Season 1: Episode 1. Original Airdate: December 17, 1989
It’s redundant at this point to say that the members of the Simpson family are iconic. They’re deeply ingrained into the public consciousness, on a level few fictional (or real) persons can ascribe to. Even non-fans, including those who have never seen a minute of the TV show, could easily recognize Homer, Marge, Lisa, Bart, and Maggie. That’s just one small testament to the staying power and continuing relevance of The Simpsons.
With that in mind, my experience with The Simpsons has been limited, to say the least. The show was at its pinnacle while I was in elementary school; accordingly, I wasn’t allowed to watch it. I knew the characters well, though, and snuck a viewing every chance I could. By the time I was in middle school and had free reign over the remote, my friends were more interested in Family Guy and its ilk, and The Simpsons fell to the wayside of my cultural radar.
Although I’m a certifiable idiot for not paying attention to one of the foundations of our culture during my childhood, having a sort of fresh perspective may be a blessing when watching the entire series. I won’t be clouded by nostalgia watching the later seasons live, nor will I be overly partial to the early seasons solely because they were earlier. I’m hoping to be as objective as possible here, quite literally taking the show an episode at a time.
That’s all a roundabout way of explaining that I didn’t know what to expect when I turned on the pilot, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” this afternoon. I have a distinct characterization of each Simpson in my head, and for some reason I assumed they were conceived in that iconic way I described above. However, if the first episode is an indication of the tone for these early seasons, I think I’m in for even more a treat than I expected.
The Simpsons begins with a Christmas special. I came into the episode with reservations, mostly because most Christmas specials are hyper-earnest and better-natured twists on the average episode. I thought I’d have have a hard time distinguishing whether the sweetness of this episode is because of the holiday spirit, or if this would be the MO of the early Simpsons seasons.
In the episode, Marge and Homer are planning out the family’s Christmas. The thing that really sticks out in these early scenes is the desperation of the Simpson family. This is the story of a poor family struggling to make ends meet during the holidays. It’s a jarring conceit for a show. Even though the characters in Family Guy and even South Park barely classify as middle-class, the Simpsons are a decidedly lower class household in these early episodes. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention as a kid, but I don’t remember the episodes I’ve seen focusing so heavily on the family’s economic situation. In a weird way, it’s refreshing to see poverty taken this seriously in a sitcom.
Homer loses his Christmas bonus at the nuclear plant, which forces the responsibility of Christmas gifts onto Marge’s stowed-away fund. Unfortunately, Bart gets a “Mother” tattoo in a very ill-conceived attempt at honoring his mom. Marge has to spend the entirety of the Christmas money on the tattoo’s laser removal, but Homer is too ashamed/proud to tell his family that he lost his bonus. That shame leads him to working as a mall Santa, which only results in $13 for Christmas.
Homer’s determination and dedication to his family is another shocking aspect of this episode. In my mind, Homer is a buffoon, an oaf, and above all else an ill-equipped father. After watching just one episode, I’m already prepared to reverse my opinion of the character. Homer is a dumb character, yes, but he is also a sweet one, even despite his strangling Bart multiple times in this episode. In moments like when he storms off to buy, and subsequently steal, a Christmas tree, the results are funny, but more importantly, they’re touching. His relationship with Marge is also already clearly defined, and their deep love is the core of this family. That love is what makes Homer so disappointed in himself for not having the money to make Christmas happen, and even though his efforts are misguided, his actions are grounded in devotion to providing for his family.
Homer’s minuscule paycheck leads him to the dog track, where he and Bart are told to bet on a sure thing with 10-1 odds. In the Christmas spirit, Homer opts to instead bet on the 99-1 pick Santa’s Little Helper. The dog loses, of course, and father and son are sent home penniless. Bart’s meta-gag about TV teaching him about miracles is surprisingly clever and perceptive, although it’s nothing on the meta-insanity that’s sure to come in later seasons. With Bart having been let down by those lessons taught by TV, the two losers find themselves a companion in Santa’s Little Helper, who is thrown out by his owner after losing. In my favorite line of the episode, Homer proclaims, “he’s a loser, he’s pathetic—he’s a Simpson!”
In the end, the family happily embraces their new pet, a serendipitous Christmas gift that even they could afford. Refreshingly, there’s no treacly lesson in bold writing. This episode, and this show, is much more inclined to subtle messages, and for the better. The episode ends on a rendition of Christmas carols highlighted by the kind of naughty interjections that made so many parents’ groups detest Bart, and leaves me wildly anticipating tomorrow’s episode.
One episode in, and the world of The Simpsons is still very grounded in reality. If it weren’t for the ugly, only-vaguely human art direction, this could have been a live-action sitcom. We’re introduced to supporting players like Selma and Patty, Barney, Flanders, and Moe, though they are nowhere near as filled in as the central family. The relationships between Marge and Homer, and Homer and Bart are set up nicely, with the episode giving only Lisa short shrift. That doesn’t concern me, though, as there’s a great deal of amazing Lisa stories to come.
That’s the thing about watching this show—I don’t need to worry about hypotheticals or speculation, because I know exactly where it’s heading, and I get to sit back and enjoy it. This journey of mine is the TV equivalent of spending a month walking around the Louvre, or listening to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on repeat. The true scope of The Simpsons will become clear to me in the next few weeks. I’m in rarefied air just by watching this stuff, so even if the animation isn’t quite there yet, and the voice actors haven’t perfected their work yet (more on that tomorrow), this is just the beginning of something truly special.
1 down, 499 to go! See you tomorrow!