The Simpsons: The Complete Fourth Season

The Simpsons: The Complete Fourth Season
After years in syndication, the more than 300 episodes of The Simpsons tend to blur into a melted blob of delightful animated comedy. But packaged as a single season, it's easy to make a case for two things: first, that the show's fourth season stands with the very best, and second, that this is the year the show got seriously unhinged. The first part is easy — in no other season can one casually name-drop five episodes that rival the five best ever: "Mr. Plow," "A Streetcar Named Marge," "Homer's Triple Bypass," "Marge Vs. The Monorail," "Duffless." Want further proof? Here's five more: "Kamp Krusty," "Homer the Heretic," "Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie," "Whacking Day," "Krusty Gets Kancelled." But what's ironic about this seemingly idyllic season — the show was a hit so the network and censors left it largely alone — is that the team of writers had never before been in such a mess. After three seasons, several founding writers left, and the season began with fewer on-staff writers than ever before. Enter an unknown comedy fountain named Conan O'Brien. It's not that Conan's influence, in terms of episodes he wrote, is ground-breaking; he wrote two amazing episodes this season: "Monorail" and "New Kid on the Block" (where Sara Gilbert moves in next door). But the injection of fresh blood, and the desperation about the volume of work to be done by a smaller writing staff, meant that greater chances were taken in terms of plausibility of story or the show's ambition. No longer does Homer seem to need a job ("Mr. Plow," "Monorail"), but the rest of the family does (Bart and Lisa write for Itchy and Scratchy, Marge works at the power plant). Season four is what frees the show from the sitcom conventions that are its roots, allowing it to soar untethered in coming years. Without season four's groundbreaking desperation, we'd never see Marge the cop, Homer the astronaut, or Lisa the future president. We can all thank Conan. In terms of this seemingly long-delayed DVD edition, it seems that the 22 commentaries featuring writers, directors, show runners, and for one, Conan, is the burden. These gabfests relate less and less to the episode at hand but still contain choice nuggets of Simpsons lore. (Homer's giant sandwich was inspired by a true story! Thanks, show-runner Al Jean! Duff Gardens, hoorah!) Featurettes get controversial this time, chronicling the show's war with both the city of New Orleans and the former President Bush Sr. (Barbara seems particularly prissy.) Other than good deleted scenes on two episodes (not more — the show ran short more often than long), other details focus on the technical animation, with storyboards and animatic comparisons. The partial animatic offerings are the geekiest extra, since quite a few jokes get cut or altered at that stage, and providing more could've-been fodder for us drooling masses. Plus: commercials, promotional materials, more. (Fox)