Happy New Year, everybody! I’m ringing in 2017 with possibly the most crowd-pleasing concept possible: weekly write-ups on The Simpsons! With these write-ups, I hope to create a space where we can come together to quote The Simpsons incessantly, because a) God help us, we don’t have enough of that and b) after the crap from the last few months of 2016, I think we all need it as a fresh start to the year. But, as Flanders sez, I also want to answer a question nobody asked: why exactly did the world become obsessed with these yellow four-fingered freaks?
I mean, when you get right down to it, The Simpsons is the single most popular television show ever made, ever. When asked to cite the best TV shows, we may say things like The Wire or Breaking Bad, but if you put them in a poll with The Simpsons, they will be trounced by our favourite family every single time, to the point that I think we genuinely take the show’s quality for granted. Just how did a show with such a specifically American perspective manage to capture the hearts and minds of an entire world? How could an eight year old Australian boy get so much joy out of a satire of the American lifestyle every morning at 8am before school, and continue to get joy out of that show nearly twenty years later? What makes the show nerd comfort food?
I hope to answer these questions in a regular series of essays. I plan to put them up at the following times, depending on your time zone:
Melbourne, Australian Eastern Standard Time (UTC/GMT+11): 9:00am, Monday
London, (UTC/GMT+0): 10:00pm, Sunday
New York, (UTC/GMT-5): 5:00pm, Sunday
Los Angeles, (UTC/GMT-8): 2:00pm, Sunday
The Simpsons, Season One, Episode One, “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire”
This was actually the eighth episode in order of production, but due to animation issues delaying earlier episodes, the Christmas special aired first, on December 17th, 1989. I think this ends up serving to the series’ benefit, at least in retrospect (common wisdom is that a sitcom’s first episode is never the best, because neither cast nor crew have fully worked out the kinks) – while the timing is off, the voices are wrong, and the jokes aren’t razor-sharp, a lot of individual elements that would come to define The Simpsons ended up coming up.
Homer and Bart dominate the story, with Bart’s attempt to get a tattoo and the subsequent removal of it costing the family their savings at the same time that Homer discovers he’s not getting a Christmas bonus this year. Homer lies to Marge, and gets a job as a mall Santa on the advice of his drunk friend Barney to pay for the Christmas presents.
Already, we see important elements to both characters. In its classic era (and better post-classic episodes), Homer would draw pathos out of his desire to do anything to make his family happy, and comedy out of his absolute incompetence at delivering it. You can imagine how a scene of Homer trying to buy his family presents on a budget would play out in the classic era, and in fact I’m fairly certain they went back to that well occasionally.
Meanwhile, Bart is established as a brat who, if he does think about consequences, hasn’t got the best grasp on how things will play out, imagining his mother deeply impressed by how dangerous his tattoo is. He also gets caught up in the idea that poor kids always see some kind of miracle at Christmas, a lesson he learned from TV, although he at least has the cynicism to realise this doesn’t mean you should bet all the money you have on a dog with 99 to 1 odds.
(Lisa and Marge don’t have much to do, but Lisa gets in a long, amusingly precocious monologue defending her father, and while the show would eventually double-down on her squareness for laughs, Marge pretty much comes right out of the gate fully-formed.)
The episode ends with Homer and Bart saving Christmas when they bring home the loser dog, Santa’s Little Helper. Homer begins to tearfully apologise for ruining Christmas, only for Bart to spring the dog on everybody, delighting Lisa and Marge. Santa’s Little Helper is made part of the family, and through the credits everybody sings Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.
This, I think, is a big indicator of why The Simpsons caught the heart of the world. Though it would always have a uniquely American perspective on things, its stories would always be about fairly universal things – as long as there are parents, there’ll be parents struggling to provide for their families; as long as there are children, there’ll be children making stupid decisions in the hopes of being cool; as long as there’s pop culture, people will try to imitate it only to crash up against reality.
And for a wacky cartoon notorious for its cynicism, The Simpsons would always come to a realist perspective on these ideas. No, you won’t save Christmas by a whole heap of money just falling from the sky, but you can save Christmas with smaller, potentially more meaningful gestures. I think this attitude, mixing an awareness of the cold and unforgiving nature of the universe while not being unappreciative for the good things we do have is something audiences really responded to.
This entire first season is actually older than I am, with this episode in particular airing nearly a full year before I was born – and in fact, I’d never seen this episode before. I would appreciate the perspective of jaded Gen-Xers on how The Simpsons stood out at the time.
Several characters make their first appearances here, in varying degrees of off-model. Principal Skinner, Moe, Patty, Selma, and Flanders come out pretty much how they’d always be, with everything afterwards being a variation on the theme we meet them as, which is hilarious considering Flanders is the poster child for the concept of characters shifting over time, or as TV Tropes calls it, Flanderisation. He might gain strong Christian beliefs, but from his first moment Flanders is a fairly cheerful do-gooder. Mr Burns, Milhouse, Grampa, and Barney have the right personalities, but they have the wrong voices, and Ralph is completely unrecognisable.
This was episode was written by Mimi Pond, who would go on to never write another Simpsons episode but did have a fruitful career as a cartoonist and author. It was directed by David Silverman. There are some really oddball directing choices throughout the episode, which ends up creating the effect of seeing the familiar house in a completely new way.
I consciously choose not to quote the show within the write-ups, knowing that everybody will eventually want to go on quoting the show for the rest of time, but I cannot ignore how funny some moments are, so I’ll simply quote the Biggest laugh:
“I don’t wanna leave until our dog finishes… Ah, forget it, let’s go home.”