In Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy, Colin MacCabe’s reckoning of the Nouvelle Vague lion, the author takes a moment to chide the French director’s autumnal grumpiness, particularly toward American pop culture. “The man who admired Frank Tashlin,” the author notes, “seems to not have seen The Simpsons.” Even if it didn’t boast two of my personal all-time favorites (“Homie the Clown” and “Lemon of Troy”), the sixth season of the longest-running animated series on TV would still validate MacCabe’s claim and remain a prime sample of what is arguably one of the richest works of pop art in the most mainstream of mediums.
Tashlin is an apt cross-reference, and a good starting point—the filmmaker’s garish ’50s extravaganzas and the misadventures of Springfield dwellers dip equally into a culture’s pop-consumption reservoirs for satirical purposes, all while recognizing themselves as inextricable portions of that culture. Movie-spoofing makes up just one of the overlapping areas, and, indeed, the Rear Window parody that Tashlin devised in Artists and Models could be said to inaugurate the season in “Bart of Darkness,” where a broken leg grounds Bart for the summer in front of his bedroom window, from which odd happenings can be spotted at the Flanders place.
The parody from that Hitchcock masterpiece could have been enough for an entire episode, yet it sits comfortably next to assorted nods to Busby “Overhead-Shot” Berkeley kaleidoscopes, Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, Star Trek, and Un Chien Andalou, among many others. Elsewhere, the whole Cheers cast drops in for a quick visit in “Fear of Flying,” Mr. Burns turns the “Be Our Guest” song from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast into an ode to his endangered species-furnished wardrobe, and the annual Halloween entry skewers Kubrick, Orwell, and Soylent Green’s human-snacks. Amid the avalanche of references, sneaky subtleties abound in subversive assaults that may have escaped the censors’ scissors due to the unabashed laughter they provoke—thus, in “Sideshow Bob Roberts,” a prophetic coup materializes as Bart’s mortal enemy supplants Kennedy-horny Quimby in the governor’s chair with the help of a Rush Limbaughian windbag and the Republican Party Headquarters, which counts brawny film star Rainer Wolfcastle (a stand-in for another future governator) as well as a horned demon among its members. Even more sly is “Bart’s Girlfriend,” where the one character who outdoes the young hellion in “evil” turns out to be Reverent Lovejoy’s “classic cry for attention” daughter Jessica, nothing less than the fruit of the immaculate upbringing to which the Simpson clan stands opposite.
In retrospect, season six fills in a transitional slot for the show, somewhere in between Matt Groening’s original conception of a warts-and-all view of family and society politics and the incessant self-reflexivity and non-sequitur addiction that is to follow in the later seasons. (Fellow toon Jay Sherman, late from the lamentably cancelled The Critic, puts in an appearance in “A Star Is Burns,” yet no episode is as self-referential as, say, “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” two seasons later.) And while Meryl Streep, Winona Ryder, Joe Mantegna, Anne Bancroft, and Susan Sarandon contribute guest voice-work, the episodes remain free from the gratuitous, self-fondling celebrity-spotting that often pockmarks more recent outings.
The characters’ quirks have long hardened into pop iconography, yet what is most striking is how often this season was willing to question these quirks to mine depths of feeling—Lisa’s braininess cloaks an aching insecurity brought to the fore in “Lisa’s Rival,” the bond between Homer and Grampa is shaken to reveal familial tensions right out of O’Neill in “Grampa vs. Sexual Inadequacy,” and Marge’s own yearning for excitement is explored in “The Springfield Connection.” The thread of society is revealed as a slender one when threatened in “Bart’s Comet,” yet a genuine family love can halt matrimony in “Lisa’s Wedding.” Homer’s stint at Clown College, his brief spell as sexual-harassment pariah, and the kids’ Shelbyville invasion to retrieve a stolen lemon tree are pinnacles of sublime wackiness, but season six is first and foremost the supreme reminder that the series’s greatness lies in a mix of caustic satire and embracing humanity scarcely found outside of Renoir, Sturges, and Altman, least of all on primetime TV.
The full frame transfer maintains the vividness of the colors with only some occasional blurriness around the edges. The Dolby Digital stereo is also perfectly acceptable, though the interplay between commentary and episode noise can get distracting. Otherwise, a perfectly presentable transfer.
The extras on this four-disc package come on an individual episode basis, with deleted scenes and-most notably-fun, laidback running commentary by creators, directors, writers, and voice artists. The directors notice the care given to such cinematic elements as the angle of a shot or the lighting of a scene, the writers expound on the nature of gag-writing, and actors can't believe fans know more about the show than the crew. (Fans of bitchy celeb-gossip will be left wanting, as every guest star gets props.) Throughout, Matt Groening plays the group's cheeky mother hen, reminiscing about Dick Cavett, James Taylor, a joke he didn't like at the time and how Fox executives probably wonder where the hell they come up with this stuff.
Bart’s opening blackboard gag: "I will not skimp on sublimity. I will not skimp on sublimity."