Fox // 1997 // 570 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Geoffrey Miller (Retired) // August 21st, 2006
"Sex Cauldron?!? I thought they closed that place down!" -- Krusty the Clown
Depending on your familiarity with Simpsons quotes (and nearly everyone 35 and under knows dozens, maybe hundreds), the above line will either confuse you or make you break out in laughter. The Simpsons is such a cultural touchstone that even its tossed-off one-liners have dug their way into our brains. There are more than a few people out there who could practically hold entire conversations consisting of Simpsons quotes.
In a lot of ways, you can measure the quality of a season of the Simpsons by how many notable quotables it produces. The season on trial here (the eighth, which ran from 1996-97) has enough to fill a volume of Barlett's.
The Simpsons are a typical dysfunctional family, living in Springfield, USA. Father Homer is a bumbling, fat drunk, and mother Marge is the sensible voice of reason (except for her questionable choice of a blue, beehive hairdo). Their three children are mischievous Bart, brainy Lisa, and mute infant Maggie. Together they get into misadventures that satire modern American life and pop culture.
Now, for the rest of you who haven't been in a coma for the past 17 years, this is what you need to know: This is the season with Hank Scorpio, Homer eating the insanity pepper, Lisa dating Nelson Muntz, and Poochie! All 25 episodes are collected on four discs.
* "Treehouse of Horror VII"
* "You Only Live Twice"
* "The Homer They Fall"
* "Burns, Baby Burns"
* "Bart After Dark"
* "A Milhouse Divided"
* "Lisa's Date With Density"
* "Hurricane Neddy"
* "El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer"
* "The Springfield Files"
* "The Twisted World Of Marge Simpson"
* "Mountain of Madness"
* "Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious"
* "The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show"
* "Homer's Phobia"
* "Brother from Another Series"
* "My Sister, My Sitter"
* "Homer vs. The Eighteenth Amendment"
* "Grade School Confidential"
* "The Canine Mutiny"
* "The Old Man And The Lisa"
* "In Marge We Trust"
* "Homer's Enemy"
* "The Simpsons Spin-off Showcase"
* "The Secret War Of Lisa Simpson"
It's rare enough for any TV show to reach its eighth season, never mind go on for another decade after that (and The Simpsons continually threatens to set new records for longevity). By the time this season began, the titular yellow-skinned quintet had already gone through at least two distinct incarnations. The first was characterized by a more family-friendly tone and Bart being touted as the star -- let's call it the "Do the Bartman Era." This was the time when The Simpsons was a massively popular hit with "passing fad" written all over it. The second phase, the one remembered most fondly by fans, pushed towards edgier humor, put Homer front and center, and piled on the pop culture references. For simplicity's sake, we'll call this the "Do'h Era." There weren't as many magazine covers and "Don't have a cow" t-shirts during this era, but it's superior to the "Bartman" years.
Around seasons 7 and 8, when Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein took the reins as executive producers, there was a subtle stylistic shift. Side characters were given greater emphasis (even given temporary lead status), and the plots grew stranger (and occasionally darker). It was a necessary evolution -- they really couldn't milk the old formula any longer without making at least a few changes. At the same time, this era of The Simpsons eschewed the outright wackiness, unsatisfying endings, and heavy reliance of self-referential humor that have plagued recent seasons. This brief time could be called the "Smithers Era," as Burns's ambiguously gay assistant was one of many characters to take on a more prominent role.
The first two opening salvos of season eight, "Treehouse of Horror VII" and "You Only Move Twice," are bull's-eyes. The seventh Simpsons Halloween special is one of the best and surely the last truly great one. The last segment, "Citizen Kang," dates itself by referencing the 1996 Presidential election, but the first two segment are gold. "The Genesis Tub" in particular, which references Theodore Sturgeon's short story "Microcosmic God" (the same inspiration for later Futurama episode "Godfellas"), is a witty gem, from the way Lisa marvels as she watches her little civilization grow ("I've created Lutherans!") to the miniature denizens' horror upon finding out that Bart (their devil) is the brother of Lisa (their god).
The official season premiere, "You Only Live Twice," spoofs both James Bond and the then-emerging "casual" corporate culture of the mid-90s tech boom. After Homer is offered a new job at the Globex Corporation, the family packs up and leaves Springfield for their new home in Cyprus Creek, Globex's idyllic planned community for employees. Frequent guest star Albert Brooks voices Homer's new boss/evil supervillian, Hank Scorpio, and he's a marvel of contagious, unbridled energy. According to the commentary track, much of Brooks's manic, stream-of-consciousness dialogue was improvised, which is perfectly believable. Scorpio and Homer's exchanges, coupled with strong side stories for the rest of the Simpson clan, makes this episode one for The Simpsons time capsule.
For the first time, several episodes move the Simpson family to the background and push supporting characters into the spotlight. The most successful of these is "Grade School Confidential," which details the birth of a relationship between Principal Skinner and Bart's teacher Edna Krabappel. It takes a slower, more character-driven approach, letting the awkward moments that arise from a workplace romance provide the jokes. Awkward moments are also the name of the game in "A Milhouse Divided," an episode that follows the separation of Milhouse's parents. The best moments, however, come when it finally turns its focus on Marge and Homer's marriage.
Taking things out into more experimental territory, "El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer," loosely based on the mystical writing of Carlos Castaneda, seemed like an ill-advised idea at the time, but it has aged wonderfully. The oddly poignant psychedelic journey Homer goes on to "find his soul mate" is unlike anything else The Simpsons has ever produced. Also pushing the envelope is "In Marge We Trust," supposedly about Marge taking up a volunteer position at the church, but best remembered for the crazy Mr. Sparkle box of detergent found by Homer at the dump. Obsessed with his resemblance to the Japanese mascot, he tracks down the original manufacturer and receives a tape for potential investors, a dead-on send-up of Japanese TV ads that's guaranteed to leave you in stitches.
The Simpsons continues its flirtation with self-aware, almost Brechtian satire of its own status as an aging cultural phenomenon. "The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show," perhaps not coincidentally the episode when The Simpsons surpassed The Flintstones as the longest running prime-time animated program in history, tackles the subject of a show "jumping the shark" by introducing a new character. In this case it's Poochie, a "rockin' dog" voiced by Homer who joins Itchy & Scratchy to boost sagging ratings. At the same time, a new character called Roy joins the Simpson family, hinting that The Simpsons itself might be nearing the end. (Few could have guessed this wouldn't even be the halfway point of the show's run.) Troy McClure (the late, great Phil Hartman), who you may remember hosting Simpsons episodes such as "The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular," introduces new series starring Simpsons favorites in "The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase." Set up in the tripartite structure of the Treehouse of Horror episodes, it pokes fun at 80s detective dramas, campy 60s sitcoms, and, in the funniest segment, variety shows.
A few episodes don't quite measure up to the rest and start to show the weaknesses that brought the show down in subsequent years. "The Homer They Fall," in which Homer becomes a boxer with the help of Moe, suffers from an inadequate third act. Dipping into the Sideshow Bob well one too many times, "Brother From Another Series" relies too heavily on the gimmick of bringing David Hyde Pierce in as Bob's brother (in a nod to Frasier). None of these episodes is outright bad, mind you; they just aren't up to the same standards of the rest of the season. Even "Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala-d'oh-cious," an uninspired Mary Poppins parody, is partially redeemed by a top-notch Itchy & Scratchy by "guest director Quentin Tarantino."
The presentation of the set itself is fantastic. The menus include some superb (and funny) original animated sequences, and the episodes themselves are given a perfect transfer. Extras are numerous: Informative and fun commentaries on every episode (so good that I practically watched the whole set twice to hear them), oodles of deleted scenes, special commentary features from the animators, and more. The packaging, designed around a theme of photography, complete with a booklet designed to look like a scrapbook, will entertain any Simpsons fan.
After so many years of lackluster episodes, it's shocking to remember how just good The Simpsons was, even at this point when the show was already quite "old." (Although these episodes now date back nearly a decade.) At its height, it was stunningly clever and brilliant -- able to adeptly jump from Monty Python-esque silliness, to high-concept meta-comedy, to character pieces that evoke emotion sans the sappiness. If season eight is a hair below say...seasons four or five, it's only because those previous seasons set the bar so high that they were practically impossible to top. The brilliance on display here hasn't even come close to being touched by any of the other "adult" cartoons that have followed (save perhaps the best of Futurama). And the loving care with which this set was assembled only embiggens a perfectly cromulent season!
Not guilty? You bet your sweet-diddly-doodly ass!
Review content copyright © 2006 Geoffrey Miller; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 570 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Special Introduction from Matt Groening
* Audio Commentary on Every Episode
* "The Simpsons House" Featurette
* Multi-angle Animation Showcases
* Animators' Illustrated Commentaries
* Original Sketches
* Deleted Scenes
* Promotional Spots Featuring Matt Groening
* Special Language Feature
* The Simpsons Archive
* Official Site