Lisa: “Dad, you don’t have to outdo Mr. Flanders. Just remember the spirit of the season.”
Homer: “Is it despair?”
In a way, yes. Sure, it’s a cynical appraisal of this, the season of giving, but just about everyone has experienced that mysterious pang—despair, alienation, the feeling that something is missing—as the holiday season descends like a gingerbread fog. Critics have decried The Simpsons for being cynical from the beginning, when the show debuted with a Christmas special on Dec. 17, 1989—22 years ago tomorrow. Hand-wringing, “won’t someone think of the children?!” types used that time’s obsession with “family values” to decry a vulgar animated family that was ruining the future with its “Underachiever And Proud Of It” T-shirts.
The Simpsons premiere—“The Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire”—found the family struggling, as so many do, with the costs of the Christmas season. Mr. Burns discontinues bonuses at the plant, and Marge has to use the Christmas fund to get Bart’s tattoo removed. Homer doesn’t tell Marge about the bonus, then takes a second job as a mall Santa for extra money—when that doesn’t pan out, he bets it all on a dog named Santa’s Little Helper at the track. DESPAIR! CYNICISM!
When “’Tis The Fifteenth Season” aired on Dec. 14, 2003, controversy had long since moved on from The Simpsons. What had once threatened our children’s future was now a beloved institution and one of the sharpest, most successful television shows in history. Something worse had replaced the hand-wringers, though: (former) fans endlessly debating exactly when the show stopped being good and dismissing as heresy any suggestion that it still had life. The debate continues now, with some of the episodes from this era of The Simpsons now earning the respect they didn’t have then, as John Ortved noted in his deeply flawed but interesting book.
“’Tis The Fifteenth Season” stands out in the 15th season, which had a better hit-to-miss ratio than many of the seasons that followed. By that point, Christmas episodes were a part of the show—not to the same degree as the annual “Treehouse Of Horror” ones, but enough that the normally merchandising-averse Fox had released two dubious DVD collections of Christmas episodes. (“Mr. Plow,” “Homer Vs. Dignity,” and “Dude, Where’s My Ranch?” have tenuous connections to the holiday.)
“’Tis The Fifteenth Season” closes the second collection, and it may be the most Christmas-themed of the lot. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol began the tradition of “learning the true meaning of Christmas” as the go-to theme for holiday-entertainment uplift, which pop culture has repurposed and repackaged countless times in the nearly 170 years since Dickens wrote his novella about a miser’s path to redemption. Or, as Bart puts it, “TV writers have been milking that goat for years.” (Then he flips on the TV to show, in one of many standout animated sequences from this episode, Urkel as Scrooge on Family Matters and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise seeing their holiday futures on Star Trek.)
The Simpsons has always excelled at transcending clichés while simultaneously getting a little mileage out of them, and “’Tis The Fifteenth Season” uses A Christmas Carol cleverly to propel Homer along his own redemptive arc, while borrowing a bit from How The Grinch Stole Christmas! too.
We’ve always known Homer to be a selfish, though big-hearted, jackass, and this episode shows him at his basest: For the plant’s Secret Santa, Carl buys him a DVD player and season one of Magnum P.I. (featuring commentary from John Hillerman, “Apparently working in Hawaii was a pleasure”), but Homer forgets to buy a present for Lenny, lamely passing off a packet of Certs stolen from a vending machine. “May the spirit of retsin be with you all year long. God bless God, amen.”
Worse: When he comes into an unexpected largesse (Mr. Burns gives Homer a baseball card for Bart—a Joe DiMaggio rookie, “It seems they’ve started letting ethnics into the big leagues”), Homer disregards his avowed plan to spend the money on family and a tree so giant “its absence from the forest will cause mudslides and flooding” for the world’s most preposterous gift for himself: a talking astrolabe. (Well, it does come with a notepad and pen that works upside down, which is good since, Homer notes, “I’m upside down so much.”) Even before he dropped $500 on it, he’d only bought two gifts: key chains for Marge and Bart.
When confronted about his selfishness, Homer offers an awesome explanation that may be the darkest line of the episode: “There’s a trickle-down theory here. If I’m happy, I’m less abusive to the rest of you.” This leads to another confrontation with Marge later.
Michael Price, writing only his second Simpsons episode, could’ve used this opportunity for another de rigueur version of A Christmas Carol (and in the Simpsons universe, there’s some potential with that idea), but he cleverly sets it up so that Homer has never heard of A Christmas Carol, so when Mr. Magoo, er, McGrew, gets the three-ghosts treatment, it blows his mind.
As Homer tells Marge later:
“TV and nightmares have joined forces to teach me a lesson. From now on I will stop being selfish and start being good.”
“You’ve made that promise before.”
“Yes, but this time I’m sober—ish.”
What makes this episode work is how it basically looks at Ebenezer Scrooge post-reformation, and the unintended consequences of generosity, as Ned Flanders’ jealousy of Homer ends up making charity competitive. (“Ha ha! Your position has been usurped!” teases Nelson. “Ha ha, you’re sad at Christmas!”) Complain all you want about The Simpsons in the past decade, but the series has had some nice moments that humanize Flanders and make him more three-dimensional and less of a caricature (whereas Ralph Wiggum only gets stupider).
Homer vows to top Ned’s giving presents to everyone in Springfield by buying everyone a car (“What’s that one good American car?”), but Lisa’s Buddhism leads him to take the opposite route via a funny sequence.
Grinch allusions are nothing new in pop culture, either, though the beloved holiday special hasn’t been strip-mined quite as badly as A Christmas Carol. Here, Homer goes on a mission to steal everyone’s presents to make them realize the true meaning of the holiday, with a funny parody of “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” to soundtrack it: “You’re a hero, Homer J. / you’re as crafty as a skunk / they’ll thank you in the morning / for stealing Flanders’ junk / Homer J. / you’re a double bacon genius burger and just a little drunk!”
Unlike the residents of Whoville, Springfieldians aren’t moved by the holiday spirit, and the angry mob approaching him isn’t “shaking their fists in gratitude.” But a signal flare from a stranded Hans Moleman tames them, leading to a sweet scene where Flanders reads them a passage from the Bible—only to be stopped by Mayor Quimby for praying on public property. (“God-free since ’63” says the banner underneath City Hall.)
Homer nicely summarizes the sentiment, zinging Christian ignorance and arrogance in one tidy sentence: “Let’s just say that, on this day a million years ago, a dude was born who most of us think was magic. But others don’t, and that’s cool, but we’re probably right, amen.”
Again, that sounds cynical, but The Simpsons has always had genuine heart underneath the satire. Behind the swipe at Christians who don’t understand Jesus (“most of us think was magic”) or believe other religions are wrong (“but we’re probably right”) is disappointment that something so sacred can be so poorly realized. The old quote about cynics really being disappointed idealists holds true.
The look on Homer’s face as Ned reads the passage from the Bible is anything but cynical, and “our Lord Jesus Christ” in the astrolabe’s episode-closing line—“Today is the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ. And singer Barbara Mandrell. Merry Christmas!”—speaks to a reverence, to those family values, Simpsons critics never would have anticipated when the show became popular. Maybe The Simpsons has gotten softer in its old age, because the world certainly hasn’t grown less reactionary; but “’Tis The Fifteenth Season” strikes a nice balance between sharp satire and real heart. The Simpsons had the latter since “The Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire,” and it has the former even in its twilight.
Tomorrow: Christmas in the comics.