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The Rankin/Bass stop-motion Christmas specials, dating back to 1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, are sufficiently ingrained in holiday traditions that whole generations have grown up either blindly accepting or joyfully ignoring how messed up and limitedly for-children many of them actually are.
From Jack Frost to Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey to The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, the specials are loaded with traumatizing deaths, thinly veiled drug trips and whatever the heck Heat Miser and Snow Miser were supposed to be.
So when some more parochial audiences take umbrage at Santa Inc., HBO Max’s adult-targeted homage to those Rankin-Bass specials (some are “classics,” some are decidedly not), the question that must be asked is this: Did Arthur Rankin, Jr., and Jules Bass eschew elf nipples, raunchy oral sex exploits with Mrs. Claus and the homicidal depths of Santa’s rivalry with the Easter Bunny because they didn’t believe such things were seasonally appropriate or because they simply knew audiences were several decades away from being ready?
Creator Alexandra Rushfield, taking an amusingly wide detour from her work on Shrill, certainly hopes the answer is the latter or at least she doesn’t care if it’s the former, because Santa Inc. is proudly crude and immature without wholly abandoning the holiday spirit. Often that immaturity comes at the expense of Santa Inc. ever being nearly as subversive as it thinks it is, but I’m not sure anybody involved here is likely to take my wish that the series were a bit smarter and maybe a hair more refined seriously.
A Christmas series boasting more Jewish leads than the Semitic minstrel show that is Apple TV+’s The Shrink Next Door, Santa Inc. focuses on Candy Smalls (Sarah Silverman), number two executive vice president at Santa Inc., the North Pole-based corporation behind all things Christmas-y. Candy is content with her position working under Brent Robbins (Tim Meadows), designated successor to Santa Claus (Seth Rogen). When Brent shocks everybody by taking a new job, Santa is left without an heir and Candy decides that it’s time for Santa Inc. to have its first female (and Jewish) Santa. Although the current Santa likes to boast about choosing the first Black successor and proudly declares himself “a real change-agent,” it’s hard for entrenched companies to embrace progress.
As a corporate satire, Santa Inc. is sometimes quite savvy and it’s here that you can see the connections between the workplace elements of Rushfield’s acclaimed Hulu comedy and this holiday offering. Santa Inc. has traditionally been an old boys club and the series has an admirable ear for the euphemisms and obstacles directed at women closing in on a glass ceiling whether they’re gunning for a place in the boardroom or the White House. An episode in which Candy joins Santa and the Board for a getaway that includes golfing, cigars and dirty jokes while the various wives, including the frustrated Mrs. Claus (Maria Bamford), are shunted off to spa-based activities is as good a snapshot of institutionalized misogyny and business hierarchies as one could want from a Christmas special.
Candy’s best friends Cookie (Leslie Grossman), rushed back to the office after her pregnancy, and Goldie (Gabourey Sidibe), stuck on the Christmas Eve reindeer b-team, have their own similar and complementary struggles in a show that illustrates that behind the public-facing beneficence of even the most adored companies is, well, a company.
Through four episodes, Santa Inc. has kept its focus mostly on Candy’s struggles as a woman in this masculine space and the Jewish part has remained barely an afterthought — an early disappointment for me and perhaps a dozen other viewers.
It’s along those same lines, though, that I’m guessing that the examination of #MeToo era sexism that I most enjoyed here will probably be the thing that’s least appealing for audiences more eager for jokes about reindeer dicks, elf pubes and Santa “nutting.” As was the case in Sausage Party, also from Rogen and Goldberg’s Point Grey Pictures, the most puerile and prurient side of the humor in Santa Inc. is, unfortunately, its most repetitive and self-satisfied as well. There’s a lot of pride about what the creators and director Harry Chaskin can get away with depicting in the animated space — frequently to the point of just accepting that the mere visual of Mrs. Claus pleasuring her rotund spouse is inherently hilarious, without actually doing anything funny with either the concept or the image.
I’d point to the “A Very Big Mouth Christmas” episode from the current fifth season of Big Mouth as a far more successful example of mining shock value from the conventions of the animated holiday special. Nothing in four episodes of Santa Inc. shocked me in the slightest or even felt all that edgy — not in a world already saturated with South Park and Robot Chicken permutations and knock-offs. Heck, nothing here felt as weird as Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey.
Still, Santa Inc. works on some traditional levels, especially when it comes to its ensemble. Silverman’s Candy even resembles her Wreck-It-Ralph character and she plays right into the sort of enthusiastic, high-energy dirtiness that has always been the comedian’s hallmark. Rogen’s Santa boasts the actor’s reliable well-intentioned bluster and Nicholas Braun’s Devin, a frat boy with an internship at Santa Inc., has an obsequiousness that owes more than a little to Succession‘s Cousin Greg. Grossman and Sidibe are probably the show’s most consistent sources of laughs, while the TV geek in me enjoyed cameos from such previous Rushfield collaborators as Aidy Bryant, Beck Bennett and John Cameron Mitchell, all from Shrill, and Love star Paul Rust.
The affection for the visual style of those Rankin/Bass specials is all over Santa Inc. and if this new comedy works better as a nostalgic trigger for those standbys (or a palate cleanser if you’re already immersed) than as a new annual holiday classic, there’s probably a place for such a thing.
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Robert De Niro