About Christmas TV History

Monday, September 29, 2014

Family Ties Christmas (1983)

Of all the dozens of sitcom adaptations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, this particular episode has been a favorite of TV fans for a long time.  Not only is Family Ties a series that continues to charm watchers but "A Keaton Christmas Carol" from 1983 is a stand out episode.  Why do you think this version of A Christmas Carol stands the test of time?

Everyone in the Keaton family--except Alex--embraces the Christmas spirit this year.

You remember the plot, right?  The episode begins on Christmas Eve with Elyse, Steven, Jennifer, and Mallory decorating the Christmas tree and noticing the beauty of the recent snowfall.  However, Alex doesn't share their holiday spirit--he's not caught up in this "silly sentimental farce."  Although he was asked to get a bottle of cough syrup for his youngest sister's cold symptoms, Alex has forgotten and promises to get some tomorrow--unconcerned that the stores will be closed on Christmas day.  Alex is also not interested in posing for this year's family Christmas photo either.

Alex wants to take a vote--who else wants to skip exchanging gifts this year?

Hearing carolers sharing their Christmas joy, Alex threatens to call the police--even after he recognizes that the group is led by the local minister.

Uttering those famous last words, "Christmas!? Bah Humbug" as he lies in bed, Alex soon finds himself haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Past.  The spirit takes Alex on a little journey to re-visit Christmas from ten years ago.  Alex sees that as a child, he was filled with the right Christmas attitude--he enjoys watching others open their Christmas gifts, he leads the singing of Christmas songs, and it was initially his own idea to begin taking an annual family photo in front of the Christmas tree. 

The Ghost of Christmas Past is embodied by Alex's youngest sister Jennifer.

With the help of re-visiting his past, Alex sees that once upon a time he did enjoy Christmas.

Although Alex wishes he could continue to re-live this happy Christmas from his past, the ghost takes him back to his bedroom in the present.  Immediately Alex is greeted by a second visitor, the Ghost of Christmas Future--this one looks just like his other sister, Mallory.  Alex is whisked away to catch a glimpse of the holiday thirty years in his future--a vision that doesn't look so bright.

This efficient sitcom uses only two of four ghosts that Dickens' original story introduced.

Though they've fallen on hard times, the Keatons exhibit the same cheerful holiday spirit and are grateful for what they have--including a small, brown Christmas tree.

Alex learns in his future he is very wealthy and living in New York while his family is destitute.  His mother ekes out a living taking in other people's laundry, Mallory is pregnant while her husband serves time in debtors' prison, Jennifer sells dirt for a living, and Steven is unemployed--since Alex fired him from his job!  Poor Jennifer can barely speak--she has a severe sore throat from a lingering cold.  Too bad she can't afford to buy herself cough syrup!

Alex's horror in this dark vision of the future resonates with the prediction that he will some day be bald!

On his way to celebrate Christmas in Las Vegas, Alex has stopped by to see his family in order to drop off his laundry.  In line with Dickens' script, present-day Alex is horrified by this vision of himself and his loved ones.  He vows to change his life in order to prevent this future from ever happening.  Sure enough, on Christmas morning Alex has had an attitude adjustment.  The teenager has run to the store for Christmas presents to show each member of his family how much he loves and appreciates them.  And, Alex insists the Keatons pose once more for their annual family photo in front of the Christmas tree.

Alex finally puts himself in the Christmas spirit.

Too bad the only store Alex could find open on Christmas morning was a convenience store--sister Mallory gets beef jerky as her gift!

I have my own theories why this sitcom adaptation of A Christmas Carol still resonates with TV fans.  One strength of this particular episode is that the jokes and punchlines are well written and still sharp after all these years.  Alex threatening to call the police on a happy group of carolers which includes a church pastor is hilarious.  So is Alex's fear of going bald.  Another strength of this sitcom adaptation is that Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge character fits an exaggerated Alex P. Keaton of the future pretty reasonably.  It is not a stretch to see the business-centered, money-focused teen evolve into a lonely, self-centered Scrooge.  But I think the heart of this episode lies in Alex's transformation.  Young Michael J. Fox is thoroughly convincing when he decides to change his future and we see him express what seems like authentic compassion and genuine affection for his family members.  That's a special gift Fox still brings to his roles--and he shows his masterful skill here despite the sitcom's short length format.  It can't be easy to be both funny and heart-felt in less than thirty minutes.  I think "A Keaton Christmas Carol" is an excellent example of how to do both.

Alex finally gets in on the annual family Christmas photo.

What's your favorite sitcom adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. More about the TV programs mentioned on this website can be found in her book "Tis the Season TV: the Encyclopedia of Christmas-themed Episodes, Specials, and Made-for-TV Movies." Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. She is currently updating and expanding the encyclopedia for a 2021 release. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701 press.com

*Support this website and its research by purchasing the books at 1701 press.com

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Full House Christmas (1994)

There are quite a few Full House holiday episodes.  I've written about the 1988 episode "Our Very First Christmas Show" before.  That Christmas story included actor Sorrell Booke (that's J.D. Boss Hogg to you and me).  However, when I recall Full House Christmas episodes, this 1994 installment is the one that stands out the most in my memory.  Who could forget the year Mickey Rooney came to spend Christmas with the Tanner family?

What's so bad about a Christmas necktie that doubles as drink holder?

In 1994's "Arrest Ye Merry Gentlemen," young Michelle is eager to give her father the first Christmas present she's ever purchased.  When she discovers that her Aunt Becky is intending to give the same gift--one the other members of the family openly mock--Michelle begs her Uncle Jesse to take her back to the store to exchange it.  Although he is cranky, tired of the lack of Christmas spirit in everyone he has encountered this Christmas Eve, Jesse eventually agrees to Michelle's request.

Preschoolers Nicky and Alex think they see Santa Claus trying to harm DJ and Stephanie!

Meanwhile, Uncle Joey has returned from the dry cleaners with his Santa suit, excited to surprise young Nicky and Alex later that night.  Unfortunately, the suit doesn't fit--and the impressionable toddlers overhear Joey moaning and groaning while trying to squeeze into the small sized costume. Terrified of the Santa Monster, the young twins are no longer looking forward to meeting St. Nick!  This hilarious B-story bolsters this episode to make it one of the strongest Christmas stories of the series.

Uncle Jesse is once again impatient with others on Christmas Eve.

When Michelle and Jesse arrive at the joke and novelty shop to return her unwanted Christmas present, the store owner Mr. Dreghorn (played by veteran actor Mickey Rooney) is just closing up and refuses to open the door.  After talking their way in, Mr. Dreghorn doesn't want to bother with making a return--and Jesse tries to convince him to exchange the merchandise.  Pushed beyond his limits, Mr. Dreghorn locks the front door and claims to have pushed the silent alarm for the police.  Yes, Jesse and Michelle are being held hostage on Christmas Eve by Mr. Dreghorn!

Held hostage by Andy Hardy!?

This family sitcom has not exactly created a nightmarish situation.  This madman is Mickey Rooney after all--he's a scamp, not a slasher.  More revealing, Rooney's Mr. Dreghorn has a twinkle in his eye and easily lands all his comical jabs against Uncle Jesse.  (Dreghorn mostly pokes fun of the well coiffed Uncle Jesse--a well-worn source of comedy on the series.  My favorite insult is when Dreghorn refers to Uncle Jesse as Fonzie.  With his slicked back hair, white tee, and black leather jacket--the barb is a solid strike).  Although Uncle Jesse begins to panic, Michelle knows how to read the situation.

Michelle also laughs at Dreghorn's insults lobbed at Uncle Jesse as he fumes about his crisis.

Locked in the store for awhile, Jesse eventually recognizes the police haven't arrived yet.  He tries to reason with Mr. Dreghorn for their release, claiming that the Tanner family is waiting for them to return for the the big holiday celebration to begin.  But Michelle sees what Uncle Jesse doesn't--Dreghorn isn't in any hurry.  Perhaps Dreghorn doesn't have a party he's missing or a large family who are waiting on his arrival?

Their mother Becky reads "Twas the Night Before Christmas" to the twins who just hope the nightmare will end!

Back at the Tanner home, Danny's little talk about Santa Claus with Nicky and Alex doesn't go as well as intended.  After explaining that Santa sees them while they're sleeping and sneaks into the house on Christmas Eve, the boys are more terrorized than before.  Can you blame them?

Have Mercy!  By this 8th season episode, Uncle Jesse's mullet is gone.

Michelle urges Uncle Jesse to invite Mr. Dreghorn to come home with them for Christmas.  Sure enough, the lonely old man was just looking for some company on Christmas Eve.  Uncle Jesse has to apologize for his behavior as well--finding blame in everyone else when he lacks the Christmas spirit.  You're not surprised by a happy ending, are you?

What--no holiday armadillo suit in your closet, Joey?

Nicky and Alex are eventually coaxed into welcoming Santa when Joey has the bright idea to dress up in a pink rabbit costume.  Who could be afraid of the Christmas Bunny?

Dreghorn joins the Tanner family for a merry Christmas--or was it?

Of course, if you want to read the tone of this Christmas episode as a horror story--locked in and held hostage by Mickey Rooney--I think you should go ahead and make yourself happy.  Diff'rent Strokes for different folks, right?  Wait--no, that's another sitcom.  Sorry.  But if you like Christmas horror stories, you probably already know about Mickey Rooney in the cult favorite Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker.  This 1991 camp Christmas classic features Rooney in the title role with a few twists that will leave you wanting to see Deghorn played a bit more ambiguously dark.  If you haven't yet seen SNDN 5--what are you waiting for?


Monday, September 8, 2014

Christmas TV Movie Recommendations

I was recently asked to recommend a few Christmas TV movie titles by a new friend.  I've already blogged several times about Christmas TV movies--let me remind you about those topics.  Click the links below to see those posts again:
General information about which TV networks air new Christmas TV movies each year.
The landscape of Christmas TV movies in 2013.
Another essay about Christmas TV movies--with links to fourteen Christmas TV movies I've reviewed.  (That blog post is 2 years old--I've reviewed more TV movies since).  You can always use the SEARCH box, found along the right side, to locate episodes, specials, and movies from the archives.

Another note: I frequently write about theatrical release Christmas movies because most of us watch these movies after their initial theatrical run at home--either broadcast on television, recorded for home entertainment, or on an electronic device we use as a television.  Since the original request was for Christmas TV movie titles, I'll limit my recommendations here to feature-length, made-for-TV entertainment.

When I first gathered together a list of noteworthy Christmas TV movies, the list ended up being about one hundred titles.  Clearly, that's too much--so I've limited my recommendations to titles that currently air on TV or are already released on DVD.

I like to start with the classics.  Christmas is always the best time to reflect on the past.  Remember the 1971 TV movie The Homecoming?  It was so popular that network execs hired all the young cast members back and created the TV series The Waltons.  Another movie made in the 1970s that reflects back on earlier times is the unforgettable story The House Without a Christmas Tree from 1972.  A nearly forgotten classic is 1964's Carol for Another Christmas-- found airing on TCM at holiday time for the past two years.  This most unusual adaptation of Charles Dickens' book A Christmas Carol is a Cold War interpretation, penned by Rod Serling. I know--see what you're missing!

Who is your favorite TV movie Ebenezer Scrooge?

Speaking of Charles Dickens' classic book...did you remember that the critically acclaimed, 1984 version of A Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott was originally made for TV?  1999's A Christmas Carol starring Patrick Stewart was also a TV movie.  Have you seen the version adapted from the successful Broadway show, 2004's A Christmas Carol: The Musical starring Kelsey Grammer?  I can't help it, my favorite TV adaptations are 1979's An American Christmas Carol starring Henry Winkler, and the comedy A Diva's Christmas Carol, from 2000, set inside the music business industry.

The Dream Team, Schneider and Wopat, are together again in Christmas Comes to Willow Creek.

Can't stand seeing Fonzie as Ebenezer Scrooge?  How about country music legend Dolly Parton spinning fairy tales in 1986's A Smoky Mountain Christmas? Looking for more country stars--how about Christmas Comes to Willow Creek starring John Schneider and Tom Wopat, from 1987.  Looking for less country stars?  Consider watching 2003's A Carol Christmas starring Tori Spelling, William Shatner, and Gary Coleman.

Hallmark Channel fans love their Debbie Macomber Christmas TV movies.

If you're looking to watch a Christmas TV movie based on a popular book (other than one written by Dickens), you might be interested in ones based on Truman Capote short stories.  (The best TV adaptation is Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory from 1966 starring Geraldine Page--but it's not on TV or DVD).  But you could watch 1997's A Christmas Memory starring Patty Duke and One Christmas from 1994, starring Henry Winkler and Katherine Hepburn.  These two movies are adapted from two separate Capote short stories set at Christmas.  If Truman Capote isn't your bag, maybe you like to read popular author, Richard Paul Evans.  The best of the several Christmas TV movies based on his books is 1995's The Christmas Box starring Richard Thomas.  And, Debbie Macomber has had several of her much beloved books made into TV movies including 2009's Mrs. Miracle, 2010's Call Me Mrs. Miracle, and 2011's Trading Christmas.

Look for all the entertaining pop culture references in this fun 2002 TV movie.

If you're looking for something more fun for the whole family, you could try 1986's The Christmas Star starring Ed Asner, 1984's The Night They Saved Christmas with Jaclyn Smith and Art Carney, and It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie from 2002. 

I feel like I've barely scratched the surface but there are plenty of titles here to explore.  If you own a copy of my encyclopedia Tis the Season TV, then you can look up any of the titles mentioned above for more information.

If you don't already know, every day I post Christmas TV listings in two places: on Twitter @TistheSeasonTV and on the facebook page Tis the Season TV.  If you're looking for more suggestions on Christmas TV movies when they begin airing in November and December, those are the two places to find it.

What Christmas TV movies do you recommend to people who ask?  Share with me in the comments below.