The first episode of any TV show has a lot of work to do – introduce the characters so audiences attach to them, establish the rules of the world they reside in, and tell an interesting enough story to get people wanting to watch again next week. And while ‘Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire’ wasn’t intended to be The Simpsons‘ pilot episode – it was originally ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, which was delayed due to animation problems – it does a fantastic job of introducing us to Springfield.
Frankly, it’s remarkable how many of the fundamental Simpsons elements were present from the very start – from Homer’s dislike of Flanders, Patty and Selma to Principal Skinner’s bumbling leadership, writer Mimi Pond does a brilliant job of taking such a vast, expansive set of characters and condensing it into a pilot that never feels overwhelming. We meet so many supporting characters here – Barney and Moe, Mr. Burns and Smithers – yet it never detracts from the Simpsons family themselves. They are clearly the stars here, and the heartfelt yet satirical story told in this episode conveys that perfectly.
Bart says it himself – that so many Christmas-themed films and shows centre around a ‘Christmas Miracle’, and ‘Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire’ cleverly subverts this at every stage. As always with this show, everything seems to go wrong: Homer doesn’t get his Christmas bonus, gets underpaid for his Santa job – and worst of all, Patty and Selma show up on Christmas Eve (one of the best gags in this episode is Homer’s visible shudder upon hearing their voices). This plot works perfectly to set the show aside from other sitcoms that dominated the late 80s: in Springfield, not everything goes to plan, and even though there’s a happy resolution, it certainly doesn’t go as we’d expect. It’s also a classic plot from the ‘peak Simpsons’ era, not relying on guest stars or trips abroad for humour, but focusing on the characters and their relationships.
Yet while it doesn’t have all the components of the show we went on to see – particularly the humour, which changes drastically from here to some of the best seasons in the 1990s – so many of the fundamentals are already clear, which is testament to Matt Groening’s definitive vision of Springfield and its occupants. He clearly knew what he wanted this show to become, and while some elements of this episode are clearly stepping stones towards that final product, the overwhelming majority feels quintessentially Simpsons – and for a debut episode, which can so often feels drastically different to the episodes that succeed them, that has to be commended.
‘Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire’ isn’t the best Simpsons Christmas episode ever (that’s a toss-up between ‘Miracle on Evergreen Terrace’ and ‘Skinner’s Sense of Snow’), but its has to be commended for how successfully it sets up such a dense universe. There’s so many characters, personalities and gags established here, yet it never feels overcrowded, and the satirical yet heartwarming plot paved the way for so many wonderful stories to come. It’s a fantastic introduction to the show and deservedly earns its place in Simpsons history.
Favourite quote: ‘Lisa gets straight As and Bart – well, we love Bart.’
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