…and, then, the runner began to stumble.
Few comedies can make the claim that their glory years lasted for almost a decade, but the creators of “The Simpsons” don’t have to walk very far out on a limb to say such a thing. Unfortunately, at some point, even the best shows begin to lose their luster, and if you had to draw a line in the sand and say, “This is approximately when it started,” a lot of folks would pick Season 10 as the moment things began going slightly downhill.
Don’t start freaking out, fanboys. No one is saying that the decline was really all that evident yet; after all, as you can see, we’re still giving it four stars, so, clearly, the show was still bringing the funny in a big, big way. It was, however, during the 10th season that a key ingredient in some of the series’ most memorable moments was suddenly and horrifically pulled out of the mix, and it’s an absence that’s still felt to this day.
On Sept. 27, 1998, Fox aired what would be the very last appearance of the late Phil Hartman in a “Simpsons” episode. “Bart the Mother” found Bart accidentally killing a mother bird with Nelson’s BB gun, and, in his remorse, he takes it upon himself to raise the eggs that Mama left behind. In the process of educating himself on all things ornithological, he watches “Birds: Our Fine Feathered Colleagues,” a Regional Geographic film hosted by one of Hartman’s recurring characters, Troy McClure (who you may remember from such nature films as “Earwigs: Ew!” and “Man vs. Nature: The Road to Victory”). As was the case with virtually all of his appearances in the show, no matter what character he may have been playing at the time, Hartman scores some of the biggest laughs in the episode. But it’s impossible to view “Bart the Mother” nowadays without being painfully aware that -- that’s it. There’s no more Phil Hartman on “The Simpsons,” and there never will be.
Man. It’s been almost 10 years, and it still isn’t any less depressing.
Let us pull back from the sadness for a moment, however, and remember how much laughter could still be found in the other 22 episodes of the show during this season. We got classic appearances from Stephen Hawking, Jerry Springer, Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger, Ron Howard, Mark Hamill, Ed Begley, Jr., Jack LaLanne, Rupert Murdoch and The Moody Blues, all of whom played themselves and were more than willing to poke a bit of fun at themselves during the course of their respective episodes. The little moments are often the funniest. We’re particularly partial to the Vegas marquee which finds The Moody Blues opening for a Moody Blues cover band, but we also love it when Hawking is enjoying a drink at Moe’s Tavern and frowns when Homer (badly) imitates his computerized voice and pretends that Hawking has offered to pick up the tab. Other well-utilized celebrities during the season include Fred Willard as a clueless travel agent, George Carlin and Martin Mull as former hippies turned entrepreneurs, Lisa Kudrow as the new, stuck-up student at Springfield Elementary, and George Takei as a Japanese game show host.
Season 10 was the year that Homer and Ned Flanders got themselves brand new wives while drunkenly taking on Las Vegas, Marge suffers a nasty case of road rage, Bart loses Springfield the opportunity to host the Olympics, Lisa has an educational experience in a sensory deprivation tank, and Mr. Burns drains Loch Ness and puts Nessie to work in his new casino. Plus, in addition to the annual Treehouse of Horror episode, which features a live-action guest appearance from Regis and Kathie Lee, there’s a collection of Bible stories done Simpsons style, as a way for you to celebrate Easter.
No, as you can see, this wasn’t a bad year for “The Simpsons,” creatively. It just wasn’t their best; but, unfortunately, it wouldn’t be their worst, either. (Stay tuned for future reviews.)Special Features: No shock here: the producers continue their winning streak by filling the set full of commentaries – yes, there’s still one for every single episode – as well as deleted scenes, animatics, fun with foreign languages (watch the show in Portuguese!), and TV commercials. There’s also a fun 5-minute feature that pulls together every single prank call to Moe’s Tavern during the first seven seasons of the show, including classic requests to speak to Seymour Butts, Homer Sexual, Amanda Huggenkiss and Ivana Tinkle, plus the famous occasion when Hugh Jass was actually there to take his call. (“Look, I’ll level with you, mister: this is a crank call that sort of backfired, and I’d like to bail out right now.”) There’s also a bonus deleted scene from “The Simpsons Movie,” to prepare fans for the film’s upcoming DVD release, but, c’mon, like we really need prompting?