When programs get as long in the tooth as 'The Simpsons' has, finding new things to say about them is likely as much of a challenge for those discussing it, as it is for the show's writers to find new things to say about its characters and the unique world they inhabit. Of course, from a critical standpoint, this isn't too much of a problem, seeing as how not many programs outside the world of daytime soap operas have lasted into their sixteenth season. For the show itself on the other hand, this difficulty has unfortunately become more readily apparent with each passing season.
There are those who would question why the show has continued on for so long, especially now that the venerated comedy, whose humor was once quite shrewdly centered on social and cultural commentary, refracted through the prism of a prototypical nuclear family who, despite being cartoons, felt more real and their lives more genuinely lived-in than most (if not all) other sitcom characters, was now mostly reliant on a string of increasingly nonsensical plots, celebrity guest appearances, and observations so overt, most of the humor was in their lack of refinement, rather than any genuine wit. Meanwhile, the characters continue to morph into something not quite as acerbic, caustic, or witty as the series ages (and we're only talking about season 16 out of 24 at this point!).
On the other hand, though, there's a faction (likely the folks at FOX) that just wants to see how long this Simpsons-themed gravy train can continue to plow down the tracks before more and more people begin to think maybe there's no gravy left. At a certain point, it seems like anything would be easier and more convincing than trying to find something hilarious to say about the middle-class standing of America's favorite three-fingered family. But perhaps that's the problem with so many of the episodes; they seem to have forgotten the amazing storylines that were wrought from finding unique angles to explore from within the limitations of the Simpsons' social standing. What was once a twisted, and often poignant (probably too poignant for its own good) examination of the American Dream – largely through the eyes of Homer's desire to be a better husband and father, and his consistent inability to do so – has turned into a showcase of the silly ramblings of a man who is (depending on what the joke is at the time) either a dimwitted, but good natured numbskull, or a nutty mastermind that seemingly has the whole world fooled by his outward ineptitude. All of this hints at the changes to the storylines and the characters that seem to be focused on telling the broadest story possible, to reach the widest audience.
But by the sixteenth season, this had all been pretty much par for the course for many years. The show had gone from crafting a handful of classic, heartfelt and/or gut-busting episodes each season, to twenty-one (give or take a few) episodes that feel largely recycled; it's just the politics and the pop-culture references that have changed. In the second episode of season sixteen, Marge takes a shine to Nelson after her kids become too preoccupied with their own lives to spend more time with mom. The episode is largely reminiscent of season eight's 'Lisa's Date With Density,' in which the series attempts to draw humor from the astonishingly bad environment Nelson calls home, and his genuine appreciation of the things the Simpson kids tend to take for granted. Sure, there are eight seasons between Lisa's first kiss and the episode entitled 'Sleeping With the Enemy,' so some similarities can be forgiven, but the episode fails to present Nelson's home life as a continuation of what the audience had seen before. Instead, it just winds up feeling like the show was presenting an old idea as something new.
And that's largely the problem with 'The Simpsons: The Sixteenth Season': much of it was old hat, and comfortably so. The best example of this is in the 'Treehouse of Horror XV' episode, which not only fails to elicit a single laugh, but also demonstrates how much the annual tradition had come to rely on spoofing pop-culture or horror films, rather than using the conventions of the genre to craft something funny and memorable. The execrable 'Four Beheadings and a Funeral' and 'In the Belly of the Boss' showing just how unfunny and lazily written these Halloween episodes can sometimes be.
That's not to say the episodes are devoid of humor, because they're not. Most of the time, there are still a handful of jokes and ready-made chuckles waiting in a line or two; it's just that fewer and fewer of them come from a sincere place, or from anything not resembling a simple non sequitur. And while the show has always had a bit of a cynical streak – in fact, that's one of the things that probably made it feel so unexpectedly present, in the moment, and relatable – that cynicism was usually balanced out with a sincerity and emotionality that actually worked to make the disparagement harbor some meaning beyond simply sneering at even the most contemptible of human behavior. This lack of understanding and indignant attitude toward the culture 'The Simpsons' so often tends to skewer, sometimes makes the series come off like a bit of a bully, to the audience as well as to its own characters. Thankfully, no matter how biting, there are still some laughs to be had at many of the inferences and pointed jabs the show makes, so it's not like the series is hurting for some yuks.
In its sixteenth season, 'The Simpsons' was still an often-funny show; it just came from a different, pessimistic, and less sincere place that it had in the past. Maybe it's a sign of the times, or maybe the people of Springfield are simply getting older crankier, and less hopeful that society is aware just who is being lampooned and why. There's plenty of life left in the series (a recent twenty-fifth season renewal proving as much), and for all the humor and craziness the program has yet to deliver, there's a good chance some of it will find a way to feel a little more heartfelt and remind viewers why this show deserves to spend two-and-a-half decades on the air.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Simpsons: The Sixteenth Season' comes as three 50GB Blu-ray discs in a plastic keepcase. Each disc comes with several special features including commentary on every episode, plus deleted or extended scenes, which are integrated automatically. There's also a splendid 26-page booklet intended to look like the journal of Professor John Frink, which actually details all of the episodes and their special features.
'The Simpsons: The Sixteenth Season' is presented with a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer that maintains the original 2004-2005 aspect ratio of 1.33:1. It wouldn't be until the series' 20th season that it ditched the native SD, so for this season (and a few more beyond it) the image is uneven at times. Most of that unevenness comes from the lines being occasionally blurry, or not nearly as distinct as they would otherwise be in today's standards. The picture is by no means, bad, however, as the colors are very nice looking all around. The image does a great job of rendering the flat colors of the characters skin tones, and the otherwise colorful – but sometimes pastel – environment in a bright, vibrant manner, without it overwhelming the rest of the picture.
For the most part, the image is clear enough that everything is distinguishable. Characters are generally cleanly drawn, though there can be a distracting bit of flicker here and there while they are standing in the background, or moving too quickly. As everything is typically always in focus, there's plenty to be seen in the background and the detail in these instances varies, but generally comes up looking pretty good.
As a big plus, there are very few discernable artifacts present in the image, and no banding or issues with shadow delineation that could otherwise mar the overall look of the product. A fine presentation overall.
'The Simpsons: The Sixteenth Season' has been given a nice sounding DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that presents all the usual aspects of the show in a robust package. The sound here is generally quite focused on the dialogue (which it should be), but since 'The Simpsons' uses music to such a great degree, it's nice to hear that music being reproduced with such clarity and attention to minor detail.
The sound is generally extended throughout the different channels quite liberally, but dialogue tends to be presented almost exclusively through the front center, and sometimes right or left channels. Most of the time, the vocal work moves around when there is more than one character talking and the other is out of frame. This points to the mix's use of directionality, which comes into play more often than you might think, but primarily is used to set up a larger atmosphere that involves more than one character doing something at the same time. For the most part, the sound is front-loaded, but there are a few instances when sound effects, score, or musical selections will be spread out and pushed through the rear channels. LFE is present, but only on rare occasions.
The sound is by no means revelatory, but it is very good. With terrific extension throughout all the channels, this mix is one of the better aspects of this release.
Fans of the series will likely be split on 'The Simpsons: The Sixteenth Season.' There are those who will likely think it's a continuation of the great comedic stylings of Springfield's favorite family, and then there are those who will look at it and wonder where the quality has gone and if it will ever return. As mentioned in the review, there are plenty of laughs to be had in this season, but very few of them come from a place that feels truly genuine and sincere. Sixteen seasons in, it seems that the show is a mixture of been-there-done-that sentiment and perfunctory punch lines. Aside from the so-so image, there's plenty here to keep the die-hard 'Simpsons' fan happy, so this one comes recommended for fans.