings to the project show these two really do connect when the situation is oh so wrong, and the method in which the writers tackle the not-always-so-obvious downsides to such a disability are both adult and astutely amusing. In Homer the Smithers we see just how dependent upon Smithers Mr. Burns is, as Homer temporarily takes over the role while Smithers takes a well-earned break. Every bit a Mr. Burns episode as it is a Homer episode, the staging and animation of that encounter between Burns and Homer will remain engraved in your memory in the same way as some of the series finest dialogue can. The last of my choices for Homer episodes this season is Two Bad Neighbours, in which the writers reprise the infamous response to the show former President George Bush had and bring him into the episode for Homer to compete against. Once again showing the mischievous relationship Bart and Homer share their pranks and the inevitable confrontations with George Bush Senior are as hilarious as they are implausible and frequent, but there is much to love about this episode in which the writers think out loud and paint The Simpsons and its characters as Bush once did.
Of the other central family members, both Marge and Bart have strong episodes to their names with Scenes From The Class Struggle in Springfield showing Marge looking beyond her standing in life to a posh country club. As she tries to sell herself and the Simpson family as something they are not, we bear witness to many interesting sides of the family unit, but none more so than Marge herself as she juggles being a full time mom with that of meeting the needs of people who judge you based not on who you are but what you represent to them. Bart’s moment comes through Marge Be Not Proud, in which his demons get the better of him and he is caught shoplifting. Thanks to the keen eye of the writers and that rarely shown good side of Bart this episode works very well as both an amusing insight to the way a child’s mind works and as a strong relationship building episode between Bart and Marge.
But what of Lisa you ask? In a rare case Season 7 offers not one, not two but three Lisa centric episodes which all reach a very high standard, with the most well known surely being Lisa the Vegetarian in which Paul and Linda McCartney turn up to solidify Lisa’s permanent move into vegetarianism. A rare event in a series like The Simpsons, this character development sticks well beyond Season 7 and allows for some utterly hilarious jokes in this particular episode, with Homer’s passion for all meat pig-related truly inspired. Despite the many successes this episode features, I often find the final minutes involving Apu and the special guest stars rather disconcerting, almost as if they are present just to sell their product, leaving the other Lisa episodes to rate far higher in this viewers opinion. The first such episode is Lisa the Iconoclast in which Donald Sutherland offers a memorable guest-turn appearance as a museum curator whose motives are not sound, allowing Sutherland’s effortless monologues and commanding delivery to spur on Lisa’s investigation into the town founder Jebediah Springfield. The second and final episode, Summer of 4 Ft. 2, is quite simply my favourite Lisa episode regardless of season. Taking a summer vacation as an opportunity to reinvent her image, Lisa uses her book-smarts to analyse the situation and infiltrate a group of ‘cool’ kids, one of whom is voiced by a young Christina Ricci. Giving both the writers, animators and Yeardley herself the opportunity to recreate Lisa for this one solitary episode, they come up trumps through an intelligent, well observed take on those young impressionable years where our friends form the basis of many precious memories, memories that Lisa yearns to create. From calm to cool and fiercely aggressive, we’ve rarely seen Lisa so enticing as we do here, and the episodes many elements including the side stories for the other family members culminate in one of the finest this season has to offer.
From the supporting cast of characters you will find strong episodes almost solely dedicated to Milhouse, Krusty, Selma, Troy McClure, Sidesow Bob and Grandpa. Some choice examples include Radioactive Man in which Milhouse is cast as a sidekick in a comic-book movie which offers some keen observations on the mundane process of movie-making whilst allowing us to enjoy more of Rainer Wolfcastle sending up Schwartzenegger. Raging Abe Simpson and his Grumbling Grandson in "The Curse of the Flying Hellfish" ranks as one of the finest Grandpa episodes, right up there with the time he dated Marge’s mother and continues his rivalry with Mr. Burns. It’s easily the highlight of this season in terms of cinematic presence, with wonderful animation, staging and lighting which compliments what is essentially a mini action adventure movie superbly realised via Grandpa and Bart. Like numerous episodes this season it also works as another example of family ties being reinforced though never at the sake of entertainment. Last but not least it would be criminal not to highlight A Fish Called Selma, in which the most desperate of the Bouvier sisters finds herself yet another husband, this time in the form of washed up actor seeking a reprise Troy McClure. The late great Phil Hartman brings this episode to life with his character’s strange sexual fetish and estranged agent (portrayed by Jeff Goldblum) used to great affect in the lyrical conversations that flourish throughout. But for those yet to witness Troy McClure’s musical take on Planet of the Apes, well, you might say you haven’t lived! Musical parody at its very best, the visuals and aural delights in this one brief sequence guarantee this season a recommendation being one of the most inspired moments of The Simpsons many seasons.
There are however a few notable bad apples this season, though for the most part their lacking qualities are down to the execution rather than the story concept. The obvious exception is the conclusion to Who Shot Mr. Burns? which gets the season run off to a bad start, bringing the mystery to a close through a series of twists that are as dubious as Chief Wiggum's policing methods. The other episode which is generally lacking is the now obligatory clips show, in this case an episode which carries a title that comes pre-approved with warning bell signs - The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular. Despite some interesting concepts such as a bored Troy McClure presenting to much amusement and the presence of deleted scenes and Tracey Ullman shorts amongst the clips, this is an episode that tries hard to find a hook but never quite manages assuring it'll never make it into regular rotation on this viewers watch.
The best of the worst episodes all come in the latter half of the season run, with my most controversial choice likely to be The Day The Violence Died. This Itchy & Scratchy episode features some clever inside jokes, a few astute gags at the expense of the often ridiculous situations found in sitcoms as well as some keen insights on the oft-debated TV violence issue, but its played-out observations on how generic shows can be are often too adept making this one tough to fully appreciate with the same affection as the other well-realised scripts found in this season. Bart on the Road is another tough call, an episode which is built upon a frankly ludicrous idea (that of Bart obtaining a driving license and hiring a car for a cross-country road trip with his friends) which if they were to stumble upon now, we'd simply see Bart happen upon a licence and skip town without anyone noticing, but here they do give the setup a great deal of consideration both on and off the screen. For this the story is at least partly believable, though the opportunity when Bart hits the road is largely wasted with only a few well constructed jokes to speak of (Skinner beginning to see Bart wherever he goes is particularly satisfying). What saves the episode however is the opportunity to see Lisa and Homer re-connect, once again displaying what a strong season this is for Lisa as we see the two share some wonderfully tender moments, alongside some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments as Lisa reveals Bart's misadventures on the road to an unsuspecting Homer who is sworn to secrecy.
I also find myself tiring in the back-to-back episodes Much Apu About Nothing and Homerpalooza, the first mostly because Apu is not a strong enough character to focus an episode on no matter how much writer David Cohen develops him, but also because the episode deals with a political issue which is difficult to broach in twenty minutes and is therefore reached and sewn up in a rather haphazard manner (an issue which is discussed in the commentary for this episode). And Homerpalooza actually deals with a concept that is ripe for the picking, that of how our tastes and influences largely stay the same regardless of how culture changes, making - Homer in this case - patently uncool because in the same way the music he loves is now part of the golden oldies section, so is he. Homer decides to do something about it by reconnecting with his kids and youth culture, giving the writers plenty to pastiche though ultimately the very concept of the show comes back to bite this one in the ass, with many of the observations on pop culture now rather out of date. Furthermore once the characters reach the music festival the episode bases its title on, the story rapidly descends into mediocrity while the screen is filled with cameo upon cameo of once-famous musicians which do nothing but a) show the episodes age and b) take up precious time that could be used better on developing the story. Homerpalooza in particular is a good example of where the series focus would be in a few years time, relying as it does on pop-culture icons and references to propel the somewhat loosely constructed plot forward and ultimately leaving us with few memorable moments by the credit roll.
As per Season 6, the seventh season offering is presented in a Limited Edition ‘character head’ design; in this case we get Marge. The actual concept is quite interesting, and had Fox chosen a foam/rubber compound with a superior mould to what is on offer then I believe they could have made a very exciting product for long-term fans of the series. As it is the rather flimsy plastic offering just doesn’t quite match with the visual designs we are all so familiar with, leaving me to recommend the more traditional digi-pack offering that is also available this time around.
Inside the set you’ll find another of the excellent guide booklets, which feature synopses, cast and crew details and extra features details for all 25 episodes found over the four discs.
Picture and Sound
Those familiar with the Season 6 DVD release should know what to expect here, with a visual presentation that is largely satisfying for casual viewing but somewhat disappointing for those with high-end equipment. The video masters used are for the most part clean with only the occasional sign of dirt while the shows bold primary colours are well reproduced. On the whole there is not a great deal to worry the majority of viewers, though I find myself picking at the obvious compression artefacts found in densely populated areas of the screen, fine details where the mixture of black outlines and solid colours are unstable through a mixture of pixilation and aliasing effects. Other complaints come in the form of some possible DVNR side-affects, something I’m not as knowledgeable about as others (see Michael Mackenzie’s Season 6 DVD review for a detailed explanation) but appears to be in effect here (albeit and rather fortunately only noticeable if you look hard enough, but present on occasion where you can’t help but notice the occasional degraded ink outline). The results are certainly nothing like the mangled PAL release of Season 6, but since reading about this form of video-cleanup I found myself noticing the possible side affects on occasion as I watched Season 7.
In terms of audio there are no such complaints, with the Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes serving the series well even if the format is not exactly put through its paces by the show. French and Spanish language tracks alongside optional English and Spanish subtitles complete the audio features on the set.
The bonus material can be found spread across the set, with the majority of video features located on the fourth disc...
An Invitation from Matt Groening - Found on Disc 1 Matt Groening gives a quick and very promotional overview of the season, and, well, we've already bought the set so does he need to keep on ogling us like that?
Audio Commentary - The oft-debated inclusion of commentary tracks on each and everyone of the episodes continue to delight this viewer, delivered by a wealth of writers, animators and show-runners with the occasional guest these are talented and genuinely amusing people which bring so much to the table. That we are treated to such a wealth of background information regarding the development of the episodes, sources for the numerous stories and incidental details found over the season is a treat in itself, but after several seasons of commentary tracks you really feel they've reached the pinnacle of delivering these twenty-minute bursts with the contributors really just rolling with the punches, flowing off each other and having a wonderful time while we just sit back and enjoy. Led by the primary show-runners this season - Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein - they are joined by various writing staff, key animators and directors who more often than not impress by starting sentences with "When I was watching this last night...", showing a level of commitment not seen in the earlier seasons which lead to dead-air as they desperately attempted to recall the episode let alone the making-of, this is just one example of the added level of respect for the viewers flowing through these tracks. Elsewhere you'll find that Yeardley Smith (the voice of Lisa Simpson) stops by for a few of the key Lisa episodes (of which this seasons boasts some of the most accomplished) and while I won't suggest she makes the tracks, her commitment to the character and genuine charm comes across and genuinely enhances the experience. Another stand-out this season is the presence of Jeff Goldblum, a true rarity as we see a guest star make a guest commentary track appearance on the episode A Fish Called Selma in which he portrays Troy McClure's estranged agent. Again, he doesn't make the track what it is, but he is very gracious while also emitting a great enthusiasm and a good knowledge of the show (as opposed to just turning up for the credit). One final note is the presence of David X. Cohen on a few tracks, someone who will be very popular amongst Futurama commentary fanatics (such as myself), and is on top form here as he positively boils over with information that will satisfy the geek in all of us.
Deleted Scenes - These are available for the large majority of episodes and can be viewed (via a menu option under each specific episode) branched into the episodes, or as I prefer, as one complete sequence on Disc 4 running just over 19-minutes with optional commentary by show-runners Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, and for his episodes David Mirkin. These commentary regulars actually admit to holding back deleted scenes they felt did not warrant inclusion, mostly because they are not in the least bit funny, whereas the material you do find included was mainly cut for time or for not being quite funny enough. Some of the scenes are really great, others not so much, while the optional commentary goes a long-way to explaining why each particular scene never made it in.
A Bit from the Animators - Wes Archer, Mark Kirkland and Matt Groening get together for animation specific commentary on acts from The Day the Violence Died (Disc 3, 15:07mins) and Summer of 4ft 2 (Disc 4, 10:02mins). With their magic pen and ability to freeze frame, rewind and manipulate the episode however they wish they discuss with the aid of diagrams the technical aspects of these episodes. From continuity errors to framing and background detail, to basic lessons on how to model the characters these segments are every bit as engaging as the main commentary tracks, and make for interesting viewing (far more so than the multi-angle animatics) and never outstay their welcome due to relatively short running times.
Animation Showcase - As with previous season releases you'll find multi-angle storyboards and animatics on specific acts from two episodes, which are: Home Sweet Home-Diddly-Dum-Doodily (Disc 1, 6:46mins) and Raging Abe Simpson and his Grumbling Grandson in "The Curse of the Flying Hellfish" (Disc 4, 7:24mins). Ultimately I found these features a little dull, with the storyboards being rather fleeting in detail and the animatics - although fairly close to the final episodes - not particularly exciting as we're all so familiar with the characters and designs by now. The Flying Hellfish episode is however a good choice for those who do find these features interesting, as it’s one of the most visually interesting in the season run.
Original Sketches - Found on Disc 4, these are a handful of original design sketches complete with annotation from the artist for the animators to follow. There are some great designs in here, and the selection is kept short and sweet, preventing a loss of interest.
Homer in the Third Dimension - Found on Disc 1, this feature lets us view the final story from this season's Halloween episode in which Homer goes 3D, complete with a special commentary by show runners Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, supervising director David Silverman, live-action director David Mirkin, writer David X. Cohen and Tim Johnson, who oversaw the computer animation. This track is focused specifically on the technical aspects of the episode and often includes some early animation test excerpts, all of which makes for very interesting viewing as we hear about the hurdles faced by the team at PDI for what at the time was very advanced CGI created by the team who went on to produce films like Shrek.
Paul & Linda's Lentil Soup - Also found on Disc 1, this is a short piece (42seconds) in which I believe Paul McCartney addresses the fans and reads out his departed wife Linda's Lentil Soup recipe.
Special Language Showcase - In addition to the usual English, French and Spanish language options the episode "22 Short Films About Springfield" also offers Italian, Portuguese, Japanese and German audio tracks. Another regular bonus feature this special language showcase is designed to show how The Simpsons is seen around the world, and should this interest you then placing these extra language tracks on this episode is a masterstroke as it features just about every character in The Simpsons universe, but for my money it gets fairly boring very quickly.
Season 7 offers a great deal of character development in amongst numerous moments of finely turned comedy and features an impressive ratio of the good against the not-so-good in terms of storytelling and sheer entertainment. In particular I find myself coming back to the level of quality found in the episodes featuring not only Homer, but Lisa also, with even the non-character-centric episodes showing a level of connection between these two not seen since the episode Lisa the Greek in Season 3 where Homer and Lisa found a common ground through betting on American Football, a connection which is demonstrated several times this season and always proves to be incredibly satisfying in its comic and feel-good-value.
The DVD presentation could certainly be improved on a visual level, another disc would probably help things along by improving bitrates afforded to the encoding, but regardless of any minor annoyances this release of The Simpsons Season 7 comes highly recommended to everyone with an interest in the series.