Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 18, 2010)
After eight years of chronological releases, The Simpsons takes a leap. The series’ twelfth season hit DVD in the summer of 2009, but it jumps to Season 20 with this January 2010 release.
Why did they skip Seasons 13 through 19? To capitalize on the series’ 20th anniversary. Those other years will come out eventually, but S20 got a rush release to soak up publicity.
It’s a little annoying that we’ve skipped so many shows for the time being, but it’s not the end of the world. It’s not like The Simpsons features any form of continuing storyline that we need to follow, so we can skip from season to season without any issues.
This package presents all 21 Season 20 episodes in the order broadcast across 2008-09. The synopses come from “The Simpsons Archives” (http://www.snpp.com); thanks to them for their good work.
Sex, Pies and Idiot Scrapes (28 Sep 2008): “When Homer is given $25,000 bail after his participation in a St. Patrick's Day Parade fight, he and Ned team up to be bounty hunters; Marge takes a job at a bakery, unaware that it sells erotic cakes.”
Given the poor reputation enjoyed by recent seasons of The Simpsons, I didn’t expect a whole lot from “Pies”. Perhaps those lowered expectations helped, but I thought it was a perfectly decent episode that occasionally veered toward “very good” level. The Homer/Flanders plot worked best, as it provided a smattering of clever situations and gags; Marge’s tale was less interesting and more predictable. Nonetheless, the show offered reasonable amusement.
Lost Verizon (5 Oct 2008): “Bart takes a cellphone discarded by Denis Leary and starts making prank calls pretending to be him. When Marge squeals on Bart to Leary, he tells her to turn on the phone's GPS tracker so she can track him, but Bart attaches the chip to a bird headed to Peru.”
After the decent start with “Pies”, S20 becomes a little stronger here. The bits with Leary entertain, and it’s fun to see the antics related to the cell phone and the tracking chip. As with “Pies”, “Verizon” doesn’t dazzle, but it’s a consistently enjoyable program.
Double, Double, Boy in Trouble (19 Oct 2008): “At a party thrown by new lottery winner Lenny, Bart meets his double, who is a member of Springfield's richest family, and trades places with him, unaware that the boy's half-brother and half-sister are trying to kill him so they can get his share of the estate.”
The whole Prince and the Pauper story has been beaten to death, and “Double” doesn’t do a lot to reinvent that wheel. Nonetheless, it explores the situations to good comic effect. Expect an episode with a reasonable number of laughs, especially when we see future Bart’s wife.
Treehouse of Horror XIX (2 Nov 2008): "How to Get Ahead in Dead-vertising" - Homer kills people so they can be used for free in commercials. "Untitled Robot Parody" - Warring transforming robots stop fighting each other...and start fighting humans. "It's the Grand Pumpkin, Milhouse" - and it's not in a good mood after seeing all of those pumpkins killed for Jack-O-Lanterns.”
Each of the three segments boasts good qualities, but none of them really satisfy. “Robot” probably fares best of all, and it has the best ending, but it’s never a total winner. The other two start in promising ways but sort of fall apart as they continue. “Treehouse” episodes are usually among the series’ best, but this one doesn’t ignite.
Dangerous Curves (9 Nov 2008): “A family summer vacation trip to a cabin motel brings back memories of earlier trips from twenty years ago, when Homer and Marge were picked up by newlyweds Ned and Maude (who made them sleep in separate rooms), and five years ago, when they arrived with different partners.”
“Curves” offers intermittent pleasures. On the positive side, it features an interesting story construction that makes it unusual. On the negative side, the elements just don’t coalesce in an especially satisfying way. We find a few amusing bits but the show ends up as mediocre overall.
Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words (16 Nov 2008): “Lisa makes it to the finals of the Springfield City Crossword Championships, where Homer discovers three things. He has a lot of money from his successful professional break-up delivery service, there's a gambling ring at the event, and Lisa confides that she has a habit of subconsciously sabotaging herself at big events - but when she discovers Homer bet against her, she decides to go by the name Lisa Bouvier.”
Though it hearkens back to S3’s “Lisa the Greek”, “Exchange” has enough freshness going for it to succeed. Homer’s break-up service is a fun idea, and the third act provides a good twist on Lisa’s well-worn anger at her dad. This one turns into a pretty solid piece.
Mypods and Boomsticks (30 Nov 2008): “Bart befriends a Muslim boy and invites him and his parents to dinner, only for Homer's paranoia to get the better of him, but when Homer goes over to their house to apologize, he sees the father with sticks of TNT and thinks he's going to blow up Springfield Mall; Lisa gets a Mapple Mypod - and a bill for over 1200 downloaded songs at 99 cents each.”
Wouldn’t this episode have made more sense in 2002 or so? No, prejudice against Muslims hasn’t gone away since then, but it doesn’t feel quite as timely at this point. The two plots don’t coalesce very well, but the Apple parodies have some good moments. They’re not enough to elevate the episode above the level of mediocrity, though.
The Burns and the Bees (7 Dec 2008): “When Mr. Burns wins a professional basketball team in a poker game, he decides to build a new sports arena in Springfield for them - on the site where Lisa is trying to keep Springfield's bee population from dying out. Homer tries to solve the problem by mating the bees - with "killer" Africanized bees.”
In nothing else, “Bees” gets credit for the way in which it ties together the two stories. It also includes a few good laughs along the way, most of which connect to Lisa’s bees. Some parts drag, but the episode manages to create a reasonably solid work.
Lisa the Drama Queen (25 Jan 2009): “Lisa and a new friend create the fantasy world of Equalia together, but Lisa is a little worried when her friend treats Equalia as a real place to escape the problems of the real world.”
Any episode that makes fun of Josh Groban deserves some points, and I especially like the scene in which Groundskeeper Willie and Chief Wiggum attempt to block out his music. Beyond that, though, “Drama” tends to fall flat. Emily Blunt does a guest voice that sounds just like Nancy Cartwright with a British accent, and the show is too sappy to succeed.
Take my Life, Please (15 Feb 2009): “When Homer sees the man who beat him for senior class president in high school being honored on Springfield's Wall of Fame, he discovers that, in reality, he won that election, and thanks to an elderly Italian chef at Luigi's, sees a vision of how his life would have changed had he been senior class president.”
What’s up with the series’ timeline? While early episodes established Marge and Homer as teens in the 1970s, I thought they’d abandoned that conceit and decided to go with the flow. “Life” puts them back in the 70s again but can’t keep the chronology very straight.
Well, the series doesn’t even consistently attempt to run shows around the right time of year anymore; the next one aired in March but featured the start of the school year! Despite its chronological failings, “Life” presents a clever “what if” story. It mucks with established lore but still has some interesting moments.
How the Test Was Won (1 Mar 2009): “Bart joins Ralph and the school's bullies on a trip to Capital City so they don't bring down the school's score on a national achievement test. Lisa, rattled by her score of ‘only’ 96 percent on a practice test, has trouble with the real thing. Homer forgets to deliver an insurance payment on time and has to prevent anybody from getting hurt in his house.”
Despite the weird fact that a “beginning of school” episode aired in March, “Test” is pretty good. The three storylines run in a natural way, though Lisa’s doesn’t get as much play. Still, Homer’s attempts at staying safe and Bart’s journey manage to amuse.
No Loan Again, Naturally (8 Mar 2009): “Homer takes out a home equity loan to pay for his Mardi Gras party, but when the rate goes up and he can't afford the new payment, 742 Evergreen Terrace is under new ownership. Ned Flanders, who rents it back to Homer, who in turn shows his thanks for Ned's generosity by demanding that his new landlord do all the repairs on the house 24 hours a day - and Ned responds by evicting Homer.”
The Homer/Flanders relationship has always been an interesting one, and “Loan” mines it well. The show doesn’t come packed with laughs, but it does enough right to entertain. And at least it’s reasonably correct in terms of chronology; given the recent trend, I’d expect the series to run a Mardi Gras episode in November.
Gone Maggie Gone (15 Mar 2009): “When Homer leaves Maggie on the doorstep of a convent in order to help get Santa's Little Helper across a river, the nuns take Maggie in, starting a chain of events that leads Lisa, Principal Skinner, Comic Book Guy, and Mr. Burns on a quest to find a mysterious jewel.”
The series takes on Dan Brown via this convoluted mystery tale. It does pretty well in that regard, but the funniest moments come from Homer’s attempts to prevent Marge from feeling stress. Yeah, the series has done that theme in the past, but it’s still pretty funny.
In the Name of the Grandfather (22 Mar 2009): “‘The Simpsons are going to...’ Ireland, as Homer (guilty over forgetting about a father-son wheelbarrow race at Springfield Retirement Castle) takes Grampa to a pub he visited during the war for ‘one final beer’, and the two of them end up buying it...which might not be so bad if it had any customers.”
The series long ago found Simpsons vacations as an excuse for a change of scenery – so much that the theme became a cliché. Despite the potential tedium, “Name” actually works quite well. The series delights in its mockery of Irish stereotypes, and the purchase of the bar adds a nice twist.
Wedding for Disaster (29 Mar 2009): “It turns out that Reverend Lovejoy didn't have a valid license to perform weddings when he presided over Homer and Marge's wedding, so they have to get married again, but just when the wedding is about to start, Homer disappers, and the only clue is a key attached to a keychain marked ‘SB’...but is it Sideshow Bob?”
With a guest character who parodies Bing Crosby, “Disaster” doesn’t exactly shoot for the youth demographic. And that’s fine with me, as the Bing twist offers a fun twist. We also get a change-up in the Sideshow Bob realm and find a good variety of elements in this entertaining program.
Eeny Teeny Maya Moe (5 Apr 2009): “Moe falls in love with Maya, a woman he met on the internet...who's only three feet tall. Marge wants Homer to spend more time with Maggie.”
As one of the series’ most obnoxious characters, it becomes tough to sympathize with Moe. “Eeny” does a good job, though, as we actually kind of care what happens with him. The show also provides some good gags connected to its theme, and the Maggie plot has some funny moments as well.
The Good, the Sad and the Drugly (19 Apr 2009): “Bart volunteers at the Springfield Retirement Castle in order to impress a girl, but this leaves Milhouse (who took the rap for a school prank he and Bart pulled) less than impressed. Lisa becomes depressed when she writes a report on what Springfield will be like 50 years from now, but her medication makes her see everything happy - bright yellow happy faces, that is.”
“Bart in love” stories have been a series staple for years, and they often work well. “Drugly” follows that trend to a satisfying degree; while not up to the standards of a classic like Season Four’s “New Kid on the Block”, it creates good comedy from Bart’s crush. Lisa’s side of things offers a darkly amusing twist as well.
Father Knows Worst (26 Apr 2009): “When Homer realizes that Bart's underachievements aren't going to be helped any by Lisa's unpopularity, he tries ‘helicopter parenting’ - that is, he hovers over them constantly. Meanwhile, Marge is too busy relaxing in the mysterious new sauna she just happened to find in the basement to care.”
Past episodes have featured “involved Homer”, and “Worst” follows that trend. Although the series has explored that concept a lot, this episode manages some fresh elements, partially because it doesn’t make Homer totally incompetent for once. Oh, he’s still a boob, but he’s not a destructive influence. His work with Bart and Lisa offers some good opportunities for comedy.
Waverly Hills 9-0-2-1-D'oh (3 May 2009): “When Marge discovers the poor teaching conditions at Springfield Elementary, she gets Homer to rent an apartment in the Waverly Hills area so Bart and Lisa can attend school there, but Lisa's lack of knowledge about singer Alaska Nebraska makes her as unpopular as ever, until Bart spreads a rumor that Lisa and Alaska are best friends - which comes back to haunt Lisa when her new friends want backstage passes to her upcoming concert; Homer has to stay in his shabby apartment until the school's inspector pays a surprise visit to make sure they actually live in the area, but he gets to like it - until he invites Marge to move in with him.”
“Hills” offers one of the season’s best-integrated episodes. It meshes its three plots in a seamless manner and boasts pretty good laughs through all of them. I don’t know if it’s the year’s top show, but it’s up there; it’s a good one.
Four Great Women and a Manicure (10 May 2009): “When Marge tries to show Lisa that women can be beatuiful, intelligent, and powerful all at once, the discussion turns into stories of Elizabeth I (Selma), Snow White (Lisa), and modern-day versions of two other stories - Marge channeling Lady Macbeth in her attempts to make Homer the star of the local production of Macbeth, and Maggie as the hero of The Fountainhead trying to develop nonconformist building-block architecture.”
S20 comes back down to earth with the decidedly mediocre “Manicure”. I like the “Treehouse” anthologies but don’t usually care for other attempts in that genre, and “Manicure” reminds me why. None of the four tales comes across as especially winning.
Coming to Homerica (17 May 2009): “Krusty's tainted meat-free burgers are traced to bad barley in Ogdenville, destroying the city's economy and causing its citizens (most of whom are from Norwegian families) to come to Springfield; at first, Springfield welcomes them with open arms and jobs that nobody else wants to do, but when their presence becomes a burden, Springfield decides to keep them out, first with a civilian force, then with a giant wall...built by the Ogdenvillians.”
S20 ends on a good note with the generally solid “Homerica”. I find it amusing that Ogdenville was invented as a throwaway nonsense town years ago in the monorail episode, and now the series uses it as the basis of an episode. Of course, it makes no geographic sense since Ogdenville is clearly supposed to be a town in Minnesota, but the show gives us a good take on anti-immigrant sentiment without beating us over the head.