Today, people take television seriously. The Wire and The Office have demonstrated that the hoi polloi can handle challenging entertainment, old-fashioned shows seem infinitely squarer than they did even five years ago. If Everybody Loves Raymond remains popular, it also feels like the last of its breed.
The credit for such growing indifference to tripe usually goes to The Sopranos or Sex and the City, but The Simpsons was there first. The Trojan horse of television, this animated series started as lowbrow, mildly rude entertainment that fit right in at Fox, then soon became the most subversive satire ever to succeed on network TV. More remarkably, it was only after that furor died down over Bart Simpson as “bad role model” that The Simpsons got really naughty, regularly lampooning education, family, senility, and most importantly, Christianity. How in the world did this series get a line like “God has no place within [a school], just like facts have no place in organized religion” on the air?
While The Simpsons has flown below the radar, with the freedom of a cult show and the luxuries of a mass audience, it has also, after 15 years on the air, seemed to lose its way in recent seasons. Gone is the breathtaking absurdism of the mid-‘90s glory years, and though many late-period episodes are perfectly cromulent, they lack the embiggened spirit of earlier work. The jokes, while often funny, come at expected times. The plots are less zany, more forced and nonsensical, and characters have turned weaker with time and repeated misuse. (I have a pet theory that the decline began when Dr. Hibbert started saying “Homer” instead of “Mr. Simpson.” And yes, I am Comic Book Guy.)
And so the value of a DVD featuring four later episodes centered around Christmas, seems dubious. The Simpsons Christmas 2 is necessarily second-tier, with the best cherries already picked for the earlier Christmas With the Simpsons, especially “Mr. Plow” and “Grift of the Magi” (featuring a hysterical cameo from Gary Coleman that gave the world the holiday greeting, “Whatchu talkin’ ‘bout, everyone!”). Though creator Matt Groening has shielded himself from charges of selling out with heaps of irony and self-deprecation, he and his crew have also showed little more restraint in cashing in on their brand name than Krusty the Clown.
All that said, The Simpsons Christmas 2 is enjoyable. The bonus features, storyboards and the like, are so slight they barely count (someone at least had the shame not to list them on the box), but the episodes are mostly successful. “Homer vs. Dignity,” in which Homer takes a job as Mr. Burns’ “prank monkey,” and “Skinner’s Sense of Snow,” in which the kids get trapped at school by a blizzard, are both solid. But “Dude, Where’s My Ranch?” displays the series’ nefarious habit of using the first third of the episode as a clearinghouse for disconnected jokes before actually beginning the plot, a blight made that much more glaring here since the only connection to Christmas comes early with the rest not even taking place in winter.
This misstep is partially redeemed in the final episode, “‘Tis the 15th Season.” It’s hardly a masterpiece, but it does feature a talking astrolabe and the phrase “double-bacon genius-burger,” two elements that deserve a spot in Simpson Valhalla. It’s a shame that such entries there don’t come as fast and furious as they did a decade ago, but that The Simpsons does offer a few belly laughs now and then, rather than being a complete embarrassment this late in the game is a bigger accomplishment than anyone gives it credit for. It’s still just a cartoon, and still a pretty good one.