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This Christmas, The Simpsons aims for heartwarming, lands on forgettable

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC
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“At any other time of the year, that man’s life would be worth more than a TV.”

On The Simpsons, it’s not the destination as much as it is the journey. Even more than most traditional sitcoms, The Simpsons’ 30-year rewritable reality has to return more or less to first position at the end of every episode. That’s not a criticism—The Simpsons’ longevity (regardless of your opinion about how far “the good years” are retreating in the rear-view mirror) is a testament to the strength of the series’ foundations. There’s the cast, of course, but as much as that, The Simpsons is/the Simpsons are an endlessly renewable resource of stories stemming from the American nuclear family. The family of the show is inviolable—no matter how many times Marge learns about Homer’s poker shack out in the swamp—and will always, always reset back to one in time for the next story. What’s important is the telling.

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“’Tis The 30th Season,” yet another in the series’ Christmas stories, tells a story that wouldn’t be out of place in any family sitcom you could name. Marge—thanks to her selflessness toward fellow Black Friday shopper and Springfield’s saddest sack, Gil—fails to procure the on-sale $500 smart TV Bart and Lisa have conspired to ask for. The family, seeing Marge’s mounting depression at having, to her mind, ruined Christmas, plan a secret family trip to Florida for the holidays, which, naturally, turns out to be a disaster thanks to Homer’s gullibility concerning high pressure internet travel packages. The Simpsons come home, run out of gas at the finish line, and wind up at Moe’s, where, to their delight and surprise, they find that Springfield’s second-saddest sack provides a free holiday meal to the old, drunk, and infirm. Everybody’s happy, because family is what matters. (Or, as Bart says, “your family and your bartender.”)

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

That bare outline sounds insipid, sure. But so does “Lisa bonds with her new substitute teacher,” and “Bart redeems himself in Marge’s eyes with a special Christmas present after he gets caught shoplifting,” and “Abe uses his dead girlfriend’s money to improve conditions at the Springfield Retirement Castle.The Simpsons makes use of family sitcom plots and its own fluid and comically inventive reality to take those hackneyed plots and bend them into something satirically subversive, while still remaining true to its core of recognizable humanity. Or, you know, it should. “’Tis The 30th Season,” however, shows what The Simpsons is like when the inspiration’s left out—a blandly pleasant family sitcom with a few lazy surreal touches thrown in.

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Speaking of the episode’s title, tonight’s episode featured an ad for the big 30th anniversary Simpsons marathon coming up next Sunday on FXX. An episode from every season highlighting the best of each is a fun idea for a 15-hour Simpsons binge-watch, and it’s interesting to see what executive producer Al Jean and The Simpsons’ staff have chosen—and how the task of finding a memorable episode from each season gets both tougher and easier as the years roll on. (I notice a reliance on “Treehouse Of Horror” episodes as the marathon approaches the present day.) With 600-plus episodes to sift through, it’s daunting to think of just how many of those shows are stone classics—and depressing to realize once again how an increasing number of them will never be on anyone’s list. “’Tis The 30th Season” might make it onto a dutiful all-Christmas marathon, I suppose, but it’s hard to imagine anyone caring, or even remembering its existence.

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC
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The journey of the episode (including the actual car journey to and from Florida) blurs in a wash of watery sentiment and unmemorable gags. The only aspect of the trip that stands out does so for the wrong reasons—Homer and the kids actually drug the Christmas-obsessed Marge unconscious, only reviving her once they’re safely speeding through Tennessee. For a feel-good episode, that’s more of a feel-queasy plot device, one emblematic of the wandering characterizations of Marge and Homer throughout. I don’t object to Homer being written as genuinely thoughtful and concerned about his family once in a while. There’s a much better episode to be made around Homer’s insight that Marge “is always as happy as the saddest one of us.” But here it’s less a case of exploring that fundamentally decent aspect of Homer than of grafting Marge’s character onto him for the sake of the plot.

Along those lines, the setup that Homer is going to neglect to relive Marge in the freezing 3 a.m. Black Friday Sprawl Mart line is dispatched in an indifferent sight gag of his scarf getting caught in the front door, knocking him out. And when the frostbitten Marge (she gave her gloves to Gil, along with her scarf and earmuffs) stews over her inability to provide the kids’ ideal Christmas, she’s portrayed as an unhinged crank, stringing popcorn with her toes and ranting about the sanctity of a family at-home holiday. God knows it’s not a bad idea to shade in Marge and Homer’s often-rote characterizations, but, here, they’re just all over the place as the plot dictates and it’s deadening.

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Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

The trip to Florida is another Simpsons travelogue rush job. There’s nothing specifically clever about the decrepit motel they wind up at, or the equally low-rent theme park included in Homer’s chosen package. Jane Lynch shows up as the uncaring desk clerk/owner, but isn’t given anything interesting to play. The denouement hinges on the family getting their non-refundable fee refunded, but that’s accomplished with a perfunctory bit of Bart li’l bastardy (he leaves the severed heads of the park’s Hall Of Vice Presidents in her bed), freeing the Simpsons up for a quick return home. Only she doesn’t return their money (something Lisa notes is necessary for Marge’s desired Evergreen Terrace holiday) as the tag to the episode sees Lynch’s owner refunding, by mail, not only Homer’s fee, but also enough cash to cover Bart and Lisa’s dream TV—after they’ve already returned home. It’s just a hand-wave at even the barest concern for the plot, a barely-there insult added to already-forgotten injury.

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Stray observations

  • Homer chides the family’s decade-old TV for showing the Black Friday commercial, accusing it of telling them how it replace itself.
  • Nothing to do with the plot, but that’s a great joke that both the Yankees Fantasy Camp and the Yankees Suck Fantasy Camp feature an appearance by Wade Boggs.
  • In response to Homer’s anger at only thinking of their own Christmas happiness, Lisa and Bart ashamedly confess that they’d intended to get Marge a poem (Lisa) and lanyard (Bart).
  • The resort features a combination shower-toilet. Called a shoilet.
  • There’s a joke about a Family Guy theme park being built, where the costumed Stewie references the fact that Family Guy used to be more popular than it is now. Which may or may not meet the barest requirements for a joke.
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About the author

Dennis Perkins

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.