The second season of “The Simpsons,” now out in a four-DVD set, marks the point when the series really came into its own, separating itself from all other animated offerings since, well, since the Dawn of Network Television. In case you didn’t know, human history is divided into B.C. and A.D. – and now D.O.N.T.
Yes, “The Simpsons'” first season was already more pointed in its pop-culture satire, its take on the typical nuclear-family sitcom, than “The Flintstones” or “The Jetsons” or, oh, “Heckle and Jeckle.” But in the second season, the animation and voice work settled down (listen for the change in Homer’s voice) and then the show started becoming baroquely inventive.
Most important, the brilliant minor characters began to appear and form the huge ensemble that is one of the series’ distinguishing achievements. No other series, animated or live-action, has fielded such an array of background crazies. Many are recognizable to anyone with even a fleeting knowledge of the series: Krusty the Clown, Apu, Groundskeeper Willy and the rest. In peopling the Simpsons’ universe with such detail, the show’s creators enabled it to remain fresh and adaptable to any issue from the afterlife to racketeering – and granted that universe a remarkable density and completeness. It’s still amazing that this show is on Fox.
It’s in the second season, for instance, that we meet Kang and Kodos, the tentacled alien invaders who, sadly, have not appeared much recently. Later, in an inspired and characteristic moment of tongue-in-cheek self-referentiality, Marge mounts a protest against the violence in “The Itchy & Scratchy Show,” and Roger Meyers Jr. appears as the gruff owner of Itchy & Scratchy International.
This is the kind of quadruple-bank shot of pop-culture satire that only “The Simpsons” has managed (OK, maybe “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” too). At once, the John Swartzwelder script spoofs the homicidal slapstick of “Tom and Jerry” cartoons, mocks the naivete of some of the family-values groups that have objected to TV shows (including “The Simpsons”), caricatures TV producers as crude and venal as any sweatshop owner and, through the status of “Itchy & Scratchy” as an obvious doppelganger for “The Simpsons” itself, even manages the trick of acknowledging the show’s own complicity in the social and cultural damage that TV has wrought.
It’s true that “The Simpsons” remains utterly conventional in its baseline values, the values of the traditional sitcom. Despite all of their antics and bad manners, the Simpsons always affirm their love for one another. Look at how safely this supposedly tasteless, groundbreaking cartoon addressed divorce. The Simpsons didn’t break up; Milhouse’s parents did.
Even so, the bursting of boundaries that the show’s hit status permitted becomes fully evident with this season, and the DVD release demonstrates this with such extras as the “Do the Bartman” and “Deep Trouble” music videos, plus the Simpsons’ Emmy Award show appearance. They’ve done very well for a bunch of big-headed squiggles with no chins.