It’s a Simpsons Christmas episode! Those words call up some fine Simpsons holiday memories, don’t they? From the very first episode ever, to the time Bart burned all the presents, to the other Bart one, where some shoplifting inspires the most complexly heartbreaking and sweet Marge-Bart story ever, to that future Christmas episode that everyone seems to like a lot more than I do. And that’s pretty much it, really. Event episodes aren’t really The Simpsons’ strongest outings as a rule, especially, as with “The Nightmare After Krustmas,” when the show is turned over to the bench.
This time out, it’s Krusty and Reverend Lovejoy who get the call, a pair of side characters who’ve had their isolated moments in the spotlight (especially when kicking some major baboon ass or faking their own deaths), but who, here, combine for a dully sketched tale of religious conversion and bad parenting. Krusty, his visit with infrequently mentioned estranged daughter Sophie interrupted by one of guest Theo Jansen’s dangerously kinetic wind-powered sculptures, winds up further alienating the distraught girl when he turns Marge’s kind offer to come over for Christmas into a tacky reality special. (Complete with product placement, a 900 number scam, and Mr. Teeny in a motion-capture suit to take the reluctant Sophie’s place on camera.) Despondent, he allows himself to be ecumenically seduced by Lovejoy’s desperate pitch for Christianity. (The Reverend has been getting pressure from his higher-ups for his “negative six” conversion numbers.)
There’s nothing wrong with the idea in theory—Dan Castellaneta and Harry Shearer always sink their teeth into Krusty’s ravenous fame-grubbing and Lovejoy’s sepulchral sententiousness, respectively, with enthusiasm. And a B-character taking the wheel for an episode can be a spur to fresh storytelling. But, while there’s a bracingly irreverent take on religion throughout the episode, the Lovejoy and Krusty show isn’t especially compelling on its own.
On the religious front, Apu turning down Lovejoy’s conversion idea, whips out a statue of Ganesh and responds, “Our nonsense is so much better than your nonsense. Look at this guy, he could be a Pixar hero!” (The biggest laugh in the episode.) Plus, Springfield is apparently (for the moment anyway) a hotbed of freewheeling religious anarchy, with the episode kicking off at the town’s big pagan winter carnival (the kids play in a Ba’al pit), the church choir at Krusty’s disastrous polar bear club-style baptism tossing their hymnals on the trash barrel fire for warmth once they’re done singing, and Lovejoy’s boss (someone really wanted Hank Azaria to whip out his Bing Crosby in Going My Way impression) more interested in raw numbers and bank routing numbers than soul-saving. Plus, Milhouse is really into Zoroastrianism. (Take that, Ahura Mazda!) It sets the scene for all the assorted mishegoss of the main story just fine, it’s just that that story isn’t terribly interesting or funny.
For one thing, we’ve seen Sophie exactly once before in any meaningful way (and that episode, watched in preparation, is pretty lousy), and that back in the year 2000. There’s just no meat on the bones of the story there, leaving the episode without much at its center. Similarly, while poor Lovejoy’s inability to keep his flock in the pews has been the source of some decent B-stories (and that one excellent, monkey-filled A-story), his plight here doesn’t register. There are some decent jokes—that the church has a creche recycling dumpster is another weird, irreverent organized religion gag, and Drederick Tatum is right, comparing the three wise men to the Beastie Boys is more desperate than hip.
If The Simpsons wanted to go a different way this Christmas, the Maggie B-story, weirdly, might have been a better choice. Basically a long satire of the whole commercialized and creepy Elf on the Shelf phenomenon, the storyline finds an imaginative way to use the littlest Simpson in way the show essentially never does. This may be my favorite Maggie story, as it keeps her her own age (until she’s running over a line of the odious “Gnome in the Home” dolls with the riding mower at the end) yet uses expressive animation to do some excellent visual and character storytelling. Like the mower gag, the move over the years is to have Maggie be a secret baby genius, a joke that wore thin for me several decades ago. Here, she’s simply a suitably observant baby who’s freaked out by both the grinning homunculus perched right above her crib, and her parents’ delighted tales of how the thing can judge your soul, is always watching, and (according to a delightedly teasing Homer) will eat your fingertips if you’re bad.
The dream sequence, where the elf (I really do hate those things) comes to life and chases Maggie right to the North Pole is easily the best piece of animation of the season. Marge turns on Maggie’s nightlight to comfort the terrified girl, only to transform the tasseled outline of the elf into an expressionistically frightening series of shadows. We know it’s a dream when the thing starts talking, but it’s still unnerving in execution, especially once the elf vomits out a shower of little baby fingertips and its legs extend to Slender Man proportions to pursue her. Writing for a wordless character can be done, if enough attention is paid to the details, and Maggie’s tiny grab for her mother before Marge leaves, and the look of relief on her face when she falls at Santa’s feet are palpably moving, considering how well her peril has been set up. But Santa’s no match for the lucratively ubiquitous tchotchke (not even with his North Pole super team of the abominable snowman, Jack Frost, and Wayne Gretzky), leaving Maggie to take refuge in a candy cane cave (like father like daughter, Maggie’s dreams take place in a land of candy). When the cave turns into a jagged-toothed candy cane deathtrap, it’s, again, a virtuoso piece of cartoon storytelling. Hey, if BoJack Horseman pulled off a great silent episode, there’s no reason, based on the evidence here, that The Simpsons couldn’t pull one off for Maggie sometime.
But that’s a digression, as, in the end, Krusty falls through the ice and has a vision of his dead father (in Frozen snowman form, but still). Here’s where the emotional weight of the story should pay off, especially since Jackie Mason comes back to reprise his Emmy-winning role as Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky. But that long-ago father-child story worked because the relationship was better drawn than that of Krusty and the colorless Sophie. Hyman’s words to his son are sweet, tying back into the religion idea, as the rabbi tells his convert son (although we’ll see how long that lasts), “There’s no one religion that makes you a good father. You just have to think of your kids first.” Sure, he’s a hallucination caused by Krusty’s brain slowly dying, but sweet nonetheless. The sentiment just would have been more affecting if it came between two characters whose stories we were more invested in.
- That’s Natasha Lyonne as Sophie, taking over for Drew Barrymore who played her when she was introduced back in season 12. She’s fine—she gives the girl a nice, high cracking voice when she gets upset—but Sophie is just not a memorable enough character to carry so much narrative weight.
- Lovejoy, dispiritedly failing to toss his cassock into the hamper: “Even Milhouse could have made that shot.”
- That was, indeed, Theo Jansen, inventor of the wind-powered Strandbeast. Good get, I guess?
- A pagan winter carnival attendee, being crushed by the Strandbeast: “Save me, Odin!”
- Krusty, angrily confronting Sophie over the fact that she’s not being raised Jewish, accepts his sandwich of bacon, lobster, and treif. He’s also angry that the nurse forgot his side of camel, “extra cloven.”
- After his conversion, the now straitlaced Krusty’s show features comics Andrew “Nice” Clay, Larry the Fable Guy, and Joe Episcopalian.
- Oh, and Poochie comes back for the new, cleaned-up Itchy & Scratchy. Like Krusty’s conversion, I doubt we’ll be seeing this referred to again.
- Itchy & Scratchy’s flag pistols spell out, appropriately, Isaiah 2:4.
- Christian God, Jewish God, and Mazda all live in the same heaven. Which is nice. (Even if Mazda is hammered.)
- Other creepy toys from the “book sold separately” line: Narc in the Park, Bear Who’s Always There, Snoop While You Poop.
- When Krusty awkwardly brings his sound man back in to record “20 seconds of room tone,” the gag, indeed, holds for the full 20 seconds, a commitment to the sort of joke I genuinely can’t get enough of. I wanted to applaud.
- If that “cha-ching” joke when Lovejoy spies a possible convert in Krusty isn’t a Mr. Show reference, then I’m calling “The Simpsons steal an all-time weird and classic bit.”