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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.