It’s not often I get to look at a Christmas special from the same year I’m doing The Christmas Spot, but it also helps when that Christmas special premieres in May of the same of year. May?! Yeah, it’s weird, but for the 31st season finale of The Simpsons the show rolled out a Christmas episode. It’s not quite a full-fledged Christmas episode because the holiday merely exists in this episode and is not a focal point of the plot, but it’s also not just here and then gone.
If you’re a longtime fan of The Simpsons then you’re probably aware that the series premiered with a Christmas episode. That episode was never intended to be the premiere, but when a new animated sitcom is being launched it’s not uncommon for delays to arise. Especially when virtually everyone associated with the production of the show is completely new to animation. The true premiere wasn’t ready, and actually would be delayed and reworked so much that it would turn into the season finale. The Christmas episode was ready to go though, so Fox elected to premiere that in December of 1989 a bit like a sneak peek with the series getting up and running for good in January of 1990. That inaugural episode not only introduced audiences to the family, but also the family’s dog: Santa’s Little Helper.
Santa’s Little Helper was a racing grey hound, and not a very good one. When Homer risks what little money he has on the dog it doesn’t go well. As he and Bart are leaving the track, the dog’s owner tosses him out and into the arms of Homer. One look at the dog and he’s in love and the rest is history. Or not really history since the show is still improbably ongoing and currently in the midst of its 32nd season. Over the years, the show has had a few episodes focused on the family dog, but “Way of the Dog” is the first to really look at life for Santa’s Little Helper prior to that fateful night at the races.
That’s all well and good, and who doesn’t want to know more about Santa’s Little Helper? Why not wait for December though? I don’t think there really is an answer for that. It’s been floated for years by folks like showrunner Al Jean that a nice way to end the series might be to tie it into that premiere and have it end where that episode starts. Since there’s no real concept of time on the show, it would be a fun way to both bring things full circle and create a fun little joke. Maybe that idea is out though with this episode rehashing that one so much as a season finale. If I hadn’t known that the show was renewed for both a 31st and 32nd season at the same time, I would have hypothesized that this was written to serve as a series finale in the event that the show wasn’t renewed. The writer of the episode, Carolyn Omine, tried to get it moved to December 2020, but the folks in charge declined. She had been tasked with exploring the dog’s past, not to write a Christmas episode, but how could the episode not be set at Christmas given its focus on a character literally named Santa’s Little Helper? She made the right choice and I guess we lovers of Christmas television should just be glad we got a little dose of the holiday in the spring, especially when we needed it most. So what if there were still 222 days until the actual holiday?
The episode begins without a customary chalkboard gag, but we do get a fun little animation of dead Simpsons pets as they fly by over the show’s logo. We’re then shown Santa’s Little Helper who’s in the midst of a dream. For some reason he’s dreaming of Ralph Wiggum (Nancy Cartwright), possibly because he’s an easy target, who has dropped a bucket of popcorn on account of the fact that he’s terrified of a butterfly. Santa’s Little Helper helps himself (no pun intended) to the spilled goods before awaking to the smell of actual popcorn.
Marge (Julie Kavner) enters the living room in a festive Christmas apron and two heaping bowls of the good stuff. Bart (Cartwright) and Lisa (Yeardley Smith) are excited when they see the two bowls of popcorn, but Marge plays the role of killjoy in announcing the popcorn is for stringing on the Christmas tree. The two kids grumpily commence the stringing as Marge turns her attention to a new ornament Bart made in Sunday school. The sticky monstrosity is destined for the back of the tree where we see some other amusing “not for the front of the tree” ornaments, including a very annoying Krusty one and one from Dr. Nick.
Marge then stumbles upon a small Santa hat while going through some Christmas stuff. Immediately she decides the hat would look best on Santa’s Little Helper. Despite him clearly wanting nothing to do with the hat, Marge insists that dogs enjoy people clothes and has Lisa take pictures of her as she wrestles to get the hat on the dog. During the skirmish we get another doggy point of view shot in which the words of the humans sound like gibberish (a nice nod to the season two episode “Bart’s Dog Gets an “F””) and we even get a quick Grandpa (Dan Castellaneta) cameo with the gag being he speaks in gibberish in general.
Marge is dismayed by the photos Lisa took as she looks through Lisa’s phone. And as she looks, it’s obvious Santa’s Little Helper is pretty traumatized by the hat, more than a dog normally would be. Lisa seems concerned, but Marge is dismissive of the dog’s trauma and announces her displeasure to the dog by saying he’s out of the Christmas card. She then whispers to the kids he’s still in, though Bart expresses a willingness to not be included himself. We then cut to last year’s Christmas card which is basically a full Springfield cast as the kids recommend to Marge they should probably think about some cuts in general.
Sometime later, the Simpson family is shown driving back from a store. Homer (Castellaneta) is happily singing his own version of “Jingle Bell Rock” which is more cute than funny. As the Simpsons unload the car of wrapped gifts, one tagged for Marge is clearly a vacuum. When the family enters the house, a vase is knocked over and Homer resorts to his customary, “D’oh!” to express himself before turning on the vacuum with the wrapping paper still on it. He sucks up the broken porcelain, then the wrapping gets sucked off, then Bart’s shorts get sucked up! When Bart points out that the vacuum ate his shorts he realizes how sad the loss of his shorts makes him calling into question the wisdom of ever encouraging others to eat his shorts. I find it hard to believe the show has been on for over 30 years and hasn’t made that joke already. Marge then tells Homer they need to have a talk about the difference between gifts and household tools. Homer then looks despondent as the camera pans to an obviously wrapped mop and bucket.
When the family enters the TV room they find their beloved brown couch (the one in the TV room, not the living room. Yes, the Simpsons have two brown couches) is in ruins! Homer declares the dog’s going to pay for this one and Bart rather sweetly tries to take the blame for this destruction and encourages Homer to wail away at his exposed rear with a newspaper (“You know I get my news online!”). The family then finds Santa’s Little Helper staring at a smudge on a cabinet with the Santa hat nearby. The smudge resembles the teats of his mother which we had seen quickly flash across the screen when Marge initially shoved the hat on him. The family ponders what they should do with the dog, while Lisa argues that he needs to see a dog psychiatrist. Homer imagines a dog in a suit acting as a clinical psychiatrist for other dogs and has a chuckle while Lisa assures him that whatever he’s thinking is wrong.
Lisa points out that there’s a free lecture they can attend that’s being delivered by a dog expert named Dr. Elaine Wolff. Homer doesn’t want to go because of a UFC fight, and when Marge questions why that would matter Bart narcs on him by revealing to Marge he paid 60 bucks for the pay-per-view. Homer corrects him by saying it was $70 as he paid for the HD version. Marge is even more annoyed since she points out they don’t even have a high definition television (that flatscreen in the TV room is clearly an HD set, so this is an odd joke). Homer sheepishly replies that he wanted to feel like a big shot in front of the cable person.
That night, Homer is in bed with his tablet and expresses his fondness for Candy Crush. He then uses the tablet to smash a pile of candy on his nightstand into dust. It seems weird to be doing a Candy Crush joke in 2020, but maybe this is going somewhere. Lisa then enters and informs her dad that she understands he won’t listen to a feminine voice like hers, so she has Bart come in and read something written by her. It’s an argument for why the family needs to seek help for Santa’s Little Helper via the seminar Lisa raised earlier. After hearing the argument, Homer agrees and bestows upon Lisa the highest honor he can: a hearty Homer hug. He then invites them to party with him as he rolls up a piece of paper and begins snorting the candy dust. When Lisa asks why he would consume candy in such a manner, Homer replies “Because I already brushed my teeth,” so I guess that Candy Crush reference paid off.
The family heads to the seminar which is jam-packed with lots of familiar faces from around town, and their pets. Most notable is Comic Book Guy in attendance with his own dog who is wearing a Krypto the Super Dog cape. Dr. Wolff (Cate Blanchett) begins her lecture by informing the crowd she loves dogs and hates people. The audience reacts with shock as she lays into them, especially former heavyweight champion Drederick Tatum (Hank Azaria doing his Mike Tyson voice) who expresses regret about attending. The lecture is then broken up when Wolff receives a phone call from an older, British, fellow named Clayton (Michael York). He is calling to inform Wolff that he’s finally left his wife and they can resume a romance that apparently began in adolescence. Wolff is flattered, but she needs to return to her lecture. Clayton is not dismayed and it’s implied he’ll be seeing her soon. Honestly, this is a really odd subplot and I get the feeling it’s a reference to something that is going over my head.
When the lecture resumes, Wolff is back to her human-hating ways. She tells them that humans are unworthy of a dog’s affection and an outburst from Homer where he’s encouraging a fighter to break the other’s neck (he’s watching the fight on his phone) only seems to reaffirm Wolff’s position. She even swats a few members of the audience with a rolled up newspaper as she dispenses with the insults.
The Simpsons are forced to track Wolff down in the parking lot after the lecture. Lisa tries using tears as she pleads with Wolff to help their dog, but human sorrow has no effect on her so she then turns to physical threats. Wolff is ready to take off, but one look at Santa’s Little Helper turns her into mush. She gets down on her knees and consoles the dog as she’s sensing some trauma in the dog’s past. When Lisa implores her to teach them to see through a dog’s eyes the way she can, Wolff corrects her by telling her dogs see with their nose, not their eyes.
Wolff then frees Santa’s Little Helper from his leash to demonstrate. As Santa’s Little Helper sniffs a nearby lamppost visions of the past swirl around it. We see Otto posting a flier, a drunken Barney picking a fight with it, and old Gill, the subject of perhaps the show’s worst Christmas episode, is shown trying to leach power from the device. Even though Wolff knows something is wrong with the dog, she’s still not compelled to hang around (she has a lot of poop to scoop as-is) and gets into her car. As she drives away, her eyes lock onto her rearview mirror as Santa’s Little Helper chases after her before eventually relenting.
Back home, everyone looks sad and miserable including Santa’s Little Helper who is laying on the old Santa hat. Marge decides the hat is the problem, but when she tries to take it from him the dog responds with a bite. He takes the hat and leaves and the family seems even more concerned, except Homer who is more angry with the dog than anything. Lisa is then instructed to get the first aid kit, but when she reminds her dad they don’t have one, he encourages her to check under the tree. There a clearly wrapped first aid kit waits, and it’s intended recipient is conveniently Marge.
Homer chains up Santa’s Little Helper outside informing the dog he’s going to sleep there until further notice. Bart insists that if Santa’s Little Helper is to remain outside, then so shall he. Homer reminds Bart that he’s not the boss, which brings in Mr. Burns (Harry Shearer) to remind Homer that he is. Apparently Bart paid him off to tell Homer he’s sleeping outside with the dog and Homer obeys his master.
We cut to later that night and Bart is adorably snuggled up with Santa’s Little Helper. Marge looks on with concern and asks Homer what they’re going to do. He’s not too worried though as he’s already “oogling” for the cheapest dog doctor around. Homer sure gets a lot of mileage out of that tablet in modern episodes. It’s weird for someone like me who is mostly familiar with the show’s first 10 seasons or so.
The next day, the Simpsons take Santa’s Little Helper to apparently the cheapest doctor Homer could find. The whole family is in the examining room when Dr. Callas enters. He has a jovial disposition, which makes it funny when he recommends euthanizing the dog. The family is horrified, but he insists once a biter always a biter. Homer, disgusted, informs the doctor they’re leaving and since he can’t bring himself to even look at the doctor he puts on a medical cone to walk out in while remarking he feels like the Pixar logo.
At home, the Simpsons are back to square one when someone arrives at the door. It’s Chief Wiggum (Azaria) and he’s come to inform them that the vet relayed to the police about their dog and Animal Control is on the way to destroy the sad creature. Bart and Lisa are obviously horrified, but Wiggum insists this is the way it’s got to be. Plus Animal Control is almost there according to some app Wiggum has. Another knock at the door brings more terror, but it turns out it’s just Dr. Wolff.
Wolff enters the house and tells them she could not stop thinking about the dog and fears he’s about to do something terrible. When Marge tells her he already bit her, she first reacts smugly in an almost delighted manner because that proves she was right. She then corrects herself and tries to display some empathy for Marge’s injury, but it’s a bit too late for that. The family quickly decides that she needs to take Santa’s Little Helper to save him from the folks at Animal Control and because she’s the only one who can help him. Lisa sweetly says good bye to the pooch which is nice to see as so often it’s Bart who is shown to have a connection with the dog. He says bye too, though it’s Homer who tops everyone by giving the dog an open-mouth kiss. Santa’s Little Helper seems charmed so I know whose leg will be getting humped first when he returns home.
Wolff takes Santa’s Little Helper to her home: The Dognitive Behavioral Therapy Institute. She gets Santa’s Little Helper some snausage-flavored water and puts on a video about the resort for him to watch while she gives him an examination. She then fixes his bed and to help ease him on his first night informs him that she’ll be sleeping by his side. She rather adorably crawls in circles before laying down beside the dog, who soon slides his head under her arm. Practically swooning, Wolff then rolls over and suggests they do a little reading before bed as she pulls out a Daily Growl squeak toy that she apparently intends to read.
Wolff then observes Santa’s Little Helper as he sleeps. She takes notes while we witness more of the dog’s dreams as various images flash before our eyes. We learn he was a very supportive pup who looked out for his siblings and seemed really attached to his mother. The feeling is mutual as the mother dog smiles at her pup because this is a cartoon and dogs can smile in cartoons. A wicked looking man then comes into frame and violently pulls the dog away from his mother. We’re getting closer!
At the home of the Simpsons, Bart is in bed looking rather upset. Homer tries to cheer him up by doing something he rarely does: praying. As the two Simpson men pray for their dog’s safe return, the rest of the family enters to join in. Homer remarks how this has never happened before, but lets it slip it’s possible they may never see their dog again which just makes Bart even more upset. He then quickly gets the family back on track, though the scene ends before they get fully into the prayer further. This fulfills the Jesus quota requirement for a Christmas episode, even though Homer was technically praying to a St. Bernard, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean an actual saint.
The next morning, Dr. Wolff does more work with the dog. She clearly needs to know if Marge is a trigger for the dog, so she produces Marge’s Christmas apron which she had taken before departing The Simpson home. Santa’s Little Helper gives it a sniff, then happily lays on it. Dr. Wolff rules out Marge being the issue as she identifies her as a source of comfort for the dog. We’re shown a flashback from Santa’s Little Helper’s point of view of the dog being scared by a thunderstorm. He approaches Marge who is unloading the dryer, and upon seeing the scared pup, wraps him in a blanket she had just removed from the dryer. We see all of this via a reflection in the dryer and it’s a supremely sweet and clever image.
Dr. Wolff’s boyfriend, Clayton, then returns. He goes on and on about getting married and how he wanted to give her his mother’s ring, but she was buried with it, so he had to dig her up, and so on. He gets down on one knee and proposes to the doctor, but she tells him she can’t run off to Tuscany right now because she has to help Santa’s Little Helper, even though she wants to. He grumbles and rises to his feet. Declaring he can’t compete with a wagging tail, he stuffs the ring into a pouch full of jewelry labeled “Rings of the Dead.” He insists he’s over her already and leaves thus bringing this odd B plot of sorts to an end.
The next day, Dr. Wolff introduces Santa’s Little Helper to the other dogs. One is sleeping on a bootleg SpongeBob doll while another has clearly chewed away most of the fur on its body due to some form of anxiety. Santa’s Little Helper seems eager to mingle, but when one dog approaches his bed he growls in anger. Dr. Wolff decides to inspect the bed further and finds the Santa hat has been stashed inside it. Santa’s Little Helper immediately gets flustered and Dr. Wolff concludes that something to do with this hat is the problem.
Dr. Wolff heads for 742 Evergreen Terrace and Homer answers the door in his Sunday best. Homer at first asks if she brought back their dog or a dog that looks just like him to fool the kids, but she soon confronts him with the hat. Homer has no idea what’s up with the hat, but Bart sticks his head through the door and points out that’s the hat he was wearing at the racetrack the night they got Santa’s Little Helper. We’re treated to a flashback of that evening and it’s done by using a clip from the actual episode which I love even though the show looks completely different now.
Dr. Wolff is a bit irritated that the family neglected to mention he’s a former racing hound and declares that the dog has PTSD. She insists they help Santa’s Little Helper confront his past trauma this instant, at which point it’s revealed the Simpsons were hosting a Christmas brunch. Marge realizes this will further anger Wolff so she deftly adds they’re willing to skip the brunch to help the dog. After the family leaves, Dr. Hibbert (Shearer) then suggests to the rest of the party-goers they go see if the family has HBO Now so he can finally watch Euphoria as he wasn’t willing to taint his own viewing history with the salacious program.
The family then heads to the kennel from which Santa’s Little Helper came from. Les Moore (Azaria) answers the door looking very Season Oneish, and is promptly slapped in the face by Wolff. When he asks if she’d like a drink to toss in his face, she tells him that she indeed would. We then cut to Moore getting a martini thrown in his face followed by a slap. He grumbles about why a noted dog abuser like himself should be treated this way, but still regales the family with a tale of how Santa’s Little Helper came to be (after first making an observation how lazy it was for the family to retain the name Santa’s Little Helper). Basically, the dog loved his momma, and when he displayed his speed while running towards her, Moore scooped him up and declared he’d be a racing dog necessitating a separation from his family. He then gets slapped again to take us out of the flashback, only this time it was Lisa who did the slapping. Bart then gets a turn while Santa’s Little Helper gets a bite in, followed by slaps from Marge, Homer, and even Maggie.
Santa’s Little Helper is shown trying to get outside. Lisa opens the door for the dog who starts running. When Marge asks what the dog is running to, Moore gets a little teary-eyed and confirms that he’s running to his mother, She Biscuit. He then gets slapped again.
Santa’s Little Helper runs through the dirty snow to find his mother outside. The two dogs react with glee to finally be reunited and it actually is pretty sweet and touching. Dr. Wolff essentially declares her work is done and that Santa’s Little Helper should be fine. The Simpsons are grateful and express a willingness to help her in return. When she mentions she needs to get home and walk about 20 dogs they all look away, aggravating her.
At home, the Simpsons are a family again and She Biscuit has apparently joined the clan. Marge declares she’s happy that everyone has sorted out their issues. The camera then pans to the cat, Snowball II (actually they might be up to IV at this point), who is eye-balling the goldfish. The cat makes a slashing motion across its throat and the episode ends on a surprisingly sinister note.
“The Way of the Dog” is a perfectly cromulent Christmas episode of The Simpsons that focuses on the family canine. Actually, it’s better than cromulent as I really enjoyed it. There were a couple of odd jokes that didn’t quite land, and the B-plot with Clayton was weird, but all of the material surrounding Santa’s Little Helper was enjoyable and sweet. This is a big improvement over a previous episode, the Season 14 “Old Yeller-Belly,” which was the first to bring the dog’s past back into the fold in a fairly forgettable episode (so forgettable this episode essentially ignores it). This one had a tremendous dose of heart, and it even surprised me a little as I thought we were being setup for a sadder ending with She Biscuit being dead. It helps that time apparently holds no influence in the world of The Simpsons so even if 30 years separate the first episode and this one it makes perfect sense that She Biscuit would still be alive. Though the plot did make me think of a Family Guy episode (“The Road to Rhode Island”) where a depressed Brian journeys to the farm he was born on only to find his mom, named Biscuit, had been stuffed. I get that She Biscuit is a pun on Sea Biscuit, but it might have done the show well to avoid a similar name as rival (and lesser program) Family Guy. Granted, that episode is 20 years old itself.
As a Christmas episode, there’s actually more here than I would have anticipated for something airing in May. I thought the Christmas décor might get dropped after that opening scene, but it’s here to stay for the entire duration. I love seeing the home of The Simpsons decked out for the holiday (and it’s looking nicer than usual) and as a lover of nostalgia I of course was tickled by the callbacks to the debut episode of the series. I am so glad they chose not to reanimate the flashback to that episode and what’s even better is they didn’t crop the image either. Director Matthew Faughnan did a tremendous job with the pacing and composition of many of the shots which were able to capture a ton of subtle emotion. Be it the reflection in the dryer, the distressed look in Dr. Wolff’s eyes as she drives away from Santa’s Little Helper, or the happy reunion at the end – it’s all on point. It’s also an extremely dense episode as evidenced by the lack of opening credits and this nearly 5,000 word entry. Anyone wishing for this show to come to an end should just watch a few episodes. Sure, it’s not the same show from 1990, but it still has plenty to offer.
When this episode was originally broadcast on May 17th of this year, writer Carolyn Omine did a live-tweet with the west coast broadcast. If you like this episode, or just enjoy getting a little extra insight into a show like The Simpsons, I encourage you to find her on Twitter at @CarolynOmine. If you wish to watch this one, chances are good it will be shown again on Fox this month as well as on FXX and Freeform. Since it’s from Season 31, it may even still be OnDemand with your cable provider and is available to stream on Disney+.