Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Quick Review of "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire"

Starring: Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright
Director: David Silverman
Created by: Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, Sam Simon

"But he's a loser. He's pathetic. He's...a Simpson." - Homer on Santa's Little Helper

I wanted to do a quick something for the holidays, so I figured the best way to do it would be to briefly review a Christmas special, which also happens to be the series premiere of my favorite TV show of all time.

Saying that "The Simpsons" is my favorite TV show is kind of like saying my favorite ice cream flavor is chocolate (it is, by the way): not everyone would say the same, but it is almost a boring choice. But there is good reason for that: the show has influenced nearly every aspect of our culture and is permanently etched in the minds of all who grew up with it. Some people go to church on Sundays religiously; I would watch "The Simpsons" on Sunday religiously. Heck, I still watch new episodes of it when I have the time. No, it is not nearly as good as it used to be and is done more out of habit and loyalty than anything at this point. But I am not here to talk about that. In the spirit of the season, and to commemorate the 25th anniversary of its original airing (which was before I was born, by the way), I am here to give you my (short) take of "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire."

(Warning: I am assuming most of you reading this are fans who have seen this episode a million and one times, but just in case you are not, there will be spoilers).

The episode features the Simpsons running into trouble during the holidays when their sources of income fall through: Homer does not get his Christmas bonus because Mr. Burns is a greed bastard and Marge has to use their Christmas savings to remove a tattoo that Bart got without telling anyone. Homer keeps the former a secret and tries to find ways to make sure his family's Christmas is not a disappointment. This includes getting part-time work as a mall-Santa and attempting to get rich at a dog racing track by betting on a canine with a very familiar name.

By this description alone, it sounds like a fairly typical Simpsons episode, and indeed there are many aspects within it that have carried on throughout the years. However, you will probably notice that this is very much a series under construction. The animation is rather primitive, the voice actors seem very cautious in the way they deliver their lines, and the jokes are generally safe in terms of their content. And while most of the characters are more or less constructed the way most people view them today (especially Bart), others have undergone some noticeable changes since 1989. Ralph Wiggum makes only a brief appearance, but it is hard to overlook the fact that he sounds...uh...not "special." Lisa sounds like, dare I say, a normal 8-year old girl who wants a pony for Christmas. The character who seems most out of place is Homer: aside from the Walter Mattau-style voice (seriously, that is who Dan Castellaneta originally based it on), he seems a lot more straight-laced than he does in later seasons. His intelligence nothing to brag about but not abysmal, his anger seems more abrupt and threatening, and he appears to have a relatively strong moral conscience. When he and Bart go to the race track at the insistence of Barney Gumble (who has blonde hair, strangely enough), he seems genuinely ashamed about it. That's not the Homer Simpson I know! The Homer Simpson I know would have brought the whole family with him and blow their entire life savings on that damn dog!

By the way, does anyone else who has watched this see a lot of similarities between it and "Christmas Vacation"? Both feature the family patriarch failing to turn on the Christmas lights on his house while his family watches on, getting a tree from out in the middle of the woods instead of a lot,  and, yes, not getting his Christmas bonus. They both came out around the same time so unless there was some connection between the two productions, I cannot cry plagiarism for either. My guess is that the Simpsons and Griswold families are only a small faction of people who struggle during the holidays for similar reasons.

But I digress...

In a way, all this makes sense: the show was in the process of evolving from animated shorts that would appear between sketches on the Fox program "The Tracy Ullman Show" to a full-length series. This is not exactly an easy task even today; the creators of "The Simpsons" on the other hand were doing this at a time when Fox itself was just getting started and probably had barely any budget to give them, on top of the fact that there had not been a successful prime-time animated series since "The Flintstones" ended its run twenty years prior. So you can understand if the show seems like it is trying to figure itself out. Still, it is odd to think that this would become the longest-running primetime scripted show in television history; it looks like something that would barely last a half a season today.

As the episode goes on, however, you start to see an inkling of what made the series great. Lisa leaves the pony stuff aside to give a passionate defense of her father as her male role model. Homer meanwhile gets some laughs trying to make the Santa and dog track things work (and failing), with Bart contributing to the mix.

*Spoilers start here*

And then there is the end. Once it seems like rock bottom has been hit, they encounter the dog that Homer lost money on. His name, of course, is Santa's Little Helper, who is adopted by the family as everyone learns WHAT CHRISTMAS IS ALL ABOUT!!! Okay, it is very cheesy and cliche, but it works.

*Spoilers end here*

The Simpsons was always good at mixing humor with heart. I have the quote on top because it is a good synopsis of the episode and to a certain extend the series as a whole: while people (and animals) are flawed, they do their best to rise above it all. Even if they do not succeed, they still manage to find what is really important in life. And hopefully, have a laugh while doing it.

So that is "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire." How does it hold up a quarter of a century later? Fairly well. It is not the greatest Christmas special ever, and certainly not the best "Simpsons" episode ever (at least it is not the Worst. Episode. Ev...sorry I could not help it...). Still, it has the Christmas spirit and is, in its own little way, a very appropriate start to a beloved series.

I definitely recommend it if you have not seen it already. And if you have...see it again!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

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