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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Retro Review: Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire

Or the One Where: The Simpsons learn the true meaning of Christmas after adopting former racing dog and fellow lovable loser Santa's Little Helper.

The Setup: After Bart gets a tattoo, the family Christmas money is spent getting it removed, forcing Homer to go to great lengths in order to assure a merry Christmas for his family.

A Work In Progress: This is the big one, the show's first aired episode, which introduces, along with the entirety of our favorite family, Grampa, Patty & Selma, Ned and Todd Flanders, Barney Gumble, Moe, Mr. Burns, the voice of Smithers, Principal Skinner, Mr. Largo, Milhouse and Lewis, Sherri & Terri, Snowball II and Santa's Little Helper.

Barney's hair is colored yellow, like his skin. It was later decided that only members of the Simpson family should have yellow hair, and Barney's hair was subsequently re-colored.

Bart's desire for a tattoo is more or less dropped after this episode; Lisa's desperate want of a pony, however, sticks around. Lisa's equestrianism becomes a significant part of her character. 

Fun Fact: This episode is often credited with creating the "Jingle Bells/Batman smells" version of "Jingle Bells"; it did not.

Favorite Lines:

Marge (via Christmas letter): Maggie is walking by herself. Lisa got straight A's. And Bart...well, we love Bart.

Marge: All right, children, let me have those letters. I'll send them to Santa's workshop at the North Pole.
Bart: Oh please, there's only one fat guy that brings us presents and his name ain't Santa.

Marge: You will not be getting a tattoo for Christmas.
Homer: Yeah, if you want one, you'll have to pay for it out of your own allowance.

Bart: Aw come on, Dad. This could be the miracle that saves the Simpsons' Christmas. 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 going to happen to us!

Bart: It doesn't seem possible, but I guess TV has betrayed me.

Lisa: What Aunt Patty?
Patty: Oh nothing, dear. I'm just trashing your father.
Lisa: Well, I wish that you wouldn't. Because aside from the fact that he has the same frailties as all human beings, he's the only father I have. Therefore, he is my model of manhood, and my estimation of him will govern the prospects of my adult relationships. So I hope you beer in mind that any knock at him is a knock at me, and I am far to young to defend myself against such onslaughts.
Patty: Mm hm. Go watch your cartoon show, dear.

Teebore's Take: It's rough around the edges, the animation is crude, and no one is going to pick it for the funniest episode ever, but there's no denying the core of what makes "The Simpsons" great is on display in this episode. There's definitely a nascent charm to this first outing, yet it's amazing how much of the show's characters, settings, tone and style were there right from the beginning: Bart is troublesome but sweet beneath his bratty exterior, Lisa is precocious and wise beyond her years, and Homer is a well-meaning buffoon. Only Marge gets the short shrift, as her character is shown to be little more than the straight man to all the other out-sized personalities on display (though, to be fair, that's true of Marge for quite some time). Marge's family doesn't like Homer, Homer doesn't like Flanders, the Flanders are insufferably better off than the Simpsons, the Simpsons are lovable losers; this episode manages to establish all of that and still tell a Christmas story. 

Its first step out of the gate and "The Simpsons" was already showing it would be embracing and commenting on pop culture while it was adding to it, as shown by the fact that "Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire" is both a parody of "very special Christmas" episodes in which characters learn the true meaning of Christmas, and a very special Christmas episode in which the characters learn the true meaning of Christmas itself. Even when I was young, the thing that stuck with me the most from this episode was Bart's awareness of past TV Christmas shows and the way he uses them to inform his actions. It was the first time (that I can recall) that a character on a TV show illustrated an awareness of the type of show in which he was appearing. That kind of meta-textualism blew my little mind (though I didn't know exactly why at the time). "The Simpsons" would continue that relationship with pop culture for twenty plus years. 


It's not perfect, but it is the first episode; it kinda has to run the table, doesn't it?

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