Well, it’s December 1st. The run up to Christmas has started. Seeing as I made no posts for November, I thought what better way to fix that than by overcompensating? So I’m going to be making articles on some of the best Christmas specials out there. Starting with my favourite, Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.
To say that The Simpsons did not have a huge cultural impact, would be an outright lie. For almost 30 years it has been on television screens, for better or worse. The Simpsons are as iconic as James Bond, Superman or Harry Potter.
So, I find it remarkable that it all came from a 22 minute Christmas special plagued with production problems.
For starters, Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire (or SROAOF) wasn’t even meant to be the first episode of the show. That honour belongs to Some Enchanted Evening, which later became the season finale (And is pretty terrible). But plans were changed due to animation errors. Secondly, Fox wanted The Simpsons to be three 7 minute segments per an episode (Similar in fashion to cartoons such as Regular Show and Adventure Time) which the producers desperately fought against. Add on to that the animation errors that are present in the episode (Such as Lisa appearing more nude than she should due to a colouring error) and the fact that Fox was ready to pull the plug in case the show wasn’t a success.
Everything was looking dire for the crew behind The Simpsons.
Then on the 17th December 1989, Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire premiered, ending up as the 2nd highest rated Fox show. It got positive reception (Which has somewhat soured over the years) and, though nobody knew at the time, was the first episode of a cultural phenomenon.
So, why do I love this episode? There’s a reason I talked about the production history first. I feel like the trials that the producers went through mirrors the trials of the Simpsons. And, like the Simpsons, they came out on top. So, lets talk about Todorov.
Tzvetan Todorov was a Bulgarian theorist, who broke down a common narrative structure. Films or TV episodes will follow a structure like this:
- Equilibrium – A state of peace and balance
- A Disruption to the Equilibrium
- Disequilibrium – The peace and balance is lost
- Attempt to Repair the Equilibrium
- The New Equilibrium – Peace and balance is restored with changes
Now, with Todorov’s theory in mind, let’s look at the plot for SROAOF
- The Simpons prepare for Christmas
- Bart gets a tattoo, Homer’s bonus is denied and the tattoo removal takes up the Christmas money
- Homer becomes a mall Santa, sinking to a new low
- Homer and Bart place bets at the dog races
- They have the Christmas now with their new dog, Santa’s Little Helper
The reason behind this narrative is to make us feel sympathy for the protagonists. The luxuries that the characters have is stripped from them, giving them a better appreciation for what they did have.
Taking a Christmas film into example, we have Home Alone.
- Kevin is spending Christmas with his family
- Seperated from family, Harry & Marv try to rob the house
- Reunited with family, now with a greater appreciation for them
Or A Christmas Carol.
- Scrooge doesn’t care for people or Christmas
- Gets taken out of his personal state of peace and balance to see the errors of his ways
- Becomes more friendly and generous, learning his lesson
Or The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
- Whoville prepares for Christmas
- The Grinch steals the presents
- They celebrate anyway and The Grinch, who now knows the true meaning of Christmas, returns the presents
The point is, Christmas films use this narrative structure a lot as it allows the audience to have their hearts warmed (Though there are ways of doing Todorov’s structure in a less feel good way, see Jagten) while also teaching valuable lessons.
This is what SROAOF kind of does. I think what makes it stand out when compared to other Christmas specials is, there is no lesson to be learned.
It’s not to value family. It’s not to value Christmas. The closest thing to a message is don’t get a tattoo. Yet, it still warms the hearts of the audience.
I think the key to this is realism. The Simpsons navigates a fine line between realism and heartwarming. If something is too realistic, it risks not being pleasant (Requiem for a Dream), if something is too heartwarming, it risks being cheesy (About Time).
While there’s nothing wrong with being unpleasant or too cheesy (Requiem for a Dream is a favourite of mine and About Time is a guilty pleasure), I feel like The Simpsons navigating this line so effectively is what made it into a cultural phenomenon. All of these elements are present in this episode.
Take other episodes that are considered classics, such as Bart Gets an F or Homer’s Enemy. What are the messages of those episodes? Try hard and you’ll still fail?
Sure, episodes like Lisa’s Subsitute have messages that are touching in the best ways, but for the majority of The Simpsons, most episodes are heartwarming because they stay grounded in reality and, in doing so, these situations relate to the audience. Who hasn’t worried about not having enough money for Christmas? Who hasn’t tried hard only to fail? And the resolutions for these problems are always realistic. Homer doesn’t get his money back, they just get Santa’s Little Helper for free. Bart doesn’t get smarter, he just gets a pity point.
The resolutions never seem out of place, they are always plausible within the reality of both our world and the show’s world.
This is all established in Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire. It establishes that the show’s world is similar to ours, the scenes of the school play that bores Homer, of Lisa asking for a pony, of Bart hanging out with Milhouse and of Marge writing the letter are constructed to relate to the audience members. Homer relates to dads, Marge relates to mums and Bart and Lisa relate to sons and daughters.
By showing these characters react to everyday situations, the audience is able to relate to them.
That’s why I think Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire is one of the best Christmas specials. Not only does it work as a heartwarming Christmas special, but it also serves as an unintentional first episode while also laying the foundation for the next 28 years (So far) of The Simpsons, despite the production troubles and uncertainty of its future.
See what I meant about the crew coming out on top?