“Christmas in Tattertown” (1988)

The 80s may have been a golden era for pop music and horror movies, but what no one looks back on fondly is the animation it produced. Up until the release of The Little Mermaid, even Disney movies were stuck in a rut of dreary, washed out palettes, populated by dull, unmemorable characters. Saturday morning cartoons were an especially dire affair–I direct you to Saturday Supercade, a collection of shows based on arcade games in which more care was taken on the intro than on the shows themselves.

A renaissance in children’s programming was on the horizon, but there were a few stumbling blocks along the way. One of these was 1988’s Christmas in Tattertown, Nickelodeon’s very first original program and created by none other than Ralph Bakshi. Now, you might think, huh, Ralph Bakshi, creator of Fritz the Cat, the first x-rated animated movie, and Coonskin, a blaxploitation cartoon strictly for adults. That’s an interesting choice for Nickelodeon to work with on a kids’ show. And yet, Bakshi was at the helm of more family friendly fare at that point, with the reboot of Mighty Mouse, a precursor to the quirky, animation style Ren & Stimpy  would later make famous.

Christmas in Tattertown, despite its modern, edgy look, was also presented as an homage to the Merrie Melodies and Max Fleischer cartoons of the past. Nickelodeon liked the idea so much that they agreed to commit to a whopping 39 more episodes set in the same universe. How many ended up being made? Well, you’re looking at it. Just one, which aired only a few times before disappearing altogether.

The show opens with a hepcat saxophone voiced by Keith David, who offers the briefest of expository dialogue, explaining that Tattertown is the world where lost or discarded items live. We’re not just talking single socks and Tupperware lids, though, but old toys, vehicles, appliances, etc., all of which speak in broad, old timey Noo Yawk accents. After opening some sort of enchanted book, a little girl named Debbie (voiced by Sherry Lynn) ends up in Tattertown, along with two of her toys, who come to life. One of the toys, a doll named Muffet (Jennifer Darling), immediately upon gaining sentience, becomes evil, calling herself “Muffet the Merciless” and setting about taking over Tattertown like a tiny mafia kingpin.

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Now that you’ve gotten over the idea of Ralph Bakshi creating a show for children, you might be thinking, hey, isn’t this thing called Christmas in Tattertown? Indeed it is, though it doesn’t actually become a Christmas show until more than a third of a way in, after someone asks Debbie what Christmas is. Apparently not in all that much of a hurry to get back to her home planet, or whatever alternate universe she’s from, Debbie sets about organizing a Christmas celebration in the town. It doesn’t make much sense that they wouldn’t know what Christmas is, considering there are old decorations and even a Santa suit just laying around, but it’s apparent very early on that plot consistency is not this program’s strong suit.

For that matter, the show does nothing to establish that it’s even Christmastime in the first place, the mere act of another character asking Debbie to explain it seems to be enough. For all we know, it could be May 12th, but if this nagging, pushy kid (who’s ostensibly the hero) wants to celebrate Christmas, then by god they’re gonna fucking celebrate Christmas.

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In the meantime, Muffet, who’s aligned herself with a shady spider, catches wind of Debbie’s plan and sets about trying to stop it, by disguising herself as Santa Claus, and the spider as a reindeer. Debbie saves the day, however, when she plays a recording of Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas,” which sends everyone in Tattertown, even though they supposedly never heard of Christmas until maybe an hour ago, into paroxysms of warmth and good cheer. This includes the spider, who crashes and sends Muffet flying into the local prison, where even she receives presents at the very end.

Even as an adult viewer, the shabby, cluttered Tattertown is a bit nightmarish. I don’t imagine kids would want to spend much time there, even without piles of garbage and scrap metal coming to life. It doesn’t seem to be an enjoyable place for either its residents or visitors, and thus making it the setting of a Saturday morning cartoon is misguided at best. Perhaps if it was populated by engaging (or at least charming) characters, it would be more inviting, but it isn’t. Mostly everyone just yells at each other, which I suppose some kids would find amusing, but probably not for 39 episodes.

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Though Christmas in Tattertown was intended to be a pilot, no time is taken to establish who these characters are, or why Debbie seems in no way ruffled by falling into another dimension where toasters and coat hooks can talk, or why everyone there already seems to know who she is. This leads to a number of head scratching scenes, including Muffet snarling “You know how I always hate bad news,”at a fly who delivers her a postcard. This is a baffling line of dialogue, because the audience doesn’t know that Muffet hates bad news. We’ve never seen her receive bad news until this point. She follows that up with “Why do they always take such care to throw it in my face?” This is even more puzzling, because who’s “they”? Throw what in her face? In another scene, Debbie asks a cat doll thing who’s accidently ripped his own arm off “What have you done this time?”, even though this is the first time he appears in the show. We’ve never seen any of these characters before, yet it plays like we already know them and their motivations. Expecting the audience to feel warm and fuzzy about their discovering the meaning of Christmas when most of them don’t even have names is a bit of a tall order.

It’s also worth noting that there are a couple cringeworthy, definitely not for the kids gags, including a reference to crossdressing, and a scene in which Debbie cajoles a fir tree who speaks with a heavy “oy vey!” Jewish accent into agreeing to be the town Christmas tree. One can assume that, had more episodes of Tattertown been made, a bit of backstory would eventually have been provided, and Bakshi would have made up his mind as to who the audience was supposed to be for it. Alas, Nickelodeon canceled the whole deal, and Bakshi’s next project would be the equally baffling Cool World, about which…you know what, it’s Christmas, let’s not bring up unpleasant subjects.

Original airdate: December 21, 1988

Watch it here

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