"Santa Inc.," an eight-episode series on HBO Max, features the voices of Jewish comedians Sarah Silverman, as elf Candy Small (left) and Seth Rogen as Santa.
"Santa Inc.," an eight-episode series on HBO Max, features the voices of Jewish comedians Sarah Silverman, as elf Candy Small (left) and Seth Rogen as Santa.

Silverman and Rogen’s ‘Santa Inc.’ brings raunch and activism to Christmas

In American culture, even in nonreligious circles, Christmas is sacrosanct. It’s family get-togethers, presents for kids, twinkly lights and cozy pajamas, or anticipating the 45 minutes when snow is magic before it becomes gross and treacherous.

And Christmas movies and TV shows are defined by character journeys along well-trod paths toward realizing “the true spirit of Christmas.”

Taking a creative shot at secular Christmas with any tones other than benevolent and ingratiating is on the spectrum between surprising and sacrilege, but the new HBO Max animated series “Santa Inc.” leans happily toward the latter, with Sarah Silverman voicing Candy Smalls (a North Pole elf who campaigns to be the next Santa Claus) and Seth Rogen voicing the current Claus (who’s in charge of choosing his successor).

Realizing that she has to be “one of the guys,” even if those guys are idiots, Candy campaigns at the expense of her personal relationships, and shows everyone how capable she is. As she fights the internalized patriarchy, she’s torn between wanting to be herself and kowtowing to Kris Kringle, the board and the male corporate culture.

The reason Candy gets a shot is because Santa’s heir apparent, a Black man, is poached by Jeff Bezos for a high-level position at Amazon. “I’m the most progressive Santa in history. I’m a real change agent,” Rogen’s Santa says, noting that he was going to make history with his diverse choice. But because Candy “checks off two boxes, woman and Jew,” choosing her will elevate his legacy from merely historic to legendary.

The eight-episode, half-hour series is raunchy and weird, a coalescence of crudeness and social-justice issues. Alongside social critiques of corporate culture and Christmas, there’s lots of wild swings and graphic, gratuitous elf nudity. “Santa Inc.” has a core of advocacy and activism tuned to today’s cultural moment, calling out pay and job inequity, lackluster diversity efforts, corruption and sexism.

But if online rankings are an indicator, people did not like this odd amalgam. At press time, it had a 1.5 out of 10 on IMDb (despite being No. 18  on its list of most popular titles) and 4% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Because Candy says that the Santa business has been “a white man’s game for too long,” some on Twitter called the series “a war on whiteness.” Trolling campaigns of antisemites and Holocaust deniers panned the trailer, creating and circulating a list of all the Jews associated with the series (the long list of producers includes Rogen and his longtime creative partner, Evan Goldberg, Silverman, Seth Green, showrunner Alexandra Rushfield and Silverman’s producing partner, Amy Zvi) and pointing out Black voice actors who have supported Black Lives Matter. Conservatives, probably never the intended audience, recoiled at the perceived liberal agenda around equality.

Others objected to Holocaust jokes ranging from mild (“Good news, sir: More American kids believe in you than they do in vaccines or the Holocaust”) to the barely contextual (“Keep the rumors in your annex, Anne Frank”).

These factors seem to have alienated some of the micro-audiences who would have otherwise been all-in for a Silverman-Rogen team-up.

Candy’s Jewish identity comes out not through Hanukkah wishes but through language. “Bashert,” fresh from its recent guest appearance on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” makes a cameo here (preceded by the f-word and followed by “that’s ‘meant to be’ in the language of my Jewish peeps”), as does “tzedakah.” There’s a TV reporter named Rivka Spinster (she’s a dreidel), and while trading barbs, Candy talks about being an intern for Passover and proclaims her love for haroset. Jewish viewers may experience some discomfort around Candy’s family, short of stature with exaggerated features — but, you know, elves — who also are money-grubbing, loud and insensitive. They’re also prone to fits of full-frontal flashing and graphic sexual escapades.

Historically, Jews in Hollywood, while undeniably present and influential, kept their Jewish identities on the down-low and downplayed difference, slipping more easily into the dominant culture. Jews wrote Christmas songs, produced Christmas movies and tried to avoid anything that looked like cultural crucifixion. And in the Jewish community, some might feel uncomfortable with this critical narrative being told by and featuring Jews. Sure, Christmas has become materialistic, but why are we pointing this out?

It might have been interesting to go deeper into the culture of Santa Inc.’s workers by establishing the North Pole as an analog to the Lower East Side’s garment district (harsh working conditions and low pay with the occasional breakthrough success story). Rogen visited that world briefly in his 2020 comedy-drama “An American Pickle,” which got better, but still mixed, reviews.

By the end of  “Santa Inc.” Candy is able to achieve change for her colleagues and has chutzpah to spare, but her heart is different. Despite the presence of a “mazel tov” — “Yay! Jewish phrases of joy! We’re all happy now!” says one character —  the traditional Christmas ending is nowhere to be found. Candy’s activism has achieved some larger goals, but she’s frustrated and feels the futility of fighting entrenched patriarchal systems. As one character says, “You can’t beat tradition; that’s Christmas.”

Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a TV columnist for J. She is based in Los Angeles and has been known to track #TVGoneJewy. Follow her on Twitter @EstherK.