Obsessive completists who collect physical media and refuse to give up on The Simpsons received heartbreaking news this week when longtime producer Al Jean revealed Season 17 would be the final DVD/Blu-ray set produced. In numerous back-and-forth discussions with fans on Twitter, Jean cited poor sales in a world where streaming media has become the preferred viewing option for a lot of former disc buyers. It’s not hard to argue the diminishing aesthetic returns on later seasons may also have contributed to America’s growing consensus as to exactly how much of the show deserves to be archived in their own homes.
For anyone with the true collector mentality, this cancellation poses a special form of anguish: a no-frills Season 20 set was rush-released in 2010 as an anniversary merchandising tie-in. Anyone who’s bought them religiously since Season 1 will now have a eternal gap between 17 and 20 that can never be filled through legal means, to say nothing of the unreleased 21 through 60. Granted, you could pay to watch those online via Amazon, or indulge in the Simpsons World app if you care to watch the show on certain devices. You could store said device on the DVD shelf between 17 and 20, and argue till your face is Homer-pants-blue that it’s close enough. You’d be wrong.
For my wife and myself, it’s another stumbling block to our once-fervent Simpsons fandom.
When the show launched in 1990, I followed on a black-‘n’-white TV in my room for the first few seasons because no one else in my house cared. I lost track of the show during my stupid-young-male dark-age years circa 1993-1996, when I watched virtually no TV at all — didn’t own one for several months, in fact. Later that decade and after our respective divorces, Anne and I slowly came to be friends and used to enjoy getting together at my place or hers and watching TV when our schedules permitted. We both worked in the same restaurant chain, she as an opener and I as a closer, so this wasn’t an everyday privilege to take for granted. I caught up on years’ worth of overlooked TV, which through her graces and taping habits meant mostly the first four Star Trek series.
Once The Simpsons went into syndicated reruns, our local Fox affiliate ran them twice a day and made it easy for me to timer-record nearly all of them on VHS, cramming up to twelve episodes onto each tape at EP speed if one of us wasn’t around to pause during commercials. Horrible picture quality, but we saved on storage space. She’d already seen every episode, but we added it to our TV rotation for my sake. Eventually I caught up with her in more ways than one.
The invention of the DVD boxed set brought the viewing experience to a new level. Episodes I’d only seen in secondhand Grain-o-Vision popped with new color and details. Like never before, I could tell a difference between the loose animation linework in the early seasons and the later years’ more polished results. Best of all, it meant we could toss out a lot of tapes and reclaim some shelf space.
Whether on disc or in reruns, we’ve seen plenty of episodes plenty of times. It was Our Thing, one of those shared activities that became an integral part of our bonding rituals as our relationship progressed, from schoolmates to coworkers to just-friends to best friends to friends who hate whenever people bring up When Harry Met Sally… to romantic couple to romantic married geek couple. We knew the show so well that we used Simpsons quotes with each other like shorthand.
(A hypothetical example that’s not too fictional: we’ll chat about U.S. history, which is more her thing than mine. She’ll bring up, say, some devastating World War II event on the French countryside, probably involving explosions, but she’ll reference famous commanders and notorious battlegrounds and relevant broken treaties, but without stopping to explain each and every proper noun, under the incorrect assumption that I ever had a competent history teacher who taught those concepts to me. I can give her a blank expression and say, “It’s a ring-toss game!” and she’ll know I’m completely lost and clueless and could she please back up several paragraphs.)
Fun trivia: The Simpsons is older than my son. He’s never known a world without them. He watched along with us sometimes in his formative years (a few risque episodes had to be put off until after his bedtime or when he was at his mom’s), but he was pickier about his likes and dislikes than we were. Regardless, they’re like an institution to him. They’ve always been there, they’re an indisputable giant on the pop culture landscape, but mostly they’re a thing that belonged to the old folks. In that sense The Simpsons is to him what 60 Minutes is to me.
Then a sad thing happened, gradually, like an aging relative with a deleterious condition. The show got less and less funny. The rapid-fire pace and beloved voice actors were still there, but the ingenuity and heart faded, and over time the punchlines followed. Watching new episodes became more of a habit than a pleasure. We kept buying the DVD sets because the first several years had plenty of gems and we wanted the option to own, to revisit, to pop them in at any time without depending on the tastes and mercies of rerun programmers. Even the second several years had winners more often than not, and there’s a certain sense of interior decorating pride to have that many matching items standing neatly in a row. Like this husband and his amazing wife, they stood together as one.
Fast-forward to today. Things changed.
The show became so dreadfully unfunny, and noticeably more spiteful on faith-based matters than it used to be, that we kicked the new-episode habit early in season 26. When the season 17 set was released last December, I held off on buying it because it didn’t feel worth the week-of-release sale price. We have to have it someday because Sideshow Bob is on the cover, but perhaps we can wait for Black Friday pricing. No hurry. We haven’t even cracked open the season 16 set.
And now, based on the word from Al Jean, we know our Simpsons DVD collection will remain permanently partial through no decisions of our own. Maybe out there somewhere are Simpsons enclaves enterprising enough to institute a fan-to-fan hard-copy trading system, kind of like when Mystery Science Theater 3000 would encourage MSTies to “Keep Circulating the Tapes”, where they’ll help each other fill up their shelves instead of their streaming bookmarks or Windows file folders. It’s too early to say if anyone cares enough about the show to want to save all of it offline over Fox’s financial objections.
Best case scenario: maybe in the not-too-distant future, Fox relents for the sake of the true believers and releases one last special edition called The Simpsons Seasons 18-60: The Good Episodes. With that single disc, we’ll have our collection closure at last between our family and theirs.