“Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas” (1977)

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.

Read More

Advertisements

“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.

Read More

“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.

Read More

“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.

Read More

“A Very Brady Christmas” (1988)

I’ve already written at length about the numerous ill-fated attempts at recapturing the ol’ Brady Bunch magic during the 70s and 80s, but now, it being the holiday season and all, I suppose I should talk about the one that didn’t result in profound embarrassment for everyone involved. That would be 1988’s A Very Brady Christmas, a one shot TV movie that ended up being among the most watched programs of the year. Like drinking an entire punchbowl of eggnog, it’s sweet and goes down easy, but leaves you feeling kind of nauseous.

The movie opens with Mike and Carol Brady, living in empty nest bliss in the same house as the original show. Alice shows up at their door one day, weeping over being dumped by her husband, Sam the Butcher, for a younger woman, in what we can assume was revenge for her running off to Hollywood and engaging in a passionate affair with Rip Taylor. Bereft of family or other friends, she stays with the Bradys, donning her old uniform and going back to work, because evidently being a housekeeper is the only thing that gives her life meaning.

Read More

“Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe in Santa” (2002)

Christmas is a time for peace, togetherness, and upholding traditions. Tradition is especially important when it comes to holiday season entertainment–despite Hollywood putting out at least one new Christmas movie every year, most of us prefer to watch It’s a Wonderful Life for the 150th time, or continue the endless debate over whether Alastair Sim or Reginald Owen played the best Ebenezer Scrooge (answer: of course it was Alastair Sim, don’t be silly). We don’t want to get to know new characters when we could be wrapping ourselves in well-worn but still cozy blankets instead.

New Christmas specials sometimes turn out to be cute little gems, like 1999’s Olive, the Other Reindeer. Some, like the previously reviewed Christmas in Tattertown, are quirky failures. Then there is Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe in Santa, which aired once in 2002, and was never seen again. Disappearing into obscurity immediately after the credits rolled, it was recently rediscovered thanks to YouTube.

The best that can be said about Rapsittie Street Kids is that it’s original. You will almost certainly have never seen anything like it before, nor will you ever see anything like it again. In fact, it’s so original that you’ll think you dreamt it, because surely nothing this grossly incompetent could have possibly been deemed acceptable for primetime network viewing, let alone be promoted as the first in a series of original holiday specials.

Read More

“A Chipmunk Christmas” (1981)

Mention the name “Kardashian” to someone, and they might sneer in response, or rant about how they’ve made a fortune for doing little more than being rich and attractive. How dare this family find something they’re good at, and capitalize on it? Surely it wasn’t until they came along that America was fascinated with (and often threw money at) a person or concept that seemed absurdly simple, and maybe even a little dumb.

Well, folks, I’d like to tell you a little story about a man named Ross Bagdasarian. You might know him better under the name “David Seville.”

Bagdasarian, a struggling actor and singer/songwriter, found success in 1958 with the novelty hit “Witch Doctor,” and was evidently so tickled by the sped up vocals used for the “backup singer” (which was Bagdasarian himself) that he released an entire song done in that fashion, the holiday classic “The Chipmunk Song.” It was a smash, even winning three Grammy Awards, and still in heavy rotation today (and certainly easier on the ears than, say, “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” or “Dominic the Donkey”).

Bagdasarian parlayed the success of “The Chipmunk Song” into a handful of other singles, and a short-lived cartoon. When Bagdasarian’s son, Ross, Jr., inherited the Chipmunk media empire, he took it to even greater heights, producing albums like the legendary Chipmunk Punk (featuring covers of the blistering anti-authoritarian screeds “My Sharona” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”), a Saturday morning cartoon that aired for more than seven years, direct to video releases, and, well into the 21st century, a live action/CGI film series that by all accounts is atrocious, yet still made more than a billion dollars at the box office. You read that right, I wrote “billion.” With a B.

All this, because a guy thought a recording of himself singing in a squeaky voice was hilarious. That, my friends, is how you take nothing and spin it into gold.

Read More

“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.

Read More

“Punky Brewster: Christmas Shoplifting” (1985)

Perhaps predicting that a lot of people born in the 70s would grow up to have complicated relationships with their families, there was a puzzling trend in 80s TV shows and movies in which children were, through largely implausible circumstances, raised by individuals other than their birth parents. In most cases, the surrogate parent had virtually no experience raising children, but together, with love and patience, they learn what it means to be a family, often with the adult learning just as much, if not more, from the child.

No “I hate my real parents and wish I could live with someone else” fantasy fulfillment show tugged the heartstrings with more brutal efficiency than Punky Brewster. The titular character, an adorable hobo clown abandoned by her mother at a shopping mall, squats in an apartment building managed by Henry Warnimont, a grouchy old man who, as illustrated in the opening credits, literally steps over homeless people laying in the street. He takes Punky in, and quickly warms to this human Raggedy Ann doll, who seems to voice no other wants or needs than to be loved, and exhibits an angelic selflessness not usually found in eight year-olds.

I watched Punky Brewster. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about a single episode (luckily, someone wrote an exhaustively detailed episode guide on Wikipedia), but I remember watching it, every Sunday evening, usually at my grandparents’ house. While this isn’t quite a Berenstain/Berenstein situation, I do recall being younger than I actually was when this show premiered. It was very much geared towards the ten and under set, when kids are still guileless enough to believe that there’s no problem that can’t be solved by either opening a lemonade stand or having a heart to heart conversation. I wasn’t under ten, though. I was twelve, and I didn’t stop watching it until it moved into syndication, when I was nearly in high school. I have no reasonable explanation for it, except perhaps because my parents’ marriage was imploding, and I was drawn to warm, gooey sitcoms where families always hashed out their differences in twenty-five minutes or less, and were always better and stronger for it. I probably knew then than the average family sitcom was in no way a reflection of reality, but a little fantasy never hurt anyone.

punky2

Season two’s “Christmas Shoplifting” opens with Punky (Soleil-Moon Frye) writing out her Christmas gift list, which appears to be several pages long. However, the saintly street urchin explains to Henry (George Gaynes) that it’s not a list of things that she wants, but a list of people for whom she wants to purchase gifts, including the garbage man and the bagger at the local grocery store, all of whom are her “friends.” Henry talks her down to buying gifts for just a few people, giving her the princely sum of $5 for each gift. While shopping at the local mall, Punky runs out of money before she gets a chance to buy Henry’s gift. She spots Henry admiring a cashmere scarf, and overhears him saying that he can’t afford to buy the scarf for himself, as he’s planning on buying a “special present” for Punky.

With crack timing, Punky’s weaselly classmate, Richmond (played by Peter Billingsley, who two years earlier nearly shot his eye out in A Christmas Story), appears, and explains that he can afford to buy expensive gifts for his family thanks to the ol’ five finger discount. His shoplifting technique is hilariously clumsy–it seems to consist mostly of exclaiming out loud  how much he wishes he could buy an item, then dropping that item into a shopping bag in full view of everyone around him–but it seems to be working so far.

punky3

The virtuous Punky proves surprisingly easy to talk into stealing, though her frantic flailing as she tries to shove the scarf Henry wants into a bag is proof that she’s not a born criminal. Nevertheless, she almost manages to get away with it, until she runs into her favorite teacher, Mike, because apparently everybody Punky knows goes Christmas shopping on the exact same day, at the exact same time, and at the exact same shopping center (in Chicago!) as her. Though Punky carries on like Billy Hayes at the airport in Midnight Express, Mike (played by T.K. Carter) doesn’t seem to notice that anything is amiss. In her haste to flee the scene of the crime, however, Punky accidentally switches bags with Mike, leaving him with the stolen scarf. Mike is soon caught, and hauled away by the police.

Sadly lacking family or friends, Mike calls Henry to bail him out of jail. Luckily, it’s the kind of laidback jail that lets little girls enter the holding cell area by themselves. Punky, all big puppy dog eyes, biting her bottom lip and emoting like a character in a Charlie Chaplin movie, explains to Mike what happened. Mike, still imprisoned, mind you (and with Al Molinaro wearing a Santa suit as a cellmate), takes the time to patiently explain to Punky why shoplifting is bad. He’s only momentarily put out–after all, what teacher doesn’t find himself wrongfully arrested for a crime one of his students committed? He encourages Henry to go easy on Punky, which he does, grounding her for just a month and banning her from television for two weeks. That’s a pretty softball punishment for stealing–I once shoplifted some magazines from a 7-11, and my mother still brought it up more than a decade later.

punky4

Everything you need to know about Punky Brewster can be summed up in the fact that, in lieu of a punchline, often the camera cuts to a reaction shot from Punky’s dog, Brandon. Like in my review of the “Bicycle Man” episode of Diff’rent Strokes, it’s a bit unfair to review with jaded adult eyes a TV show that was clearly meant for young children. But man, watching this is like being beaten over the head with a sack full of teddy bears. I applaud any parent who slogged through it week after week because their kids wanted to watch it, and hope that they’re rewarded with flowers and fully loaded Applebee’s gift cards every Mother and Father’s Day.

Punky and her pals come off as sort of modern day Little Rascals, scampering around largely unattended in what’s supposed to be inner city Chicago, and all the villains have Dickensian character names, like “Simon Chillings”  and “Garth Goobler.” Both common tropes in children’s media, combined with Punky’s Godspell wardrobe they add a welcome bit of quirk to what’s really just a flipside of Diff’rent Strokes. This too mostly involves an impossibly cute child actor hamboning her way through one “important message” after another, all of which impact her life just enough to, in true sitcom fashion, never be mentioned again. In addition to shoplifting, Punky learned about adoption, the importance of booster shots, teen runaways, bullying, cheating, the mentally handicapped, missing children, serial killers (!!!!), feminism, the Challenger disaster, obesity, divorce, elder rights, CPR, painkiller addiction, illiteracy, child abuse, and, of course, the boogeyman that lurked around all 80s kids, drugs. If only she had learned about what to do when an adult slips into a diabetic coma.

“The Osmond Family Christmas Special” (1977 & 1980)

I have a confession to make: after watching and reviewing an episode of Donny and Marie, I think I’ve developed a grudging affection for the Osmonds. I watched a few more clips from different episodes (not too many, there’s only so much saccharine my old bones can take), and I realized that their brand of vintage corniness might have been a bit more genuine than I originally thought. Presented as a balm to the soul to viewers who were  overwhelmed by the seemingly sudden uptick in sex and violence on primetime television, it’s not surprising that it was among the last successful variety shows before the genre disappeared entirely. Hating Donny and Marie would be like hating a kid’s backyard magic show–it’s just too earnest to deserve that sort of hostility.

Also, I owe Donny Osmond an apology. In my review, I implied that Donny describing himself as “a little bit rock and roll” was a dubious claim at best. A friend later pointed out to me that it was actually true, if you take into account some of the earlier music Donny performed with his brothers, particularly 1972’s “Crazy Horses” a song that was most definitely a little bit rock and roll, and remarkable mostly because it’s not at all what you’d expect an Osmonds song to sound like. Seriously, check it out, particularly that thunderous guitar. It ain’t “War Pigs,” but it ain’t bad either. If you don’t believe me, read this article, which further explores the Osmonds’ brief foray into hard rock, and even prog rock, with their next album, the Mormon concept album The Plan.

Though “Crazy Horses” was a hit, The Plan most definitely was not, and eventually the Osmonds not only settled back into the bland, family friendly pop that made them famous, but also retreated out of the spotlight so it could be turned on the three youngest members of the family, Donny, Marie, and barely formed fetus Jimmy. If the Osmond brothers had any hard feelings towards their siblings, they’re not present in 1977’s Christmas episode of Donny and Marie, which features the entire Osmond Family, and I do mean the entire family. It’s a veritable infestation of Osmonds, with spouses, seemingly dozens of children, and even Mother and Father Osmond present for the festivities.

osmondxmas2

While retaining some of the usual aspects of Donny and Marie (the good natured sibling banter, a performance of “A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock ‘n’ Roll”), the Christmas episode focuses more on the family dynamic, as the audience is treated to a “typical” holiday celebration, in what appears to be an enormous ski lodge. It is, of course, the perfect Christmas that virtually no one watching at home would ever experience, with ice skating, snowmobile excursions, horse drawn sleigh rides into the snow covered Utah countryside to chop down their own tree, and the whole family gathered together to make popcorn strings before a roaring fire. Plus, there’s singing. Lots and lots of singing.

Recurring guest star Paul Lynde shows up at one point (as if Mormons would welcome a flamboyantly gay man into their home, even at Christmas) and recites a poem. It’s a weird moment that doesn’t really work with the rest of the show, not just because his poem isn’t about Christmas (it’s about himself growing up), but because Lynde is literally the only person in the episode, other than a handful of backup dancers and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, who isn’t an Osmond. Lynde appears later in a sketch playing a doctor who treats a sick reindeer, with the typical Paul Lynde edge of meanness, and again, it’s a weird, discomfiting fit for a show in which, just two minutes earlier, Donny entertains small children with a hand puppet.

osmondxmas3

Given the puppet show, the homey quilts used as a stage curtain, and the cutaways to various Osmond kids playing, oblivious to the cameras, the episode was clearly designed to look like a home movie, and, like watching actual home movies, it’s cute but eventually starts to feel like a chore, especially once you get to the interminable musical number that focuses on all the different instruments each family member can play (Wayne plays the clarinet, Jimmy plays the trumpet, Merrill plays the banjo, it goes on and on). Still, like everything associated with the Osmonds, it has an inexplicable charm.

The “you’re invited to spend an old fashioned country Christmas with the Osmonds” feeling of the 1977 special was dropped for the penultimate special in 1980. Keenly aware that the success of all the Osmonds was now on the wane, this special is unquestionably for the audience, filmed at the studio named for Osmond patriarch George, and incorporating more sets, more costumes, more singing, more dancing, more guest stars, more everything. All but two of the brothers, including Donny, were married by then (youngest Jimmy was just 17, while 25 year-old Jay, surely to the great shame of his family, didn’t marry until 1987), meaning there are more Osmonds than ever. There are so many children present at this point that most of them are just wandering around in the background, seemingly unaware that there’s a television show happening.

Curiously absent, however, are the Osmond wives, who don’t appear until the last five minutes, and the Osmond parents, who briefly show up during the first fifteen minutes (along with the Osmonds’ ancient grandmother). Also MIA: Paul Lynde, who, after being arrested outside of a Salt Lake City gay bar in 1978, lost his recurring guest spot on Donny and Marie. Instead, we get guest appearances by a visibly uncomfortable Peggy Fleming, magician Doug Henning, and Greg Evigan of B.J. and the Bear, who shows up for the festivities with exposed chest hair and wearing a gold chain, and sings an original composition that has nothing to do with Christmas.

osmondxmas6

After that, he duets with Marie on “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” stroking her hair and eyeing her like a starving man looking in the window of a Golden Corral (he even licks his lips at one point). Their body language implies that they’re dating, which is curious considering that, as per Wikipedia, Evigan was married by this point. Much like when she was paired up with the married (and old enough to be her father) Kris Kristofferson in this episode, the show, hopefully unintentionally, seems to suggest that older men are irresistibly drawn to the sweet, virtuous, undoubtedly oblivious to her own beauty Marie.

Doug Henning appears to do some party level magic tricks for the Osmond children, whose reactions range from mildly interested to yawning on camera. During a medley of holiday songs, Marie, wearing what looks like a blanket taken from someone’s couch, solos on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” While singing, she comes out into the audience to lightly flirt with some of the men, as illustrated here, in my favorite screen shot since starting this blog:

osmondxmas1

Donny and his brothers cover Electric Light Orchestra’s “All Over the World,” a hit single from the soundtrack to Xanadu, and the closest the show gets to being cool (because, yes, for one brief, shining moment things associated with Xanadu were considered cool). Bringing the mood down a notch, Peggy Fleming performs an interpretive dance on ice skates, and her banter with Donny afterward is so stiff it elicits the same kind of discomfort as watching two people on a bad blind date. Thankfully that mood is quickly lifted thanks to an elaborate musical number set in a department store, with the original Osmond brothers dressed as dancing Santa Clauses. It’s pretty entertaining, until you realize that it goes on for more than five minutes, and you miss Donny poorly doing ventriloquism for a bunch of little kids in the 1977 special.

And speaking of elaborate, overly long musical numbers, the Osmond wives finally join their husbands and their combined 157 children for the last sequence, which Marie explains is a recreation of Christmas in Victorian England. There are no syphilitic whores, child laborers, or human waste running in the streets to be seen, but they all have really great costumes–Marie wears a hat that’s so big you expect there to be more Osmond children hidden inside it. Through some miracle (a Christmas miracle, perhaps?), the show doesn’t end with one of the many offspring saying “And God bless us, everyone.”

osmondxmas7

So, there’s your two sides of an Osmond Family Christmas–cozy and relatively low-key (well, as low-key as anything featuring Paul Lynde could possibly be), and flashy spectacle. It’s difficult to say which I prefer, as both have their charms and their drawbacks. Despite the drawbacks, though, it’s all done with complete sincerity. There’s something undeniably sweet about Jimmy Osmond’s reedy adolescent pipes accompanying the majestic tones of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on “The Christmas Song,” or Mama Osmond rocking out on the saxophone with her sons. Never again would a variety show exist without that sly “We know this is as lame as you do” wink at the audience. Forays into funk and concept albums aside, the Osmonds embraced their corniness, and presented it as a warm little Christmas gift to television audiences. I sort of miss them.

osmondxmas8

Not as much as this guy, but still.