On DVD: The Simpsons: The Complete Thirteenth Season

Reviewing the thirteenth season of The Simpsons, I feel more in danger of repeating myself than ever before. Last year, I wrote about the series' good but not great twelfth season, with an acute awareness that the show had begun a slow but irrevocable death spiral. Although the twelfth season remains amusing and entertaining on the whole, there's a change in feel and a reduced focus on character. Still unsure as to what I should reasonably attribute The Simpsons' unmistakable decline in overall quality - Changes in show management? New writers? The rise of Seth MacFarlane? - the thirteenth season is further proof of the regrettable change in comic tone that the series took on in the early part of the last decade. More important than the uptick in one-off jokes and shock gags is the fact that The Simpsons begins to repeat itself quite unapologetically. The thirteenth season contains a surprising number of jokes and situations recycled from earlier episodes; these aren't clever inside references for fans, either - the show's makers were simply re-using old material and hoping we wouldn't notice. 

Despite several good scripts by the prolific and consistent John Swartzwelder, The Simpsons' style takes a turn into territory that is clearly - and unfortunately - influenced by Family Guy, a place where throwaway jokes lead to hyperlinked mini-scenes of the "It's like the time Yogi Berra had cocktails with Yoda" variety. It's strange to reflect on the perverse injustice of The Simpsons being so impacted by Family Guy - a show that began life as a transparent rip-off of The Simpsons, but with gross-out jokes. Both are Fox properties, which likely had something to do with it - although that doesn't explain it, exactly, because Family Guy had poor ratings in its first two seasons, after which it was temporarily cancelled by Fox. Maybe staff at The Simpsons saw Family Guy as the way of the future and consciously tried to piggyback elements of its style. The true explanation lies well outside the purview of this review, but the fact is that the influence of Family Guy is an important factor in the show's changing tone.

At the beginning of this year, Fox released The Simpsons: The Complete Twentieth Season on DVD and Blu-ray in an opportunistic attempt to capitalize upon the show's first high-definition season. In reviewing season twenty, my multi-talented colleague at DVD Talk, Jamie S. Rich, wrote a warm, honest, and very funny break-up letter to the series, citing its frustrating decline in wit and inventiveness. In a lot of ways, many of Jamie's observations apply directly in the case of the thirteenth season. The fact is, I stopped watching the show regularly around 2001, and it was my first time seeing many of these episodes. I was reminded all over again of how I felt a decade ago: that the show had grown stale, repetitive, and overly reliant upon its reputation and past brilliance.

From the vantage point of ten years on, The Simpsons' thirteenth season looks like a show caught in the midst of an uncomfortable identity crisis. It's impossible to argue with the ingenious entertainment that The Simpsons generated without exception for a good solid ten years. Any program that stays on for twenty - and almost none do - is bound to struggle with freshness. The thirteenth season offers its fair share of laughs - especially in the episodes "A Hunka Hunka Burns in Love," "She of Little Faith," and "I am Furious (Yellow)" - but our main characters no longer drive the stories the way they used to. The long and short of it is that The Simpsons remains recognizable and entertaining in the thirteenth of its (so far) 21 seasons, yet this isn't the family we fell in love with. 

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