This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons Season 32 Episode 16
The Simpsons Season 32, episode 16, ” Manger Things,” is the 700th installment of the series. That’s more episodes than Rocky and Bullwinkle and Gunsmoke put together. To celebrate, they are gifting us with a second holiday episode. This one is a Christmas story of failing and redemption, like every other yuletide tale. It stars the Simpsons’ neighborinos, Ned and Maude Flanders.
As Bart says, Christmas is no time to think about your neighbors, but “Manger Things” repays the indulgence. It is set in the not too distant past, six years ago. But you’d never know that from Marge’s contemporary cultural and political references. She wryly explains the year which the incidents took place was the year when the Oscar went to an overrated movie nobody remembers, a politician said something stupid no one will ever forget, and Tom Brady won the Super Bowl. This is a very deft collection of memories which can be considered evergreen. We do know it is set before Abe was shipped off to the retirement home.
The premise of the episode is hung on Homer’s promise not to get drunk at that year’s office party. A tough promise to keep, it turns out, but somewhat tougher on Montgomery Burns, who is consistently reliable for an underhanded laugh. Mere moments after filling up on the ego-boosting carol “Hark the herald angels sing, good old Monty is our king,” Mr. Burns has to endure Homer’s drunken ribaldry at his expense. At least Burns is in the holiday spirit. He only calls out the Christmas hounds: Slasher, Gasher, Mangy and Nixon, Stalker, Vicious, Rabid and Rips-em.
The episode is loaded with subtle and subversive commentary. Soda is safer than water in Springfield. The immigrant Irish family living in the room above Homer’s garage have never known such luxury, even when you factor in how they have to clean Moe’s bar for seven years before they get their passports back. During Christmas prayers, Lisa puts more of an emphasis on “Santa bless God” than God blessing Santa.
Homer goes one further, when Reverend Lovejoy tells him to quote one Bible verse, he comes back with “There once was a man from Judea, who said of my wife, if I pay ya-.” Homer is banished to Ned’s Son of Mancave, where both holy water and regular water run on tap. Keep an eye out for the wonderful posters Ned keeps on his wall and how they religiously undermine the expectations of a man cave.
The flashback affords us a guest appearance from the long-dead character Maude Flanders. She is not as charity-minded as her husband, and can see through his selfish selfless acts, just like Ned can see the face of Jebus on every person he meets. This makes for a very Simpsonesque aside, of which there are many during the installment. The Simpsons employ many comedy stylings peculiar to the show. It helps us go with the flow. Unlike Maude, who has little patience for Homer’s particular peculiarities.
The first straw on the camel’s back gets placed there when Homer eats the Flanderses’ Christmas ham, not even cooked, and still in the plastic. This implies Homer also ate the plastic and didn’t notice over his feeding frenzy. We know, from this scene, how much he really needs Marge. She can glaze a ham until its radioactive glow can’t even be contained at the Springfield Nuclear Plant. The emotional point is subtly reinforced by the cut to Marge, who is making one of her groaning, worried sounds. The segue implies she knows, even as much as she is blinded by disappointment, that Homer is suffering. And is probably contributing to the suffering of others.
You would think, with a title like “Manger Things,” the episode would be a takeoff on Stranger Things, but it remains within the realms of probabilities, not possibilities. The scariest of the supernatural horrors in Ned’s son of man-cave is a picture of Ned himself, in a sweater, with the words “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” written on it. Oh, and some infernal fresco of some of the layers of Hell. It turns out Homer is immune to temptation, but it’s not because of clean living. The demons in Ned’s basement threaten Homer with eternity in a lake of fire, which he takes as a vacation offer. The demon should have tried the more tortuous time-share approach.
The segment where Homer makes himself at home in the room over the garage is very sweet. He cuts a hole in the roof rather than trim his tree, but other than that, as Lenny points out, he’s living his dream life: unable to stand up. Lenny’s to blame for the whole mess, of course, and was even hitting on Marge at the Christmas party. Yet Homer still calls him to keep him in the loop.
Homer is a persistently consistent optimist. His entire character is rooted in the belief that everything will work out after it has bottomed out. And he’s always able to maintain surprise when a bottom does drop out. He mistakes piety for pie, and thinks he can fix everything with cookies. One of the stranger things about “Manger Things,” is that Homer’s brain makes an appearance. Usually, all the blood goes to his stomach.
To delay the tide-turning climax, Homer gets stuck by a commercial when he’s looking up how to deliver a baby, but it’s worth it for the audience. Sideshow Mel is teaching a class on how to be a sidekick. Before Homer skips the ad, we get to hear him tell an appreciative audience: “There will come a time, mark my words, when a monkey will attempt to eat your face.” Even I took notes. The series is always very self-aware. When Homer notes that the newborn is perfect, having eight fingers and eight toes, he’s making note of an animation necessity over a biological imperative. It costs more to animate five fingers than four.
The episode includes an “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoon which is so frightening, the cameras cut away before the final reveal. But Bart and Lisa, still young and reasonably impressionable, are visibly and audibly horrified. It’s been too long since the audience has witnessed the horrors of the animated-within-an-animation comic duo, so this works very well. Bart and Lisa look absolutely traumatized, which continues when they mistake a snowman for their returning father. The whole segment brilliantly condenses their fall from a loving sibling relationship to the cynicism of a broken family.
There are plenty of quick visual gags which flash by in very few instants. Some are silly, but still quite telling. The double feature playing at the Springfield movie theater is Frozen and The Ice Storm. There is a warning that chatty elves are not affiliated with the Springfield Mall. Gil, who is toiling as a mall Santa, becomes the first person in history to be dishonorably discharged by the Salvation Army. The books which are seen lost in the heating vents are “How to Get Your Baby Off Her Pacifier,” which seems a little too gender-specific for a baby book, and “How to Clean Your Vents.”
The opening piece, which replaces the couch gags, is “Homer’s Family” by Bill Plympton, which is a watercolor dismantling of Homer’s psyche to Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero.” The impressionist piece shows how tightly he keeps his family bond, however lightly they are arranged. The episode ends with a display of holiday cards from some of Springfield’s most esteemed residents. A particularly apropos tiding is “Enjoy today, we’ll talk about your test results tomorrow,” which comes from Dr. Hibbert.
“Manger Things” works exceedingly well as a stocking stuffer, even if it does arrive on the first day of spring. Why not? The classic Laurel and Hardy feature Babes in Toyland celebrated Christmas in July. Not very long ago, we were served a “Thanksgiving of Horror” episode, which was no turkey. Fox recently renewed The Simpsons for two more seasons, so it is doubly fitting to wrap its 700th episode in tinsel. Season 32 has seen a consistent rise in both quality and laughs per minute. If the residents of 742 Evergreen Terrace want to keep their decorations up until summer break, who’s to complain? Hallmark delivered us twelve days of Christmas, the Simpson family can parcel them out as they wish, if we get episodes this good.