Note: On May 20, 2020, Disney+ confirmed the news from Simpsons executive producer Al Jean that the show will be available to view in its original 4:3 aspect ratio beginning May 28. The below roundup features just some of the jokes viewers have been missing out on in the meantime.
In April it was announced that Disney+ would become the exclusive streaming home of The Simpsons, but as soon as Disney launched its new streaming service last week, the criticism began rolling in. Yes, Disney+ has provided an online hub for the entire Simpsons catalogue, furnishing every season of the iconic series to diehard fans and streaming-era newcomers alike, but it’s initially done so with an aesthetic bastardization that would make Santa Claus himself vomit with rage.
The issue? Disney failed to preserve the show’s original 4:3 aspect ratio, instead presenting the episodes in a cropped 16:9 format. More accurately, they didn’t fix the 16:9 version they’d acquired upon purchasing 20th Century Fox, which had already been a sore spot among fans when it began airing reruns on FXX in 2014.
The first 19 seasons of The Simpsons, spanning from 1989-2009, were made in the 4:3 format that was standard for the boxier TVs that preceded today’s flatscreens. Zooming and cropping a 4:3 image to make the aspect ratio a wider 16:9 means either cutting large chunks of material from the top and bottom of the image or stretching it horizontally. This may seem like it should only be a gripe for purists, but cropping affects the entire viewing experience, resulting in cramped, unsightly shots full of clipped heads and missing feet that would make an art director howl, not to mention a tragic reduction in Marge’s famously vertical beehive.
What’s more, in a show as comedically dense as The Simpsons, cutting out 25 percent of the screen means cutting out jokes, ruining visual gags, background details, and Easter eggs placed there by the writers and animators to enrich the show and reward obsessives. It’s that level of detail that makes The Simpsons one of the most rewatchable shows on TV. Simply put: The 16:9 format is not the show as it was intended to be viewed.
After taking heavy nerd fire for the misstep, Disney has pledged to offer 4:3 viewing options starting in 2020, which is good to hear, because a quick look through The Simpsons catalogue on Disney+ revealed over a dozen instances where 16:9 cropping ruined a joke or spoiled a visual gag, and there are surely many more.
“Bart the General” (Season 1, Episode 5)
When Bart is getting bullied by Nelson and needs some help, Grandpa Simpson takes him to Herman’s Military Antiques for some tactical advice. The crammed shop is an interesting scene, but the 16:9 crop cuts out one of its best visual gags: a small box under the counter that reads “Hitler’s Teeth.”
The gag reinforces the line in which Herman offers to sell the Simpsons “authentic Nazi underpants” — if you’re lucky enough to see it. The box is visible later in the scene, but just barely.
“The Call of the Simpsons” (Season 1, Episode 7)
When Homer goes to buy an RV, he’s presented with several options, including the towering “Ultimate Behemoth.” The only problem is that in the 16:9 crop, you can’t see all of the vehicle, when its obscene size is the entire point of the gag. You can’t even see the small set of stairs needed to climb inside!
“Bart’s Dog Gets an F” (Season 2, Episode 16)
With Lisa home sick with the mumps (“the kissing disease,” as Homer calls it), she sends her father to the mall to pick up some magazines to pass the time, all of which have the word “teen” in the title. When Homer arrives at the newsstand, he is shocked by the glut of teen-centric magazines before him, in a joke that will get more and more dated the further we get from 1991.
However, Disney+ believes that newsprint isn’t dying quickly enough, and it crops an entire row of teen magazines, meaning modern viewers will miss out on Teen Beam, Teen Stars, and of course, Teen Spleen.
“Bart the Lover” (Season 3, Episode 16)
Springfield Elementary is called to the auditorium for an assembly of dubious educational merit, but generous in yo-yo content. The Twirl King yo-yo champions demonstrate their various yo-yo skills to the students’ amazement, setting off a yo-yo craze that captivates the entire school.
Mr. Amazing, the Cobra, and the new Sparkle all get to display their various yo-yo tricks in 16:9, but sadly Zero Gravity’s astonishing moves lose a little something when it appears that a few fingers and small tuft of hair have launched a yo-yo skyward.
“Homer at Bat” (Season 3, Episode 17)
Well, Mr. Burns had done it. He made a bet against a rival power plant that his softball team would beat Shelbyville in the finals. Determined to ensure his victory, he proposes to Smithers his all-star team, who points out that all of Burns’s selections have either retired or died. “In fact, your right fielder has been dead for 130 years.”
Sadly, modern viewers are missing out on the glory of a full nine players on the team. Famed catcher for the Cardinals, Gabby “The Old Sarge” Street, is left out in the cold, just as he left out of the major leagues for 19 seasons between 1912 and 1931 (assuming Wikipedia’s stats are correct).
“Bart’s Friend Falls in Love” (Season 3, Episode 23) and “Day of the Jackanapes” (Season 12, Episode 13)
While these two episodes could not be more different from one another, with almost a decade between them, they both face the same issue when cropped for modern television. Fans of the show know that Springfield is a very full world, packed with signs and posters in every corner, providing ample opportunity for freeze-frame grab gags waiting to be discovered by attentive viewers.
In both episodes, former guest stars who have been snuck into the background are now cropped out. In season three it was a Spinal Tap poster on Milhouse’s wall, fresh from their appearance in the previous episode. In season 12 it was a whole host of classic guest stars: Barry White, Johnny Carson, Bette Midler, Leonard Nimoy, and David Crosby are all chopped out of view, perhaps giving Johnny Carson a taste of his own medicine by bumping him from a TV show.
“New Kid on the Block” (Season 4, Episode 8)
In the season-four episode “New Kid on the Block,” written by Conan O’Brien, Bart develops a crush on his new neighbor, Laura. Sadly, as first discovered by the Daily Simpsons Twitter account, a gag is ruined by the aspect-ratio change when a moving truck bearing the name “Clumsy Student Movers” is cut off in the bottom of the frame.
In the original we see a mover drop a lamp, whereas in the trimmed version an offscreen shout of “Oh no, not again!” is rendered nonsensical without the visual gag to set it up.
“Duffless” (Season 4, Episode 16)
As spotted by Tristan Cooper, this was the ruined visual gag that set off the current wave of criticism. In the original 4:3 version, a shot of the Duff Brewery rewards those paying attention with the gag that all three varieties of Duff — from Duff Lite to Duff Dry — come from the exact same pipe. In the cropped 16:9 version, the joke is completely lost.
“The Front” (Season 4, Episode 19)
Reminiscing on the night of his high-school reunion, Homer pulls out his senior yearbook, calls himself a “handsome devil,” reads his senior quote — a reference to a 1970s Alka-Seltzer commercial — and states with respect to his lack of activities, sports, and honors, “So many memories.”
While we catch a fleeting glimpse of his yearbook photo in the cropped version, it quickly disappears as the camera pans down to reveal more and more of the yearbook peripherals. Those watching on Disney+ are forced to see Homer’s wispy teen mustache only in their minds while those lucky ones watching the classic dimensions could gaze upon it lovingly, throughout the yearbook cutaway.
“Bart’s Comet” (Season 6, Episode 14)
In his ongoing mission to make his principal’s life a living hell, Bart modifies the school’s weather balloon to look like Seymour Skinner and to bear the words “Hi! I’m Big Butt Skinner.”
Sadly the cropped version chops the cheeks off “Big Butt Skinner” in the initial reveal, and a lot of cheekiness goes with them. “Big Thighs Skinner” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
“Treehouse of Horror VI” (Season 7, Episode 6)
Before he gets Freddy Kruegered by Groundskeeper Willy, Springfield’s leading apple-polisher, Martin Prince, has a happy dream about being a boy wizard and master of Latin grammar.
In the cropped version, we lose not just some visual grandeur, but a whole four lines of the Latin background text. Won’t somebody please think of the conjugations?
“You Only Move Twice” (Season 8, Episode 2)
When the Simpsons move to the idyllic town of Cypress Creek and Homer inadvertently starts working for cheery supervillain Hank Scorpio, there are a number of gags at Scorpio’s ultramodern office/lair that are spoiled by cropping.
Originally the above sequence is a three-part joke: A close-up shows Homer and Scorpio seemingly walking through pristine woods, then a wider shot reveals that they are in fact indoors walking on treadmills, and the third shot shows that once they get off the machines they’re still being technologically assisted by standing on a moving conveyor belt. However, in 16:9 you can’t properly see the treadmills and you can’t see the conveyor belt at all. Thanks to cropping, the whole sequence is comedically mangled.
“A Milhouse Divided” (Season 8, Episode 6)
When Milhouse’s parents break up, Kirk Van Houten moves out and is swiftly fired from the cracker factory because he’s single and no longer fits the company’s family-friendly image. His boss explains the situation by saying, “Maybe single people eat crackers … We don’t know. Frankly, we don’t wanna know.”
What’s much clearer in the original version is that the painting hanging behind Kirk’s boss during that serious moment is of a big, dumb cracker.
“Lisa’s Date With Density” (Season 8, Episode 7)
When Lisa finds herself in the unsettling throes of an attraction to Springfield’s resident heckler, Nelson Muntz, she visits his house to find it low on upkeep and high on right-wing propaganda, including a memorable poster that reads “NUKE THE WHALES.”
The shot is rendered less funny in the trimmed version, however, as one of the other two hyperoffensive posters, which read “Bomb the Arabs and Take Their Oil” and “Bomb the Indians and Take Their Casinos,” are cut out.
Suddenly the joke has less of a bite, and the comedic “rule of threes” becomes a paltry two.
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