We’ve reached Christmas Day and the end of our countdown. To celebrate, I’m watching one of the most significant TV episodes in my evolution as a person who consumes popular culture. It’s the episode that started an empire. It’s… the first episode of The Simpsons.
The Simpsons – “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”
Original airdate: December 17, 1989
I can’t tell you what a big deal this episode was for me. I’ve loved The Simpsons since the beginning, and I was so into this special when it aired about a month in advance of the series. I’m willing to bet I’ve watched it more than any other single episode of anything. The year it came out, I was a freshman in high school, and I convinced two different teachers to let us watch the episode in class. I was pretty cool.
But also, it was a thing I loved that was in the larger culture. It was successful and people watched it. Imagine being me in 1989. I liked superheroes a lot but that was not at all acceptable. You’d get teased and maybe beat up in English class by Scott Null for wearing an Iron Man t-shirt. I was a big fat dork, and I didn’t know a single person who cared about the stuff I loved. And it wasn’t the buffet of awesome that it is now. Animation was largely dead except for toy tie-ins. There was no Pixar or Adult Swim. It was just me thinking about how awesome it would be if they made a Cerebus movie and nobody wanted to hear me talk about Cerebus. But The Simpsons, that was a popular thing that I loved. It didn’t make me cool or well-liked, but at least I could be enthusiastic about something and other people knew what I was talking about.
Watching this episode again, it’s surprising to see that there aren’t that many jokes. I’ll argue all day that The Simpsons changed the pace of TV comedy, but not right away. The first year and a half are kind of slow – it isn’t until Season Two’s “Blood Feud” where it really feels like it’s The Simpsons that we know and love. But it’s impossible to watch it now without thinking about the five hundred episodes since and focusing on the things that are just off. Homer’s weird voice, wonky animation, really bizarre-looking background characters, prototypes of the supporting cast not acting at all in character (Flanders with a “Merry Xmas” display is incredibly jarring). But I have a lot of affection for it, and if you try to put it in the context of what TV was in 1989, you can kind of see why it was such a standout. Yeah, TV is a lot better now, but The Simpsons is a big part of how it got better.
As for the episode itself, it opens with Marge and Homer attending a Christmas pageant at Springfield Elementary. Lisa does a traditional South African dance, Bart gets yanked from the chorus for tomfoolery. At home, we learn that they’re counting on Homer’s Christmas bonus and Marge’s jar of savings to afford presents. (Though not the pony Lisa asked for.)
In short order, Mr. Burns cancels this year’s bonus. Meanwhile, Bart talks a guy at the mall into giving him a tattoo (“How old ar you?” “Twenty-one, sir.”) and Marge has to put all of her money toward laser removal. When Homer finds out, he keeps his cancelled bonus a secret and offers to buy all the presents this year. At the dollar store. He quickly realizes that’s not going to work and gets the idea to pick up a second job as a mall Santa.
Bart discovers his ruse when he decides to hassle a Santa and picks the wrong one. That makes him Homer’s co-conspirator, which is a dynamic we don’t see much anymore. Unfortunately, when it’s time to collect, he only makes thirteen dollars after taxes and rental fees. On a tip from Barney, they decide to go and bet it at the dog track.
They pick a dog named Santa’s Little Helper at 99-to-1 odds, which sounds like a Christmas Miracle in the making. Except that he’s 99-to-1 for a reason, and he loses handily. After the race, the guy who owns Santa’s Little Helper abandons him, so Bart and Homer adopt him. They end up having a lovely Christmas with their new dog, and it’s great.
Best Line – “If TV has taught me anything, it’s that miracles always happen to poor kids at Christmas. It happened to Tiny Tim, it happened to Charlie Brown, it happened to the Smurfs, and it’s gonna happen to us.” — Bart Simpson
Letters to Santa – Bart and Lisa compose letters – Bart asks Santa for a tattoo and Lisa only wants a pony.
Christmas Letter – Marge writes the family Christmas letter, mostly lauding Lisa’s accomplishments. “And Bart…. well, we love Bart”.
Christmas Tree – A broke Homer straight up steals a tree from somebody’s yard. There’s still a birdhouse it when he gets it home.
Christmas Decorations – The Simpson home has only a modest string of lights, and only about four of them actually light up. The Flanders family, however, has an elaborate display complete with rooftop Santa who says “Ho, Ho, Ho” in a way that’s burned into my memory forever. Or course, once the series started, Ned Flanders was quickly established as super-religious, so his secular decorations are a weird aberration here.
Jingle Bells – Bart sings the “Batman Smells” variation as part of a Christmas program.
Santa Claus – Both Homer and Barney play Santa – we even see a Santa training class with dozens of them. The instructor is one of those characters I wish would appear again – he’s got a distinctive look and he’s not too off-model for the current style.
A Christmas Miracle – Subverted when Santa’s Little Helper doesn’t win the race, but he still proves to be a good dog and Homer gets to save Christmas after all.
Gift Exchange – Homer’s Dollar Store gifts include pantyhose for Marge, pads of paper for Bart, and a dog toy for Maggie.
Holiday Cheer-O-Meter – By 2015 standards, this episode isn’t especially funny. It’s still really good, though. I like that it’s a fairly low stakes problem that’s incredibly important to Homer, and he doesn’t solve it in a traditional way (by somehow getting the money to buy presents). It’s a surprisingly honest portrayal of a middle class family at the time. The Simpsons hasn’t been about that in a long time, but that used to be something the show was really good at.
I still like this episode, twenty-six years later. It means a lot to me on several levels and it just feels like Christmas. I can’t give it anything but a 10.