Archive for the ‘The Simpsons’ Category

DVD review: ‘The Simpsons — The Thirteenth Season’ is a lucky number

August 23, 2010

Just think: With Tuesday’s release by Fox of The Simpsons: The Thirteenth Season, we’re just six seasons shy of catching up. Season 20 was issued last January, and Season 21 is still airing. But at least we have our lucky 13th, complete with the bells and whistles fans have come to expect.

Among them are fun newly animated menus spinning from the four-disc set’s motif of a video game arcade. There’s also an eight-minute Simpsons video game montage of what appear to be crude mockups of games (but since I don’t play them, what do I know?).

Cover boy Ralph Wiggums also gets his own six-minute montage, The Sweet Life of Ralph, paying tribute to the most naive and childlike of all Simpsons characters. And there are 14 minutes of deleted scenes, which you can see within their episodes or watch strung together with commentary by producer Al Jean.

He points out in it that Season 13 was the last featuring ink and paint coloring of animation cells. Now The Simpsons is a creature of CG.

Season 13’s 22 shows include the inevitable Halloween episode, which in this case harbors the superb HAL-like house computer voiced by Pierce Brosnan. Other extras include a series of commercials for Burger King and (in Spanish) chips; a box set intro from creator Matt Groening with a quick run-down of the season’s guest voice actors; and a brief “Ralphisms” bit with Ralph’s best lines. (“Me fail English?” That’s no worse than millions of American who don’t know how to use “me” and “I.”)

If you love The Simpsons, as I do, you’re there already. And there’s no need for me to warn you off or qualify my review, except for the unwanted packaging ploy of shoving discs in tight inner cardboard sleeves. (Doh!) Beyond that, just enjoy. For the 13th season or the 21st, that’s what The Simpsons is about.

DVD review: Simpsons Twelfth Season has ode to Comic Book Guy

August 19, 2009

I confess, I once was a comics-aholic. I loved superheroes and took them seriously. I even loved the minutiae. In short, I was a comic book geek.

But I grew out of it. In fact, I haven’t read a comic book in years. I grew tired of the same old adolescent power fantasies, even when they masqueraded as allegedly “adult” fantasies. Guys in tights don’t do it for me–not that they ever did, if you know what I mean.

But that doesn’t mean I’ve given up my comics. No, my choice issues remain safely protected in a safe deposit box. I didn’t grow weary of comics’ monetary value, just their narrative value. And I appreciate a good mylar bag and lock and key as much as the next nerd.

That’s perhaps why I can still relate to the icon of Fox’s The Simpsons: The Complete Twelfth Season DVD set, new this week. He’s Comic Book Guy, the unnamed overweight undersexed sarcastic to a fault overgrown fanboy who runs the Android’s Dungeon comics shop in Springfield.

Sure, he takes comics too seriously — but then again, it’s how he makes his living.

This 2000-2001 season has lots of CBG, from the cover’s box art to the imitation comic book inside, which lays out the season’s stories in comics style. There’s also a 10-minute montage of CBG’s exploits as an extra called Comic Book Guy: Best. Moments. Ever. Seeing them together across various seasons gives you a new appreciation of the blubbery fanboy’s stinging wit — and contempt for his raging hypocrisy.

Beyond that, CBG stars in his own episode in this set. It’s titled Worst Episode Ever, but that’s in reference to a bad Itchy & Scratchy cartoon that CBG hates, not this show, which is one of the better episodes. Indeed, it really lays out the quiet desperation of CBG’s life, which takes a turn when he starts dating, let’s just say, an older woman. And she’s no Demi Moore to his Ashton Kutcher.

Yes, things continue to be twisted in Springfield, which is just how we like it. And The Simpsons‘ full-season DVD sets continue to be bulging with bonus features, from commentary tracks and Easter eggs to deleted scenes and commercials.

Why, you’d almost think we were all Simpsons nerds who hoarded and cherished every last tidbit of our beloved show. But surely we’re not like Comic Book Guy, right? Or are we?

DVD review: Check into ‘Room 222’ from James L. Brooks

March 24, 2009

Each week, his name appears as executive producer on the longest running and most successful prime-time animated series in TV history, The Simpsons. He directed, wrote, produced and won three Oscars for 1983’s Houston-made tearjerker Terms of Endearment. He is clearly an entertainment industry icon.

And he got his show-biz TV start (after working in TV news) by co-creating  and serving as story editor of a fine little program called Room 222, now new on DVD with a four-disc set of its 1969-70 first season.

The man is James L. Brooks, who used the light approach of an ostensible sitcom (the half-hour program had low-key laugh tracks in its first season, but was really more of a gentle drama) to sell educational messages without seeming heavy-handed. The key was to have likable lead characters, which this show had in Pete Dixon, the cool yet caring teacher, played by Lloyd Haynes; Liz McIntyre, the cool yet caring counselor and Pete’s girlfriend, played by Denise Nicholas; gruff yet warm principal Seymour Kaufman, played by reliable character actor Michael Constantine; and plucky, spunky teacher-in-training Alice Johnson, played by Karen Valentine, to whom the role of America’s sprightly ingenue fell after Sally Field finished with her Gidget phase.

As you can see from that list, the principal (no pun) focus was on teachers and administrators and how they interacted with students, rather than making the students the stars. Today it would probably be reversed. But back then, it worked.

Their Walt Whitman High School in Los Angeles looks almost more like a college from the exterior. It has a surprising orderliness and calm sunniness about it, given the turbulent times, but Room 222 was an unusually racially mixed show — sort of like Star Trek on steroids, when it comes to boldly going in that direction. (Haynes and Nicholas played rare African-American leads, not second bananas.) But it wasn’t about race so much as about human beings and universal situations (not fitting in, jealousy, untapped talents, daddy issues, etc.). Still, budding hot-button topics such as drug use, racial conflicts and school violence were tackled, too.

Yes, the show feels awfully dated by today’s standards. But it wasn’t made today. It premiered in the year of Woodstock and the first lunar landing. Give it a break.

Yet while Room 222 is greatly welcome on DVD for its excellent content, I must report that the source material is not good. In the first disc which I’ve previewed, picture quality is very soft in show after show, especially compared to the pristine nature of so many vintage TV series, many of them older than this one. Still, it’s good to have Room 222 in any form.

The show, which ran five seasons, was an immediate critical darling and award-winner. It took home three Emmys for this debut season, including acting awards for Constantine and Valentine and one for outstanding new series.

BTW, other folks got their starts with Room 222 besides a young producer names James L. Brooks, including such actors as Mark Hamill, Bruno Kirby, John Rubinstein and Ed Begley Jr.

As for Brooks, besides The Simpsons, he’s also steered production of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Tracey Ullman Show and Taxi, winning 19 Emmys in the process.

You think Room 222 has a strong pedigree? You’re right. Go to the head of the class — and enjoy.

Review: ‘Donna Reed Show’ DVD is reassuring TV ‘comfort food’

October 29, 2008

So, how do I reconcile being a fan of current shows as subversive or edgy as South Park, The Simpsons and Boston Legal as well as sweet family sitcoms from olden times such as Leave It to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show, whose first season is new on DVD? Simple: I’m eclectic, I’m a  Boomer and just as my favorite flicks include The Exorcist and The Sound of Music, there’s room enough for both.

Sure, I love today’s shows which get into the viewer’s face on social and political issues. But in today’s uncertain world, I also find solace in reassurances of the past.

Donna Reed was, and still is, as reassuring as a bowl of pudding — or, for us Texans, hot chili. (Comfort food can be anything, as long as it comforts.) The squeaky clean Stone clan was the ideal 1958-66 American family, and certainly reflected my own of the time. I was a bit younger than  Paul Petersen’s Jeff, but like him, I was a little brother to an older sister, my dad was a white collar family man and sole bread winner, and my mom, like Donna, was a cheerful housewife and, in her case, a Junior Leaguer. They, and we, were calm, comforting — and dull, perhaps, in many people’s minds. But again, reassuring. And certainly these Ike-era families hung together in love. Anything wrong with that?

For The Donna Reed Show’s 50th anniversary, its DVD debut from Arts Alliance America collects all 37 first-season episodes on four discs, the last of which adds a photo gallery, original TV spot, press release and production notes. It’s a handsomely packaged set which, unlike the likes of Father Knows Best, appears to have preserved the original black-and-white episodes in their entirety, meaning they each run about 26 minutes.

Much like Fred MacMurray before My Three Sons or Brian Keith before Family Affair, Reed was a successful film star who was essentially lured into the budding medium of TV. Heck, she’d won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity (playing a prostitute!) and also had starred in the classic It’s a Wonderful Life. But she also found a home on the small screen, lasting for eight seasons as the perfect mom and housewife in a gentle sitcom which rarely pushed limits and stayed warmly and safely in middle-class America’s comfort zone.

Carl Betz, as her husband, was a pediatrician with an at-home office, while that older sister/daughter was played by Shelley Fabares, who went on to big-screen stardom in three Elvis Presley flicks as well as renewed TV prominence in TV movie Brian’s Song and the series Coach. Fabares and Petersen got to be marginal pop stars via their Donna Reed fame, with Fabares scoring a hit with Johnny Angel. Her ex-husband, BTW, is Lou Adler, who produced, among others, the Mamas and the Papas and Carole King, notably her landmark Tapestry album.

The Stones’ family fun on Donna Reed was as easily digestible as a cracker — and often as thin — but still had that comforting, curl-up-on-a-sofa quality that’s largely missing in popular entertainment today. Call them bland and overly wholesome if you must, but watching the Stones grapple with everyday crises like canceled camping trips and community theater rivalries still does my heart good. I didn’t grow up in a fractured family as in Gidget, My Three Sons or Family Affair. I grew up in a stick-together family like the Stones. If that makes me bland, too, in some people’s minds, then that’s a blandness I’ll take.

Now when does the next new South Park episode air? See? You can’t say I don’t strive for balance.

And, oh yes: While some vintage shows are victims of watchus interruptus (take Hazel, which has had one season released, and that’s it), not Donna Reed. Arts Alliance America already promises to issue the second season of The Donna Reed Show “in time for Mother’s Day 2009.” Hey, I’m feeling even more warm and more fuzzy already. Cookies and milk, anyone?

Winding down with ‘I Dream of Jeannie,’ ‘Ozzie & Harriet’

July 5, 2008

The secret to aging artfully as a long-running sitcom? Be animated. The Simpsons just keeps going and going because, like comic book heroes who were born decades earlier, the characters barely age yet can be tweaked to accomodate changing times.

Not so with live-action sitcoms such as The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, which spanned 14 seasons from 1952-1966, and I Dream of Jeannie, which first captured charm in a bottle in 1965, then wound down after five seasons in 1970.

Jeannie’s fifth and final season reaches DVD Tuesday from Sony, along with Shout Factory’s second box-set compilation of Ozzie & Harriet episodes, Best of Ricky and Dave. And in each case, you see where an ageless and time-stuck Simpsons bent might have helped.

Jeannie in year five is still a spry fantasy comedy, and Barbara Eden is as gorgeous as ever in the title role of a bottled genie who was released by Tony Nelson, a dutiful astronaut smartly played by Larry Hagman before his Dallas devilry. As his secret live-in companion, she still plays magical havoc with his ordered domestic and professional life — in Florida, not in Houston (part of the fantasy) — and he’s resisted her charms until, finally, something had to give, and it does, in Season Five, with a wedding in the 11th episode. Unfortunately, there’s scant romance as the story’s focus goes to the sitcom “sit” of Jeannie’s image not showing up on wedding photographs. With national magazine photogs hovering, what will they do? Sounds like vampires not showing up in mirrors, but no pictures is a genie rule, it seems.

As with Moonlighting, which also spanned five seasons, once the “will they or won’t they?” went “poof!,” there was no place left to go. Jeannie ended after its marrying season, having amassed 139 episodes. Happily, all are on DVD. Astronaut Nelson, your mission is accomplished.

Over on Ozzie & Harriet, things were able to evolve more slowly and naturally, since this Nelson family — also including sons Dave and Ricky — basically played themselves and grew up and grew older before America’s eyes, with the real-world people gradually evolving as the scripted characters.

Younger brother Ricky, or Rick, turned out to be the teen idol of the siblings, and he launched his singing career on the show with help from his dad, who also often wrote, directed and produced. In fact, Ozzie has been credited by some with creating the first rock videos.

The new box set highlights many of Ricky’s music performances, which are part of the episodes but also can be viewed separately. Like the show itself — one of the most white-bread series you’ll find — the songs were tame by pop and even early rock ‘n’ roll standards, yet they did include such tuneful hits as Fools Rush In, Hello Mary Lou and That’s All.

But after 14 years, even mid-’60s color episodes (two are in this set) couldn’t keep the family going forever, and Ozzie and Harriet bowed out after 435 episodes.

In case you’re wondering, that’s still more shows than The Simpsons, which is now up to 420 episodes. But it won’t be long before the adventures of Homer and Marge eclipse those of Ozzie and Harriet, at least in sheer numbers.

Still, the latter two had an incredible run, so give them credit. But if they’d been animated — well, Ricky probably would still be singing — though in a fresher style — and Ozzie would still be flummoxed by lost keys and missed appointments. Of course, new voice actors would have been needed eventually, since David Nelson is now the family’s only surviving member. But on DVD — and that’s a beauty of the medium — Ozzie, Harriet, Tony and Jeannie, just like Homer and Marge, are eternal.

Drat the rat — give me ‘The Simpsons Movie’

January 8, 2008

On Feb. 24 — the WGA strike permitting — millions will watch on ABC and worldwide as the Oscar for best animated feature film of 2006 goes to Ratatouille. And I say phooey.

This film has been shoved down our throats by Disney and blocs of herding-instinct critics since day one, and it’s just not that good — at least, conceptually and storywise. Sure, visually it’s a beauty to behold, thanks to today’s state-of-the-art computer animation. But what’s so unusual about that? And besides, making cuddly, adorable heroes out of real-looking CG rats is nuts. Roiling hordes of vile, scurrying rats headed to a KITCHEN — where food is prepared — food we’re supposed to eat — that’s entertainment? The film also squandered its setting of Paris by making scene after scene set inside a restaurant kitchen or a rat’s sewer, and its awkward, beyond-shaky plot about a symbiotic relationship between a rat gourmet and man cook was just plain awful.

Yet Ratatouille got almost universal acclaim, as almost everyone jumped on the bandwagon and even hysterically shouted down any dissent on Internet chat boards. (Gee, wonder if a studio has ever thought to hire people to do this dirty work for them?) Of course, even in profit, Ratatouille continued Pixar’s box-office slide from the stratosphere, but a studio can’t have everything.

All this leads me to believe critics and the public haven’t figured some things out yet in this new era of high regard extended to animated features, an era which formally began when they got their own Oscar category for best animated feature film in 2001.

It’s the story, stupid. And a great story was what CG films clearly had over traditional animation in CG’s early years. Even with Toy Story’s comparatively crude CG by today’s standards, CG films’ writing was edgy, clever, contemporary and, like their artwork,  more real and relatable. Flat, 2D, traditional animation still stuck to childlike adventures and comedies in a sad case of arrested development. (Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas or Atlantis: The Lost Empire anyone?)

But no more than those films, Ratatouille did not deliver a great story, either. In fact, its concept was horrible.

Ever seen a rat up close? Ever had one in your home? Bad enough in your attic — think about rats in your kitchen. Now think about the disease and filth that vermin spread. Now enjoy your popcorn and soda while you watch rats prepare food in a kitchen in a real-looking CG movie.

Riiiiight. Yet Ratatouille got knee-jerk adulation, ostensibly for being from a studio, Disney/Pixar, that’s been on a roll, as if they could do no wrong. And ostensibly for being so gosh-darn nice to look at. Why, look at the lavish details in the hair on the rats’ hides!

You know what? George Lucas’ three Star Wars prequels were gosh-darn nice to look at, too — but their stories and characters were wretched. Those films were more about trading on past glories and selling a merchandise campaign than creating legitimate plots. And the same goes for Ratatouille, which gets ridiculous credit for form over substance.

So what was the best animated feature of 2006? Easy: The Simpsons Movie. No, it wasn’t as glossy and slick as the rat flick. In fact, it takes perverse pride in being flat, 2D and “ugly,” as shown in the trailers added to its new DVD. But for what it was — taking a limited-budget TV show to the big screen — it looked great, tweaking just enough to be more elaborate for theaters, but not enough to lose its essential, hard-earned and perversely charming identity.

Yet even so, that’s not what’s important — or it shouldn’t be. What’s important, or should be, are stories and characters, as the WGA is reminding us with its current strike. If it’s not on the page, it won’t be on the screen, and on the page The Simpsons Movie kicks Ratatouille’s butt.

Well, what did you expect? The longest-running, most inspired, most subversive comedy series ever to air on prime-time broadcast TV, The Simpsons is the real deal in terms of writing and characterization, just as it’s always been. And the expanded plot for feature length (Homer poisons Springfield’s water supply, the city is placed under a dome, the family escapes but returns) was as good as any done for TV, just longer. That’s not to mention characters uniformly more fascinating than a rat who wants to live out his dreams by being a gourmet chef for food snobs (huh?).

I’m not saying cartoon rodents can’t entertain. Take Disney’s own Mickey Mouse. But he might as well be a talking and upright-walking dog like Goofy, since he’s more humanlike than animal in his broad, cartoonish way.

But also take The Simpsons, which gives us entertaining rodents routinely. That includes the opening sequence of its film, a cartoon within the cartoon where you’ll find Itchy, the diabolical rodent who torments poor kitty Scratchy with hyperbolized violence inspired by classic Warner Bros. shorts.

Now that’s a rat — making mischief, not making dishes for food snobs. In effect, Ratatouille was all about snobbery, and not just for food, but for CG gloss.

Give me comparative ugliness with meat on its bones any day. Give me timely, topical, cut-to-the-chase humor. Give me The Simpsons, which has been good enough to win 23 Emmys, even if its movie probably won’t win a single Oscar.