Back in the good old days of kid-hood, every Christmas brought another round of TV events. You had your stop-motion Rudolphs and your cel-animated Frostys and your “Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!”; and every now and then there would be something new, maybe with Opus or Garfield. Of course, age brings more responsibilities, and by the time I got into law school we students were pooling our resources to tape the shows we had to miss while studying. It made for some fun parties at the end of the semester.
Because ’tis the season for lists of a dozen related items, here are my Twelve Shows Of Christmas. Every year I make a concerted effort to watch the top five.
12. Batman: The Animated Series, “Christmas With The Joker” (first broadcast November 13, 1992): On Christmas Eve, the titular villain takes over a TV studio and forces the Dynamic Duo to run a gauntlet of holiday cheer in order to rescue his hostages. A battle with giant toy-shaped robots is the centerpiece, but it does work in a message more appropriate for the season — ultimately, Dick convinces Bruce to watch It’s A Wonderful Life, because it’s about one man’s importance to his hometown.
11. Seinfeld was never much for appropriate holiday sentiment, so it gets one entry for three episodes. In “The Pick” (first broadcast December 16, 1992), thanks to Kramer’s photography skills, Elaine’s Christmas card exposes a little too much, earning her the nickname “Nip.” When my mail arrives every December, it’s hard to shake the image of Elaine shoving George’s head into her chest and yelling “Here’s your Christmas card!!!”
Another indelible image is Kramer as a department-store Santa in “The Race” (December 15, 1994). When he starts spouting Marxist doctrine to the kids on his lap, they scream, “Santa’s a Commie!”
Finally, “The Strike” (December 18, 1997) gave us Festivus. The holiday “for the rest of us” throws out all the frills in favor of releasing all the stress, tension and (yes) grievances of the previous year. What other holiday has feats of strength?
10. A Christmas Carol: IMDb lists 38 different productions containing the words “Christmas Carol,” all of which are variations on the original Dickens. Watch any one of them, because they’re all pretty much the same, whether they star Alastair Sim, George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, Bill Murray, Bugs Bunny, or Mickey Mouse. Oh sure, the acting might be a little better with George C. Scott or Patrick Stewart, but you’ll still have some old dope being taught a lesson by four ghosts so he’ll be a decent person towards a sympathetic family. I’m partial to the George C. Scott one, myself; but I’m surprised there hasn’t been a Lex Luthor Christmas Carol. He could be visited by Deadman, the Phantom Stranger, and the Spectre….
9. It’s A Wonderful Life (released theatrically December 20, 1946): We’ve all heard the phrase that “God has a plan for everybody,” but sometimes don’t we think that God’s plan for us is to be a cautionary tale for others? George Bailey suffers a few bad breaks and is ready to jump off a bridge when the Spec– er, Clarence the guardian angel shows up to show him that things could be a lot worse. Nothing like having God call your bluff, is there, George? Didn’t you read the Book of Job? In the end George has a merry Christmas and Clarence gets his big promotion. This is another often-copied plot, but here you really should stick with the original.
8. “The Year Without A Santa Claus” (first broadcast December 10, 1974): For many years this was the lost Christmas classic that no one seemed to want to re-run — and then, for Christmas 1993, my law school buddies and I spotted it on the schedule and warmed up our VCRs. It was the highlight of our holiday TV party — and then, just four years later, it was tarnished with the taint of Batman & Robin. Still, it’s a pretty decent attempt to give Santa a couple of arch-villains.
7. “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” (first broadcast December 14, 1970): Another Rankin-Bass stop-motion extravaganza, this one detailing Santa’s origin. I haven’t seen this one in a while, but doesn’t he fight a frost giant? I think Ewan McGregor plays the young Santa. Rankin-Bass did another ’70s-era special, “Jack Frost,” which was on the ABC Family channel a couple of weeks ago, and I have to say, Jack Frost looked to have a much rougher time of it than Ewan-Santa. There were robot dogs in “Jack Frost.”
6. “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer” (first broadcast December 6, 1964): Watching the 40th-anniversary edition of this show last week, a few things struck me. First, obviously Rudolph is a mutant in the classic X-Men mold, sworn to help a world that hates and fears him (at least they do at first). Second, for a mutant Rudolph doesn’t have the most impressive power. It would have been nice if that nose could have shot a beam of destructive energy, too — although I doubt they would have called it his “nasal blast.” Third, Hermie the elf is clearly of a different genetic stock than the other elves. My money’s on his father being Charlie-In-The-Box.
Now for the top five.
5. Everybody Loves Raymond, “The Toaster” (first broadcast December 14, 1998): For Christmas, Ray gives everybody chrome toasters, personalized with “Merry X-Mas, We Love You,” and the names of his family — but the only people who don’t appreciate it are his parents. If you like the show, it’s a classic. His parents ask why he’d engrave a toaster, and he yells, “I thought it would be nice! I thought you’d like it — you … psychopaths!” They respond, “Well, we’re the ones who have to get these gifts.” It’s a clever look at the familiar “it’s better to give than to receive” lesson, and it shows the anxiety any well-meaning giver faces when he’s not sure his gift will be appreciated.
4. Mystery Science Theater 3000, “Santa Claus” (first broadcast Christmas Eve, 1993): Mike and the ‘bots riff on the truly trippy Mexican Santa Claus movie. In it, the Devil sends Pitch, a rather flamboyant henchman, to Earth to corrupt children and … make Santa’s job harder, I suppose. There are many scenes at Santa’s space-based castle, floating high above the North Pole, where Santa commands all manner of weird, body-part-shaped surveillance equipment — a listening device made out of an oscillating fan and a plastic ear; a super-snooper with a big eyeball, and giant red lips for the main speaker. Santa talks about meeting the Baby Jesus on Earth and delivering toys together, but their team-up never materializes. However, Santa gets a last-minute assist from Merlin the Magician, who it turns out stocks Santa’s utility belt.
3. MST3K, “Santa Claus Conquers The Martians” (first broadcast December 21, 1991): When one of the first riffs is “Big John Call is Santa Claus in ‘O Little Town Of Death-Lehem!”, you know you’re in for a treat. When Martian parents fear that their kids will grow up soulless, an expedition to Earth is mounted to kidnap Santa and bring his magic to Mars. Even infused with an inexplicable, incongruous love of the Patrick Swayze vehicle Road House, “SCCTM” still holds up. There’s the invention exchange (a wish-squisher vs. misfit toys like the EZ-Bake Foundry), “Let’s Have A Patrick Swayze Christmas,” Crow’s red nose, and Tom Servo’s snow-globe head. Joel observes that the sets look like “cheap versions of the Lost In Space sets.” What’s not to love?
2. A Christmas Story (released theatrically November 18, 1983): If the good people at Turner could put this on its own 24-hour cable network, I’m sure they would. Although the high points — the triple-dog dare, the major award, “Oh … fudge,” “I can’t put my arms down,” and “You’ll shoot your eye out!” — are perhaps too familiar, they all work together to create an endearing pastiche of classic, almost archetypal, holiday moments. Ralphie’s belief in Santa is just part of his specialized, even jaded, outlook on the world of kid-dom. This allows the movie to present its Norman Rockwell-esque scenes with both an ironic undercurrent and a child’s-eye view. It doesn’t so much end as run out the clock, much like each Christmas season; but fittingly, it ends on a note of quiet triumph.
1. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (first broadcast December 9, 1965): This is the only essential holiday special for me, and to me it is as big a part of Christmas as Handel’s Messiah. It is the patriarch of modern Christmas-themed mass media entertainment, and the standard to which other holiday programs should aspire. As the fateful day approaches, Charlie Brown is depressed — not because his parents don’t like his gifts, or he might not get the Red Ryder BB gun, but because he feels alone, friendless, and lost in the maddening competition the season seems to have become. Almost all of the people he encounters are consumed by parties, decorations, presents, and other superficial aspects of the holiday. “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” he cries.
Linus answers. “Sure, Charlie Brown. ‘There were in the same country shepherds….'”
Charlie Brown learns, and by his silent example shows his friends, what is at the center of the Christmas holiday. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” preaches without being demagogic or condescending, and the comparatively understated “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!” which closes the show still packs as emotional a punch as the end of It’s A Wonderful Life. The difference is that Charlie Brown is living the existential angst George Bailey had to be transported to an alternate universe to see. When the kids start singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” it’s like they’ve given our hero a big hug — which is the least we can hope for, or give, not just at Christmas, but any time. Accept no substitutes.
Happy holidays, blogosphere! See you in about a week!