Candy Smalls is a feisty Christmas Elf who has risen up the ranks of Santa’s workshop to become his number two helper. With the current Santa approaching retirement, it’s time for the old man to choose a new successor…especially after his initial heir leaves the company to work for Amazon. Seeing an opportunity to advance her career, Candy makes it her goal to become the first-ever female Santa. Unfortunately, the North Pole is full of corruption, and Candy will have to overcome proudly sexist co-workers and misogynistic reindeer if she wants to….wait, what kind of show is this?

I’m going to skip the usual intro here and cut straight to the chase: Santa Inc. is bad. Like, really bad. Like, almost inexplicably bad. And based on the talent involved, I really wanted to like it. Both Sarah Silverman and Seth Rogen are more than capable of being hilarious, and I’m game for raunchy yuletide comedy when done right. I should also stress that I’m very easy to please when it comes to Christmas specials and TV shows. Even the supposedly mediocre ones usually make me happy. So it’s kind of a big deal when I say I hated this.

And I’m clearly not alone. Santa Inc. has emerged on HBO Max without too much of a marketing push, and the only headlines the show seems to be making for itself are based off of how much people don’t like it. So what went wrong? Let it be known from the start that Santa Inc. is strictly for adults, and the show tells you this almost immediately. Within five minutes of the first episode, there have already been at least 15 strong profanities and a joke about how more Americans believe in Santa than they do in the holocaust. Moments after that, a reference is made to the size of Prancer the reindeer’s junk. Then there’s more profanity. Lots more profanity. Then there are “jokes” about women being sexually assaulted at work. And even more swearing.

Gee, I wonder why more people aren’t loving this…

Make no mistake. I am no prude by any stretch of the word, even when it comes to holiday entertainment. Robot Chicken has had plenty of hilariously dark Christmas specials over the years, American Dad! has brilliantly turned Santa Claus into a villain hellbent on killing the show’s main characters, and Family Guy’s Road to North Pole is required December viewing in my book.

But all of these examples had good jokes, all of them knew how to balance the crassness with warmth when needed (okay, maybe not Robot Chicken), and all of them didn’t simply think that characters using bad words constantly was enough to count as a punchline. Santa Inc. is a bafflingly misguided affair, trying to go out of its way to demonstrate just how crass it can be (an extremely rude word for female private parts is used at least once), while also wanting to show off just how “progressive” it is without feeling even remotely organic about it.

Yes, Santa Inc. wants to have it both ways–striving to offend its audience while also trying to provide some social commentary about women in the workforce. Handled well, this could work, but such a feat is a delicate balancing act which the show simply isn’t capable of pulling off. Nothing about the political comedy feels sincere. Characters will shout “my body, my choice!” at each other for no apparent reason. A positive shout-out is randomly made out of nowhere to Tonya Harding (I’m sure Nancy Kerrigan would beg to differ on that, but I digress).

And just how “feminist” can this series really consider itself when it includes a joke about Candy being unable to find her “rape whistle” at a time when she thinks she needs it? It all just comes across as hypocritical and even borderline upsetting, creating a sense of constant tonal whiplash which is hard for the viewer to get over even when the jokes do work.

And there are some laughs to be had here, but they come so inconsistently that it’s almost surprising when they do happen. Silverman is a very funny person, and she gives Candy plenty of comedic energy, but it’s a shame the material she’s given simply isn’t that good most of the time, or that the character becomes so unlikable after a certain point that it’s hard for the audience to want to root for her. Actually, that can be said for almost everyone on this show (save for a chubby college intern who works for Candy who is probably the only person in this series truly deserving of happiness).

Santa is largely a jerk here, which is a shame, since Rogen has a lovably dopey voice that would be capable of making him quite warm under the right circumstances. And I haven’t even mentioned Candy’s terrible mother (who constantly gets naked around her daughter, and fair warning to the sensitive, this show does have graphic stop-motion nudity), or her perverted, money-obsessed grandfather who would’ve felt like a badly dated Jewish stereotype years ago.

And that’s another problem–there’s no reason to want anyone on this show to succeed (apart from, well, the aforementioned chubby college kid). Santa Inc. is frequently stressing that Candy isn’t deserving of the mantle of Santa because of the way she treats her family and friends (even though they are making unreasonable demands of her), but also wants the viewer to be “outraged” if she doesn’t get the position. This makes the narrative “tension” tedious, as there’s no reason to care if she actually gets the job or not, since the show is constantly telling us that both potential outcomes would be a very bad thing.

All of this is a shame because a lot of work clearly went into making this. All animation fans know that stop-motion is a back-breaking labor of love for those who have the patience to do so, and the production values are quite impressive and smooth here, even if the series does essentially look like an overlong Robot Chicken episode. The designs of the North Pole and its characters are largely appealing (though I personally can’t get over how much Candy looks like The Count from Sesame Street for some reason), and there are a ton of great sight gags, usually involving stuff going on in the background, or small details like a striped prisoner uniform being made out of Christmas gift wrap. It’s just heartbreaking that all of this talent and effort was used on a series as lazy as this.

And yes, “lazy” is sadly the best word that can be used to accurately describe Santa Inc.. It has no idea what kind of show it wants to be, but it knows what kind of show it wants to be viewed as. Throughout the show, it’s made apparent that Santa is eager to make Candy his successor, but his primary motivation for doing so is all of the praise it will get him from the press for being the most “woke Santa” ever.

Ironically, that’s exactly what Santa Inc. is doing. It wants for people to look at it and go “wow, look at all of the bad words they’re using in this female-driven comedy” or “wow, the political themes of this show are really forward-thinking and current” (and, yes, the series seems to think it’s the first time anyone has ever pointed out that a lot of old white men are in charge of companies).

But that’s not enough. You need more than shock value alone to be funny, and you can’t call yourself “forward-thinking” when your show has a gay character who is a pathetic stereotype. That’s not how you create holiday magic. But it is how you give the streaming equivalent of a lump of coal. Bah humbug indeed!

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

Santa Inc.
Lionsgate Home Entertainment
December 2nd, 2021
Streaming on HBO Max
24 minutes
Rated TV-MA
Created by Alexandra Rushfield