Brian’s Exploratory Christmas Endeavor 2016: 6/25
Talk about a trip through time. It’s not just an old episode of America’s longest running sitcom, animated or otherwise, it’s the first episode ever aired. This aired on 17 December, 1989. I was only 2 years old at the time.
I grew up with The Simpsons, and was a full-fledged fan at 5 or 6 years old. It accompanied my formative years in a pretty significant way. Nearly as long as I’ve been a television watcher, I’ve been a Simpsons fan.
It’s hard for some people, particularly my room mate Justin, to rewatch the earliest Season 1 and 2 episodes of the show. Me, I still love them. Their blemishes don’t bother me. I owned half the first season on VHS tape, bought at a book store chain for about $25 a tape, 2 episodes each. I could probably recite “The Crepes of Wrath” word by word; even the French words.
Looking back on these old episodes, I don’t care that the writers were figuring out who these characters were, or the voice actors figuring out what these characters sounded like. I don’t care that the Klasky Csupo animation is ugly. For me, the only drawback to these early days is that the episodes don’t really back in very many jokes. If you look at the golden age of Simpsons episodes, arguably seasons 3 through 6, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” is practically humorless. But back in 1989, the show was taking a regular TV family dynamic and…well, just playing with it. You couldn’t have a ten year old boy get half-a-tattoo on a live action cartoon.
It’s all here though, and I don’t just mean the foundations of America’s Favorite Family. I mean it’s also a fine Christmas special, and one that, unlike the Bojack Horseman Christmas special I just reviewed, actually does manage to transcend its genre and fit comfortably in with the other true Christmas classics.
When Bart gets an ill-advised tattoo, Marge spends their jar of savings to have it removed; this comes unfortunately alongside Homer finding out that his Christmas Bonus for the year has been cancelled. Homer hurries to find a way to make Christmas happen for his family without letting them know that he isn’t the provider they think he is, leading him to take a low-paying gig as a Mall Santa. But even this can’t cut it, and ultimately he and Bart wind up spending the last few of his dollars at the dog track on Christmas Eve.
This is the sort of TV family portrayal that Married… With Children began, boldly declaring for the first time on TV during Reagan’s ’80s that the average American family wasn’t well-off; that the average American family was in fact living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to keep up in a world of low wages and children afflicted by our national average consumerism. Homer can’t give his family a “good” Christmas, the Christmas they are expecting, and it is tearing away at his self-esteem, his estimation of his own character as a man, husband and father. The Simpsons, formerly rooted in a loose interpretation of reality, used to play a lot with real-world problems like this, and that’s where “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” finds its heart.
If somehow, you’ve never seen this episode in the nearly 30 years since its airing, you might want to go do so before you read the next several sentences.
While at the dog track, Bart and Homer decide to put all their few dollars on a dog called Santa’s Little Helper. Thinking it a divine hint from above, a pending Christmas miracle, they expect the dog to win them enough money to still have a merry Christmas. And Santa’s Little Helper comes in dead last (played for a pretty funny gag, too). On their way out, hopeless, they find the dog being chased away from the track by its owner, who tells it that it’s lost its last race. It runs to our Simpson men, and in its failure they see a reflection of themselves; it is indeed a worthy new member of the Simpson family.
Back to the theme Married… With Children started, this bleak look at the American family, that a family can actually be a pack of losers, targets for life’s proverbial bird dumps, is the smartest and most touching thing in this episode, and probably much the reason The Simpsons found an audience in those early years. Santa’s Little Helper tried his best, and it wasn’t enough. So did Homer. So does the average American. Life isn’t easy, and we don’t all live with our many happy children in large houses, finding ourselves faced week after week by trivial problems that can be overcome in 22 minutes, ending in wholesome lessons, hugs, and soft string quartet pieces.
This is a very good episode of a show that has since become an American institution. It is worth anyone’s time, Simpsons fan or not, each and every December. It is a proper Christmas classic.
The handle end of a riding crop for a lack of jokes, and a final rating of: