“A Tale Of Two Santas” (season 3, episode 13; originally aired 5/16/2001)
In which Bender slides down a chimney, does not care for it…
Well, here’s some irony for you: After talking earlier about how the show really jumps into the next gear in its third season, I find myself staring down the barrel of a double-header of dullness. Neither of this week’s entries are particularly inspired, and both suffer from fairly serious problems at their cores. There’s still fun to be had, though, and they don’t pay me just to write about the good episodes, so let’s push our collective sleeves up and see what we can make of all this.
“A Tale Of Two Santas” starts off strong, featuring the return of the evil Robot Santa first seen in “Xmas Story.” John DiMaggio takes over the voice work from John Goodman, but the character remains a monstrous delight. The premise, at least once you strip away all the extraneous material, isn’t bad either. Due to a series of “misunderstandings” (Leela decides they have to kill Robot Santa, it doesn’t work out so great but the robot does end up frozen in ice), Bender takes over the job of delivering presents on Xmas Eve. As I’ve noted before (and will note again), Bender taking on odd jobs is a great source of comedy, especially if those jobs put him in contact with children.
The problem is, there’s an awful lot of extraneous material, some of it clearly introduced in order to pad out the main story (which leads us to the other problem, but we’ll get to that). Robot Santa lives on Neptune, where the native Neptunians (who travel in pairs, constantly holding two out of four hands, in that each of them have four hands, and they’re—oh look, just Google it) live in the village of Jolly Junction, dressed up like elves. Only, they aren’t very prosperous elves; when Fry and the others first land on the planet, the creatures immediately try to beg or con money off them. The town is in disrepair, the “elves” are starving, and nothing looks like it will be getting better anytime soon. Robot Santa has them make his toys, but since he judges nearly everyone naughty, there aren’t many toys to make.
Which makes sense, but only if you accept it on face value and don’t try and think about it too much. (Like, are we supposed to believe that Robot Santa actually pays the Neptunians when they do make toys? Because I sure don’t.) That’s fine; sometimes that’s just how things work. But what’s frustrating is that the “elves” story doesn’t really go anywhere. The main joke is that they suffered under Robot Santa’s rule from underwork, but are then forced to work far too hard when Leela and the others take over. That’s a good joke, and fits well with the show’s usual cynicism, but there’s no effort to tie the creatures back into the main plot by the end, which makes the whole half hour feel undercooked and loose. It’s not that everything necessarily needs to connect, but given how much time was spent on the Neptunians, it seemed for a long time like the story was actually about them, and they’re honestly more interesting than Bender’s doomed efforts to spread Yuletide cheer.
That’s another problem right there: while putting Bender in a Santa costume looks good on paper (or computer screen, as case may be), the execution doesn’t live up to expectations. There are some decent gags about him getting attacked by families who have had run ins with the real Robot Santa in the past, but once things get too hard, Bender gives up, just in time to get arrested by the cops. While it’s certainly in keeping with his character to quit when things get difficult (and it’s funny to have a Christmas episode that features a scene of a Santa dumping toys into the sewer), that doesn’t exactly make for high storytelling stakes. Bender is a minor presence in the episode until he gets stuck in the red hat, and the sudden focus shift feels random and poorly motivated.
This is also true of the third-act crisis, in which Bender is arrested and convicted as Robot Santa, and sentenced to execution. That means another courtroom scene with Judge Whitey and the chicken lawyer (who comes closer to complete insanity with each appearance he makes on the show), and while the gag-writing isn’t bad, it all has a been-there, done-that vibe. Worse, the story just doesn’t have any build to it. Bender is in danger of being pulled to death via magnet, which at least gives us the illusion of stakes, but he’s such a passive figure throughout that it hardly matters. If being Santa was another one of his private obsessions, this actually would’ve had the weight needed to tell a good story. As is, it feels like another case of one-damn-thing-after-another.
At least it ends with Bender and Robot Santa terrorizing the city. And the first 10 minutes are quite good; really, this only falls apart once it changes focus at the midway point, and even then, it’s still watchable and often funny. But it’s not as good as it should’ve been, given the organizing concept. The writers apparent unwillingness (or inability?) to settle on one single strong thread makes for an episode that loses momentum as it goes along, a shaggy dog story whose ultimate pointlessness is only gradually revealed. The end result is an entertaining but vaguely disappointing outing that has the necessary elements of greatness, but not the execution. Although it does end with Robot Santa and Bender assaulting New New York, so it’s hard for me to stay mad for long.
- Opening caption: “This Episode Performed Entirely By Sock Puppets”
- A note on the season numbering: Following Netflix has led me down a dark, dark path. It’s too late to change these into production order, but I’m at least going to try and stick to the right number of seasons. Netflix has them arranged into five, but I’m holding at four. Beyond that, it’s all madness. Proceed at your own risk.
- Another problem with this episode is that Bender’s half-assed efforts at playing Santa are reminiscent of the King of Halloween’s similar turn in The Nightmare Before Christmas. True, Jack Skellington tries harder, and brings disaster on himself, but it still robs the story of some of its novelty to know that it had been done before (and done better) almost a decade previously.
- I’m not sure if the show has done darker joke than the one here about a kid writing to Santa for a coffin for the grandfather Robot Santa choked with a chestnut the previous Xmas. They even show the corpse.
- “I’ll let you punch me for a buck.”—desperate Neptunian.
- In classic Star Trek fashion, Leela tries to destroy Robot Santa with a logical paradox. Although I’m not sure what she describes is actually a paradox—judges, can we get a ruling on this? (Regardless, it doesn’t work.)
- There’s a song about working harder. It’s also pretty dark.
- Bender meets Kwanzaabot (voiced by Coolio!) a couple of times while making the Xmas rounds. He seems cool.
- There’s a great subversion of the “holidays bring families together!” trope when, as Fry points out, the Planet Express crew huddles together in terror of Robot Santa’s wrath. It’s not enough to hold together the entire episode, but it’s not bad.
“Where The Buggalo Roam” (season 3, episode 14; originally aired 3/2/2002)
In which Kif doesn’t get a home where the oh forget I hate myself…
“A Tale Of Two Santas” fumbles because of a lack of a strong central narrative. “Where The Buggalo Roam” has a clear central narrative, but it’s just not compelling enough of a one to really stick. Kif’s doomed efforts to win over Amy’s parents are sweet enough, but “sweet” doesn’t automatically mean interesting, especially when it’s a situation as contrived as “trying to impress Mom and Dad by proving my manliness.” Given that Kif works on a daily basis with a literal embodiment of all the worst that “manliness” has to offer, you’d think he’d be less eager to reinvent himself. The mystery of what happened to the Wongs’ buggalo livestock isn’t all that exciting either, especially not when it ends up on a bunch of Native American stereotypes repackaged with a Martian blend.
I’m not saying that’s offensive, exactly, although I wouldn’t be shocked if someone was bothered by it. But it is lazy, and this whole City Slickers meets Dances With Wolves shtick never gets off the ground. The Wongs are already irritating enough on their own (see, it’s funny because they’re rich, have thick accents, and are obnoxiously fixated on seeing their daughter married) (WHY AREN’T YOU LAUGHING?), and when you throw in another group of broadly conceived archetypes, the screen doesn’t exactly light up. It’s not funny, and it’s not all that thrilling, and far too much of the screentime of both groups just sort of falls down and dies while you watch. (Okay, that’s a little harsh. The Martian chief had some decently dry one-liners.)
What’s annoying about this is that pairing Kif and Amy was such a sweet, unexpectedly clever decision at the start. Take a supposedly one-off gag, and use it to enrich two characters? Hell yes. And it’s still a nifty idea. But all too often what should be a means to explore and deepen our understanding of Amy and Kif (in a funny way, of course) ends up as an excuse to double-down on what we already know. Amy is a well-meaning goofball, and Kif is nervous about everything. Both of these aren’t bad beginning points, and I’m not looking for Don Draper-esque psychological portraits. It’s just that watching Kif stammer and stumble through every confrontation gets old when the confrontations aren’t compelling enough in their own right.
I’ll say this much: it’s nice to see him trying to stand up for himself for a change. Putting Kif in a relationship with Amy means the show can’t quite use him as ruthlessly as it had in the past; and while I may not be happy with how much Kif seems to be stuck in the same two gags, he’s still come a long way since his first appearance. His decision to go after the missing buggalo gives him agency without losing sight of his fundamental shyness, and the fact that he gets to hold on to Amy’s affection, even if he doesn’t impress her parents, at least ensures that the episode ends on an upbeat note. (There’s even an adorable sex joke!)
Still, while I like Amy and Kif, I’m not sure there’s enough between them to support a full half-hour, and the story they find themselves in here doesn’t take up the slack. It’s just a predictable Western with a sci-fi gloss, and that gloss isn’t enough to elevate the predictability. So, as ever, I find myself looking to the edges to try and find interesting material to hold my attention. Like, say, the fact that Amy’s male friend (the one her parents keep pushing her towards) is a dead ringer for the Marlboro Man, and he spends his time hanging out with a creature who looks suspiciously like Joe Camel. Ostensibly it’s a joke designed to draw out Kif’s insecurity about his masculinity, but mostly, it’s just delightfully weird.
Then there’s Zoidberg as the world’s worst house guest. There’s something to be said for legitimate expressions of anger in comedy; it can be a difficult emotion to pull off, especially when dealing with recurring characters whose relationships can’t really change. But the funniest moments in “Buggalo” come from people being believably outraged at the behavior of others. Fry and the others growing outrage at Farnsworth’s continued willingness to send them into danger is a great running gag, but the bits showing Zoidberg taking advantage of the Wongs’ hospitality is sublime. We rarely see this side of the good doctor, and while it’s a slight departure from his usual sad-sack chumminess, it fits perfectly. And what makes it work is just how visibly furious the Wongs (including Amy) get at him. Not joking angry, not we-still-love-you-angry—this is bordering on homicidal, and it’s some of the only scenes in the episode, short though they may be, that have any life in them at all.
Really, a show set on Mars shouldn’t be quite so pedestrian. Even the buggalo themselves, while a moderately amusing pun, don’t add up to much. (Although it is neat that they can fly.) I’m probably exaggerating my dislike for this, but the fact that I feel the need to exaggerate in order to come up with anything to say is all that really needs to be said.
- Opening caption: “Krafted with luv by monsters”
- “The quickest way to a girl’s bed is through her parents. Sleep with them first, and you’re in.”—The wisdom of Zapp
- “But if they liked you, I wouldn’t! Don’t you know anything about girls?”—Amy, reassuring Kif. Which is cute and all, but also sounds like it belongs on an episode of Full House. (No, not Full House. Something with little more edge like Step By Step.)