November’s just getting started but you know what that means – the floor is once again open to voting for Christmas-themed reviews! Visit the Christmas Shelf to see what shorts, specials and movies you can vote for. Pick one of each and let me know in the comments or by emailing me at email@example.com before November 25th. The winners with the most votes will be reviewed all throughout December (never fear, the next Faerie Tale Theatre review will still be up on December 6th).
Happy Holidays everyone! That’s right, as a present to you all for sticking around for so long without consistent movie reviews, I’m bringing back mini Christmas reviews for the month of December. Once a week leading up to December 25th I’ll be sharing thoughts on some of my favorite shorts, specials and TV episodes that center around the most joyful time of the year.
Speaking of stories, sometimes the best ones can come from personal, even uncomfortable places. Mike Scully, longtime Simpsons writer who was behind the episode we’ll be looking at today, was once pressured as a boy to engage in some shoplifting and was caught almost immediately. The experience traumatized him, but as he jokingly told Variety in an interview, “It’s great to be paid for reliving the horrors of your life.” “Marge Be Not Proud” could have been an episode that wouldn’t feel out of the ordinary if it took place on any given day, but the fact that Scully decided to have it happen around Christmas gives it some extra weight both in context of the plot and in real life. This was the first Simpsons Christmas episode since “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”, exactly six years ago to the day. Let’s see if it lives up to that one’s standards.
“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” holds a very special place in my heart in terms of Simpsons episodes. It’s not only the first episode of the series, but also the very first one I ever watched at the impressionable age of two or three. This was before The Simpsons got its reputation for not being a particularly family-friendly show, but early enough that it was the only episode I saw in full for years due to parental interference. Then they released the seasons annually on DVD and my cousin got me into it after he started collecting them. I love the show as much as anyone else does (the first ten or so seasons were great, then it’s a long slow trip downhill). The Simpsons have done quite a lot of Christmas episodes in their nearly 30 season run, but how does their first one hold up? Let’s look.
Rocko’s Modern Life was one of my favorite Nicktoons growing up, though I had shockingly little memories of watching the holiday episode. I remembered the first minute, but not what happened afterwards, maybe because I was unable to finish watching it for whatever reason. When I got the complete series a few years back I was thrilled to finally watch it in its entirety and has since become one of my must-see annual Christmas episodes of any tv series. Sometimes I even watch it when it isn’t Christmas because it’s just too fun to have to wait for it.
For anyone who’s not familiar with Rocko’s Modern Life, it’s one of those cartoons that sounds really weird when trying to explain the premise yet works almost flawlessly in practice. Created during the first big wave of Nicktoons in the early 90’s Rocko’s Modern Life is a slice-of-life series about a down-to-earth wallaby, the titular Rocko, who moves from Australia to O-Town, U.S.A. and his miscellaneous adventures with his buddies as he adjusts to life in America. This being an early Nicktoon, it’s got wacky animation and a ton of adult humor that went over my head as a kid but I freaking loved it. It’s certainly not without some heart, either. Joe Murray, the creator, incorporated some of his own life experiences into certain episodes like “I Have No Son” and the famous “Wacky Delli” and you can tell it comes from a genuine emotional place. It’s a show shockingly very relatable now that I’m older. So how does it dish out its own brand of yuletide spirit? Let’s find out.
Futurama is one of my favorite television series. The brainchild of Matt Goening, creator of The Simpsons, it enjoyed a brief run on Fox before regaining popularity on Adult Swim reruns, which was how I was introduced to it. After some successful direct-to-video movies, it was revived on Fox for a few more seasons. It has a hard-earned place in the heart of nerd culture for its sense of humor, beloved characters, and crazy world of New-New York, 3000 AD. Early on in its second season, the first Christmas episode, “Xmas Story”, premiered in time for the holidays, and I’ll be looking at it today.
But first, a brief breakdown of the series up to that point: Our main character, Philip J. Fry, is a 30 year old pizza delivery boy from the year 1999. On New Year’s Eve, he was accidentally cryogenically frozen and awoken in the year 3000. He becomes a delivery boy for Planet Express, a delivery company run by his extremely great-nephew, Prof. Farnsworth and works alongside a cyclops alien captain named Leela and amoral beer-guzzling robot Bender as he tries to adjust to this strange new world.
The Planet Express crew – Fry (Billy West), Leela (Katey Segal), Bender (John DiMaggio) and Farnsworth (also West) as well as intern Amy Wong (Lauren Tom), bureaucrat Hermes Conrad (Phil LaMarr) and Dr. Zoidberg (West) – spend a day up at the Catskills enjoying the comedic stylings of Conan O’Brien’s head (celebrities and presidents from years gone by are preserved as living heads in jars). After Bender and Conan heckle each other, everyone goes skiing and plenty of slapstick ensues.
While relaxing at the lodge Fry remarks that it’s moments like this that puts you in the Christmas mood. The others are confused over this “Christmas” until Fry spells it as “Xmas”. It turns out in the future people just call it the abbreviated version of the holiday. Fry is a little sad that this will be his first Xmas without his family, but the gang tries to cheer him up by going to the woods and chopping down an old-fashioned tree. This only exacerbates Fry’s homesickness as he learns that pine trees have been extinct for centuries and palm trees are now the go-to Xmas tree substitute.
They fly back to Planet Express HQ and decorate, but Fry is too caught up in his memories of Xmas past to join in the fun. Hermes delivers cards from family members to everyone in the crew but Leela. Leela takes a moment for herself to look at some old pictures from her childhood. All of them are of her without family or friends. She returns in time for Fry to loudly demand some sympathy and she runs off crying. Fry wonders what that was about and Amy reminds him that Leela was an orphan, and the only known cyclops species in the universe. Fry may feel alone this Xmas, but Leela’s spent her whole life alone.
Bender catches a touching story on the news about homeless robots getting the alcohol they need to function from soup kitchens and decides to go to one himself – not to volunteer of course, but to help himself to free booze.
Fry, meanwhile, is feeling awful for being insensitive towards Leela and vows to find her the perfect Xmas present to cheer her up. It’s getting dark though, and the crew warns him that Santa will be out soon. In one last stark bit of contrast to our Christmas, they reveal Santa is a robot (voiced by John Goodman) originally built to judge who’s been naughty or nice and deliver presents, but his standards have been set to beyond Jesus-levels of niceness and he automatically judges everyone to be naughty. Rather than distribute coal, he punishes everyone in extremely violent ways. This doesn’t put Fry off, however, and he searches all of New-New York to find a good last-minute gift.
At the homeless shelter, Bender is able to pass himself off as a homeless robot and he guzzles as much alcohol as he can get his hands on. He softens for a moment on seeing a crippled orphan robot Tinny Tim approach bowl in hand like Oliver Twist but is denied after the kitchen runs out. He doesn’t give him his alcohol, but he does let him hang out with him for the rest of the episode which counts for something I guess.
Fry tracks down a pet store two minutes before closing and is torn between buying a $500 parrot or 500 lizards that cost a dollar each.
Never mind that Leela already has a pet that poops out free fuel and has the voice of Frank Welker.
Fry decides on the parrot but it quickly proves to be a nuisance and it escapes. Fry climbs on to a clock tower ledge to retrieve it and ends up clinging for his life Harold Lloyd-style. Leela appears to rescue him after the crew told her where he went. As they both walk home, they realize that though they’re both alone, they can be alone together. Everything is wrapped up nicely…
“I’LL SHOW YOU THE LIFE OF THE VINE! I’LL SHOW YOU THE LIFE OF THE VINE!!”
Santa appears and is ready to stuff their stockings until they burst for not considering each others’ or their coworkers’ feelings. Leela and Fry find themselves cornered say their goodbyes. Fry notices that they’re standing under mistletoe, making their farewell a bittersweet one…until they’re interrupted by Santa’s TOW missile heading for them. They’re saved at the last minute by the parrot conveniently flying in its path.
They run into Bender and Tinny Tim, who have been out robbing old ladies together under the guise of friendly carolers. Santa calls out Bender for being especially naughty. Bender tries to pin his long roster of crimes on Tinny Tim, and when Santa stops to add the act of framing an orphan to his list they all make a break for Planet Express. They manage to get inside but so do Santa and his reindeer before the chimney can be blocked.
Santa declares everyone to be naughty and worthy of his punishment – except for Zoidberg. He gets a pogo stick. With Santa’s belly shaking a bowlful of nitro glycerin and Rudolph’s glowing nose as the timer, it seems like everyone is doomed. Zoidberg uses his present to reach the Christmas lights and cut them, electrocuting Santa. They succeed in kicking him and the reindeer into the fireplace and covering it before Santa is blown sky high.
Everyone can relax now that the danger is over and Bender makes Xmas dinner out of a very familiar-looking dead bird. Now I’m not one for mean-spiritedness in comedy, but the following exchange is one of my favorite moments in all of Futurama. Bender serves some of the parrot to little Tinny Tim, but Leela’s pet Nibbler gobbles up the entire meal, including Tim’s portion. Fry stands up to make an important announcement:
Fry: Look, the food isn’t what’s important.
Tim: I’m so hungry.
Maybe it’s the delivery, maybe it’s how they play up Tim’s sad little orphan act as much as possible throughout that it transcends tragedy and enters comedy, but it cracks me up every time.
Fry concludes that even though he’s surrounded by aliens and robots and Jamaicans, he feels perfectly at home this Xmas. The evening concludes with everyone cheering and singing that classic song “Santa Claus is Gunning You Down”.
“Xmas Story” is one of my go-to episodes of Futurama, and a perennial holiday favorite. It does a fun job showing what an alternate sci-fi version of Christmas would be like, all played for laughs of course. I didn’t even touch on half the funny lines or scenes in this episode. They go all out on the jokes, even ripping on some beloved stories like A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Gift Of The Magi, but they don’t hold back on the heartwarming moments either. If you’re not familiar with Futurama, the world and the characters that inhabit it might be a lot to take in, but I hope this gives you more incentive to give the series a chance.
But this isn’t the only time Fry Bender and Leela go toe-to-toe with Santa. Join me in the next review to find out who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.