The Eleventh Season
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Reviewed by Will Harris
aybe it’s the beer talking, readers, but “The Simpsons: The Eleventh Season” doesn’t provide nearly as much of a drop in quality as it seemed like it had at the time of its original airing.
In our review of Season 10, the observation was made that “The Simpsons” began to lose its luster after the death of longtime voice contributor Phil Hartman. Given that Season 11 was the first post-Hartman year for the series, the presumption was that the descent of the show would begin to be obvious right away. Perhaps that’s what the show’s producers felt, too. That would certainly explain why they premiered that year with a guest appearance by Mel Gibson -- and not just a walk-through cameo but, indeed, one of the meatiest guest roles in the show’s history. (It’s also an extremely funny one, with Gibson playing himself and making the cardinal mistake of believing that Homer Simpson’s opinions match those of the average American. )
As long as we’re talking about the series’ inevitable guest stars, let’s go ahead and cite a few more well-utilized voices that appeared this season. In “Eight Misbehavin’,” Apu and Manjula become parents to octuplets, but when the cost of caring for them becomes too expensive, they turn to Larry Kidkill (Garry Marshall), who offers to put them on display at the zoo as a glorified circus act. (Look out for the great guest spot by Butch Patrick, a.k.a. Eddie from “The Munsters,” who assures Apu that there’s nothing wrong with getting a kid into show business early.) Don Cheadle plays a traveling faith healer in “Faith Off,” Gary Coleman shows up in a very special Christmas episode, and the B-52s, NRBQ and Bachman Turner Overdrive (!) offer up songs during the course of the season.
Granted, it’s not all peaches and cream in Season 11. The decision to kill Maude Flanders in “Alone Again, Natura-diddily” may have opened up the comedic opportunity for Ned to start dating, but it’s the kind of move that ends up being cited as a “jump the shark” moment almost immediately. The same goes for Barney’s sudden adoption of sobriety in “Days of Wine and D'oh'ses,” a decision that was reversed within a few years after the writers realized what the fans already knew: the only funny Barney is a drunk Barney. The decision to do a “Behind the Music”-styled parody as the season finale was an understandable one, but the thoroughly bizarre premise that’s created by the episode – so, wait, they’re a real family, but they also have their own TV show? – isn’t nearly as funny as it should’ve been, given the material available to work with. There are also some thoroughly ridiculous premises, even for “The Simpsons,” such as Moe getting plastic surgery and becoming a soap opera star. But once you go down that road, you’ll find that you’re writing off 90 percent of the episodes aired in the current millennium, so it’s just best to accept everything you see as existing for comedic purposes and bearing no trace of reality.
A review of this set would not be complete without throwing in the obligatory bashing of the packaging, which has resulted in no end of online grousing from fans. Although the cardboard foldout design has provided the opportunity for some great carnival-themed artwork, the change has necessitated that the DVDs themselves be slipped into their housings in such a tight manner that you can’t help but get fingerprints on them when you’re removing them. It’s pretty obnoxious, frankly, and given the outcry, one would like to hope that Fox will return to the previous packaging for the inevitable DVD release of Season 12.
Special Features: As ever, the producers of “The Simpsons” provide us with commentary tracks for every single episode, which never fail to be entertaining if you’re a fan of the show. Even when it descends into the writers laughing at their own jokes, there’s something endearing about it. (Make of it what you will, but Matt Groening only appears on two commentaries this season.) The best of the guest commentaries comes when Marshall steps in to discuss his role as Larry Kidkill; only about half of the discussion is spent talking about the episode, but Marshall’s funny no matter what he’s talking about. There are also 20+ minutes of deleted scenes, original sketches and animatics, the usual set intro from Groening, and a featurette about the show receiving its star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But the best inclusion is a new collection of clips entitled “The Many Faces of Krusty,” which offers a look at the evolution of everyone’s favorite clown.