The feeling I get talking with fans and casual viewers is that The Simpsons hit a high for a couple of years (say, seasons 5-10), and then got pretty bad. They were off their game, and it all became too route. But then when you watch later seasons, they’re never that bad. Sure there are a couple episodes that really miss, but ultimately the show has hit a point where they know their formula. The familial unit is place, there’s the standard group of supporting performers who often have a spotlight episode every season, and the peripheral characters. They haven’t really added much to it in years, and though some dynamics have been explored and changed (Barney is clean and sober in this season), stasis is maintained. Season 13 is solid, but nowhere near the show at its best. My review of the Blu-ray edition of The Simpsons: The Thirteenth Season follows after the jump.
Season 13 starts with a “Treehouse of Horrors” episode that parodies the rising trend of Harry Potter. Considering this was done in 2001 (the first film hadn’t come out yet) it is bold, though the depth of the parody stops with surface references. It’s not one of their best episodes, but not terrible. The next episode has Bart (Nancy Cartwright) busted for joyriding, and for punishment is tied to Homer (Dan Castellaneta). When Marge (Julie Kavner) breaks that bond, she also gets punished. This episode takes a not very good idea and stretches it. Moe Szyslak (Hank Azaria) decides to upgrade Moe’s – which allows the show to make fun of the jet set (eh), but does set up Homer opening a bar in his garage. Mr. Burns (Harry Shearer) gets a spotlight episode when he woos a woman (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) who is much too young for him. This season also features the year that Lisa (Yeardley Smith) becomes a Buddhist at the encouragement of Richard Gere (playing himself).
Abe Simpson gets a dating episode, the town gets sugar banned (which plays like a redress of the prohibition episode), they do a “public domain theater” episode, with Bart as Hamlet, Homer as Odysseus, and Lisa as Joan of Arc. There’s a parody of the dot com bubble when Bart gets successful with a cartoon called Angry Dad, Apu gets a spotlight episode when he cheats on his wife, and there’s a terrible episode where Marge and Homer are framed for murder.
Symptomatic of the long run is an episode like “Brawl in the Family.” It starts with the standard non-sequiur opening where environmental damage forces the Simpsons to spend the day inside and that leads to familial violence and a social worker (Delroy Lindo) who teaches the family to work together as a unit, but only in time for Homer and Ned Flanders (Shearer) to be embarrassed by the time they married Las Vegas showgirls. The Simpsons then have to work together to get rid of the floozies. Mannered to the point of ridiculousness, this is the formula gone amuck. Yes there are jokes, and in no way is this one of the worst episodes I’ve ever seen, it’s just that the plates spin so fast and so pointlessly that it becomes just about the gags. But the satire is gone; it’s just incident after incident to set up gags (some of which are funny) and get the show to an end time. The worst episode here is the clip show episode, which does a very poor job at justifying its existence, even based on the presumption that clip shows suck.
And with this season the structure of the show is never more obvious. Almost every episode opens with the disconnected first act which provides a tangential incident that incites most of the rest of the episode, though there is usually a third act twist that takes things in a slightly different direction. There are still great writers on the show, but they’ve found their wheelhouse, and they’re going to keep cranking it out. Nothing wrong with that, but it will probably never have the same heat. This is one of those seasons that while you’re watching the episodes – for the most part there are going to be a couple of good laughs per episode, but no single episode feels special.
The Blu-ray edition is a three disc set with all 22 episodes presented in full frame (1.33:1) and in 5.1 DTS-HD. This was the last season done with ink and paint, and though clips from earlier seasons look rough, the image quality here is excellent, and the soundtrack (though not benefiting too greatly from DTS) is solid. Colors are strong, and the show does gain from the 1080p upgrade. Every episode comes with a commentary, with staffers like Matt Groening, Al Jean, Mike Scully, Dana Gould, Joel Cohen, George Meyer, Kevin Gould and John Frink (among others) joined for certain episodes by Pamela Hayden (Milhouse), Delroy Lindo, Joe Mantegna, Dan Castellaneta, James Lipton, and Stan Lee. Some episodes come with deleted scene branching points, though all deleted scenes can be watched on Disc Three (15 min.) with optional commentary. Disc one offers “A Token From Matt Groening” (2 min.) where the creator of the series gives an overview of the season, “Ralphisms” (3 min.) offers some of Ralph’s most famous moments and quotes, “Animation Showcase” offers both the animatics and storyboards for the a part of the episode “The Parent Rap” (7 min.), while “Special Language Feature” offers the “Treehouse of Horror” episode in German, Czech, Japanese, and Portuguese. Each disc also features at least one Easter egg to the right of extras.
Disc two offers an animation showcase on the episode “Sweets and Sour Marge” with storyboards and animatics (6 min.), and looks at the CGI “The People Ball” (1 min.), which was intimidating for the animators. “The 13th Crewman” (2 min.) highlights a boat that had a Bart Simpson sail. “Blame it on the Monkeys” (2 min.) talks to the trouble the show got in with Brazil for their Brazil episode. Disc three offers five tie-in commercials, an overview of all the Simpsons based games (8 min.), “The Sweet Life of Ralph” (6 min.) which – like “Ralphisms” – offers highlights and the changes that have happened to Ralph’s character. There’s also a sketch gallery (6 min.) for the season, and the aforementioned deleted scenes with commentary.