“A Christmas Dream” (1984)

“Teaching someone the meaning of Christmas” is probably my favorite genre of Christmas special. For one thing, it’s a situation that absolutely no one in real life will ever encounter. For another, they’re impossible to do without at least a small amount of, a shmear, if you will, of sap. Sometimes, as in 1984’s A Christmas Dream, it takes great, overflowing bucketfuls, enough to choke a reindeer.

A Christmas Dream stars Mr. T and Emmanuel Lewis, whom America had deemed among the “safe ones.” Despite looking and acting exactly like Mr. T, here he plays Benny, a street corner Santa who has a chance encounter with Billy (Emmanuel Lewis), a little boy wandering the streets of New York City by himself. Billy glumly informs Benny that he doesn’t believe in Christmas, and doubts Benny’s assurances that he can convince him otherwise. What’s got the wee lad so down, you might ask? Is he homeless? Is he an orphan? Has he been stricken with a terminal illness? No, he’s a latchkey kid, which Billy explains to Benny in a voice that suggests his parents keep him locked in a basement and feed him only bread and water.

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“He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special” (1985)

Christmas episodes of sitcoms and cartoons are almost never their strongest episodes, mostly because there’s something a little forced and rote about them. With only a limited number of plot variations (It’s a Wonderful Life redux, a character rediscovers the true meaning of Christmas, etc.), it comes off as insincere. Is it December? Time to have an episode of Mr. Belvedere that’s a take on A Christmas Carol. It’s long been as predictable as that one member of your family who insists on giving you a picture frame as a present every year.

Considering that neither show took place on Earth, the makers of He-Man and She-Ra should not have felt obligated to do a holiday episode, but they did, and that’s how we ended up with the charmingly corny He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special, airing in 1985. Similar to Die Hard, in that it isn’t so much about Christmas as that it just happens to take place at Christmas, it offers mermaids, metal dragons, robot dogs, “beast monsters,” a mindblowing original holiday song, and He-Man wearing a Santa Claus costume, complete with a white pageboy haircut.

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“Noel” (1992)

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite books was a collection of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. They were a bit toned down for a younger audience–the Little Mermaid’s feet didn’t bleed whenever she tried to walk on land, for instance–except for one, which maintained the relentlessly bleak tone of the original version. That would be “The Little Match Girl,” which I read once, but have never forgotten, largely because, at age six or so, I was shocked that a story about a child left penniless and alone on the streets didn’t end with a beautiful queen taking her home to a magical castle, where she would want for nothing ever again. That was how fairy tales were supposed to end, with the characters living happily ever after. What kind of sadist writes a story for children that ends with a child freezing to death, after she burns out all her matches trying to see the ghost of her dead grandmother?

Ever since then, I’ve had a dislike for children’s entertainment in which the specter of death lingers ominously in the background. Yes, yes, I realize that kids have to learn sometime, but there’s plenty of time for them to figure out that life is hard and unfair without a seemingly innocuous cartoon hammering it into them. This is especially true for Christmas specials–they’re usually maudlin enough as is, without inserting some sort of metaphor for the fleetingness of time. Nevertheless, get that spiked eggnog ready, because have I got a doozy for you–1992’s Noel, a heartwarming holiday special that teaches that time will have its way with us, leaving us abandoned and forgotten until we’re finally able to embrace the sweet release that only death can bring.

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“3’s a Crowd” (1979)

I enjoy people who wax nostalgic for the sophistication of the 50s and 60s, when country clubs were appropriately segregated, women were expected to wear gloves and pearls to go grocery shopping, and children were discouraged from expressing their wants and needs. It was also a time when men were truly men, and not just encouraged, but expected to have mistresses. Often, their mistresses did double duty as their secretaries, back when “maintaining one’s figure” was considered as essential a secretarial skill as typing and shorthand.

By the 70s, thanks largely to the equal rights movement, men indiscriminately sleeping around on their wives was considered less a right than a burden for women to quietly bear until either they developed a crippling Valium habit, or filed for divorce. Still, there remained one horrifying reminder of such a dark period, 1979’s 3’s a Crowd, a “game show” of sorts that ran in syndication for five mind blowing months.

3’s a Crowd was basically The Newlywed Game, with a twist: instead of just husbands and wives being asked questions about the most intimate details of their lives (particularly how often and in what places they made whoopie) to see if their answers matched, there was the added element of the husbands’ secretaries. “Who knows a man better, his wife or his secretary?” was the salacious tagline, one that promised all sorts of shenanigans, catfights, and men sheepishly shrugging, as if to say “Hey, you know how broads are when they get jealous.”

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“The Neighbors” (2014)

Normally this blog is reserved for 70s and 80s television, but when an opportunity arose to watch Tommy Wiseau’s “sitcom” The Neighbors, I took it, figuring that, while it would be undoubtedly terrible, it would also be harmlessly amusing, and make for an entertaining post here.

Reader, I think it broke me.

Allow me an explanation: while I don’t spend nearly as much time as I used to indulging in bad movies, I do enjoy The Room. If you haven’t seen The Room by now, it’s probably not your thing anyway, and that’s okay. I was a latecomer, and I’ve only seen it at audience participation theater screenings, which seems to be the optimal setting. I would never watch it at home by myself, because in addition to being ineptly written, directed, filmed, edited, and acted, it’s also boring, as most movies about love triangles are. In an audience setting, though, with people dressed up like the characters, throwing plastic spoons, and clapping along to the R&B slow jam played during the interminable sex scenes, it’s a lot of fun. Hey, you have your pleasures, and I have mine, no shame.

Greg Sestero, Wiseau’s one time best friend and co-star, wrote a book about the making of The Room that was both entertaining and unsettling. I say unsettling because by the time we reach the end of the book, we don’t really know anything more about Wiseau than we did at the beginning. That’s not due to any lack of insight on Sestero’s part–it seems like he revealed as much as he actually knew about Wiseau himself, which proved to be very little. All that can be gleaned about him is that he’s not fooling anyone with that accent into thinking he was born in the U.S., as he steadfastly claims, he funded The Room by selling irregular jeans and dealing in real estate (not to mention probably shilling horny old ladies for cash, like a greasy, charmless Max Bialystock), and he really does believe he’s a tremendously talented filmmaker and actor.

Interviews with him shed no insight as to whether or not he gets that people love The Room because it’s awful, or in spite of it. More than a decade into The Room becoming an odd pop culture touchstone, Tommy Wiseau still comes off as a creepy cipher, and the suggestion that he may have simply fell to Earth one day from a planet somewhere west of Jupiter doesn’t seem so odd.

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“Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again” (1990)

I may have miscategorized this. It’s easy to see how Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again happened. It rode the tide of wildly successful feature length “reunions” of 60s TV shows, like The Andy Griffith ShowLeave it to Beaver, and The Many Loves of Dobie GillisArchie may have never been a live action show, but it was still a benchmark moment in Baby Boomer pop culture, so why not give it the same treatment? What is baffling are the numerous decisions that were made to turn an innocuous comic book series about small town teenagers into an insufferably smug, occasionally downright seedy comedy for grownups.

The movie opens on the weekend of Archie and the gang’s fifteen year high school reunion. I don’t know that people often celebrate their fifteen year high school reunion, nor do I think many high school principals get involved in the planning of said reunion, but for Mr. Weatherbee it’s clearly the event of the year, as he promises “field trips, parties, a carnival, and a concert featuring Riverdale’s biggest band…the Archies!” I got stuffed shells at a catering hall hosted by a DJ wearing a Hawaiian shirt at my reunion, but perhaps your experience was different.

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“Poochinski” (1990)

In the review of Laverne and Shirley in the Army, I discussed “high concept,” the fine art of encapsulating the plot of a movie or TV show in as few words as possible. I initially thought that LASITA, which explains the plot in its title, might have been the master of high concept. I now amend that to cartoons only–in terms of sitcoms it gets no more beautifully concise than the 1990 pilot for Poochinski, which can be fully, and accurately described in four words: “farting dog solves crimes.”

I probably could have added in one extra word: “talking.” The farting dog also talks. But I have the feeling that when this show was pitched to NBC, farting was deemed the more relevant detail. You’d think that, given that premise, this would be a show intended for children, and yet it also includes jokes about sexual harassment, and a scene in which a dog almost literally rapes a woman. The question here isn’t “How did this happen?” so much as “What did NBC turn down in favor of this?”

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Joan Crawford: “My Way of Life”

Image result for joan crawford my way of life

Sometimes the smallest, random thing can brighten a rotten day. After a few years of searching, I had given up on finding a copy of Joan Crawford’s 1971 book My Way of Life. A camp classic going for as much $450 on eBay, it had become one of my Holy Grails of out of print books. Then, with little fanfare, it was released in February as an ebook, for the much more affordable $6.99. Almost as if the fates had intervened, in the middle of a truly atrocious afternoon I received an email from Amazon letting me know it was available, and I have never clicked a “buy it now” button faster.

If you’re under 50, it’s likely that your first exposure to Joan Crawford was not by way of Crawford herself, but rather the camp-horror version played by Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. The movie that redefined what it means to be “so bad it’s good,” it was based entirely on Christina Crawford’s memoirs about life with a superstar mother who abused her children for the crime of not constantly expressing gratitude. Thanks to both the book and its film adaptation, a fictionalized version of Joan Crawford as a cold cream smeared gorgon has become a much more indelible part of the pop culture zeitgeist than any of her actual movie roles.

My Way of Life follows the grand tradition of celebrity autobiographies that tell you exactly two things: doodly and squat. Largely a collection of tips and anecdotes about the incredibly precise manner in which Joan Crawford does things, the only dish she offers here is of the chafing variety. While Joan does briefly touch upon a difficult childhood, it’s spun in positive terms. There is not a single adversity she is unable to overcome, better and stronger for it. Having to maintain four jobs to support herself as a teenager taught her the importance of a strong work ethic. A casting agent criticizing her weight (a whopping 130 pounds at the time) made her realize how much appearances mattered. She only has warm, complimentary things to say about her first three husbands. Not only did she spin these difficult experiences into gold, she never complained about it to anyone.

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“Life With Lucy” (1986)

Far more often than any other, the question that comes to my mind when watching programs for this blog is “How did this happen?” It is remotely possible to make and release a movie with a small crew, and no studio interference. You might end up with a hilarious disaster, a la The Room, or Neil Breen’s Fateful Findings, but it can, in the most basic sense of the phrase, be done. Short of finding a slot on a public access network, however, launching a TV show requires multiple hands on deck, every step of the way. It’s a long, elaborate process to pitch, write, film, produce, and air a show. There are numerous opportunities in that process for someone to say “Wait, that’s not a good idea,” or “Perhaps we should try something different,” or “This is a fucking nightmare,” and yet, as numerous failed sitcoms have illustrated, either nobody speaks up when those opportunities arise, or no one listens to them.

On paper, Lucille Ball making a TV comeback was a perfectly fine idea. It had been more than ten years since Here’s Lucy ended, and she had spent much of that time mostly just appearing on talk shows, sharing tales of old Hollywood in her signature raspy voice. Thanks to The Cosby Show, sitcoms suddenly meant big bucks for television producers again, and Aaron Spelling, despite having already earned enough money to build a 123 room house for four people, wanted a piece of that for himself. He proposed a new sitcom to Ball, who was initially reluctant, until Spelling agreed to give her complete creative control over it. What did that mean? Exactly what it sounds like–Ball’s husband, Gary Morton, despite knowing nothing about television production, was given an executive producer credit (and paid $50,000 more per episode than Ball for his questionable services). In addition, Ball brought in her own writing crew, and demanded that Gale Gordon, her comic foil since The Lucy Show, be added to the cast (Gordon himself refused to come on board until he was promised to be paid for a full 22 episode run, even if only one made it to air). She even insisted that the network hire her sound man from the I Love Lucy days, even though he was nearly 80 years old and hard of hearing.

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“Mazes and Monsters” (1982)

When compared to the panic over chatspeak and sending nudes via text messenger, a similar fear over teenagers pretending to fight dragons and cast protection spells only a few decades ago seems almost quaint. Nevertheless, it’s true–back in the early 80s parents fretted over Dungeons and Dragons, buying into a media hyped belief that players could get so deep into the game that they became delusional, with occasionally tragic consequences.

The alarm was triggered by the 1979 disappearance of 16 year-old James Dallas Egbert, who wandered into the steam tunnels near his college and disappeared. A private investigator hired to locate Egbert wove a gripping story about Egbert becoming so obsessed with an ongoing Dungeons and Dragons campaign that he lost touch with reality, and was perhaps lost forever inside the tunnels. It was a great story, and it was also 100% bullshit. James Egbert was just an ordinary, depressed kid who probably played Dungeons and Dragons so he wouldn’t have to think about how depressed he was for a little while. He went to the tunnels to try to commit suicide, and when that didn’t work he hid out at a friend’s house, and then ran away to work at an oil field, finally ending his own life in 1980.

It didn’t stop the media from capitalizing on Dungeons and Dragons as the next big thing parents should worry about, however, and it didn’t stop author Rona Jaffe from cranking out a “fictionalized” version of Egbert’s story, calling it Mazes and Monsters. It was then almost immediately adapted into a TV movie, starring Tom Hanks in his first feature starring role.

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