The Simpsons is a phenomenon. When the first series hit the airwaves back in 1989 it became an instant hit and as of 2010 the series has aired over 450 episodes, spawned off various games and merchandise and also had a very successful theatrical movie, simply called The Simpsons Movie, which grossed $US527 million around the globe.
This release sees Fox skipping Seasons 13 - 19 in their DVD release schedules to bring us the most recent Season 20. That's a good move for a couple of reasons. Season 13 aired in 2001-2002 so is 8 years old now, and most episodes have been re-run to death around the globe. Also, by this time the Simpsons was on a decline in terms of quality, something which picked up with better episodes in more recent years. By far the biggest reason to jump to Season 20 is that from episode 10, "Take my Life, Please" the episodes switch to a widescreen aspect ratio, and in HD, perfect for Blu-Ray.
So how about the episodes in this release? They are the most important thing of course and there are some good ones in this set and here's the full listing...
There are some great episodes here including "Take My Life, Please" where Home finds out his high school presidential election was rigged, "Gone Maggie Gone" where Maggie is stolen by nuns and placed in a covenant, "Waverly Hills 9-0-2-1-D'oh" where Bart and Lisa go to a new school, and "Father Knows Worst" where Homer takes too much interest in Bart and Lisa's education while Marge finds a Sauna. Fortunately unlike previous seasons there aren't really any 'dud' episodes in this season although I wasn't a fan of "Treehouse of Horror XIX" (I don't really like any of these episodes to be honest), and "Lisa the Drama Queen" didn't do much for me either. Still, this is a pretty solid set of episodes overall.
The video quality in this release can be split up into two parts, disc one and disc two. Why's that you ask? Well the first nine episodes of Season 20 was shown in the same 4:3 aspect ratio that had been seen for the previous 19 seasons of The Simpsons. Episodes ten to twenty however, which are on disc two, present the episodes in 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio to fill your new HDTV's. All the episodes are presented in High Definition but the first discs episodes display black borders on the left and right of a widescreen TV.
Video has been encoded using the AVC MPEG-4 codec and the bitrate is generally very high, often above 25Mbps. There is no doubt that the video quality on the first disc, with all the episodes in 4:3 is much sharper then the DVD releases with better colour stability. Still, the image on disc one did look a little soft and slightly underwhelming at times. When you pop in disc two however it's a whole different story with some of the most impressively sharp images ever seen in a cartoon. Colours are vibrant, lines are sharp and fans of The Simpsons will be overjoyed with this transfer. Indeed the video quality here is right up there with Simpsons Movie although there isn't as much 'life' to the image with little movement in the backgrounds and no shadow effects. Given the much smaller budget of the TV episodes compared to the feature film this is understandable.
While you may not expect much from a cartoon series in terms of audio this Blu-Ray release includes an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track (16-bit/48Khz) and it's a cracker with superbly clear dialogue, fantastic sounding music and most importantly brilliant audio effects. Production values in this series really are superb and it shines on this Blu-Ray release. If there's one slight negative it's that the audio is still quite front heavy, but given it's so dialogue drive that's understandable.
The disc also includes French, Spanish and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks encoded at 448kbps. Naturally they aren't quite as refined as the English lossless track but are still solid enough not to have you asking questions. Subtitles are provided in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese with no issues noted in the samples we did in various episodes.
While early Simpsons DVD sets came with quite a few extras this Season 20 set is totally devoid of any such materials - and that's the case with both the Blu-Ray and DVD set. No commentaries, no documentaries, not even any trailers. That really is extremely disappointing for such a loved show to be so bare boned, especially given the switch to widescreen episodes and the new intro.
I really would love to see the series creators create a documentary one day which details the entire process of creating an episode from scriptwriting, to recording dialogue, creating the animations and artwork and then finishing the episodes off for airing on TV. Sure, they may not want to 'spoil' the mystery of creating the series, but I'm pretty sure we all have a fair idea what to expect and the lengths it takes to create an episode. Anyway, there's nothing on this set.
Review By: Dave Warner