Ever since taking over the Simpsons beat, I’ve been on guard against sounding like a grumpy old man (or, more to the point, Comic Book Guy.) You know—every review shot through with the wearying refrain, “It's not as good as it used to be.” Honestly, there’s nothing more boring than that, and I can’t imagine why anyone would want to read it.
That being said...
Dipping back into new episodes after so long away, there are a number of troubling developments that can’t be denied. An over-reliance on easy pop culture jokes. A creeping callousness (even in jokes not about reality TV “stars” and the like). And, as exhibited most egregiously in “White Christmas Blues,” a worrisome trend of padding each episode with extraneous bits of business which, even if they were solid gold (and they are by and large not) pull precious focus and time from the episodes’ characters and plot. Extended couch gags, extended end credits gags, and, tonight especially, an overload of sign gags, movie-title gags, and general faffing around which serve to make what’s an already unfocused episode even thinner.
From the very beginning of this 22-minute episode, fully two minutes are spent on a Christmas-ified version of the traditional opening credits. Fine—it’s a Christmas episode after all—but, while mildly pleasant, there’s nothing revelatory about the overlong gag. The closest I came to a smile was seeing the workplace sign at Homer’s toy factory job proclaim “93 days till March 28, actual birth of Christ,” but that’s just due to me being a heathen.
And then, after the first commercial break takes us some four minutes into the runtime, we’re off! Oh wait, no we’re not. There are a number of false starts before the episode declares its narrative intentions—with feints toward the theme being Krusty vs. Itchy and Scratchy, global warming, or Springfield becoming a tourist attraction, before we’re finally let in on the subject of this year’s Christmas episode—the Simpsons open a bed and breakfast! At that point, the show is a third of the way over and we haven’t even been introduced to the emotional stakes for the characters yet. Oh, and I forgot—there’s a mid-episode subplot about Reverend Lovejoy’s search for inspiration leading him to some Pope Francis-style “Christianity means you actually have to do nice things for your fellow man” rhetoric which goes exactly nowhere. The result is a rushed, cluttered mess of a show where the echoes of great Christmas episodes past ring especially hollow.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t some very funny lines associated with each of these narrative threads (all of which could have been stretched out to its own show). Krusty’s horrified reaction at seeing the typically horrifying Itchy & Scratchy version of It’s A Wonderful Life (“I never watched one of these sober!”) is great—as is the follow-up gag where the hastily slapped-up Itchy & Scratchy “technical difficulties” card also breaks out in serious violence. Kent Brockman’s newscast about global warming’s decidedly un-snowy effects on Springfield’s Christmases produces two classic lines, with Harry Shearer’s self-important Brockman proclaiming that now “the Eskimos have over 100 words... for ‘nothing’” vying with Homer’s “By pure coincidence, every scientist was right!” (I also liked the quick graphic behind Brockman: “Frost Nixin’.”) And, once Professor Frink explains that Springfield’s unique mix of radioactive steam and tire-fire particulates makes it the only tourist-friendly snowy place left in America, the tortured logic of the bookstore banner “Reverse Sale—all books 50% on!” is the sort of absurd, wordy gag the show can do so well.
It’s once the main plot kicks in that the hurried nature of the enterprise starts to show, with Marge suddenly self-conscious about her inability to provide the traditional present-heavy Christmas for her family (thanks to tourist trap Springfield’s price-gouging), leading her to open up 742 Evergreen Terrace to strangers—for a price. Again, it’s not a bad idea in itself—it’s just that all of the abstract busyness surrounding the main plot leaves the characters inadequate time to establish themselves. So Marge immediately becomes annoyed (and uncharacteristically rude and Homer-like) towards her soon-overflowing guests. Meanwhile, Lisa, I guess spurred on by the abortive Lovejoy subplot, decides to give thoughtful, inexpensive presents this year, leading to a confrontation with Bart which, if it had been given time to grow, might have provided much-needed resonance to the proceedings. Bart calling Lisa on the fact that she didn’t get people presents she thought they’d actually like but, instead, gave them presents in order to make her feel good about herself is the tiniest scrap of character-based conflict, and the closest thing the episode has to an emotional core. But, like everything else, it’s whooshed past in favor of a hodgepodge of poorly integrated gags, the most indulgent of which is a seemingly endless stream of fake Christmas special titles, swept directly at the screen at DVR pause-button speed (see the full list in the stray observations).
While The Simpsons has always excelled at tossed-off sign gags and the like, this sequence is just a jumble of writers’ room bulletin board material—and not especially inspired material at that. A few hit—the loony not-logic behind “A Zombie Christmas With Bing Crosby And The 1932 All-American Football Team” smacks of something alumnus Conan O’Brien might have come up with—but all too often the rest truck in either laziness or the aforementioned pop-culture references. (If The Simpsons never mentions a Kardashian again, that would be a step in the right direction.) The same goes for the closing credits, where we see all of the out-of-state license plates Marge marveled at earlier. Like so much of The Simpsons this year, there are some decent jokes scattered in there—any guesses on which is the “Touch It With A Stick State?”—but, as any grumpy old man would say, the show would be better served jettisoning the bulk of the extraneous spitballing for a coherent plot and some decent character development.
- Okay, I think I got all the fake Christmas specials: The Dreidel Will Rock, The Three Scrooges, The Shark Week Before Christmas, Here Comes Snooki Claus, Boxing Day With Lennox Lewis, The Girl With The Santa Tattoo, A Kardashian Christmas With Kwanzaa By Kanye, Jingle Bell Spock, A Zombie Christmas With Bing Crosby And The 1932 All-American Football Team, Hitler’s Christmas In Hell, Claus Encounters Of The Third Kind, No Country For Fat Old Men, A Cowardly Noel With Noel Coward, An Easter Bunny Christmas, Real World: Bethlehem, Christmas With The Simpsons, The Ornament That Wanted To Be An Angel, Manger Danger, Citizen Cane, Three Wise Men And A Baby, SNL’s Most Mediocre Christmas Sketches, Weird Al Sings Pringle Bells. You’re welcome.
- And the license plates: First In Freeways, Still a British Colony At Heart, The ‘Yuh-Huh’ State, Jewel Of The Fracking Belt, Land Of Many Water Snakes, The Socks And Sandals State, The Crooked Governor State, The Wait And See State, First In Foreclosures, Touch It With A Stick State, The Land Of Loud Talkers, The Bee Sting State, Home Of The Other Clam Chowder, The Pickpocket State, The Sunburn State, America’s Second-Greatest Carolina, Unique Left Turn Laws, America’s Mongolia, Where Soda Meets Pop. You’re double-welcome.
- The show’s dig at Saturday Night Live aside, none of tonight’s titles hold a candle to last night’s similar SNL sketch in which the Hallmark Channel promises, among others, “Phylicia Rashad’s Christmas Nap.”
- Homer, seeing a strange family in his living room: “Oh good—Marge remarried after I died. Hey, wait a minute...”
- Homer again, overcoming his reluctance to Marge’s plan: “Well, this sort of crazy scheme is just the kind of impulsive behavior I want to encourage in you.”
- Reverend Lovejoy, impressed with his proposed sermon: “This is black-church good!”
- When Bart accuses her of only getting him a book because they’re easy to wrap, Lisa’s anguished, “Nothing is easy to wrap!” is the sort of small, human moment I’m talking about. Not connected to anything but itself—and the scissors are very hard to master.
- But her aside to Milhouse that, “When a woman talks, she just wants to be heard,” is the sort of hacky, sexist line that Lisa wouldn’t say. Win some, lose some.
- Homer’s advice on running a B&B: “Don’t read the comment cards!” If only I could take his advice here at the A.V. Club.