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Dec. 2 – The Simpsons – “Grift of the Magi”

grift_of_the_magi_promo

“Grift of the Magi” originally aired December 19, 1999

Talk to any fans of The Simpsons and they’ll likely have an opinion on when the show ceased to be great. For most, that occurs sometime after Season 8 of the now 30 season show. Some will argue that, while it may have been past its prime, it was still watchable, reliable, programming for a few seasons following that. Almost no one would consider Season 11, which today’s episode is from, as part of the show’s prime. Season 11 is when the show had moved on from being a character-driven show with occasional wacky antics to a more absurd show with frequent wacky or illogical actions. Such a recipe is fine for humor, but thin on substance. Nonetheless, there are a few gems or moments from Season 11 worth remembering, is “Grift of the Magi” one of them though?

Last year we covered the Season 7 episode “Marge Be Not Proud” for our Christmas countdown, and like that episode, “Grift of the Magi” is not really an obvious Christmas episode from the start. It begins rather innocuously when Bart and Milhouse, trapped in the house thanks to a hole in the ozone layer, decide to raid the closet of Homer and Marge to find something fun to do. They settle on dressing up in Marge’s clothes, complete with wigs that must have been remnants of old Halloween costumes or something, and bouncing up and down on her and Homer’s bed. Homer comes barging in demanding a non-gay explanation for what is going on having seemingly learned nothing from the events of “Homer’s Phobia” and receives a satisfactory explanation from Milhouse that the boys are drunk. In the commotion, Bart fell of the bed and landed on a bowling ball doing enough damage that he needed to be taken to the hospital.

barts broken butt2

Am embarrassing injury, to be sure.

Once there, Dr. Hibbert informs Bart that he’s fractured his coccyx and we all have a good laugh at the silly word. Unfortunately for Bart though this means he has to spend the next several weeks confined to a wheelchair while his butt-bone heals. Upon arriving at Springfield Elementary the next morning, he finds the school is not equipped to handle a wheelchair. Lisa confronts Principal Skinner about this federally mandated requirement and Skinner is forced to find a cheap solution to his problem so he does what any rational person would do – he goes to the mob!

crazy school

That’s some ramp.

Fat Tony is happy to provide the services of his construction company in order to construct a ramp to make the school handicap accessible. The company doesn’t stop at one ramp though, and rather turns the school into something pulled from the board game Shoots and Ladders. Nonetheless, Skinner is proud to unveil the new ramps several weeks later, but is dismayed to see Bart’s coccyx has healed at this point and he no longer needs the use of a wheelchair (how he attended school in the interim is not explained, the type of detail this era of the show could not care less about). Still, Skinner is at least upbeat about the fact that the school is now up to code, until the ramps all crack and crumble into dust. The mob and Fat Tony aren’t exactly known for honoring their work, and Skinner is forced to pay 200 grand for the construction anyways, bankrupting the school. It would seem the school would have had to pay that no matter what had come of the ramps, but again, it’s a detail the show cares little for.

The PTA assembles for an emergency meeting on how to fund the school in what looks like the home of the Flanders’. Moe is there for some reason and proposes funding the school via alcohol sales, but Skinner takes note of his Wonderbread bags for shoes and decides that’s probably not a good idea. Other ideas are proposed, and Marge declares them all terrible. It’s suggested to seek the aid of Springfield’s wealthiest resident, Mr. Burns, but Homer of all people rightly points out that Burns will release the hounds on anyone, especially charity. Skinner decides Burns is their only shot and devizes a scheme to present their proposal via a school play in hopes of warming the billionaire’s frozen heart.

simpsons play

Yeah, good luck with that.

Skinner and a handful of Springfield Elementary’s most recognizable faces show up at Burns’ mansion to perform their play. A very game and naive Burns seems to enjoy the play even though it’s rather obvious and direct about its intentions. A bunch of moronic kids with no schooling cause the death of a Burns dummy, with Ralph ripping off Stimpy to show up as Dr. Stupid to decapitate the Burns dummy while trying to save him following a car wreck. Burns is depicted as rather dim throughout and reacts surprised when Skinner confesses this was all a ruse to get Burns to save their school. A humorous trap door gag closes out the scene with Burns refusing to help.

hope and bart

Bart with his new teacher, Jim Hope.

Bart and Lisa, with school still closed, are at home watching the dregs of daytime television when a news report breaks in to declare Springfield Elementary has been saved. A company called Kid First has taken over the school and their president, Jim Hope (Tim Robbins), is interviewed by Kent Brockman as part of the report. He’s a happy and enthusiastic person who fires all of the old teachers and replaces them with Kid First employees. The kids return to school and find Hope and the new direction of the school encouraging, but they seem only interested in finding out what the children like and Hope even assigns Bart’s class to bring in their favorite toy. Lisa’s class is tasked with coming up with fun names for toys and Lisa proposes Funzo when forced to come up with something. She’s also reprimanded for doing math equations and forced to stay after school.

robo funzo

Run, Lisa! Run!

Bart drops in on his sister who’s being punished with Bart’s usual – the chalkboard gag. He enjoys the “ironing” of him getting A’s while Lisa fails and makes further demonstrations of his lack of proficiency with grammar. When he leaves he turns off the light on Lisa causing her to notice another source of light coming from behind the chalkboard. She creeps into the hall and finds a janitor’s closet next to the classroom. Inside she finds what looks like a viewing area for a focus group who have been spying on Lisa’s class via one-way glass. A weird, little robot emerges from some clutter and causes Lisa to flee in terror. That night, she returns with her parents and Chief Wiggum to show them her discovery, but when Wiggum opens the same closet he just finds janitor supplies.

guard coleman

The writers of the show don’t seem to think much of Gary Coleman’s talents as a security guard.

Back at home, Bart and Lisa are once again watching television (this feels like an older episode for the show, where the TV would often advance the plot) and see an ad for a Furby-like toy called Funzo. Lisa had proposed that same name in class prompting her and Bart to head over to Kid First’s headquarters to complain to Hope. There they encounter security guard Gary Coleman, played by himself. He’s a few prawns short of a galaxy, and as he complains on the phone to no one (Lisa points out it isn’t plugged in) Bart and Lisa are able to sneak by and into Hope’s office. There they encounter Hope and resident sycophant Lindsey Nagle and register their complaints about the company’s practices. Hope attempts to bribe away their concerns by offering them a free Funzo, and Bart is happy to accept while Lisa is left frustrated. Nagle confronts the ineffective Coleman to tell him he’s fired, but when he responds with a variation of his signature catchphrase from Diff’rent Strokes (“What’chu talkin’ ’bout, Lindsey Nagle?”) she laughs and re-hires him. Coleman is then seen very proud of himself as he confesses he knew exactly what she was talking about.

funzo attacks

Funzo’s true nature revealed. Notice the lack of snow out the window? This seems to happen a lot on this show.

Once again back at home, Bart is happily adding numerous Funzo accessories to his Christmas list while the doll makes suggestions along the way. Lisa confesses the furry little doll is rather cute, but remarks it could never take the place of her beloved Malibu Stacy. At the sight of the doll, Funzo grabs it and rips the head off tossing Stacy’s body into the nearby fireplace. It then targets Bart’s Krusty doll and the Simpson kids deduce the toy is programmed to destroy other toys and eliminate all competition. They decide it needs to be stopped and to do so they enlist the help of Homer.

grinch homer

Homer doing his best Grinch impersonation with surprising success.

The kids and their dad set out on Christmas Eve to steal all of the Funzo dolls, which Springfield has been sent into a frenzy over, from under the many Christmas trees in town. Homer dresses up as Santa and sneaks into the houses while Bart and Lisa distract the residents with Christmas carols. As Homer causes a commotion at the residence of the Hibbert family, Lisa and Bart are forced to sing ever louder to cover-up the noise. Even though Homer doesn’t seem like a particularly good Grinch, the trio are able to round-up a writhing sack of Funzos and head over to the Springield Tire Fire to dispose of them. As the toys are consumed by the flames, Coleman arrives in a Hummer to put a stop to this toy destruction. Lisa is forced to engage him in a philosophical discussion about the commercialism of Christmas, and even Bart and Homer are surprisingly equipped to do the same. Narrator Clarence Clemons pops in to let us know they talked all through the night and arrived at a compromise the following morning that seemed to satisfy all parties. When the remnants of a Funzo doll emerges from the flames like a Terminator, Coleman springs in with a karate kick to dispatch it, a callback to Coleman practicing his martial arts at Kid First earlier in the episode.

good fire talk

And they talked long into the night.

With the Funzo crisis apparently solved, Lisa takes note of a sullen Coleman as she and her family prepare to head home for Christmas. This prompts Homer to clumsily and sweetly invite Gary to dinner, only for him to shoot back he’s having dinner with George Clooney. Lisa says his name in an accusing tone, implying she doesn’t believe him, and he relents. Clemons returns as narrator to let us know Gary and The Simpsons had a wonderful Christmas dinner. Mr. Burns was also visited by three ghosts the night before which convinced him to fund the school with some money he found in his tuxedo. Moe is shown pulling his head out his oven after seeing what the world would be like without him and finds the will to live. He shows up at the Simpsons’ residence with a Christmas goose, and also to tell them he banged up Gary’s car in the driveway. This gives Coleman one last chance to use his catchphrase, before turning to the camera and repeating it happily to conclude the episode.

“Grift of the Magi” is a fast-paced episode of The Simpsons that really zips through its story with no time for a B plot. It doesn’t even become a Christmas episode until midway through, the only sign of the coming holiday being a throw-away line from Skinner during their presentation to Burns and a Christmas tree decoration in Bart’s classroom. The Try-N-Save also has a brief cameo which is notable because the store seems to only show up during Christmas episodes. The use of guest stars is done well and doesn’t really overshadow the episode, though Coleman’s presence is kind of sad in retrospect. During this time of the actor’s life, he ran into some legal trouble while working as an actual security guard. He had a lot of financial trouble and I wonder if he only agreed to make fun of himself here because he really needed the money.

coleman gifThe third act is where the Christmas stuff really comes in and it’s not exactly an original take. The episode focuses on the frequent toy crazes that come about every year placing the focus on the ugly side of Christmas commercialism, without resorting to being preachy. The episode doesn’t even really have much to say about it aside from acknowledging it happens since it glosses over whatever lesson the Simpsons learned. It works as a source of humor, though I wouldn’t call it clever. I did enjoy how the episode sneaks in quick parodies of the most frequently adapted Christmas stories at the end in Burns’ Scrooge-like turn and Moe’s It’s a Wonderful Life realization. It closes the only lasting plot-point of getting Springfield Elementary back up and running. The closing minutes are also intentionally corny for comedic sake, but the use of Coleman’s catchphrase still feels lame and lands with a dud. As a result, “Grift of the Magi” is not my favorite of The Simpsons Christmas episodes, but it’s not without its moments. It’s good enough.

The whole tone of this one is very of the era it’s from. It’s quite absurd, and even when you think it’s taking itself seriously it’s really not. Characters are constantly wavering between intelligent and dumb depending on what the scene is asking of them. It’s almost like they know they’re in a Christmas episode and are just going through the motions. It’s mostly funny, but also shallow, giving it a (dare I say?) Family Guy vibe.

If you’re looking to watch “Grift of the Magi” this holiday season then you have several options. It’s available on DVD with the rest of Season 11 and can probably be found for under 20 dollars. It was also released on the DVD Christmas With the Simpsons which is now long out of print, but not hard to come by. There’s also digital purchases available. If you prefer to pay as little as possible, you can watch the episode at any time with a cable package that includes the FX channel lineup. The app FXNow includes Simpsons World which is an on-demand streaming option for every episode of the show. If you don’t have cable, you can even get a free trial that’s plenty long enough to watch one episode. And lastly, the channel FXX is likely to air this episode more than once this month, so check their listings and setup your DVR to record it if you wish. I’ll try and return to this if I come across any air dates.


#7 Best in TV Animation: Archer

key_art_archerUp until now, this list of the best in animation television has to offer has only included shows that have since been retired. They’ve also only consisted of shows generally created for children and aired on weekend mornings or week day afternoons. Archer changes that as the show recently finished up its sixth season, having already been renewed for a seventh, and airs late nights on cable television. The show is the brainchild Adam Reed and Matt Thompson, two guys who made a name for themselves mostly via Cartoon Network’s adult swim block. Their main break-out show was Sealab 2021, a show that utilized stock footage from the old Hannah Barbera cartoon Sealab 2020, a mostly drab and wooden show from the 70’s that few probably remember fondly. The animation was recycled and characters re-dubbed. What was once an environmentally conscious show with a sci-fi feel to it now was a show about a bunch of narcissistic, perverted, and some-what insane researchers stuck with each other miles under water. The show was funny and crude and one of the first ever programs to air on adult swim. If not for the untimely death of voice actor Harry Goz, the series likely would have lasted longer than it did.

Much like its predecessor Sealab 2021, Archer also feature minimalist animation and a cast of characters with few redeeming qualities. Unlike Sealab, the animation is created for the series and the characters are all new. While it has definitely been improved since season one, where characters wore mostly wooden facial expressions, the show’s approach to animation is as much about keeping down production costs as it is a stylistic choice. The show stars secret agent Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) who works for his mother’s firm ISIS (no, not that ISIS) as a field agent. Archer is an alcoholic, whore-mongering, sociopath who is emotionally abusive to nearly everyone around him. He’s the self-professed world’s greatest secret agent and is not at all secretive about that. He’s particularly mean-spirited, with the bulk of his abuse directed towards his man-servant Woodhouse who has dutifully served him since birth. And while he is indeed talented at what he does, his vices often mean that his missions are spectacular failures with Archer often getting side-tracked by sex, booze, or the occasional ocelot.

Sterling Archer is a secret agent devoid of any sense of professionalism or responsibility.

Sterling Archer is a secret agent devoid of any sense of professionalism or responsibility.

Archer’s co-workers at ISIS are also pretty flawed individuals. The other lead field agent is Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), who also happens to be Archer’s ex. Unlike Archer, Lana definitely cares about her job but her love/hate relationship with Archer often gets in the way. She has major commitment issues and when we first meet her she’s currently in a one-sided relationship with the staff accountant Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell), whom she is most-likely dating just to piss off Archer. Cyril is everything Archer isn’t. He’s a professional and compassionate individual but his insecurities often get the best of him. He also may or may not be a sex addict. He’s so eager to please Lana that he’s often terrible at picking up on what she actually wants out of him. Because his tight-laced demeanor makes him such an easy target, Archer never passes up an opportunity to rip on him or embarrass him in some way. Cheryl Tunt (Judy Greer) is the masochistic staff secretary. She actively seeks out both emotional and physical abuse (she has a fondness for strangulation) which leads her to Archer who can’t even bother to learn her name. She’s also extremely self-centered to the point where she really could not be bothered to care about anyone or anything that doesn’t directly involve her. Pam Poovey (Amber Nash) is the HR consultant for ISIS with an addictive personality. When we first meet her she seems like a sympathetic individual who is unjustly picked on by everyone else at work (mostly on account of her excessive weight) but is soon to be revealed to be just as shitty as everyone else. She has a massive appetite for not only food, but sex and drugs as well and she is not particularly discriminatory about where any of it comes from. She also offers no apologies for her behaviour and seems to be genuinely at peace with herself. Ray Gillette (Adam Reed) is another field agent who happens to be homosexual. He’s actually a pretty okay guy and a competent field agent, though he did pretend to be paralyzed to get out of work. Dr. Krieger (Lucky Yates) is the resident scientist of questionable morals. His lineage is also strongly hinted at throughout the series and is of dubious origins. His creations generally work, but his means are often unethical. Rounding out the main cast is Archer’s mother, Malory (Jessica Walter) who embodies many of the same vices of her son though she is more in control of herself. She is a former field agent herself and it’s unclear how she keeps ISIS afloat considering how poor their track record is.

Archer's co-workers aren't really any better.

Archer’s co-workers aren’t really any better.

The animation for the program is clearly not the star, as I pointed out earlier, it’s rather minimalist. The style for the show resembles something from the 1970’s, though modern technology is available and used by the cast. The writing is the show’s strength and the voice cast is an impressive one. Everyone seems to commit to their role 100%, no matter how ludicrous or filthy their characters become. The show’s mean-spirited approach to comedy isn’t for everyone, but it’s effortlessly funny just in its character interaction alone. The characters have also remained flexible, with many changing considerably since the first season. Most of the supporting cast felt like one-note archetypes at first, but have all gone not on to embody other traits and qualities. The only drawback is that virtually all of the characters have seemingly gone to the same place, with all becoming more and more like Archer each season. And while the show is a comedy, that doesn’t mean it’s not without plot. Many of the storylines carry over and are referenced again and again throughout the series and there’s hardly ever a throw-away character as most will pop up again. The relationships amongst the main cast also change and evolve, though they’re such bad people in general that it’s hard for the show to get the audience to root for any of the characters becoming a couple or even finding happiness.┬áTo go along with the impressive voice cast is a pretty dynamite score by Scott Sims, The opening theme is very jazzy and 60’s influenced and sounds like it could have easily fit into a number of James Bond soundtracks (or Cowboy Bebop).

There are many recurring jokes on the show, including Archer's obsession with Burt Reynolds and a certain song by Kenny Loggins.

There are many recurring jokes on the show, including Archer’s obsession with Burt Reynolds and a certain song by Kenny Loggins.

As a comedy series, Archer gets a lot of things right, but it’s also nearly impossible to watch it and not acknowledge that it shares a lot in common with the adult swim series The Venture Bros. From its hybrid dated, yet modern, look to the constant element of failure by the characters, it almost feels like a sister show. Even the opening themes are fairly similar. Which isn’t that surprising considering Reed and Thompson both came from the same place and being compared to The Venture Bros. is not at all a bad thing. Archer separates itself by upping the ante on the filth and depravity of its cast. It’s one of the show’s strengths and the main source for comedy, though it also holds the show back from ever really being able to do an emotional episode. For those that enjoy the show, that’s probably just fine as I personally would hate to see Archer try to make me do anything but laugh.


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