Rented the season 4 DVD set of The Simpsons. At one point I thought this was the best season of the show; based on the reviews, everyone else seems to -- but I'm surprised to find that a lot of the episodes don't hold up as well as I remembered. This was the season when Al Jean and Mike Reiss, the showrunners, started making the show increasingly crazy and going beyond the bounds of physical reality (e.g. Leonard Nimoy dissolving as though he's actually Mr. Spock). That's not a problem. What is a problem is that the jokes by this time are coming so fast, and the writers go in for so many movie parodies, flashbacks, and fantasies, that the actual storytelling is often quite disappointing. The next-to-last episode of the season, "Marge in Chains," has an interesting story idea -- Marge goes to prison -- but it's so smothered in irrelevant jokes that we don't get any real story or character development; it's just the rudimentary, basic elements of the plot, there to string together the jokes. In a way, it's like Family Guy, the only different being that on Family Guy the jokes are bad and the characters are not worth watching (and Stewie is an inferior ripoff of Brain from Pinky and the Brain -- damn, it feels good to say that). Not that The Simpsons could ever be as bad as Family Guy, but the basic problem, of favoring jokes over storytelling, makes a lot of these episodes feel vaguely unsatisfying to me, including the episode that is often cited as the best ever, "Last Exit To Springfield" (which the writers more or less admit, on the commentary, is just a collection of bits taken from various movies). Note also that a lot of these episodes came up short and had to be padded out with long couch gags and re-used animation, a sign that there wasn't enough story for 22 minutes.
The best episodes from this season are the ones with more of the character and story interest that co-creators James L. Brooks and Sam Simon tried to put into the show in the first three seasons: episodes like "Homer the Heretic," "Mr. Plow," and "Lisa's First Word." This last one is particularly nice to watch because it's almost all based on realistic stuff -- Bart acting like a real kid, doing things that real kids do. The Simpsons today can do funny jokes, but it can't necessarily organize the jokes around a theme or a particular style, with the result that you can watch a current Simpsons episode, enjoy it, but have no particular recollection of what it was about. The best of these early episodes feel very complete and satisfying, like a good sitcom episode should; the current Simpsons, like Jean and Reiss's The Critic, is more of a string of jokes, more a vaudeville routine than a three-act play -- and the fourth season is where that started. The fourth season is very funny, yes, but I think I prefer the first three seasons and also the fifth season, during which Brooks asked the new showrunner (David Mirkin) to make the stories a little stronger.
Speaking of Brooks, one of the surprises of the Simpsons DVD commentaries is how involved he was in the early years of the show. I always thought of his function as being in-name-only; it was his production company, he assigned Sam Simon (one of his Taxi writers) to make Matt Groening's Tracy Ulman Show characters into a series. Turns out that Brooks was highly involved in choosing stories, setting the tone of the show, and writing key emotional scenes that the young Harvard wise guys couldn't necessarily write. Brooks wrote much of the famous "Lisa's Substitute" episode, including the "You are Lisa Simpson" moment, and he wrote the scene in the fourth-season "Homer's Triple Bypass" where Homer says goodbye to Bart and Lisa. Maybe that's what the show needs now: more writing by Jim Brooks.