Shiny Shelf

SHINY ADVENT: The Simpsons

By J Clive Matthews on 17 December 2006

On 17 December 1989, the first half-hour episode of ‘The Simpsons’ aired in the US, kicking off a sitcom of unprecedented popularity and one of the defining TV shows of the last decade and a half. As the broadcast date would suggest, it was a Christmas episode – titled ‘The Simpsons Christmas Special’ – and anyone would think that it was perfectly planned, much like the David Tennant run of ‘Doctor Who’.

As it happens, the fact that ‘The Simpsons’ opened with a Christmas Special was merely a happy accident, as the show was originally scheduled for earlier in the year, and the first broadcast episode was actually the eighth to be produced. Nonetheless, the festive spirit was a pretty much perfect opener, setting up many of the themes that have given the show its enduring popularity – albeit in the somewhat clunky style of an early season for a programme that has, for the most part, only got better with age.

For those who had missed the Simpsons’ little skits on The Tracey Ullman Show, the set-up of a blue-collar family down on their funds as the festive season approaches – with the hapless father ending up desperately getting a job as a (particularly grumpy) Father Christmas to earn enough to buy his family presents – introduced all the major characters in classic sitcom style. Bart gets a tattoo, Marge uses up the last of their money to get it removed, Lisa whines a lot, Maggie does very little, and Homer’s a picture of rage and despair.

It also, like many of the earlier episodes of the show, really isn’t very funny – Homer betting his paltry paycheck on a greyhound in a last-ditch effort to get up some cash being far more upsetting than pretty much any of his later get-rich-quick schemes. No zany antics this time around – no Homer joining the Smashing Pumpkins on tour, no becoming the mascot of the local baseball team, no Marge resignation to her husband going off on yet another of his little doomed quests – and also no Homer jacking in his job at the nuclear power plant, so hard up is the family. The greyhound loses, Homer’s dejected, the dog follows Homer home, and the family think that Santa’s Little Helper is his surprise gift. Classic cheesy Christmas denouement.

Although it may have been the later subversion of precisely this kind of stereotypical storyline that made ‘The Simpsons’ what it is today, without such by-the-numbers early episodes, the broad popularity of the show may well not have been built. ‘Family Guy’ may well have taken the ‘Simpsons’ formula and jacked it up a notch on the absurdity scale – but not only would ‘Family Guy’ never have seen the light of day without the groundwork laid by these early ‘Simpsons’ episodes, but also it’s simply never been as big a hit. Largely, most likely, due to its lack of this more traditional set-up process, that got people watching a show that ended up subversive who would never knowingly have watched a subversive show.

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By J Clive Matthews

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