I stand behind no one in my love and admiration of The Simpsons, which I believe, beyond the shadow of a doubt, to be the best show in the history of television. And while I frequently bicker about how it jumped the proverbial shark long ago, the laughs and endless re-watchability of its early years more than cancels out any hostility I may feel towards a current batch of inferior episodes.
Last night, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the landmark series, Fox celebrated its greatness with “The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special: In 3-D! On Ice!,” a thoroughly entertaining and surprisingly in-depth hour-long documentary, made by Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me fame, which proved to be a fitting celebration of comedy’s greatest accomplishment.
The special, which followed the show’s 450th episode (a ho-hum affair about Krusty The Klown falling in love with a new sidekick), began as expected. Interchanging footage of various talking heads ranging from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to Dan Rather talking about their love of the show, with producers and voice actors discussing how The Simpsons came to be. This didn’t offer much in the way of surprise, as anyone watching was no doubt familiar with all Simpsonian origins.
This fairly standard beginning, however, just made the end result all the more pleasant a surprise. Spurlock traveled all over the world, speaking with various fans about why the show is so important to them. We see people showing their appreciation in various ways, from tattoos to entire roomfuls of Simpsons memorabilia. Gushing about my love of The Simpsons is a favorite hobby of mine (see here, here and here) so it shouldn’t be surprising to discover hearing other people rave about their own love for all things Springfield is something I never tire of.
One thing I didn’t expect from “In 3-D! On Ice” was that it would offer any surprises, but to my delight, there were several in both content and information. Call my super-fandom fraudulent if you must, but until viewing this documentary, I was unaware that various character names, such as Kearney and Lovejoy, were named after streets in Portland, Oregon, the hometown of Series Creator Matt Groening. It was enjoyable to encounter this new information.
The documentary also took a surprising turn from a seemingly kiss-ass special and evaluated the negative effect some of the show’s satirical moments have had. Representatives from the Catholic Church and the city of Brazil both expressed their anger with how their sect/country were portrayed in select episodes, and I admire Spurlock for actually putting these people on camera instead of just mentioning the incidents in passing.
The most entertaining part of the special was when Spurlock visits Scotland and gets in the middle of a debate between representatives from Glasgow and Aberdeen, who both adamantly argue that beloved side-character Groundskeeper Willie (who we also discover is the world’s most recognized Scot.) originated in their city. Anyone who could hear this story and possibly debate the cultural importance of this show is more out of their minds than the people who say Captain Picard is better than Captain Kirk. This, more than anything in the special, is a wonderful testament of just how import a staple The Simpsons is in the history of pop culture.
I also must admit I got a big kick out of seeing Groening, Executive Producer James L. Brooks and other creative mainstays of the show taking shots at hardcore fans (people not entirely unlike myself) for constantly complaining about how the show has dipped in quality over the past several years. I particularly liked a line about how internet message boards aren’t as funny as they were 10 years ago (though in defense of me and my modern-day Simpsons bashing brethren, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that nearly all retrospective clips were taken pre-season 10, when things started going south in Simpsonland).
Then, we finally get to the end, where the big “In 3-D! On Ice!” gag is officially revealed. The joke is actually quite lame, but that’s really the point. In case anyone reading this hasn’t seen it, I won’t ruin the ending, but I have to say I found it to be just perfect, and it put a smile on my face that hasn’t been put there by a new Simpsons episode in years.
The only complaint I had about the special is I wanted to see more. I didn’t realize Spurlock was going to take such an ambitious plunge with this documentary, and while I think he did excellent work, it almost seemed like maybe television provided too narrow a scope for his vision. I’m sure there is plenty of unused footage and hopefully we will get a DVD release someday, as I assume there is plenty more to see.
I must admit I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed “In 3-D! On Ice!” Seeing as how these sort of self-referential specials are usually lame, mixed in with the sub-par quality of the show as of late, I would have settled for something that served as a simple, entertaining diversion.
With that, I feel a big kudos needs to go out to Morgan Spurlock for making such an impressive tribute to such a landmark program. While his skills as a documentarian are very much on display, Spurlock is clearly a fan, and he was able to find a near perfect balance, creating a show that was equally entertaining as it was thought-provoking.
Final Score: 9.25/10 (Outstanding)
Click here to watch “The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special: In 3-D! On Ice!” in its entirety.