“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.
After Benny gives him the slightest admonishment for being so dramatic, he sends Billy on a spectacular holiday adventure in the city. First, Billy spends time in F.A.O. Schwarz, where David Copperfield works in the “magic department.” Copperfield chats with a little girl, asking her if she has a boyfriend, and if he “ever breaks your heart.” “My girlfriend broke my heart once,” he says. “Do you want to see what happens when you get a broken heart?” Lest you fear this conversation is about to take a sinister turn, he performs a magic trick with a piece of paper. The little girl could not give a shit less (in fact, she keeps pulling her dress up over her head), so he sends her away and performs a trick for Billy instead, inserting a cigarette through a coin.
Billy is mildly impressed at best, and remains unmoved about the existence of Christmas. Watching an interminable ice skating routine by Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner at Rockefeller Center also has little impact, as does Maureen McGovern shouting Christmas carols at him. Benny is frustrated and concerned about young Billy’s stubborn refusal to embrace the magic and wonder of the holiday season. “I don’t wanna lose this one,” he tells ventriloquist Willie Tyler (and Lester) with a serious look on his face, suggesting that a lack of Christmas spirit could be fatal without proper intervention and treatment.
Billy shows some signs of cracking when he watches the Rockettes’ famous tin soldier routine, which manages to be both boring and a little unnerving. He then attends a party with Benny, who encourages meek little Billy to sing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” for the crowd. Naturally, Billy turns out to be a born performer, not unlike Emmanuel Lewis himself. Watching this tiny, elfin child be-bopping around and singing in an adorably reedy, off-key voice was probably much easier to take back in 1984, when it wasn’t as widely known how old Lewis was at the time. He was thirteen here, playing a child half his age, and it is deeply unsettling. While not quite as visually unsettling as a grown woman dressed like a little girl, it’s moreso on an existential level, especially when you realize that, like Gary Coleman, Lewis’ growth was stunted due to a medical condition, and the adults in his life happily cashed in on that.
While he didn’t meet the same tragic end as Coleman, Lewis too was abandoned by Hollywood the minute he became more weird looking than cute, and has struggled with financial issues and being treated as a sort of pop culture oddity/joke ever since. Adults carrying him around and putting him on their laps like a porcelain doll, even though Lewis was barely a year away from starting high school, puts a deeply creepy edge on what was supposed to be a warm and touching holiday special that audiences would want to watch again and again.
Nearly the last twenty minutes of the show is devoted to Benny (or rather, Mr. T, since Mr. T is incapable of playing anyone but Mr. T) explaining the true meaning of Christmas while a choir sings behind him. The camera occasionally cuts to Emmanuel Lewis, looking indescribably bored. Though more than half of the program does double duty as an ad campaign for spending Christmas in New York City, the tone becomes deadly serious here, with Mr. T looking like he’s about to burst into tears when Maureen McGovern sings”O Holy Night.” He also goes bafflingly off script at one point, in a rambling monologue about how, since no one knows for sure whether or not Baby Jesus smiled on the night of his birth, it’s our duty to smile as much as possible during the Christmas season, so that we’re…compensating for it, somehow, I guess? Whatever the case, like David Copperfield questioning a three year-old about her love life, it’s a welcome island of weirdness in a flood of sticky goo.
Billy’s parents, having been sufficiently chastened about needing to work for a living, show up to the party just in time to see him do a quavering rendition of “Silent Night.” At this point, though Billy is supposed to be bathed in the warm, soothing glow of the Christmas spirit, Emmanuel Lewis himself looks about as glum and uncomfortable as I’ve ever seen a child actor look. One wonders how many takes this poor kid was forced to do for this scene, and how bad the rest of them must have been if this was the one the producers ended up going with.
But never mind all that, Mr. T has successfully gotten Billy to accept the miracle and magic of Christmas. He leaves with his parents, who have presumably quit their jobs so that their kid stops acting like a sullen little turd, and are now facing having to sell his presents to make rent. Satisfied in the knowledge that he’s taken fistfuls of holiday spirit and all but jammed them down a child’s throat, Mr. T smiles at another job well done.
There’s not a single holiday special that isn’t tainted by the stink of commerce, that’s unavoidable. TV shows need sponsors, and it looks like A Christmas Dream was probably sponsored by the New York State Department of Tourism (there’s even a brief appearance by Mayor Ed Koch). It’s unclear why Billy’s journey to accepting Christmas joy in his heart must involve a trip to a giant toy store and a visit to Radio City Music Hall, rather than, say, helping out at a soup kitchen, just trust them, it does. Nevertheless, the sharp turn from whimsy into “this is what Christmas is really about” during the last quarter of the show is about as graceful as a mall Santa after too many cups of eggnog.
It doesn’t help that, beyond the tiniest little spark of enjoyment he shows while performing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” Emmanuel Lewis, thirteen playing six for a largely ignorant audience at the time let us reiterate, looks desperately like he wants to be somewhere, anywhere else. Though Billy could (and should) have been played by an actual first grader, NBC needed a famous face for the role. Since Gary Coleman was on his way out, they had to settle for the second most recognizable child actor on television, whether he wanted to do it or not. And that’s what show business is all about, Charlie Brown.
Original airdate: December 16, 1984
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