DVD Rewatch Thoughts: The Simpsons: The Complete First Season

I decided that I needed to go through a DVD box set that had been collecting dust upon my shelf for the last few years, and wanted to start watching a few long-running shows in order from the beginning, posting my thoughts on them once I finish the season set.  I decided to watch The Simpsons, because it had been years since I watched the episodes without commentary.

The first season is never counted among the top seasons of the show, but overall it was a lot more enjoyable than I remembered it, partially because years of syndication replay overexposure had dulled some of the earlier episodes for me for some time; having not seen them for so long made me more able to appreciate them again.  It's not a bad season, but compared to what the show was soon going to demonstrate it was capable of, it can't help but seem a bit quaint and straightforward in comparison.  The writing was still strong, and it still had some biting moments (my favorite touch: the news report on Homer/Bigfoot in "Call Of The Simpsons" had interrupted a presidential address), but you never would have guessed that the show would become the cultural touchstone it is now.  The pacing is considerably slower and the stories focused on the Simpson family members (as opposed to the many, many townspeople that would appear even in these early shows) with considerably more realistic problems than what would be thrown at the characters in the later scripts.

A lot of the issues people have with this season also come from the rough quality of the animation and the inconsistencies in voice-work and characterization.  There's a clear leap when comparing the beginning and end of the season:  visually, you can see a rough divide based on the point where the design of the Simpson house replaces the semi-circle windows on the ground level with bay windows, and the gradient backgrounds are replaced with more solid coloring.  Small details, such as the color of Barney's hair, change, and the number of coloring errors (like "Black Smithers" in "Homer's Odyssey" and Homer's brown banana at the beginning of "Bart The Genius") and grossly off-model character appearances goes down dramatically.   Homer's voice is more subdued (still in the loose Walter Matthau impression), Lenny sounds more like his friend Carl in one episode, and Nancy Cartwright seems to be voicing a lot more adult characters in these shows (the receptionist at Dr. Marvin Monroe's and the woman handing Homer his Santa paycheque).  One episode, "There's No Disgrace Like Home", has the family acting wildly out of character, with Homer annoyed and embarrassed at his family's misbehaviour at the SNPP company picnic (even Marge).

My favorite episodes were the last three in the production order, "Life On The Fast Lane", "Krusty Gets Busted" and "The Crepes of Wrath".  "Fast Lane" is by far my favorite, thanks in part to the guest appearance of Albert Brooks as Marge's bowling instructor, Jacques.  Brooks adlibbed a lot during the recording of the episode, and a lot of Jacques' dialogue is taken from Brooks' improvisations (at one point Marge's laughter at one of Jacques line is obviously a completely spontaneous reaction from Julie Kavner).  The episode succeeds wildly because the comedy is tied together with one of the show's more emotional stories, with Marge contemplating an affair and Homer spiralling into a depression.  The juxtaposition of comedy and drama was handled very well; overall, the episode is still one of the most affecting of the entire series.  "Krusty" features Kelsey Grammer's debut as the previously mute Sideshow Bob (who essentially spoke through slide whistle in earlier appearances), and right away makes the kids' show sidekick a memorable character, an erudite and refined man driven to vengeance by years as second banana on a pandering, lowest-common-denominator piece of children's entertainment.  For me, the visual of a man in a grass skirt singing Cole Porter makes the episode.  "The Crepes of Wrath" includes the biggest hints of the direction the show would take in the future, from Bart travelling a French countryside that comprises several different well-known works of art to Homer unwittingly aiding and abetting a pint-sized Albanian spy.

There were still some weaker episodes this season.  "Homer's Odyssey", with Homer losing his job and becoming a safety crusader, suffers from being too plodding without either the emotional payoff or sharp humor of the season's best shows.  "Homer's Night Out" suffers in comparison to "Life On The Fast Lane", the season's other "marriage in peril" episode, which was produced immediately after (and aired right before), and seems to trail off towards the end.  I do have a soft spot for "Moaning Lisa", though: while not one of the show's funnier episodes, it has some of the most atmospheric and beautiful scenes the show's ever had, and succeeds on the levels it's going for.  This isparticularly due to James L. Brooks' influence and ability to assist the writers with finding the right notes of sweetness: in lesser hands, this episode would come off as sappy and cloying.

The last aired episode that season, "Some Enchanted Evening", is an oddity.  This is due to the fact that the episode was originally the first one in production order and was intended to air as the series premiere if it not for the incredibly poor results of the original animation.  About 30% of Kent Butterworth's original takes are left in the episode, and it's pretty obvious which ones they are, particularly Marvin Monroe at the radio station, Homer visting the florist, and Lisa watching Marge prepare for her date with Homer.  It's a decent episode, but the show they eventually premiered with, the Christmas special, worked far better as an introduction to the series.

In the end, the first season of The Simpsons was still enjoyable to sit through, particularly for the nostalgia factor and the fun of pinpointing early appearances of side characters who would end up becoming the focus of their own episodes, and it largely holds up because of the quality of the writing.  The next season would be a huge leap forward, though.