So, I was just thinking…this blog is a review blog named after a Simpsons Treehouse of Horror story, and yet I haven’t reviewed The Simpsons at all. What’s up with that? So to remedy this mistake, I’m going to look at not one, but two themed Simpsons DVDs. We all love themed DVDs, don’t we? Where a TV show not only releases DVDs of full seasons, but a £5 DVD with four or five episodes from various seasons tied together by a certain theme. They released some Buffy DVDs with episodes based around a certain character, and with the large amount of Simpsons episodes available, there are several themed DVDs for the show. One featuring episodes based around jobs, one featuring episodes based around religion, and two, yes two, based around Christmas.
You know, it’s kinda strange that there are two Christmas DVDs for The Simpsons, given that it’s more well known for its Halloween specials; there was a Treehouse of Horror DVD, but there was only one and it only had Nos 5, 6, 7…and 12? Anyway, the very first episode of The Simpsons was a Christmas special, true, but there were no Christmas specials between that and Season 7’s “Marge Be Not Proud” (which Dead Homer Society calls the “one bad episode” in that season, one that heralded the coming of what they called “Zombie Simpsons” ie. the new episodes of the show that are nowhere near as good as the old ones).
‘Marge Be Not Proud’ isn’t even in any of the Christmas DVDs, given that it was already released in the “Bart Wars” compilation DVD. In fact, a lot of the episodes on these DVDs barely have anything to do with the holiday, so one wonders why even bother making two compilations when there’s really only enough Simpsons Christmas specials for one. Nonetheless, some of those pseudo-holiday specials have their pluses, and since they go from Season 1 to Season 15, reviewing these DVDs is a good way to see how this show has changed over the years.
So let’s grab our nearest Duff – the beer, not the energy drink – and crack open these DVDs!
Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire
I’m one of those who feel The Simpsons really found its footing in the second season of the show, but despite one or two things that felt a little wonky in comparison to later shows – Moe’s isn’t as dank as I prefer it to be, for example – I was surprised by well this show held up. I mentioned before that there were no Christmas specials between this and the seventh season, but it feels like they said everything that could be said about Christmas in this episode.
The Simpsons is best when its picking apart the uglier elements of something, and the ugly elements of Christmas – annoying relatives, bratty kids wanting impossible presents and having to spend copious amounts of money – is on full display. It’s not as laugh-out-loud funny or as quotable as some other episodes, but it works because you actually sympathise with Homer.
His family are left with little Christmas money after Bart has a tattoo removed and Homer is denied his Christmas bonus, so Homer has to resort to playing a shopping centre Santa to give his family a happy holiday. All the way, even as he bets on the races and trespasses to get a tree, we relate to him – we’ve all had stressful holidays – and root for him to succeed. The contrast between the jolly Christmas we see so often on TV and the realer Christmas of the Simpsons is highlighted through Bart’s hope for a Christmas miracle…only for it to be dashed. The ending, though, is still touching without being overly so.
See what I mean about the episodes barely having anything to do with Christmas? The only connection this episode has to Christmas is that it has snow, and when was the last time it snowed on Christmas anyway? Not that I’m complaining about its inclusion; it’s one of the best episodes. You wanna include it on this DVD, go ahead.
Now this is what The Simpsons should be about: a joke a minute, almost all of them a belly laugh, without sacrificing a cynical attitude. There’s so many quotable lines to be found – I always chuckle at Homer’s line about Moe’s being a porno shop – and the timing is uttely perfect – see the scene where Barney is advertising baby supplies.
When Homer accidentally wrecks both his cars, he ends up buying a snowplough and paying for it by plowing people’s driveways, a job which earns him the key to the city. When Barney becomes the Plow King and does a better job than Homer, Homer tries to find a way to dispose with Barney. I can’t really say this episode has as good a plot as ‘Open Fire’ – Barney only seems to become the Plow King just to add conflict – but the jokes more than make up for it. Good thing too, because it’s downhill from here.
Miracle on Evergreen Terrace
Uh. Something about this episode never sat right with me when I watched it as a kid. Maybe it’s because I never liked “serious episodes” of my comedy cartoons, maybe it’s because a lot of it feels a bit too mean. Yeah, The Simpsons has been funny while being mean, but there isn’t all that much funny to be found here (the biggest laugh I got was Homer’s speech on the news).
It’s just as well that ‘Marge Be Not Proud’ isn’t included in this compilation, because this episode is more or less a copy of that one. Bart does something bad on Christmas, tries to hide it, gets outed and is made to feel bad (it even borrows the “Homer fails to set up Christmas lights” gag from ‘Open Fire’). Bart accidentally burns down the family’s plastic Christmas tree and pretends a burglar did it. How did he burn down the tree? He woke up early, opened a toy firetruck and the firetruck shot water at the electric circuit, because toys come packaged with water in them.
When the Simpsons think they’ve been burgled, the townspeople give them their money, and when Bart confesses, the Simpsons are vilified and hated, as shown through unfunny scenes where Lisa is forbidden from learning and the family try to go to Krusty Burger. Because that’s the problem with this episode. It’s just not funny.
Grift of the Magi
Oddly enough, I found this one to be an improvement over ‘Miracle’, mostly because it was actually pretty damn funny. This episode aired when The Simpsons was beginning to decline in quality, but despite a rather strange plot and the fact it’s only a Christmas special in the second half, it was still very entertaining.
After Springfield Elementary goes bankrupt, it is bought by a company who are only using the pupils to make the next big holiday toy, which may look cute but is programmed to destroy other toys. Anyone can see that “Funzo” is a parody of Furby – they even mention Furby for Pete’s sake, but his empire is still amusing in its own twisted way. Funzo accessories include a Funzo lower back pain chair, and I even laughed when Funzo decapitated Lisa’s Malibu Stacy and danced with her head on a pencil, it was just so crazy.
Things get even crazier when Homer breaks into every house in town to steal the Funzos Grinch-style and there’s a finale involving Gary Coleman. But it’s a good kind of crazy.
She of Little Faith
And now for the bad kind of crazy. What starts this plot off is Homer launching a hamster-piloted rocket into the church, destroying it.
The Simpsons had a lot of episodes with “big changes” to the characters, but they rarely felt genuine. Barney gives up drinking, but it doesn’t feel it matters. Lisa becomes a Buddhist, but how she gets there is so awkwardly done. When the church is made more commercial, Lisa begins to question her faith. Okay, I can see that. But then we have Marge pretending to be God when Lisa is praying, and then when Lisa becomes Buddhist, the family all try and get her to become Christian again by reminding her of how great Christmas is. You’d think that the episode would portray the family as being in the wrong, but no, the plot is resolved when Lisa is told, ‘You can celebrate Christmas while being a Buddhist’ and everything is hunky-dory.
There is little humour to be found. I thought the money-changing stall in the church with ‘Get your money changed in the temple!’ was amusing but Lisa ruined it by pretty much explaining the joke. And really, Lisa just keeps her Buddhism to herself and doesn’t really do anything with it; the only reason Marge tries to reconvert her is because Reverend Lovejoy told her to.
Homer vs. Dignity
Oh boy. This episode is a pretty damn infamous one, mostly for one scene where Homer is apparently…yes…raped by a panda. To tell the truth, though, I do think this episode has a few more laughs than the last Christmas-related one, so I’m gonna be a bit more lenient on it than most (and really, a more disturbing similar scene can be found between Peter and a bull on Family Guy).
We have a similar situation to ‘Open Fire’ here; Homer needs money to support his family and will do anything to get it. So he teams up with a former student to make becomes Mr. Burn’s “prank monkey” and goes about playing jokes on Springfield residents. Okay, Mr. Burns is rich and evil, so he is both someone Homer should try to get money from and regret trying to get money from, but the pranks he has Homer pull seem alien to someone as miserable and cold as he. In one scene, Homer is made to eat a Spiderman comic in front of Comic Book Guy just to see his reaction, and in another scene, he is made to wear a nappy and act like a baby. Who in Springfield would have him do that for their amusement? Bart? Yeah, could see that. Krusty? If he thought it would bring in ratings, yep. Serious, nasty, Mr. Burns? Nope, just nope.
Then again, there are one or two good jokes here and there, like Bart’s “First A” party, with the story of how he got that A and Homer’s attempted escape once his credit card fails, and I cannot bring myself to hate the “A-Yeeeees” guy. He rules.
Skinner’s Sense of Snow
Christmas gets referenced in this episode, in a fairly funny send-up of Laurel and Hardy’s March of the Wooden Soldiers, but this has as much to do with the holidays as ‘Mr. Plow’ did. Unlike that episode, however, it isn’t saved by its jokes, which leads to a rather forgettable, placid experience. Skinner and the schoolkids get snowed in on the last day before the Christmas holidays, but there never really feels like there’s any real peril or stakes. You’re just waiting for the inevitable rescue, where we have an admittedly cute scene with Superintendent Chalmers.
Dude, Where’s My Ranch?
Oh come on. This is only a Christmas special for three minutes at the beginning. Hell, the episode even aired in April! Goddamn April! And the three minutes of Christmas at the opening have barely anything to do with the rest of the episode! If you were putting together a Family Guy Christmas compilation, would you include an episode just for having a Christmas-related cutaway gag?
Seriously, imagine you’re a sitcom writer and you have to get your characters to a dude ranch. How do you do that? Maybe they just want a holiday. Maybe they saw a Western on TV and wanted to experience it. Or the first scene could be just them in a car saying ‘We’re going to a dude ranch!’ Or how about the father gets in trouble for singing copyrighted Christmas carols, tries to write his own – I did like his ‘Christmas in December, wow wow wow, gimme tonnes of presents, now now now – writes a song about how much his neighbour sucks, the song becomes a hit and the family feel they need to get away from it. That’s simple, isn’t it? A whole episode could be written about Homer releasing a hit song, but no, it’s just an excuse to get him to the dude ranch so he doesn’t have to hear it anymore. The ranch even has a radio so it isn’t even much of an excuse.
That said, the episode was mediocre. What else can I say?
‘Tis The Fifteenth Season
After a barrage of kinda-sorta Christmas specials, we finally get a real-for-real one, which pretty much acts as ‘Open Fire’s’ evil twin. Instead of Homer having little money and trying to make his family happy, he has a lot of money and spends most of it on a gift for himself. So even when he spends the rest of the episode trying to be the nicest man in town, you have little sympathy for him because none of his nice actions feel genuine. What we have here is the dreaded “Jerkass Homer” in all his glory.
Don’t get me wrong, I did kinda like the little homages to Christmas specials, with of course, the Star Trek Christmas Carol being the best of the lot. Just seems a bit of a shame that we begin with a sympathetic Homer trying to make ends meet and conclude with a selfish asshole Homer trying only to satisfy himself.