In December of 2015, Netflix aired A Very Murray Christmas, an original holiday special hosted by enjoyable comedic actor turned inexplicable pop culture demigod Bill Murray. Not surprisingly, given Murray’s persona, it’s very sly and self-aware, where even during the meant to be sincere moments Murray makes it clear that he’s much too cool to be doing such a thing. That’s not to pass judgment on him, most programs like this are done with a broad wink at the audience these days, as if to suggest that the people responsible for them think they’re at least as corny as you do. Whether it’s because we’re living in the “Age of Irony” (or whatever Salon-appropriate term can be applied to it), or some other as yet to be overthought reason, 21st century TV audiences seem to reject overt displays of sincerity, particularly when it comes to Christmas.
If you genuinely love that kind of thing, then the 70s was your peak decade. It offered multiple specials by the Carpenters, the Osmonds, John Denver, and Bing Crosby, among others. Presenting the kind of Christmas celebration most viewers would never experience, with horse-drawn sleigh rides in the snow and singalongs around a piano, often the stars would include their real life families in them, as if to suggest that the shows were really more like a home movie than a TV program. Of course, hindsight being 20/20, it’s hard to watch a lot of these shows knowing the sadness behind the scenes. It’s heartbreaking to hear Karen Carpenter sing anything, let alone “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It’s difficult to see Donny and Marie Osmond lauding their parents for their traditional homespun values, knowing that they were the family’s primary source of income for many years, essentially missing out on their childhoods. It’s entirely possible that John Denver was sauced while filming his various specials. Then, of course, there was Bing Crosby.
“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.
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.
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.