PictureThe Simpsons Season 20 comes to Blu-ray with a 1080p image encoded using the AVC codec and framed within 1.33:1 as well as 1.78:1 aspect ratios. The two discs are region free.
This series could almost be the text book definition of “a tale of two halves”. The first disc, from what I understand, contains those episodes that were made as part of the production run of the previous season, which explains the fact that they are full screen 4:3 and unfortunately merely upconverted to 1080p. The second disc was produced as part of the twentieth season and represents the show's true move to high definition, being widescreen 1.78:1 and a native 1080p. Unsurprisingly, this juxtaposition throws up more than a few jarring results.
The upconverted material seems fair, but with little that would sway one to its quality over a similar DVD upscaled via your player itself. There's a softness to the image that struggles against the upconversion, and the result brings with it some poor instances of aliasing. The title sequence of these older productions is by far the worst offender, with colour instability, poor delineation and a fuzziness that quite frankly offends the eye, looking more like an aged watercolour than a bright animation. The episodes themselves cope fairly well, with some nice displays of punchy visuals and sharpness, but they are unfortunately fighting a losing battle with aliasing, colour instability, softness, a touch of banding and the like all creeping in at one time or another.
Conversely, the second disc containing the all new episodes mastered in 1080p is a much more accomplished example of modern animation. The colours are crisp and bold and show little sign of the problems that affected disc one. There are still a few minor examples of banding but on the whole the tones displayed are varied and stable, with the subtlety of shadow effects particularly pleasing. Delineation holds steadfast and bleeding is thankfully not an issue. The instances of aliasing that were prevalent in the fullscreen productions are still here to an extent but they tend to pop up a lot less frequently, being noticeable generally when backgrounds pan and zoom rather than simply on stationary characters as before.
Overall, the visual presentation isn't stellar but has some detail that you'll likely not have seen in the show before. The sometimes faltering attempts of the upconversion on the first disc to appear akin to true high definition is counterbalanced by the more steady, punchy sharpness and vivid colour scheme of the second half of this season's production. The problem remains though that neither is entirely consistent, with those in fullscreen being capable of looking very good at times and those in widescreen sporadically showing signs of weakness. Neither is a universal success or failure but in general terms it is clear to see which fans of high definition material are more likely to prefer. I can forgive disc two's minor foibles simply because of the boldness and vivacity that bursts from its colours as well as the nuanced effects that are visible, but the upconversion of the first should perhaps have been a little more accomplished.
SoundThe Simpsons Season 20 arrives with an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, as well as French, Spanish and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 choices. Understandably, for the purposes of this review I focused my attention on the first option.
In truth, this series probably didn't warrant a lossless track as the sounds of most TV animations are distinctly limited. The main positive is that the dialogue has probably never sounded so clear - there is a level of clarity that always makes speech easily audible even when muttered from the sides of character's mouths or there are other noisy distractions happening at the time. The majority of the sound orchestration remains fairly unsophisticated though. The soundstage is very front heavy, with only sporadic light usage of the surround speakers as they are mainly employed to pipe in music that bleeds through them. There are the odd discreet effects but they lack any real impact as they remain the minority and out of keeping with the rest of the mix.
One area that definitely benefits from this rise to lossless audio is that of Danny Elfman's iconic theme tune. It now zips along with a bounding quality, tight and well rounded, swelling to fill the room. The LFE lends a helping hand to the music and adds a bit of much needed weight to the deeper tones. The bass won't shake you but it is a nice addition to moments like explosions, even if it is still very much on the lighter side. In short, this is a functional mix that takes the constituent parts and makes sure they are clear - the soundstage is front heavy and there is no real push for enveloping the listener in a bubble of discreet sounds. It doesn't aim high but it accomplishes what it has to do with efficiency and the occasional flourish.
ExtrasThe 20th anniversary special sneak peek with Morgan Spurlock - 3:31 - 1080p
Hardly an extra, this is nothing more than a teaser to get viewers interested in the aforementioned show.
VerdictThe Simpsons remains something of a favourite of mine. Despite all the missteps and seasons that have seemed to indicate the decline of a once loved show, it still manages to raise a smile and even the odd belly laugh. The fact that every viewer has their own opinion as to which episodes are good or bad surely indicates how much of a subjective matter judging comedy is. The fact that Groening and co have crafted one of the most extensive character lists perhaps in broadcasting history means that no matter which figure happens to be your favourite, there are likely to be episodes in every season that will tickle you simply because of their protagonists.
The discs themselves are similarly divisive and pleasing, with an image quality that varies and a sound mix that almost defines the term capably efficient. The lack of extras drags this set down a touch more, simply because it emphasises the feeling that this was perhaps a rush job of sorts. It would have been nice if the extremely long run time were split over more discs, with a few extras and greater attention paid to the upconversion, but ultimately this is a comedy and whether you buy it will likely rest on how much you want to see The Simpsons series displayed in 1080p with lossless audio and quite how highly you rate the comic antics of Matt Groening's creation.
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