Fourteenth Season DVD Reviewed
By Wesley Mead (firstname.lastname@example.org) - October 26, 2011
"The Simpsons: The Fourteenth Season",
featuring all 22 episodes from the series' fourteenth season (2002-2003), is now available on DVD in both standard packaging and limited-edition packaging
in the UK. It will be released across other R2 and R4 territories throughout November, and finally hits the shores of North America on December 6.
This move comes at a cost to non-R1 areas, however, as the USA and Canada are also treated to a Blu-Ray
release, to sit alongside the R1-only Blu-Rays of S13 and S20. This review will focus on the standard-packaging UK DVD release, which splits the 22 episodes of the 2002-03 run
5:6:6:5 across four discs. (The Blu-Ray should be spread across just three.)
The once-again twelve-month-plus wait for this season unfortunately ensures that, once again, we are still no closer to catching up with recently-televised
Simpsons episodes. With disc media already declining in sales, and the series' future confirmed at least through season twenty-five, I do begin to wonder if we'll ever
see the entirety of the programme on home video. I say it every year, but I really do hope that 2012 sees at least a couple of boxset releases; it's frustrating that behemoths
like Law and Order, ER and South Park, which all had to play catch-up during the early years of disc media, have surpassed OFF in the number of seasons
available (that barebones S20 release notwithstanding).
Of course, once again, what really matters about this set is the content; now it's here in our hands, does it deliver the goods? The answer, alas, is a
resounding "meh"; the shows here, while still better than seasons 11 and 12, are a step down from the thirteenth run; while the extras on offer are a disappointment.
There are certainly a few standout episodes in this set. "Moe Baby Blues", which takes a look at the unlikely pairing of Moe and Maggie, perhaps
rates as my favourite post-S10 episode; it's a standout combination of stellar jokes and solid storytelling. The "Spell-lympics"-focused "I'm Spelling As Fast As I Can"
mines familiar territory, but delivers a number of memorable moments. "Special Edna" takes a heartwarming look at the fractured relationships between Bart, Edna Krabappel
and Principal Skinner; "Three Gays of the Condo" is a pleasant twist on a familiar concept, seeing Homer moving in with a gay couple while he ponders the foundation of
his marriage to Marge. And "A Star is Born-Again" is probably the best post-Maude episode focused on Ned Flanders; despite a storyline that stretches plausibility, the jokes
come thick and fast, and the emotional beats are earned.
Alas, though, for every standout, there's a couple of episodes that just miss the mark. "Large Marge" and "Strong Arms of the Ma" both look at
the impact of physical changes on Marge. Neither is successful, particularly the former, which supports a poor plot with even poorer jokes. The so-called 300th (actually 302nd)
episode, "Barting Over", is something of a disappointment, too; it's home to a storyline that attempts to make the viewer feel emotion that the script didn't earn. Unfunny,
unnecessary songs seem to be a hallmark of this season, too: the serenade to a large-breasted Marge in "Large Marge" feels forced and unfunny; "I Like to Walk" rates
among the show's all-time lazier efforts; and, well, the less said about "Who Let Her Jugs Out?", the better. At least "Weird Al" Yankovic delivers the goods in
"Three Gays of the Condo".
Ah yes, "Weird Al".. I'm sure it will surprise no-one to learn he's far from the only celebrity guest in this season. Alongside him, there's
"How I Spent My Strummer Vacation"'s gaggle of rock guests: Tom Petty, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Lenny Kravitz, Elvis Costello and Brian Setzer.
There's Elliot Gould as a private eye, Eric Idle as a British filmmaker, and Jonathan Taylor Thomas as Lisa's dude ranch crush. There's Tony Hawk and Blink-182,
both as themselves, in the "300th" episode, "Barting Over". Jackson Browne and Steve Buscemi guest in "Brake My Wife, Please". There's Lisa Leslie,
Little Richard, George Plimpton, and even exec producer James L. Brooks. And the likes of Kelsey Grammer, Joe Mantegna and Jan Hooks reprise their familiar roles
as Sideshow Bob, Fat Tony and Manjula, respectively.
So, that's the episodes what about the DVDs? Consumers in all regions once again have a choice of packaging for this season, albeit only
for the standard-def DVD release: there's the "standard" package, or the "Kodos head". The plastic head is not as heavily stylised as seasons six through ten
it's thinner and weaker than those, though it does match that of seasons 11, 12 and 13. But real complaints lie with the internal packaging of the set. On the
positive side, it's nice and compact, and once again, there's some marvellous original artwork, set in Burns' mansion. But just like that of the past three seasons,
in terms of functionality, it continues to rate among the worst packaging I've seen for a DVD set. The digipak-style cardboard booklet hides the discs entirely
under the cardboard panels, in the thinnest of slots, making access without either scratching the disc or breaking the cardboard difficult. The only hint as
to where the discs sit are faint semi-circle indentations in the cardboard. Now, credit where credit is due: these slots are slightly more accessible than on
the past couple of seasons; and the card that the discs rest on seems to be proving less problematic, too I noticed no scratches on my discs, as yet.
But I'd still prefer a plastic case. The Seth MacFarlane shows get nice, compact plastic cases; why can't OFF? The Blu-ray Disc packaging is likely to be
different, but it hasn't been released yet, so I can't confirm. There's also a booklet, as glossy, detailed and well-illustrated as usual, laid out as an
invitation from Kang and Kodos (apparently they'd love to "halve" us for dinner).
The menu system remains the same as it has been for nine seasons now they must be happy with it; I know I am, as right now they
are both easily navigable and beautifully designed. The top half of the screen contains a animated screen featuring a variety of Simpson characters sat at
the dinner table in Burns' mansion. The bottom half of the screen lists the episodes along with the eternally useful "Play All" option, and an "Extras"
button. Each episode has two small buttons next to it: choosing the first, a triangle similar to a Play button, will play the episode; the other, with a
"+" mark, will open a sub-menu, also themed, of which there can be several in a row, featuring scene, language, subtitle, commentary and deleted scenes
options. There is a chapter stop after the opening of the show for quick skipping, as well as at several other points throughout each episode.
As usual, the principal bonus is the commentary on every one of the 22 episodes in the set. The likes of Al Jean, Ian Maxtone-Graham,
Matt Selman, Kevin Curran, Matt Groening, J. Stewart Burns, Tim Long, Matt Warburton and Carolyn Omine are on hand as regulars this time; many other
crew members participate in one or two, and cast members Nancy Cartwright, Hank Azaria, Yeardley Smith and Dan Castellenata also check in, on two,
two, four and eight (impressive!) episodes, respectively.
My major qualm with past commentaries was the relative lack of participation from cast members; this has thankfully, finally, been
redressed, as more than half of the episodes contained here have at least one regular voice artist on-hand. They enhance proceedings considerably,
offering anecdotes as intriguing as those of Jean and co. Occasionally, guest stars also take a turn at the commentary mic on the relevant episodes,
too David Byrne's (literally) phoned-in appearance on the "Dude, Where's My Ranch?" chat-track is a highlight; while "Weird Al" Yankovic adds
trademark colour to "Three Gays of the Condo". To share the highlights of these commentaries would be to spoil the fun; between them, they offer nine
hours of additional insight, and every last minute is worth a listen for the ardent Simpsons fan.
The commentaries aren't the only bonuses, of course. Kicking off the additional special features is the "A Haunting Invite From
Matt Groening" on disc 1, a three-minute reel of quick season fourteen clips over which Matt discusses the DVD set at a great pace, in the same vein
as the similar featurettes on previous seasons. Deleted scenes are supplied again: just over ten minutes of clips from around half the episodes presented
here. All are in the later stages of production - the only thing missing from most is some voice cleanup and sound effects. You can view them inserted
into their respective episodes via a branching feature, or as a reel (in which the scenes are preceded by 10 seconds or so of animation actually used
in the episode, to give the scenes context) with optional commentary by Al Jean on the final disc. The commentary is worth a watch, offering reasons
for why each was cut (although as ever, most were chopped due to time restrictions). The scenes themselves are varied in quality; some offer a decent
extra joke or two, but I'm not really sure anyone ever wanted to hear another verse of "What Do I Think of the Pie?"
Two intriguing sketch galleries prove fun enough; a Special Language Feature, allowing you to listen to "Three Gays of the Condo"
in German, Italian, Portuguese or Czech is less interesting. Five featurettes, rounding out the set, prove mixed: "It's Only Rock'n'Roll" offers a
very interesting, if brief, look behind-the-scenes of "How I Spent My Strummer Vacation", including interviews with the guest rockers; but
"The 300th Episode" is a two-minute fluff piece, and three Treehouse of Horror-themed bonuses prove to be nothing but montages from past
episodes "In the Beginning" compiles every THoH cold open; "Foolish Earthlings" presents a montage of Kang and Kodos appearances; and
"Halloween Classics" delivers clips from older, superior THoH episodes. Not especially useful; alas, these add up to the weakest collection of
extras yet seen on a Simpsons season set (season 20 excluded, of course). I continue to yearn for a substantial documentary or featurette.
The audio-video quality on this set (a reminder: I'm reviewing the SD-DVD) is once again excellent especially from
the episode "The Great Louse Detective" onwards, which saw the show make the switch to digital coloring. The full-frame presentation
(NTSC in R1, PAL in R2 and R4) is bright, sharp and fully detailed; it's only marred by the limitation of the source material. There is
occasionally some minimal artifacting and shimmering, but it doesn't detract from the experience. Colours are vivid and accurately reproduced.
The DD5.1 remaster is again excellent, and whilst largely front-focused, directional effects sometimes do make their way to the back, and the
overall clarity makes for an improved listening experience. Dialogue and music alike come through clearly. On the R1 set, French and Spanish
DD2.0 soundtracks are also included, as are Spanish and English SDH subtitles. On the R2 UK set, there are no alternative audio options, but
Dutch, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish and English SDH subtitles are available. (Obviously, local European and Australasian releases
will feature other language and subtitle options, depending on the native language). I extensively tested the R2 English subtitles, which
appeared accurate and true to the spoken word. The UK R2 and AUS R4 release feature subtitles on the bonus features, including commentaries;
I don't believe Fox R1 have yet make the switch to subtitling bonuses, however.
All taken into account, the collector or die-hard fan are probably the target markets for this set; bad episodes outnumber
the good, the packaging remains poor, and the video extras are the weakest yet. But there *is* some gold in there, if you look; and the
commentaries remain entertaining; so I don't think the purchase would prove overly disappointing to the casual fan, either. If you own
everything so far, why stop now?
The Simpsons - The Fourteenth Season
EPISODES: C+ - Some greatness, but too much mediocrity
PRESENTATION: B- - Packaging improved, but still quite poor; AV stellar, though
EXTRAS: B- - Commentaries still superb; video extras need improvement
OVERALL: B- - Among the weaker Simpsons boxsets, but still a worthy buy for fans
Future news concerning the DVDs, including the forthcoming Season 15 release, and any other compilation discs, will be added to our DVD News page.