This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons: Season 1 Episode 1
When the Simpsons are good, they can be very good, but when they are bad they are so much better. The Simpsons came out of the gate chasing Shirley the mechanical rabbits and screaming for lumps of coal. America came to know the sloppily drawn family from The Tracey Ullman Show, which squeezed them in between short sketches and skits as even shorter bumpers, like yellow chestnuts. Without skimping on executive bonuses at no cost to the consumer, Fox regifted us with a TV classic: “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” also known as “The Simpsons Christmas Special,” AKA The Simpsons season 1 episode 1. Although it was initially slated to come in at number eight that season.
Number 8 is also the name of the Christmas Miracle which marked its territory on Evergreen Terrace from the very start. Santa’s Little Helper is no Snoopy, Charles M. Shultz’s Peanut creation. Charlie Brown’s dog was a World War I devil dog in the air fighting the Red Baron through the imagination of the kids imposing their imaginations on him. Santa’s Little Helper won’t dance at a Christmas show or ever be Joe Cool. Santa’s Little Helper might just scratch and sniff at himself, but he is as much a heart of The Simpsons as a bird-house ornament is on a Christmas Tree. So much more than Snowball II, the little cat the family bought after Snowball was “unexpectedly run over and went to kitty heaven,” as Marge writes in her friends-of-the-Simpson-family holiday letter.
A lot of Peanuts mascot’s surrealistic fantasia has been presented through Maggie, who in this episode is barely walking by herself, whether dressed in a star shaped snow suit or not. The squeaky dog chew toy Homer buys for Maggie can be seen as foreshadowing. The Christmas miracle is a major pacifier in the household.
The episode opens at Springfield Elementary School’s annual holiday show, an endless evening overseen by a lackluster host. Principal Skinner is not a born showman. As the Emcee of the school’s pageant, he mispronounces his way to a most underwhelming presentation. The best response he gets during the evening is when Homer moans “How many grades does this school have?” But that’s far after the highlight of the night: Bart getting yanked for his spirited rendition of “Jingle Bells.” He goes with the “Batmobile losing its wheel” version, a timeless schoolyard classic.
In the first season Bart and Lisa are still kids and think, behave and talk like kids. Maybe not polite kids. The boy introduces himself to Santa by saying “I’m Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?” before yanking off his beard. The Simpson children are written far out of their grammar school grade level at this point in the series. And how could you blame them? Regardless of what class they’re in, they’ve endured a lot, the death of their teacher, a next door neighbor, a jazz mentor and several family members and even more pets.
But here we see the kids while they still have a shred of faith. Bart actually believes Marge’s reluctance will actually be turned around if he gets a loving “mom” in a heart tattoo on his arm. He gives a gift of the Maggie and allows The Simpsons to pull O Henry out of the stocking. The removal clinic insists a full cash payment up front. Gobbling up all the Christmas money. Marge agrees because she still believes in Homer’s Christmas bonus.
Marge is already a great enabler. She doesn’t ignore Patty and Selma’s running commentary on her husband so much as tune them out, occasionally groaning self-consciously. Just a short time after witnessing Homer drown in a combination of tears and flop sweat at the very thought of losing the Christmas fund, she readily accepts things are fine. So fine she doesn’t even balk at letting him do the Christmas shopping. She is a remarkable woman, able to hide a big jar of money in her hair for a year.
The laser that burns out Bart’s tattoo is a great childish exaggeration. It is a pure comic book evocation, ay, caramba. The “Ow, quit it” scene is tiny slice of devil’s food cake for the soul. I love how Bart’s eyes dart appraisingly and how nonchalantly he spits his unmentionable threats. Maggie and Homer get the same exact measure of menace for poking at his mending arm as Lisa, who’s been poking it continually, touché.
We get clues to the Simpson kids’ precocious nature seeing the saucy scribble of second grader Lisa’s last flaming torch juggle as Tawonga the Santa Claus of the South Seas wearing a witch doctor mask and a grass skirt. It is scarier than Hotiashi, the Japanese priest who acts like Santa Clause with eyes in the back of his head during Kurisumasu. Lisa also precociously admonishes her aunt Patty, pointing out that, “aside from the fact that he has the same frailties as all human beings, he’s the only father I have. Therefore, he is my model of manhood, and my estimation of him will govern the prospects of my adult relationships.”
Homer may be a total wash out of a father, but at least he knows how to give his son a holiday memory he will always remember: A trip to a sleazy dog track on Christmas Eve. The best money was on Whirlwind, but Homer is willing to go out on a final limb and believe in his son’s belief, something even Bart’s not so sure of. Homer is completely vulnerable and sad.
The Santa impersonator racket is a ripoff. After costume costs, Social Security, unemployment insurance, Santa training, beard rental and Christmas fund charges, you’re left with thirteen dollars. He can’t afford a tree so he takes a chainsaw past guard dogs and a “No Trespassing” and hacks out a bargain. Homer can still nurse a beer at Moe’s Tavern.
“Oh Homer,” Abraham grunts during the family rendition of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Those two words contain a lifetime of disappointment. Speaking of life going on, Grandpa is still with us, feisty as ever. In the earliest episodes Homer sounds like a cross between Walter Matthau in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and Walter Matthau in Bad News Bears, with a touch of Fred Flintstone, if voiced by Walter Matthau. Barney is a rubbly Barney.
Ned Flanders is not yet the hyper-religious family foil he will become. Here he represents more of a class consciousness. He has the best lights on the block. He can afford an armful of fancy presents. He and one of his sons are on their way to the best Christmas ever. Stupid Flanderses. The nuclear power plant debuts as a nightmare, and Mr. Burns as an elderly Grinch. The episode also introduces Barney, Milhouse Van Houten, Sherri and Terri, Wendell Borton, Dewey Largo, Ralph Wiggum and Waylon Smithers.
The jokes are paced slowly compared with where the show would soar very quickly after, but the subversion is already visible. When Bart says “there’s only one fat guy that brings us presents and his name ain’t Santa,” he steals a cookie from the perennial mythology. This episode also confirmed at the time what everyone always knew, Nixon and Donna Dixon were indeed reindeer.
“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” was directed by David Silverman, with storyboards done by Rich Moore, who designed Ned Flanders. Gwen Stefani’s brother Eric did some layout. The episode was written by Mimi Pond, who never made it to the writing staff because executive producer Sam Simon “didn’t want any women around.”
“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” which premiered on December 17, 1989, is a darkly satirical Peanuts special which subverted the TV landscape as much as the perceived nihilism of Seinfeld. Bart could be Lucy van Pelt, pulling out the football just as Chuck is about to kick it. Miracles happen to poor kids at Christmas all the time, just like we learned on TV. Lisa doesn’t need Linus’s blanket to give her the confidence to speak a simple truth to power.
The Simpsons would go on to create a “Miracle on Evergreen Terrance” every year with episodes like “She Of Little Faith.” They may not be as frenetically funny as the “Treehouse of Horrors” episodes that come out every Halloween, but they are as memorable. The first “Christmas Special” may have been crudely drawn and not as crude as Christmases yet to come, but it set a high standard. South Park‘s “Woodland Critter Christmas” may have edged it up a bit. “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” is a masterpiece which could pass as a work in progress. Who is Tiny Tim anyway?
The Simpsons stars Dan Castellaneta as Homer and Abe Simpson, Julie Kavner as Marge Simpson, Nancy Cartwright as Bart Simpson, Yeardley Smith as Lisa Simpson. Hank Azaria plays Kirk Van Houten, Chief Wiggum, and Moe. Harry Shearer is Seymour Skinner, Kent Brockman, C. Montgomery Burns and Waylon Smithers.
The Simpsons‘ “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” aired Sunday, December 23 at 8:00 p.m. on Fox.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.