1. Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire

Ow - quit it. Ow - quit it.

“Ow – quit it. Ow – quit it.”

  • First broadcast: Sunday 17 December 1989, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Saturday 21 December 1996, BBC1
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: Mimi Pond
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jon Vitti
  • Storyboard: Rich Moore
  • Animation director: David Silverman

This was not meant to be the episode that launched The Simpsons television series. It wasn’t even the first to be made. Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire – or The Simpsons Christmas Special as it is billed on screen – was actually the eighth episode to be produced for Fox Television’s initial commission of a total of 13. The series should have begun in the autumn of 1989, but problems with the animation led to delays, postponements, and finally a completely revised schedule. With hindsight this expediency was a stroke of good fortune, as Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire is one of the strongest episodes of the first season, not to mention an above average stab at that most tricky of confections, the TV Christmas special.

Welcome to what must rank as one of the least substantial premieres in American cartoon history. Homer Simpson misses out on a bonus at work, has to find presents on the cheap, and ends up with a discarded dog from the local racetrack. And that’s more or less it. There’s a lot of padding, no B story and almost nothing of consequence involving anyone other than Homer and Bart. Yet the episode gets away with it thanks to the main supporting character, who is not a person but a thing: Christmas itself. This is a gift that keeps on giving, with lights, carols and trees dragged (literally in the last case) into the storyline to do little other than be festive. In turn, this contrasts with – and draws your attention to – two motifs that dominate a lot of early episodes: the financial hardship of the Simpson family and the tattiness of Springfield. Both are unusual subjects for comic treatment, and help make up in curiosity what the plot lacks in inspiration. Saying that, Mimi Pond, who provided the first draft, never worked for the show again. 7

This may have been the eighth episode to be produced, yet the scene of Marge dictating her Christmas newsletter manages to introduce everyone to the viewer so shrewdly you’d be forgiven for thinking this was always meant to be the season premiere: “Lisa got straight As; and Bart – well, we love Bart.” Homer’s the most intriguing character here. He supplies the show’s first memorable moment, as he’s slumped in his seat in the school hall watching the interminable Christmas pageant:

"How many grades does this school have?"

“How many grades does this school have?”

It’s a fine way of establishing Homer’s attitude to tiresome public spectacle. Equally integral is his howl of disbelief at the news that Marge’s jar of Christmas money is empty. The other characters are rather vaguely defined, though Bart and Lisa’s personalities are summed up usefully in their respective wishes for a tattoo and pony. But they don’t linger in the brain nearly as long as some of the incidental characters, who show up mostly to moan (Grampa on The Happy Little Elves: “Unadultered pap”) or mock (Milhouse: “Get a load of that quote unquote Santa”). Bart’s the least interesting person of all. He doesn’t appear at all for the first two minutes of the episode, and when he does he’s not a rascal or particularly clever or cruel, instead playing idle stooge and then aimless confidant to Homer. He does have one great line, however: “Oh please, there’s only one fat guy that brings us presents and his name ain’t Santa.” 6

Locations and design
You can’t really go wrong with snow in a cartoon, and unsurprisingly it looks gorgeous. It’s made even better by how dirty the rest of Springfield appears. The racetrack is spectacularly grotty, full of litter and empty of cheer:

Springfield: city on the grow

Springfield: city on the grow

The superstore – CIRCUS OF VALUES – is similarly down-at-heel. These locations are so vivid that they have more personality than many of the characters. Elsewhere Moe’s Tavern is agreeably murky but Mr Burns’ office looks more like a salon than a lair, though the rest of the power plant is suffocatingly vast as it will always be. 8

Pardon My Zinger
Homer has all the best jokes. “Do you like children?” the Santa instructor asks him. “What do you mean – all the time?” Homer replies, “even when they’re nuts?” His understated struggle to name all of Santa’s reindeer is superb:

"Uh, Nixon?"

“Er, Nixon?”

The sudden abandonment of his forbearance at the racetrack is another treat: “I don’t want to leave till our dog finishes… aw forget it, let’s go.” There’s also the magical moment where first Lisa then Homer pokes Bart’s sore arm repeatedly, for no reason other than to make Bart keep saying: “Ow! Quit it. Ow! Quit it.” It’s not a gag-packed episode, though. 5

Special guests
There aren’t any. But they’re not missed and would only have diluted the pleasantly humdrum feel with some ill-placed glamour, so this gets a default 10.

Richard Gibbs composed the incidental music for season one of The Simpsons, but his contributions in this episode are scarce and hardly representative, being mostly twee arrangements of festive favourites. We get Jingle Bells, Santa Baby, Walking in a Winter Wonderland and Rudolph the Red-nose Reindeer, the last graced with pleasantly juvenile interjections from Bart and Lisa: “You’ll go down in history/Like Atilla the Hun!” For viewers used to the show’s preference for original songs and music cues, this quantity of commercial compositions comes as a shock. Meanwhile Danny Elfman’s theme is truncated to about two seconds at the start and doesn’t appear again, and there’s even a bit of stock Muzak playing at the power plant. All in all it’s a highly atypical and inconsistent score. 3

Dan Castellaneta is still working out a unique voice for Homer, but he hits the target more often than elsewhere in the first season. Julie Kavner’s Marge is a bit too similar to Patty and Selma to have real impact, but Nancy Cartwright and Yeardley Smith have Bart and Lisa nailed from the off. It’s good to hear the likes of Ned Flanders, Grampa and Principal Skinner all sounding more or less as they should. Mr Burns is the only person whose voice is so half-formed as to be really jarring. 6

Animation direction
Given the frantic circumstances of the episode’s production and the limited resources at his disposal, David Silverman does a fantastic job here. The character design, while a little off-model, is not too loose or idiosyncratic; the colour of Barney’s hair is the only detail that really looks odd. The final shot of act one is very powerful, as we see Homer’s spirit crumble suddenly and his gaze slump down into the snow:

Snow plus sentiment

Snow plus sentiment

Other highlights include the surgeon’s enormously-enlarged pupil as he looks through his eye glass at Bart’s tattoo; the reveal of the galactic-sized laser gun; Homer’s dash through the forest with a stolen tree; and – the pinnacle – the climactic dog race. Silverman’s fluid and inventive work does much to lift this episode out of mediocrity. 7

Santa's Little Helper not pictured

Santa’s Little Helper not pictured

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
There’s a very brief fantasy sequence where Bart imagines Marge approving of his tattoo, but otherwise this is an episode with realism well to the fore. Anticipating the series’ increasingly self-aware obsession with the small screen, there’s a nice nod to the rituals of the TV Christmas special when Bart announces, apropos a happy ending: “It happened to Charlie Brown and it’s going to happen to us!” 3

Emotion and tone
The sentimentality that James L Brooks insisted be fused with The Simpsons’ humour is here spread thickly and unevenly. The love Homer and Marge feel towards their children is articulated sincerely but rather haphazardly, making the tone of the episode a bit wayward. The Christmas setting provides a hefty dose of schmaltz just by itself, and the school presentation ‘Santas of Many Lands’ makes for a very stodgy opening act. The pace and mood veer all over the place in the middle, but things get tighter as we near the end and there’s a palpable sense of the clock ticking on both Homer’s stoicism and his family’s patience. Marge’s sickly sign-off on receiving Santa’s Little Helper – “The best gift of all: something to share our love” – is mercifully undermined by the raucous singalong over the end credits, ensuring the episode concludes in a smartly shambolic fashion. 5

Verdict: 60%
Memory and anecdote suggests the first season of The Simpsons is pretty rubbish: badly voiced, sloppily-drawn and only sporadically funny. That’s not quite the case, but I suspect the festive setting alone helps this episode halfway towards respectability. The design and direction aid it still further, though they can’t quite overcome the wispy plot and slightly curdled sentiment. Still, snow always looks good on television – especially when it’s animated. “99 x 13 = Merry Christmas!”

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