The Simpsons: Season 1
By Michael Bentley
August 16, 2005
*This is the first in an ongoing series that will focus on the adventures of that iconic American family, The Simpsons.
Back in the old days, before crazy technological innovations like the Internet, cell phones, and TiVo were commonplace, a dysfunctional family of yellow, four-fingered people first appeared on television. The year was 1987, and the program was The Tracey Ullman Show. The gang (Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie, with a couple appearances from other Springfieldians) starred in 48 animated shorts over the next couple seasons before finally getting their own show in late 1989. Over the years the show has had many highs and lows, but it has persevered and continues to be a cash cow for creator Matt Groening and Fox. It was in the first season where we were first introduced to such great characters as Monty Burns and Smithers, Patty and Selma, the Flanders family, and Itchy and Scratchy, among others.
Homer has always been a doofus from time to time, but back then he seemed a bit less stupid and more of a committed family man. Marge has generally continued to be her naive, optimistic self, but Bart was enjoying the fruits of childhood and Lisa was a bit more innocent. We witnessed the prank calls to Moe's Tavern, Bart and Lisa still went to school regularly, and Homer even went to work most days. People in crowds around Springfield were more random and varied too, unlike recent seasons where many of the same supporting characters are reused over and over again. The animation wasn't quite the top-notch quality that we see now, and the voice actors were still finding their comfort zones, but the creators were clearly having a good time creating a smart, fresh, and wickedly funny show. And, without further adieu, we will now take a close look at the first complete season DVD.
1) Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire (Episode # 7G08)
AKA The Simpsons Christmas Special, it is the holiday season and Bart gets a tattoo as a gift for Marge ("Moth__"). She flips out and has it surgically removed, but this wipes out the family savings jar. To make matters worse, Homer isn't getting a Christmas bonus this year. He is ashamed so he doesn't tell anyone, and instead ends up secretly working a lowly part-time job as a Santa down at the mall. "Homer, why are you seven hours late?" Marge asks, straight-faced, and Bart exclaims "Dad, you must really love us to sink so low," after he finds out. When things can't get any worse come Christmas Eve - after he finally gets his Santa paycheck for a whopping 13 bucks - he and Bart end up at the dogtrack where a Christmas miracle happens.
Best moment: At the end, when the family is so overwhelmingly happy about the new dog (Santa's Little Helper), even though there are no gifts to unwrap or other presents to be had.
The verdict: A-.
2) Bart the Genius (# 7G02)
We all know by now that Bart Simpson is clearly not a genius, but in the second full-length episode he managed to convince his family and his school that he was. During a standardized exam he switches tests with nerdy Martin Prince. Everyone is surprised; after all, Bart is a troublemaker and even has his own drawer in Principal Skinner's disciplinary files. But they send him to a school for super-smart kids and he ends up in over his head.
Note that this is the first episode with the traditional opening sequence; it is quite eye-opening compared to recent seasons which have tended to show a shortened version - the full sequence is nearly a minute and a half long. Overall, this is a pretty solid episode that showcases the innocence of the Simpson family in the early years, though its quite ironic in light of what television has since become and the early protests about the unwholesome nature of the show.
Best moment: Since Bart is a genius, Marge is trying to expose him to the arts. Homer grudgingly tells Bart, "Your mother bought us tickets to a snooty movie directed by some Swedish meatball."
The verdict: B+.
3) Homer's Odyssey (# 7G03)
Homer's Odyssey includes several more firsts, including Otto, a black Smithers, and Blinky the three-eyed fish. Anyway, Bart's class takes a field trip to the nuclear plant and Homer gets fired for gross incompetence after causing an accident while trying to impress Bart. Marge ends up taking a waitressing job to support the family and Homer decides to try to kill himself. Homer, being the idealist that he is, is rejuvenated by a street intersection needing a stop sign. He ends up leading a crusade to make the town's roads safe. Things get a bit preachy in the end, as Homer is offered a job back at the plant as a safety inspector.
Best moment: Marge gives a very understated inspirational speech to Homer, "You've caused plenty of industrial accidents, and you've always bounced back."
The verdict: B.
4) There's No Disgrace Like Home (# 7G04)
The Simpsons attend a company picnic at Burns Manor, where we are shocked to learn that Smithers has undergone a racial transformation. The picnic is a disaster as Bart almost beats Burns in a sack race, Marge gets ridiculously drunk, and Homer realizes that the family is Hell. They decide to attend family therapy at Dr. Marvin Monroe's, where they end up in an electroshock room together. Not one of my personal favorites, but still a good episode that shows that the family clearly needs dysfunction in order to coexist.
Best moment: At the picnic, everyone has brought a jello mold as a gift (since Homer told everyone that Burns loves that slimy goop). There is a hilarious shot of hundreds of shaking jello molds, eerily reminiscent of a few of the classic closing shots from Hitchcock's The Birds.
The verdict: B.
5) Bart the General (# 7G05)
Bart gets in a fight will a bully at school, who just happens to be friends with the dreaded Nelson Muntz. He gets his butt kicked, and this continues for several days. He even enlists the help of the wise sage, Grampa Simpson, who hooks him up with the military store guy (Herman). Herman, who must have been an inspiration for Zed in Pulp Fiction, is beyond crazy and he leads the kids into an all-out neighborhood war.
This is a well-written, no-nonsense plot that focuses almost solely on Bart's dilemma without wasting time on a menial subplot. It is also the first episode that really makes strong use of Alf Clausen's music, especially during the great training sequences.
Best moment: "Nelson, you're bleeding!" one of Nelson's minion's gasps after Bart inadvertently hurt him. The untouchable Nelson is incredulous, "You made me bleed my own blood!" he responds.
The verdict: A-.
6) Moaning Lisa (# 7G06)
The first "Lisa" episode, which treats Lisa as the central character. She has been feeling down lately. ("Too sad to play dodgeball? That's ridiculous, the gym teacher quips.") Lisa eventually realizes that it can be okay to feel sad once in a while, and she players her saxophone (or "sax-a-ma-thing" as Homer calls it) to feel better and eventually discovers her jazz man and mentor, Bleeding Gums Murphy.
A side story, which is actually my preferred part of Moaning Lisa features Homer and Bart who have been playing a video boxing game (a la Punchout). Bart always wins, but Homer is driven to get better.
Best moment: The utter joy Homer shows as he is finally on the verge of beating Bart in video boxing - and then the crushing blow and sheer agony just moments later as Marge pulls the plug on the television.
The verdict: B+.
7) Call of the Simpsons (# 7G09)
In Call of the Simpsons, Homer is envious of Flanders' new RV, so the family goes shopping for one of their own. First, the slick cowboy salesman tries to get Homer to buy the ultra fancy RV that would put Flanders' to shame. Alas, sirens go off because "you couldn't afford this thing if you lived to be a million." Instead they buy a hunk of junk. It doesn't matter, though, because disaster strikes on a camping trip and the family ends up on their own in nature. Homer, the gullible but well-intentioned father, keeps leading them into further trouble.
This is definitely the weakest episode of Season 1. Things get too silly and farcical, especially in the later half. This includes a pack of bears caring for Maggie, Homer as bigfoot, and townfolk who are even dumber than normal.
Best moment: After Homer and Bart go off into the wilderness, Lisa wonders "Should Maggie be going with them, Mom?" Marge, being so naive and ever-trusting of her Homie, laughably replies "She's in good hands."
The verdict: C+.
8) The Telltale Head (# 7G07)
In one of the few Simpsons episodes to explicitly give the title, right from the very beginning we are thrown into a non-linear story as Homer and Bart are confronted by an angry mob. Probably because they are holding the head from the statue of the beloved town founder, Jebediah Springfield. We flash back... Bart goes to see the new Space Mutants movie and runs into the worst kids in school (Kearney, Jimbo, and Dolph). They all sneak into the movie and do other delinquent things as Bart tries to make friends and win their approval. "A boy without mischief is like a bowling ball without a liquid center," Homer muses after a heart-to-heart with Bart on how important it is to be popular. So, Bart goes out at night and saws off the statue's head, but eventually his guilt wins over, bringing us full circle.
This episode shows a good blend of Simpsons family values, with just the right mix of glimpses of supporting characters, and quick-witted, fast-paced jokes. The Telltale Head is my number one episode from Season 1. This is the first time that Groening and company really took things to the next level of quality.
Best moment: In Sunday school, Milhouse asks the teacher, "Will there be cavemen in Heaven?" The teacher, obviously disgusted, curtly replies "Certainly not."
The verdict: A.
9) Life on the Fast Lane (# 7G11)
Homer forgets Marge's birthday and runs out to buy her a gift. Being the loveable ninny that he is, he buys a shiny, new bowling ball engraved with "Homer" - just what he wanted - except that Marge has never even rolled before. She goes out of spite and meets Mr. Brunswick (a.k.a. Jacques), a French bowling instructor with an eye for her. Marge continues to go bowling and seeing Jacques, and has to contemplate how far she will go. Things end with the classic parody of An Officer and a Gentleman as Marge visits Homer at the power plant for ten minutes.
Note that this is one of the few episodes without a couch gag in the opening. It also includes one of the first dream sequences, a colorfully drawn vision of Marge's prospective date at Jacques' place.
Best moment: Jacques gives a speech on the benefits of brunch, "It's not quite breakfast, it's not quite lunch, but it comes with a cantaloupe at the end. You don't get completely what you would at breakfast, but you get a good meal."
The verdict: B+.
10) Homer's Night Out (# 7G10)
Bart orders a cheap, tiny spy camera in the mail, and it arrives months later. Soon afterwards, Homer has a boy's night out with the gang from work (including a humorously voiced Carl, considering how he sounds in later seasons) because someone is getting married. The rest of the family ends up at the same restaurant and Bart ends up photographing Homer with an exotic dancer, causing some marital discord and a bit of a scandal around town. As punishment and in order to redeem himself, he must take Bart to meet the "real" girl who he was caught with to show that she isn't just an object to leer at. Generally a rather ho-hum episode.
Best moment: Homer stays at Barney's place for one night, and it is a true junkyard. Barney is the consummate gentleman though, "If you get hungry in the middle of the night, there's an open beer in the fridge."
The verdict: B-.
11) The Crepes of Wrath (# 7G13)
Bart is causing trouble all over the place - be it hurting Homer's back or putting cherry bombs in school toilets. So Principal "Spanky" Skinner comes up with a plan to send him out of the country by sending him on a study abroad program in France. In exchange, the Simpsons must take in an Albanian boy named Adil. Bart ends up in a dump with a couple bad guys who use him for slave labor on their wine plantation. Meanwhile, Adil is given the royal treatment back in Springfield. A very nice contrast is drawn between Bart's troubles in France and the praise and affection that Adil gets from Homer. Unfortunately, Adil isn't all that he appeared, since it turns out that he is a spy who is sending back nuclear secrets. This is one of the best episodes of the first season.
Best moment: When Bart finds a policeman and tells him about his situation - working him night and day, not feeding him, making him sleep on the floor - the officer is concerned but a lightbulb doesn't go off until, "Antifreeze in the wine? That is a very serious crime."
The verdict: A-.
12) Krusty Gets Busted (# 7G12)
Homer is at the Kwik-E-Mart picking up some ice cream for an evening slideshow with the "Gruesome Twosome," when Krusty the Clown robs the store. He is found guilty in a speedy trial, and Homer joins the bandwagon and gets rid of all Bart's Krusty toys and memorabilia. Krusty is Bart's hero, so he and Lisa go on a quest to prove him innocent. This is sort of a precursor to some of the more elaborate farces over the years, as nobody else investigates or asks questions, while Bart and Lisa solve the mystery a la the Bobbsey Twins. Of course, the real culprit is revealed to be the evil criminal genius, Sideshow Bob ("I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for these meddling kids.")
Best moment: "Say it ain't so, Krusty," a shocked and distraught Bart asks the troubled clown as he is led into the courthouse in a parody of Shoeless Joe in Eight Men Out.
The verdict: B+.
13) Some Enchanted Evening (# 7G01)
In what was actually the first episode produced, Marge is worried about the love in their marriage, so she and Homer plan a romantic evening together - with flowers, chocolate, a classy dinner, and even the night at a hotel. They arrange for a babysitter for the kids, and it is a dark and stormy night when the creepy Ms. Botz arrives. Soon enough, the terrified Bart and Lisa realize that Botz is the dangerous Babysitter Bandit. As Homer and Marge are settling in together in their hotel room, we cut back and forth to the kids and their frightening cat and mouse game to escape.
Although the episode is sort of a classic in the seen-it-a-hundred-times sense, it is rather dated and the plot is quite dull compared to most others in the series. It also makes me realize that I prefer Lisa when she acts smarter than when she acts more like a second-grader.
Best moment: At the restaurant, Homer is choosing a lobster. "Why don't you take one that's a little more frisky, sir," the dry-witted waiter suggests. "When you choose one that's floating upside down, it somewhat defeats the purpose of selecting a live lobster," he says as the lobster floats by on screen.
The verdict: B.
Season one is just 13 episodes, so the set is only three discs. But they might as well have just squeezed them on two discs, because the extra features are rather lacking. First, the one bright spot is that there are full-length commentaries on all episodes, with Matt Groening anchoring most of them. He is accompanied by a couple other members of the crew ranging from producers James L. Brooks to director David Silverman, as well as some of the writers. Some of the commentaries are rather informative, though much of the time is simply spent laughing at the jokes and reminiscing about the old times.
A few other oddities include a clip of foreign language dubs from one episode, some sketches and an old Groening comic strip, outtakes of unfinished work on Some Enchanted Evening, a brief animatic sequence (i.e., some still drawings edited together) for Bart the General, a five-minute studio fluff piece, and scripts for four of the episodes. This scripts feature is a well-intentioned, but ultimately pointless, option. It is very cumbersome to look at, as only maybe a third of a script page is shown on the screen at one time, and then you must press the forward advance button to proceed. One nice things is that these are apparently scans of the shooting scripts, as you can see actual hand-written notes on some pages. In general scripts are a great extra to have, but they should be left on a webpage somewhere instead.
One final extra feature is one of the shorts from the Tracey Ullman Show. Just one. I'm sure there is some sort of hair-brained rights issues at work here, but this is a major disappointment. If they had managed to include all of the shorts, it would have been a real coup. Another head-scratcher is the fact that the DVD producers did not use a play-all option for each disc's episodes. You generally watch more than one at a time, so this can be an inconvenience to have to go through the main menu each time.
All told, the extras are better than nothing, but leave a lot to be desired.
The verdict: C.