The Simpsons: Season 4
December 10, 2003
Mark Kirkland, Rich Moore, Jim Reardon, Jeff Lynch, Wes Archer,
Starring: Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer, Pamela Hayden, Maggie Roswell, Phil Hartman, ,
The Simpsons (1989) really hit its stride with the fourth season. Conan O’Brien was a producer and started writing episodes midway through the season. Brad Bird (of The Iron Giant fame) was a co-executive producer and several big time stars (Johnny Carson and Elizabeth Taylor) were convinced to lend their vocal talents on a number of episodes. The writing was a lot better and their pop culture parodies much funnier, varied and worked on several levels. The quality of the animation also improved greatly. Looking at the first couple of seasons it seems a bit crude but it is obvious that the show’s budget had increased significantly by the fourth year.
There is a much more playful, anarchic tone to this season as evident with the episode, “Kamp Krusty,” which kicks things off with Bart dreaming of trashing the school to the strains of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out.” Bart and Lisa go to Kamp Krusty but it turns out to be nothing more than a sweatshop for Krusty merchandise. So, Bart and the other campers go all Lord of the Flies on the counselors and exact revenge.
“A Streetcar Named Marge” shows how strong the writing had become as it not only parodies Tennessee Williams’ famous play, but transforms it into a local musical theatre production with an ego-maniacal director (voiced by Jon Lovitz no less) at the helm. There is also a spot-on satire of beauty pageants and a very funny literary gag as Marge drops Maggie off at the Ayn Rand day care center. Under all the gags lurks the serious issue of Marge trying to establish her own individual identity.
In “Lisa the Beauty Queen,” beauty pageants are the target yet again as Lisa deals with issues of self-image and how our society is obsessed by youthful beauty. There is also a nice bit where Barney wins a chance to pilot the Duff blimp and crashes it, allowing news anchor Kent Brockman to briefly re-enact the famous Hindenburg line, “Oh, the humanity!”
The perennial Halloween episode, “Treehouse of Horror III,” contains some of the most popular culture references of any episode of that season. It opens with Homer recreating the famous silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock that clearly apes the opening of his popular television program, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Bart dresses up as Alex from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Homer is dressed exactly like John Belushi during the classic toga party sequence in Animal House (1978). The second segment is an excellent reworking of King Kong (1933), done in black and white, and features Homer perfectly cast as the giant ape.
“Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie” starts with one of the show’s best parodies: Star Trek XII: So Very, Very Tired and sees the geriatric original cast engaging the Klingons yet again. Captain Kirk’s log, mimicking William Shatner’s trademark cadences, features the memorable soundbite, “The ship is drafty. I’d complain, but no one listens.”
Another Conan O’Brien scripted episode is “Marge vs. the Monorail” which has a traveling huckster con the citizens of Springfield into buying a monorail for their town. On the maiden voyage the train breaks down, speeding out of control with Homer at the helm. This episode starts off with another excellent opening parody, this time of the Flintstones and also features a great throwaway gag of Mr. Burns being wheeled into court in restraints a la Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs (1991).
“Selma’s Choice” focuses on Marge’s two sisters, in particular Selma and her fear of dying alone. The centerpiece of the episode is when she takes Bart and Lisa to the Duff Gardens amusement park (home of the Duffquarium, filled with beer instead of war, causing the fish to burp). It is wicked skewering of Disneyworld. Instead of the Seven Dwarves, there are the Seven Duffs, including Queasy and Surly. Bart dares Lisa to drink the “water” on a ride and it turns out to be beer. She starts hallucinating and at point exclaims, “I am the Lizard Queen!”
The big blow-out episode of the season is its final one, “Krusty Kancelled.” Krusty the Clown’s show is on the verge of cancellation due to the immense popularity of a rival new kid’s show, Gabbo. So, he gets his showbiz buddies to stage a huge comeback special (a la the Elvis’ ’68 special). This allows the show to feature an impressive selection of celebrity voice cameos: Johnny Carson, Bette Midler, Hugh Hefner and The Red Hot Chili Peppers to name but just a few.
Every episode features an audio commentary introduced and moderated (sort of) by series creator, Matt Groening with the writers and director of that particular episode sitting in. While all of the commentaries are amusing and informative (as the writers point out all of the obscure and not so obscure pop culture references), the strongest track of the set is for the “A Streetcar Named Marge” episode. Included on this track is comedian Jon Lovitz and actor Hank Azaria who spend the entire time making fun of the writers and each other. Lovitz, with his withering sarcasm, is particularly hilarious.
Another strong track is the one for “New Kid on the Block” which features Conan O’Brien sitting on the commentary. He is surprisingly low-key but his trademark self-deprecating humour shines through. Conan recounts a story about how he had written a subplot involving legendary stand-up comic Don Rickles and how he was supposed to mooch of Homer and his family. However, Rickles wasn’t interested and it never happened. Conan goes off on all kinds of tangents talking at length about his experiences in show business and the celebrities he’s met.
“The Cajun Controversy” is a brief featurette with writer Jeff Martin examining how a song he wrote for the “Streetcar” episode had to be cut because it playfully slammed the city of New Orleans. Martin argues that he did it in the same fashion as the song that opens the musical Sweeney Todd, which satirized London but once the local media picked up on the episode and voiced their displeasure, the song had to be cut.
“Bush vs. The Simpsons” is an amusing story told by producer James L. Brooks about how former First Lady Barbara Bush slammed The Simpsons in a People magazine interview and how he responded.
There are also deleted scenes for “Homer’s Triple Bypass” and “The Front” with optional audio commentary. One can watch the scenes separately or along with the actual episode. Most of this extra footage was probably cut for time but one scene in “The Front” features the writers of Itchy and Scratchy blowing up a cat with dynamite that probably didn’t pass the censors.
The Simpsons Season Four box set is crammed with an excellent collection of extras and features some of the strongest episodes of the show’s lengthy run. In a nice touch, the various menus and sub-menus are animated with little bits by the characters from the show that differ slightly depending on what option you pick. This is a really nice touch. It is obvious that a lot of care and work went into this set and this results in a quality product.