Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 20, 2003)
While folks overseas have watched Simpsons compilation DVDs for years, those of us in the States never encountered collections of that sort. Instead, Fox did the right thing and only released full season packages for the series. Granted, it’s taking them forever to do so, but at least the final product seems strong.
Perhaps as a response to the excruciatingly slow release schedule, US viewers now will get some of these theme DVDs. Logically released about two months prior to the big holiday day, Christmas With the Simpsons offers five of the series’ yuletide episodes. I’ll present story synopses mostly straight from the show’s official website and also offer my own thoughts on each program.
Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire (aired December 17, 1989): Though the eighth episode produced, this was the one that started it all for TV audiences. It made sense for its airdate to occur earliest, since “Roasting” was the only episode of the first 13 that had a seasonal theme.
As implied by the title, “Roasting” takes place around Christmas. After Bart (voiced by Nancy Cartwright) gets a tattoo, mother Marge (Julie Kavner) must spend the family’s Christmas savings to get it removed. When father Homer (Dan Castellaneta) doesn’t get his expected Christmas bonus at work, he’s too meek to admit this to the family, so he takes on a second job as a department store Santa. This doesn’t pay as well as desired, so Homer bets it all – the whole $13 – at the dog track on a 99-to-1 shot named Santa’s Little Helper. The pooch comes in last and is abandoned by his owner, so he embraces another group of losers, the family Simpson.
For many years I thought of “Roasting” as a terrible episode, but it’s not. While I don’t feel it’s anything special, it remains a fairly entertaining show that has a few entertaining moments. I love the obnoxious refusal of Marge’s sister to speak to Homer on the phone, and it may be a cheap laugh, but Bart’s incomplete “mother” tattoo remains amusing. “Roasting” is good but not great early Simpsons.
Mr. Plow (aired November 19, 1992): At the auto show, Homer impulsively buys a snowplow and starts a business as Mr. Plow. An incredibly snowy winter sets the business rolling, making Homer a success and earning him the key to the city from Mayor Quimby (Castellaneta). All is well until Barney (Castellaneta) sets up a rival business as the Plow King and wipes the streets with Homer. To cut out his competition, Homer calls Barney under an assumed name and dispatches the Plow King to clear a path on forbidding Widow's Peak. Barney foolishly drives up there and is caught under an avalanche. Only Homer can save him from an icy death and both men agree to work together as a team. Right at that moment, the sun bursts out and all the snow in Springfield melts into puddles, leaving them both without livelihoods.
What in the world is “Mr. Plow” doing on this DVD? The show has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas or any other holiday. It simply takes place during the winter, so its inclusion here seems bizarre – does that mean a springtime episode should be considered an Easter show?
With results this funny, however, I don’t really mind. “Mr. Plow” has to be one of the series’ best episodes, as it’s packed with laugh out loud moments. The plot’s idiotic but the show makes it work shockingly well, mostly because I was too amused to worry about the stupidity of the concept. And guest spots don’t get funnier – or more bizarre – than Adam West here. It’s a brilliant show.
Miracle On Evergreen Terrace (aired December 21, 1997): When Bart accidentally destroys his family's Christmas tree and all the presents underneath it on Christmas morning, he lies and says that he saw a burglar steal their stuff. A report by Kent Brockman (Harry Shearer) about the supposed robbery leads to an outpouring of support and money for the Simpsons from the people of Springfield. Homer takes the money and buys a new car, which he promptly drives into the bottom of a lake. Bart finally admits that there was no burglar and that it was his fault that the Christmas tree and presents disappeared. When word gets out about the fraud, the entire town turns on the Simpsons, throwing rotten vegetables at them and sending them hate mail. Marge comes up with a foolproof plan to get the townspeople their money back: She goes on Jeopardy! to win the cash. When she loses, the family returns home to find that their neighbors have looted the entire house, thereby evening the score.
After the terrific “Mr. Plow”, it seemed likely the next show would come down from there, and that indeed happens with “Miracle”. Actually, even without the heights achieved by its predecessor on this DVD, “Miracle” wouldn’t fare too well. It’s a little too moralizing, and it simply lacks much of the clever and incisive humor we expect from the show. It tries a little too hard, so while it elicits a few chuckles, it seems somewhat weak overall. Well, at least it actually deals with Christmas.
Grift of the Magi (aired December 19, 1999): When Fat Tony (Joe Mantegna) and his legitimate businessmen friends extort $200,000 from Principal Skinner (Shearer), Springfield Elementary goes broke. The children rejoice while Skinner tries to figure out a way to raise enough money to reopen the school. Enter Jim Hope (Tim Robbins) and his Kid First Industry (KFI), a touchy-feely corporation that buys the school and privatizes it. KFI fires all the teachers and rewrites the curriculum based on its own curious corporate mandates. Strangely, every lesson plan seems to revolve in some way around toys and marketing. When Lisa's (Yeardley Smith) class is asked to come up with names for toys, Lisa becomes very suspicious of KFI's motives. After a little investigating, she discovers that the school is full of hidden cameras and two-way blackboards that allow KFI to gather marketing data on children. Lisa tries to share her discovery with her parents and Chief Wiggum (Hank Azaria), but KFI removes all evidence from the school before they can investigate.
When Christmas rolls around, Lisa notices that a popular new toy named Funzo has many of the traits her classmates said they wanted. Lisa and Bart break into the KFI headquarters to figure out what's going on. Slipping by Gary Coleman, who is working as a security guard at KFI, Lisa and Bart confront Jim Hope. Hope admits that he may have exploited the kids, but he gives them a free Funzo, which is enough to satisfy Bart. Funzo becomes a huge hit at Christmas time, but when Bart discovers that it's programmed to destroy all other toys, he agrees with Lisa that Funzo is bad. Bart and Lisa decide to get rid of all the Funzos they can by having Homer steal them from their neighbors' homes. When Homer tries to throw all the stolen toys into the Springfield Tire Fire, he's stopped by none other than Gary Coleman. But by talking with Gary, Lisa is able to show him the truth about KFI and the way that other companies have exploited Christmas. The Simpsons invite Gary over for Christmas dinner and everyone has a wonderful day.
Many fans believe that The Simpsons has declined in quality over the last few years. They’ll find support for that argument in package DVDs like this. The drop from “Mr. Plow” to the fairly lame “Grift” seems steep. The show feels like an amalgamation of elements from prior programs and never really elicits much humor. Christmas is commercialized and corporations use and abuse their customers? Those aren’t exactly rich insights, so “Grift” comes across as a below average episode.
She of Little Faith (aired December 16, 2001): Homer and Bart build a model rocket together but lose control of it as it burns down the church. Without any money for repairs, the church decides to sell out to corporate sponsors: mainly Mr. Burns. Lisa is appalled by the shameless display of billboards and corporate monikers emblazoned on the church walls and finally decides to simply quit the church for good. She decides to test out new religions and finally happens upon a Buddhist temple.
Lisa becomes enamored with the easy-going approach to enlightenment and decides to take Buddhism as her new religion. Her family, worried about her soul, try to bring her back to Christianity by subtly dropping Christian innuendo. Lisa realizes that Buddhism allows for the celebration of all holidays and finally comes back to her family to celebrate and simply pay "lip-service" to the church.
The worst of this DVD’s episodes, “Faith” comes across as little more than a retread of earlier programs. Mix the one where Lisa went vegetarian with the show where Lisa got a pony and toss in a little of “Grift” and you have a pretty unoriginal piece of work. It fails to deliver more than a chuckle or two and ends the DVD on a low note.