The Simpsons Season 1 DVD Turns 20

An image of the Simpsons Season 1 DVD cover.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of The Simpsons: The Complete First Season DVD boxset in North America (tip of the hat to illustrator Bill Mudron for mentioning this). It was, for a time, the best selling TV show on DVD until it was eclipsed by Chappelle’s Show a few years later. Now that physical media has been rendered a relic by streaming services, let’s take this opportunity to look back at what’s been lost.

Notably, every episode has audio commentary, which was a rarity for TV shows on DVD – sometimes you’d get commentary on an episode or two, but not all of them. It’s evidentially something creator Matt Groening had wanted to do for years, according to this online Q&A from June 1993 (!):

No doubt Fox will milk Simpsons fans for all they can get somewhere down the line, but at the [sic] point, there are no plans for Simpsons videos or laserdiscs in the immediate future. However, I would love to do laserdiscs, complete with deleted scenes and additional commentary.

The commentaries are fun and informative, and an essential resource for Simpsons scholars, so it’s a bit disappointing they’re tied to a dead format. FXX had them on their now-defunct Simpsons World streaming service (and even included some exclusive ones, it looks like?), but they have yet to make their way to Disney+, although the two commentaries for The Simpsons Movie are there. If they do get around to adding all the commentaries, I have but one request: please fix the audio levels on the Conan O’Brien ones so I don’t have to turn up the volume to actually hear him, only to have my eardrums immediately shattered by James L. Brooks chortling.

The picture quality was maybe not as great as it could’ve been, but it was still a huge step up from the syndicated reruns you’d see on TV. Since it was 2001 and widescreen TVs hadn’t taken off just yet, the show was in the correct 4:3 aspect ratio, which Simpsons World and Disney+ both neglected to provide at launch, five years apart. It took Simpsons World about four months, and Disney+ more than six months (and a lot of technical rejiggering behind the scenes), to finally add the abilitity to watch the damn show the way the artists intended it to be shown. It still drives me crazy that it’s something you have to actively opt into.

A small thing I like about this set in particular, which I think they quickly dropped, is that the episode descriptions in the booklet are written in an overly exuberant, snarky style, perhaps written by the show’s writers themselves. Here’s a few:

The episode descriptions on Disney+ are… not ideal:

The success of The Complete First Season and the subsequent boxsets in the series probably helped kickstart the TV on DVD boom of the 2000s that gave TV shows a second life, but it’s hard to say that with any certainty because there’s been no articles on the subject that I could find. What I remember is there were always online petitions to sign demanding The Powers That Be release, like, Capitol Critters on DVD, and of course you had to buy the releases to let them know the Jammet Army was an economical force to be reckoned with. Nowadays you just have to tweet “#ReleaseTheSnyderCut” directly at whoever runs the HBO Max Twitter account a thousand times a day. Who’s to say which approach is better?

The Simpsons DVD and Blu-ray sets were initially discontinued in 2015, but since then Seasons 18 and 19 have been released, the latter in December 2019. Whether or not they’ll continue is anyone’s guess.