|The Simpsons: The Complete Eighth Season (2006)
Starring: voices of Dan Castalanetta, Julie Kavner, Nancy
Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria, Marcia Wallace,
In the mid-‘90s, you couldn’t stop “The Simpsons”: you could only hope to contain them. If the show started to hit its creative stride in the seventh season, the producers decided to make things a little bit darker this time around. Death, divorce, mental breakdowns and painful first crushes are the order of the day, which is not to say that the show got all cynical and self-absorbed like another very popular live-action sitcom from the same period. (Sadly, “The Simpsons” would cross this line around 2005.) As a bonus, they cast Johnny Cash as a space coyote, and how the hell can you argue with that?
First, let’s discuss the new ground in terms of shaking up the otherwise static existence of the residents of Springfield. Disc one contains two such moments, “You Only Move Twice” and “A Milhouse Divided.” In “Move,” Homer lands a new job in a new city (you gotta love the street address Maple Systems Road), and finally has a boss who treats him with respect. The only catch is that the rest of the family is miserable, and Homer’s boss, Hank Scorpio (brilliantly voiced by Albert Brooks) is in fact a supervillain who’s trying to take over the world. When Homer tells Hank he wants to move back to Springfield, Hank understands, but adds, “Homer, on your way out, if you want to kill somebody, it would help me a lot.” In “Milhouse,” the Van Houtens get divorced, and they have a field day with every aspect of it; Milhouse becomes a spoiled brat, Luanne is liberated (she sets Kirk’s shirts on fire and dates American Gladiators), and Kirk (major props to Hank Azaria’s performance here) is the saddest sack you’ve ever seen. He now sleeps in a race car, as if that is something to be envied.
And then there’s “El Viaje Misterioso De Nuestro Jomer,” which remains the gold standard of “Simpsons” animation to this day. Homer, the local expert chili taster, gets more than he bargained for when Chief Wiggum feeds him a Guatemalan insanity pepper, which prompts a “spiritual journey” that includes references to the Beatles, the Ramones, Peanuts cartoons, and Johnny Cash as his coyote tour guide, who instructs him to find his soul mate. The commentary reveals that they even had Cash make the sound of a coyote gnawing on Homer’s leg, which he did with gusto. Extra points to executive producer Josh Weinstein’s kids Molly and Simon, who spice up the commentary tenfold.
Last, but not least, we must discuss “Homer’s Enemy,” which is easily the blackest “Simpsons” episode of all time. Azaria voices Frank Grimes, a new employee at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant who is shocked and appalled at the indifference everyone shows to Homer’s incompetence. The message of the episode is clear, the whole dumbing-down-of-society thing, which is what makes the “Simpsons” creators geniuses for making an example of Homer before anyone else could, and the final scene is one of the most savagely funny scenes in “Simpsons” history. Even better, they get Azaria to do his first “Simpsons” commentary, where he riffs nonstop about the origins of both Grimes (William H. Macy was the inspiration) and various Azaria-voiced characters.Okay, let’s just lay it out there: is there anyone who needs a Web geek like me to explain why you should buy “The Simpsons: The Complete Eighth Season”? The producers caught about five or six years’ worth of lightning in a bottle. How many other shows can brag of such consistency? Okay, maybe “South Park,” but they make half as many episodes per season as “The Simpsons” do, plus they have openly acknowledged that “The Simpsons” have done everything funny that there is to do. Better to get it from the source. It’s what Johnny Cash would want you to do.