1. Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire

(originally aired December 17, 1989)
So we start with Season 1, which is basically like a 13-episode long experiment in figuring out what exactly this new breed of show is, from the rough animation, the developing characterizations, and the humor and tone. These episodes put me off in the past, but I’ve grown fonder of them over time. I really like the wonkier animation style, especially compared to how stiff the show is now. I can remember seeing some of these in syndication (“The Telltale Head” showed up a lot for some reason), but I saw a lot of these on the old Simpsons video tapes. Long before DVD, we were stuck with these primitive devices known as VCRs. I remember there were two episodes a tape (along with a Tracy Ullman-era short), and I think they got to the beginning of season 3 before they stopped making them. This episode was on its own tape, dubbed The Simpsons Christmas Special.

So this is our first look at the show, as we follow our hero, Homer Simpson, in his efforts to create an idyllic Christmas for his family. It’s a Homer that’s sort of fallen by the wayside in later years, the well-meaning father. While he can be bumbling, thick-headed or just not too bright, he still does what he can for his family. However, he finds that life can be a bitch, as many obstacles stand in his way: he is denied his annual Christmas bonus, and is shocked to find that the money the family had saved out has been blown to remove a tattoo Bart impulsively received. Making matters worse, Homer constantly finds himself in the shadow of his do-good neighbors, the Flanders, whose over-extravagant Christmas lawn display is a stark contrast to his one working light bulb in a string of a thousand. None of these things are done upon Homer with malice; it’s life dealing him a bad hand, but Homer pushes forward with all the gumption he can muster.

He takes a position as a mall Santa, perhaps hoping working for the season will save his own, but with extraneous expenses, he is only paid a measly thirteen dollars. On top of that, his plight is exposed to Bart after he yanks at his beard as a prank, not knowing it is his father. To raise Homer’s spirits, Bart invokes the hackneyed traditions of television sadsacks, that miracles always happen on Christmas to those in need. It’s a brilliant speech that in the very first episode forebears a hallmark in Simpsons humor, the recognition of pop culture norms and flipping them on their ass. In his last desperate act, Homer tags along with his drunk pal Barney to the dog track to see if he can win big. In keeping with his faith in cliched TV underdog stories, Homer bets it all on a last-minute addition “Santa’s Little Helper,” but the dog is easily defeated.

Slowly but surely losing hope, Homer and Bart scrounge the parking lot for any discarded winning tickets. But then, his own brand of miracle happens as the dog he lost everything on jumps into his arms. He doesn’t recognize this as the answer to his problems; he takes sympathy on the dog because in a way its undying determination in the face of inevitable defeat reminds him of himself. When he returns home and the family is enthralled by the perfect Christmas gift, he’s dumbfounded. Every mistake and pratfall he endured was all crucial to lead him to this unintended success. But that’s Homer Simpson, the accidental hero.

The show delves into a fair level of schmaltz, but almost out of obligation in that it is a Christmas special. But it goes out of the way to mock them as well, dragging Homer along to an unintentional success. With its true slice-of-life scenarios, believable and likeable characters and slightly off humor, this episode was a sure sign for things to come.

Tidbits and Quotes:
– I love Homer’s line “Pardon my galoshes” while scooting past people to an empty seat at the Christmas pageant. It’s such a throwaway line, but it seems so classic Homer, especially in the early Walter Matthau-esque voice.
– Lisa’s list reading “A PONY” in giant letters six times, followed by “Thank you, Lisa” in small print is pretty adorable.
– The kids applauding Homer’s fall from the roof setting up the lights is pretty adorable too. As, of course, is Maggie’s star suit.
– What mall has a tattoo parlor? The scene with Bart and the tattoo artist is brilliant.
[Bart] One “Mother” please.
[Tattoo Artist] Wait a minute, how old are you?
[Bart] Twenty-one, sir.
[Tattoo Artist] Get in the chair.
The upshot of the tattoo artist makes it all the better, seeing it from Bart’s short view. He ain’t no 21-year-old.
– An early look at impusively emotional Homer, and my favorite line of the show: “We’re ruined! Christmas is cancelled! No presents for anyone!”
– The earliest of many great Simpsons store names: Circus of Values. It’s an absolutely perfect name for a Dollar Tree-like store.
– There’s a lot of great moments toward the end of the second act when Homer is really at his wit’s end. Tired from coming home from Santa training, he trudges upstairs only to have Marge tell him her sisters are here. Hunched over and clutching the banister, he shudders, knowing he must endure yet another unpleasantness. Responding to Patty and Selma’s murmuring of there being no Christmas tree, Homer goes out alone to find one. It’s a fantastic sequences, as Homer passes lot after lot of trees out of his price range, getting increasingly madder as “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” plays.
– A great line from Bart after Santa’s Little Helper loses: “It doesn’t seem possible, but I guess TV has betrayed me.”


6 responses to “1. Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire

  1. This looks like a fun project!

    Personally, I drifted away from the show right around Season 13 and have rarely watched since. But Seasons 1-8 still visit my TV screen quite often!

    Good, fun insights so far. Keep up the good work!

  2. Really appreciate your mad quest here. I look forward to reading your thoughts during the off hours while at work, of which there are many (in true Homer Simpson fashion). Hopefully I will even summon up worthwhile comments for you. Cheers, Douglas

  3. that shudder homer does on this episode has been a mannerism of mine since i was six, haha

  4. Just watched this again. One funny thing that stuck out to me was Flanders says “Happy Holidays, Simpson” when they run into each other at the Circus of Values. New, close-minded nut-job Flanders would shit a brick if someone said “Happy Holidays” to him.

  5. I watch this episode every Dec and it never gets old. My favorite bit is when he turns on the pitiful lights display that is outdone by Flanders a few seconds later. So damn funny. I also love Homer’s reaction when at first he wants to stay until SLH crosses the finish line and then just gives up a few moments later. This is all around one of the best Xmas specials of all time, if not THE best.

  6. Knowing what an insufferable ass-wipe and adventurous daredevil Homer would become later (I started reading your blog while watching season 11), it’s kinda touching to see him in these first and second season episodes, where he was just a simple working-class guy trying to hold out for his family.

    Also, thank you for pointing out how well they’re subverting standard TV clichĂ©s in this episode. The show did this a lot during the first two seasons, and much of its appeal during the “Bartmania” era came from its contrast to the sugar-frosted harmony of most families on US television at the time. To me, this is also one of the main reasons why many younger viewers are having trouble relating to the humor of these early episodes, since that contrast doesn’t really translate to our times, where (not least due to the influence of The Simpsons themselves) TV families like the Cosbys just aren’t the norm anymore.

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