As cartoon dogs go, Santa’s Little Helper is spectacularly unspectacular. In a realm of aggressively anthropomorphic canines, some of whom, admittedly, have strong speech impediments, he doesn’t talk or wisecrack or engage in shenanigans. His abilities and powers begin and end with masticating, defecating, and regular napping. You know, just like a real dog.
Consequently, episodes devoted to Santa’s Little Helper tend to be a little on the sleepy side, even the Simpsons Christmas special that launched the series. After back-to-back classics in “Principal Charming” and “O Brother Where Art Thou,” both of which nurse an almost Alexander The Great-level of ambition, the show settles into a homey little groove with “Bart’s Dog Gets an F”.
It’s an episode that would feel modest even in the show’s first season but feels almost perversely small scale for the show’s second season, an annum where the show really started to stretch out and angle nakedly for greatness. “Bart’s Dog Gets an F” opens with Santa’s Little Helper causing a hurricane of low-level mischief. Actually, considering the mischief involved, it’s less like a hurricane of mischief than a slight drizzle of anti-social behavior.
Santa’s Little Helper gets loose and menaces a neighbor, purloins beef jerky from the Kwik-E-Mart, and, most spectacularly, chews up Homer’s flashy 125 dollar sneakers. I hate to nitpick on posts like these (though if seems like a pretty natural format for nit-picking), but the Ned found on the show’s first two seasons feels very much like a rough draft. He’s too much of a dandy and far too many of the episodes involve him buying some ridiculous luxury item that fills Homer with resentment. In this case, it’s the super-flashy shoes, but considering the evolution and de-evolution of both Ned and Homer, it doesn’t really make sense that either would spend $125 on sneakers; Ned would reject such a purchase as vain and wasteful, a clear product of pride, while Homer would never buy anything that might encourage him to exercise.
Ah, but Homer’s shoes essentially exist to get chewed up; they’re a plot point, nothing more, nothing less. Slightly more can be said about the other beloved household item destroyed by Santa’s Little Helper: a family quilt passed down from generation to generation of Bouvier women, chronicling such milestones as the Great Depression and the brief popularity of “Keep on Trucking” as a catchphrase.
The sneakers exist solely as a plot point, but the quilting subplot (are there two more exhilarating words in the English language than “quilting subplot”?) feels like an organic expansion of one of the show’s most resonant themes: Marge’s efforts to rope Lisa into family traditions whose validity she might otherwise question.
In this case, Lisa comes to embrace being a link in a chain, but not until Santa’s Little Helper makes quick work of the family quilt. Santa’s misbehavior leads him to a dog obedience course taught by a caricature of Margaret Thatcher at her sternest and most demanding.
Santa is anything but a quick study; in the episode’s sharpest gag, we see the world from his point of view as nothing more than a blurry, black and white, out-of-focus blur, filled with meaningless noises and phrases. Then, one moment, some of the noises become commands like “sit” and “roll over,” and, it appears that Santa’s Little Helper can be saved after all. And on the day after Christmas!
In its oft-transcendent second season, The Simpsons aspired to greatness but in this charmingly modest heartwarmer, it settles for being merely good.