Any Simpsons fan worth his or her--okay, let's be honest here--his salt knows that once The Simpsons went into double digits on their seasons, the show had lost its magic touch. The jokes felt more forced. The plotlines became more bizarre and fragmented. Even the even-handed political satire gave way to increasingly left-wing diatribes.
That's not to say that the creators of The Simpsons somehow became incapable of creating great episodes, as there are a few to be found in season fifteen, but on the whole, season fifteen of The Simpsons (originally broadcast in 2003 and 2004 and now out on DVD and Blu-ray) is pretty much exactly what one would expect from a show that passed its prime several years prior: loads of mediocrity.
But before we get to the majority of the unsatisfactory episodes in this season, let's first talk about the good ones. "Marge Vs. Singles, Seniors, Childless Couples and Teens and Gays" is a great example of the way the show used to be able to find hilarity in mocking both sides of an issue when it spoofs both the grueling life of a parent and the grueling lives of those without children who have to put up with the problems caused by other people's kids. "I, (Annoyed Grunt)-Bot" (which should be read as "I, D'OH-bot") is an episode that harkens back to when The Simpsons used to have a strong emotional component in being about a family that loves each other. When Homer can't stomach disappointing his son when he can't help him build a fighting robot for a Battlebots-style TV show, he pretends to be a robot himself and puts himself in harm's way. Even the goofy Spider-Man parody episode "Simple Simpson," which sees Homer taking on a superhero persona, is a lot of fun without ever becoming reliant on the non-sequitors and misfiring gags that plague the rest of the season.
While those episodes shine like diamonds in the rough, the rest are... well... the rough. Perhaps one of the most flagrant offenders of exemplifying just how far the Simpsons have strayed from their glory days is this season's annual Halloween episode.
Back when the show was in the single digits of seasons, the "Treehouse of Horror" episodes were some of the best of the entire series. In the fifteenth season, the emphasis has turned away from parodying scary movies and classic Halloween-related storylines to merely finding lots of ways to kill off characters and parody flavor-of-the-month films. Do you remember a movie called Clockstoppers? No? Me neither, other than I recall the fact that this episode parodies it in a segment where Bart and Milhouse find a clock that can stop time for everyone else. There's also segments where Homer becomes Death and kills off a bunch of Springfielders, and Professor Frink's father (voiced by Jerry Lewis--who isn't nearly as good in the role as you'd expect, but I chalk that up to weak writing more than anything Mr. Lewis does) goes around killing Springfielders as well.
Matt Groening once said that he never wanted to show Homer beating Bart, and instead always opted to show Homer impulsively strangling his son, something he considered less violent. Well, I'm not sure what in Groening's mind changed, since season fifteen opens with Homer beating Bart and Lisa. The opening of "Treehouse of Horror XIV" sees the yellow-skinned family attempting to murder each other, and the most disturbing turn comes when Homer rolls Bart and Lisa up in a rug and begins pounding on it with a baseball bat, chanting, "beat the lumps, beat the lumps." Seriously, Matt? Seriously? What the hell?
Clockstoppers isn't the only parody-of-a movie-few-seem-to-remember-today this season. The episode entitled "The President Wore Pearls" is a forgettable parody of Evita wherein Lisa becomes school president, while "Catch 'em if You Can" spoofs Catch Me If You Can and sees Bart and Lisa chasing their parents around the world. Remember when the show used to parody timeless classics like Mary Poppins and Cape Fear?
Season fifteen continues The Simpsons' reliance on guest stars to bolster lackluster episodes, particularly with "Diatribe of a Mad Housewife" taking time out to pad the episode with worthless cameos from Tom Clancy and Thomas Pynchon while "Smart and Smarter" puts far too much emphasis on guest star Simon Cowell.
"The Regina Monologues" finds the Simpsons taking what has become almost yearly sojourn to another country, this time to England with a very heavy focus on guest stars. Oh, look it's Prime Minister Tony Blair! Oh look, it's J.K. Rowling! Oh look, it's Sir Ian McKellan! Oh look, they were so busy trying to think of all the British celebs they could shoehorn in that they forgot to make this episode funny!
Season fifteen also re-mines familiar territory for several episodes. Recalling an earlier episode about a fear of bears in Springfield, "The Fat and the Furriest" sees Homer becoming terrified after a bear attack and the episode eventually spins into an ending so ludicrous that even animal rights activists are likely to roll their eyes at the absurdity of a wild bear only acting like an animal because it had an electric tag in its ear.
Krusty's Jewish background comes to the forefront again in "Today, I Am a Clown," when Krusty's Rabbi father expresses his dismay that Krusty never had a Bar Mitzvah and that he wouldn't take one seriously even if he did. What could have been a nice, emotional episode here instead decides to split itself into A) having Homer earn better ratings than Krusty with a blue collar talk show that gets cancelled once Homer tries introducing worthwhile topics and B) Mr. T spinning around on a giant menorah, all the while making viewers as unhappy as Rabbi Krustofski at the spectacle.
"My Mother the Carjacker" brings Homer's mother back to the show once again, while "The Ziff Who Came To Dinner" promises it's the last time Marge's ex-boyfriend Artie Ziff will show up in the series, almost as if the writers knew that they needed to apologize to Simpsons viewers for trotting out the uninteresting character again to build yet another plotline on.
"The Way We Weren't" is yet another peek back into the past of Marge and Homer, retconning yet another story into their younger selves' lives just so we'd get an episode that shows what various Springfielders were like as kids. At least this episode isn't as flagrantly incongruous as season nineteen's "That '90s Show" episode, which shows Homer and Marge as teenagers in the early '90s, while episodes like season three's "I Married Marge" shows them having Bart and getting married in the early '80s.
"Margical History Tour" follows a Treehouse of Horror-like structure in casting Springfielders in three public domain stories pulled from history, depicting Homer as Henry VIII, Lenny and Carl as Lewis and Clark, and Bart as Mozart, and the result is just as lame as it sounds.
Episodes like "Bart-Mangled Banner" and "Fraudcast News" forgo The Simpsons' usual adeptness at pointing out the foibles of both American political parties (such as in the much earlier episode "Citizen Kang," which still stands as one of the best political satires in recent memory) in favor of descending into ultra-liberal paranoia. The first of these episodes finds all Democrats imprisoned on Alcatraz Island as anti-Americans needing re-education, while the latter sees Mr. Burns taking control of all media outlets in Springfield to force Republican propaganda down people's throats and Springfielders realizing that the only true source of news is Lisa's underground newspaper that aims to get them to "gag on their morning cup of joe." Subtlety be damned, these people had an agenda to bash viewers over the heads with.
The poorly titled Christmas episode "'Tis the Fifteenth Season" has Homer watching a cartoon version of A Christmas Carol on TV and then trying to turn his life around by becoming nicer and more giving to everyone. However, the episode isn't really sure what it wants to do with that premise and spends time pitting Homer and Flanders against each other to see who can be "nicer" and ends abruptly before figuring out where else to go with that idea.
"My Big Fat Geek Wedding" sees Enda Krabappel nearly marrying Comic Book Guy and features Matt Groening as a guest star, proving that the writers have indeed just plain run out of ideas.
The other episodes in season fifteen, "Co-Dependent's Day," "The Wandering Juvie," and "Milhouse Doesn't Live Here Anymore," are too unremarkable to even bother discussing here.
If you're someone who's been buying seasons of The Simpsons on DVD regularly, then you'll know pretty much what to expect with this release, both the good and the bad.
First, the good. The Simpsons is the only TV series I know of that still offers commentary tracks on every single episode, and that is a very welcome feature. There's also impressive custom animation that's been created for every single disc, depicting characters from that disc's episodes interacting with each other. Deleted scenes are present on nearly every episode, along with sketch galleries, commercials (whenever The Simpsons sold out to endorse a product) and featurettes.
Season fifteen continues the theme that has pervaded the show's DVD packaging since season six: focusing on a singular character instead of the whole family. With the nuclear Simpson family all having been represented already, the designers moved on to fan-favorite characters such as Krusty, Comic Book Guy, Ralph Wiggum, and Kang. Season fifteen features Otto. While I can certainly think of more popular characters that could have come before Otto (Apu, Moe, Bumblebee Man, Mr. Burns, Grampa and Professor Frink immediately spring to mind) and given the fact that Otto only appears briefly in a couple of this season's episodes, I'm left to wonder why he was picked to grace the cover of its packaging.
Inside the box, the presence of Otto continues as he's depicted shuttling his bus full of season fifteen characters to an event at the Springfield Bowl both on the disc packaging itself as well as the animated menus. Also included is a booklet describing each episode and, as is the case with previous seasons of The Simpsons on DVD, it's bright and colorful, full of custom artwork and highly themed, this time as a "Springfield Visitor's Guide" brochure.
And this brings me to my one gripe with the DVD packaging for this set, and it's something that I'm sure you'll be familiar with if you've purchased seasons eleven through fourteen: the way the DVDs are housed in this custom-illustrated case. Unlike seasons one through ten, the DVD discs themselves do not snap into a traditional, safe, plastic compartment but instead are made to slide in and out of cardboard sleeves. While I haven't had any issues (yet) with the discs scratching, I have heard reports of problems people have been having with this on previous seasons. I just can't fathom why, with all the expensive custom artwork and animation that goes into creating these DVDs, they can't just spring for better, safer compartments for the actual DVDs to plug into. You'd think that'd be a no-brainer. Unless the designers of the DVD packaging know that most of these episodes just aren't worth watching and want buyers instead to merely focus on the nice custom artwork they've packaged them in.
If you're a hardcore Simpsons fan, then no doubt you've already purchased The Fifteenth Season on DVD or Blu-ray. If you're not, don't. Or as the clever Simpsons writers would put it, (annoyed grunt)'t.