In Watch This, Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff tells you what she’s watching on TV — and why you should watch it, too. Read the archives here. This week: The Simpsons. You may have heard of it. The first 30 seasons are now streaming on Disney+.
In the mid 2000s, Slate press critic Jack Shafer tried to figure out a method by which to pinpoint the moment when millennials and Gen-Xers had taken over the reins of the national media from the baby boomers. The answer he came up with was brilliant: Once younger generations were in charge, we would start sprinkling articles with perfectly cromulent Simpsons references.
I don’t know if Shafer was exactly right — because the structure of what we think of as “the media” changed so much that it’s more likely this article will end up with a headline like “Why you need to start watching The Simpsons right now” than “Me not recommend The Simpsons? That’s unpossible!” — but I appreciate the spirit of what he was going for. The Simpsons is like oxygen if you were born after 1980 or so. It’s always been there. It will always be there.
That’s true even though the series’s best days are long behind it. I still mostly enjoy The Simpsons when I tune in for the odd episode, but those first 10-ish seasons form what is probably the greatest TV show ever constructed, and definitely the funniest. I could — and do — watch them over and over and over again, and now that they’re streaming on Disney+, I probably will continue to do so. (Yes, they were available for years on a platform called “Simpsons World,” via FX, but paying for a platform mostly to watch The Simpsons on it always felt a bit extravagant to me.)
And yet: Disney+ has some kinks to work out if it wants to win my full-throated Simpsons support.
The Disney+ episodes of The Simpsons are still great. But you’re missing the embiggened picture (literally).
The major problem confronting Simpsons fans who decide to stream on Disney+ is that the service isn’t showing the older episodes in their original aspect ratio. Most seasons of the show were formatted for boxy, standard-definition TVs, in an aspect ratio of 4:3 (meaning four units of width to three units of height). But on our modern widescreen TVs, which display images at a 16:9 ratio (16 units of width to nine units of height), 4:3 programs are displayed with black bars on either side of the picture, because it isn’t large enough to fill the entire screen. (For more on aspect ratios, consult this Vox explainer from the halcyon days of 2014.)
Many viewers feel like they’re not getting “the full picture” if they see those black bars, so most networks that rebroadcast old 4:3 programs in 16:9 zoom in on the center of the image. This process ends up cutting off visual information at the top and bottom of the screen. Sometimes, that’s not a problem, even if it is an inherently truncated image. But in the case of a show with so many sight gags like The Simpsons, the tops and bottoms of an image can be where some of the best stuff lives.
1999 vs 2019— allegra frank (@LegsFrank) January 13, 2019
dug real deep into the archives for this one! ❗ lost a little weight , lost a little off the top , but same old me! pic.twitter.com/fojzOXTpTh
my favourite thing about old episodes of the simpsons is that lisa doesn't have a body, which was a bold choice in the 1990s for a cartoon character. pic.twitter.com/1QWJ6aeD9z— Willow Catelyn Maclay (@willow_catelyn) November 12, 2019
Simpsons World allowed viewers to watch episodes in either the 4:3 aspect ratio or the 16:9 aspect ratio, so Simpsons purists (like myself) could get the full effect. So Disney+ should bring back the 4:3 episodes as soon as possible, lest I write more strongly worded articles to that effect. (“Dear Mr. Iger: There are too many Simpsons episodes in the wrong aspect ratio. Please eliminate three. I am not a crackpot!”)
(Simpsons World also allowed users to check out the DVD commentary tracks for the episodes, as well as special themed collections. My life is not necessarily hinging on whether these come back as it is with the 4:3 episodes, but, like, how hard could it be to throw them up there on Disney+, too?)
Look: Watching The Simpsons in 16:9 is still pretty darn amazing. These episodes are as funny as they were when they first aired in the 1990s, and some of the greatest television ever made lurks in the archives. (For my money, season four is the show’s best, but the fact that you can make credible arguments for basically any season from two through eight is proof of how good this show is.) The Simpsons possesses heart, wit, and genius in equal measure, and if you want to be my friend, then you need to understand why my wife and I so frequently say, “The door blew shut!” to each other.
In all likelihood, you’ve heard of The Simpsons before this article, and if you have, get thee to a Disney+ account. If you’ve heard of it but never seen it, well, come on already! And if this is somehow the first time The Simpsons has ever crossed your field of vision, you have so much delight, so much entertainment, and so many brightly yellow people ahead of you. If these ideas are intriguing to you, please subscribe to my newsletter.
Listen to Today, Explained
Disney+. Apple TV+. Netflix. HBO Max. Peacock. Which streaming service will win the great war to come?