What better way to mark the festive period than with an in-depth exploration of that landmark of Christmas popular culture, The Simpsons Holiday Specials. Edwin Davies wraps up a fantastic year in Hope Lies On Television with a look at the long running series.
On the 17th of December, 1989, a jaundiced family of ne’er do wells known as The Simpsons made the leap from crudely animated short as part of a variety show to slightly less crudely animated half-hour sitcom. It was an unusual event for a number of reasons. Merely by dint of airing on the fledgling Fox network, which was still in its infancy and was four years away from being able to field a whole week’s worth of programming. If that wasn’t enough, the show was the first animated series to air in primetime since The Flintstones ended twenty-three years earlier, so it was already competing against a much loved classic before it started. Perhaps most unusual of all, the episode that marked the debut of the show that would become America’s longest-running scripted television program was a Christmas episode.
Most television series don’t start with a Christmas special since the traditional start of the television season is September, and airing a Christmas special then would be incongruous, to say the least. There are plenty shows that start airing later than the usual September/October point, often when ordered to to replace shows that started in September but are cancelled before they get full season orders (other shows that started as mid-season replacements but went on to great success include The Wonder Years, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Family Guy) but they tend to start airing in January. Christmas specials entail a certain degree of familiarity with the characters, since they invariably revolve around seeing how the characters handle the demands of the holidays, and more often than not resolve in a warm and fuzzy manner befitting the season.* It’s a pretty bold choice to start a new series with a format that is so much better suited to shows that have already established their characters and world.
Except the decision to have ‘Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire’ as the series premiere was made through necessity, rather than being a particularly brave statement of intent. The Simpsons was originally meant to debut in the autumn of 1989 with the episode ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, in which Bart and Lisa battle the Babysitter Bandit. However, the animation for the initial version of that episode was reportedly so terrible that the staff left the first screening in disgust, sending the show, already a risky gamble, into a bit of a tailspin. The animation had to be completely redone (and, as anyone familiar with the episode will know, it still looked awful) and the air date for the show was pushed back. The delay meant that the show would miss the usual startdate of the television season, and since they had already planned a Christmas episode it would have to air as the first episode because there would be no place for it otherwise.
Considering that ‘Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire’ was the first example of these characters being used to tell a fully realised narrative, it’s amazing how bleak it is right up until the final moment of slight redemption. As with many of the early episodes of the show, the plot is driven by money, or the lack thereof. One of the earliest signs that The Simpsons would prove to be the definitive satire of its age, it often reflected the difficult economic climate of its time, building episodes around Homer not having enough money to provide for his family, much as many upper-lower-middle-class families struggled at the time. (This became less prevalent as the series went on as the rules of the show became more flexible, allowing the family to go from barely being able to pay rent one week to, in the episode ‘The Day The Violence Died’, Homer being fully prepared to pull $1000 out of his wallet at a moment’s notice. Series creator Matt Groening coined the term “rubber band reality” to refer to this trope of the show.)
In this episode, Homer discovers that he won’t be receiving the Christmas bonus that he intended to use to buy presents for his family at the same time that Bart gets a tattoo and Marge uses their savings to have it removed. Ashamed that he will be unable to buy gifts for his family at Christmas, Homer lies about his bonus and takes a humiliating job as a mall Santa to earn some extra cash. Homer doesn’t earn enough to buy the presents, so he and Bart go to the dog track and place a bet on the 99-1 shot named Santa’s Little Helper, which loses the race and Homer’s meagre money.
So, as the very first episode of a television series, we see the main character get screwed over by his miserly boss, be forced to take on a degrading job which doesn’t even pay him enough to achieve the purpose of taking the job in the first place, then lose that cash in an ill-placed bet, all at Christmas. It’s kind of amazing to think the show ran for those twenty-two minutes, let alone for another twenty-two years (yeah, you should probably feel a little old and tired right now) and counting. Yet, the episode does pull back from the brink of near-suicidal despair – a place it would go to again a mere two episodes later with “Homer’s Odyssey”, which actually does culminate with Homer preparing to jump into a river with a boulder tied to his waist – in its final minutes when Santa’s Little Helper is given to Homer and Bart by his owner, who doesn’t want to keep a loser like that around any longer. The family get a pet for Christmas, and the preceding bitter gloom is temporarily lifted by a sense of familial togetherness.
In some ways, that’s the perfect analogy for Christmas as a season. Most of the time, life is tough. Things don’t always work out the way you want them to, you never have enough time or money to do all the things that you want to do, and wherever you are in your life, it more often than not feels like it isn’t where you are meant to be. At Christmas time, though, we can put that aside and re-connect with the people in our lives who really mean something to us; our family and our friends.
Yet for much the same reason that Christmas can be a beautiful experience when everything goes right, it can be an incredibly sad and alienating experience when it doesn’t. A couple of years ago, owing to events beyond my control, I wound up spending Christmas day on my own, and it was easily one of most depressing and awful days of my life. (Long story short: I was meant to spend the day itself with my sister, her boyfriend and his family, but they broke up a week before Christmas and she went to Florida to stay with my parents whilst I had no time to make new plans owing to work commitments.) Nothing especially bad happened, but the sense of disconnectedness, of not being where I was supposed to be and doing the things I was supposed to be doing was really quite horrible.
What ‘Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire’ does brilliantly is that it taps in to that sense of desperation, showing that Christmas, as stressful and overly commercial as it can be, still has meaning as a time of the year when we can put aside whatever else is going on and just enjoy the company of our loved ones. The family receiving a dog for Christmas, blissfully unaware of the trials their father has been through in order to get him, is a poignant and heartwarming example of everything that is good and right about the season, even if – or maybe because – it follows such unrelenting darkness.
That balance of cynicism with traces of sentiment becames the definining feature of The Simpsons for most of its glory days, with later seasons being marred by too much of the former and not enough of the latter. Yet the contrast always seemed most pronounced in its Christmas specials, the best of which managed to be funny, insightful examinations of the darker aspects of the season with moments of heartbreaking emotional honesty.
Somewhat strangely for a show that started with a Christmas episode, The Simpsons would not do another one for six years, after which they became more frequent, if not more regular.
‘Marge Be Not Proud’, which aired on December 17th, 1995, was equally great at finding that particular balance between savage and sweet. Bart becomes obsessed with a hyper-violent videogame which Marge says they can’t afford to buy him for Christmas. After Jimbo convinces him to, Bart shoplifts a copy of the game, only to be caught by a security guard voiced by Lawence Tierney.** Despite his best efforts to keep his crime a secret from his parents, Bart is eventually found out when the family return to the store to have their Christmas picture taken. This causes a rift between Bart and Marge which is depicted with cold and discomforting candour. Marge thinks that Bart is no longer her little boy, and stops committing the little acts, such as tucking him in at night, that have become such a central part of their relationship, albeit in a way which is only apparent once they are absent.
The toll that this takes on Bart over the course of the episode is played with a surprising degree of realism and desperation – at one point he starts hanging around with Milhouse’s mother and desperately pleads with her to tell him that he is “good” – and this makes the ending, which sees Bart get a new picture taken to make up for the one that was ruined when the security guard dragged him away, all the more touching. It’s a sweet and satisfying conclusion which is made even more so by the genuine sense of sadness and heartbreak felt by both Bart and Marge over the course of the episode, which somehow still manages to be one of the funniest in the history of the show. (Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge alone is one of the greatest gags the show ever came up with.) At its best, The Simpsons was able to walk the line between comedy and tragedy better than almost any other show on television.
Considering how great its first two Christmas specials were, the years since have been disappointing, with hardly any of them touching the same emotional sweet spot. ‘Miracle on Evergreen Terrace’ (1997), in which Bart accidentally destroys all the family’s presents and says that a burglar broke in and took them, comes close with its ending in which, after the people of Springfield loot the Simpson house to repay the money they donated to replace the missing presents, the family play together with the last item in the house: a tattered washcloth. It’s a touching end to a funny episode but it feels rushed, and the lows of the episode are never deep enough for the highs to have much impact.
Later episodes seemed to stop trying for emotion entirely – a problem that was indicative of a wider malaise within the show – and instead delivered zany adventures with a Christmas setting, often depicting the dark side of Christmas with none of the light. In ‘Grift of the Magi’ (1999) Bart and Lisa try to defeat a corporation who produce Furby-like toys called Funzos that destroy other toys; ‘Skinner’s Sense of Snow’ (2000) finds the children of the show trapped in the school with Principal Skinner and anarchy, unsurprisingly, ensues; and ‘Kill Gil, Volumes I & II’ (2006) has the Jack Lemmon-inspired underdog Gil Gunderson live with The Simpsons, to the consternation of Marge. Two of these episodes (2005’s ‘Simpsons Christmas Stories’ and 2010’s ‘The Fight Before Christmas’) saw the show abandon the idea of a Christmas special with a single narrative in favour of anthology episodes in which a couple of different stories play out over the course of the episode.
All of these episodes have their positives – I am particularly fond of “Sir” Gary Coleman’s appearance in ‘Grift of the Magi’ and Homer’s rivalry with The Grumple in ‘Kill Gill’ – but there isn’t anything underpinning them emotionally, so they just end up washing over the audience, never leaving a trace in a way that the show can in its best moments. Even the two episodes that ground their storylines in relatively stronger emotional terms, ‘She of Little Faith’ (2001) and ”Tis the Fifteenth Season’ (2003), are pretty lacking in actual heart. Whilst the former is notable for depicting Lisa’s struggle with her sense of spiritual identity and ultimate decision to become a Buddhist, which the show has stuck to, and the later strikes upon a genuinely great idea by having Homer selfishly buy himself an extravagant present, try to make amends by becoming charitable and then, in a great piece of convoluted logic, stealing the presents of everyone in town to give them the best Christmas ever, they just aren’t moving. The emotional stakes are fairly low, and whilst none of them could lay claim to being the worst episode of The Simpsons ever made, they also aren’t especially great, even in comparison to the episodes that surround them.
The dearth of great specials from the show unexpectedly ended this year with ‘Holidays of Future Passed’, which proved to not only be the best Christmas episode since ‘Marge Be Not Proud’ but a genuinely terrific episode that could rank comfortably amongst the middle-range episodes of the Golden Age of the series. (It’s not Top 20 or anything, but it could be a Top 200 episode pretty comfortably.)
What’s even more suprising about the episode is that it manages to be touching despite a premise which is far and away the most wacky, least grounded of any Christmas episode. After an opening scene set in the present day, the episode jumps forwards thirty years into the future, to a time when Bart is divorced and has two sons he rarely sees, Lisa is married to Milhouse and has a teenaged daughter who doesn’t see eye-to-eye with her, and Maggie is a pregnant rock star. All three find themselves drawn back to the family home for Christmas, children in tow, and the audience gets to see what life is like for all the supporting characters who survived that long/the writers had time to fit into the episode.
The setting of the episode allows for a lot of fun isn’t-the-future-CRAZY gags, such as the idea that air travel would devolve into a feral Mad Max state after the invention of teleportation, or that Daleks and Triffids will walk the streets of London with impunity, and the episode crams more genuinely hilarious jokes into the episode than almost any in recent memory. However, what elevates the episode is the chance to see the characters in a new context, one which is removed not only from the show as we know it, but also from the other future episodes that they have done. Whereas in other episodes Lisa has been a character with everything going for her, be it as a young girl getting engaged or the President of the United States, here she is a fairly normal mother with a normal teenager and a whole lifetime full of regrets and missed opportunities.
In what proves to be the key emotional scene of the episode, Bart and Lisa get drunk in Bart’s old treehouse and talk about how they hoped things would turn out differently and how they wish that they had better relationships with their respective kids. Like Homer’s desperation in ‘Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire’ or Marge’s sense of betrayal and hurt in ‘Marge Be Not Proud’, the emotions of the scene come from a real place; a shared sense of disappointment between two people who have known each other their whole lives and are still struggling to come to terms with how their childhood shaped them as people. It may take place in a completely ridiculous situation – the scene ends with Bart asking the tree, which is sentient, to lean down so that they can jump down to the ground – but at the heart of the episode is something truthful and meaningful.
It’s oddly appropriate, given the brief period over the summer when it seemed like the show might be cancelled over a dispute between the cast and Fox, that The Simpsons should produce one of the best episodes in years. That cycle of news stories, public statements from the cast and responses from the studio rekindled the long-running, ever present debate about when exactly The Simpsons stopped being the best show on television, how much longer it can keep going and whether it can still be relevant. ‘Holidays of Futures Passed’ is as good an argument in favour of the show’s existence as anyone could ever hope to make. It’s hilarious, wildly inventive and it manages to be both acerbic and saccharine in just the right amounts.
Also, like the great specials that came before it, it encapsulates the sense of family, love and acceptance that should be the underpinning of Christmas. When the grown up Simpsons children get together with their parents for a family picture at the end, complete with their own children in tow, it’s a beautiful, sweet and quiet moment, the sort of thing that the show can still do brilliantly, if infrequently. Even if it’s only once a year, every Christmas, say, moments like that are worth keeping the show around.
*Notable exception: the episode of Married With Children in which Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill), having been shown what the world would have been like had he not been born and discovered that the lives of his family members would have been much improved, decides to live so that he can make them as miserable as possible.
** Tierney is probably best known for playing Joe Cabot in Reservoir Dogs, and Elaine’s father in one episode of Seinfeld. He was notoriously difficult to work with on The Simpsons, refusing to read the lines given to him because he didn’t understand the jokes, and various members of the Seinfeld cast and crew tell a story about how he tried to steal knives from the set of Jerry’s apartment and “jokingly” threatened Jerry Seinfeld with one of them when he asked him what he was doing.