About Christmas TV History

Thursday, January 8, 2015

BJ and the Bear Christmas (1979)

One of the participants from last summer's Christmas in July blogathon recently spoke to me about sharing his passion and sense of humor for the Christmas episode of the unforgettable TV series BJ and the Bear. Please welcome Dan as today's guest blogger. Daniel Budnik writes about all sorts of things. He is co-author of Bleeding Skull: A 1980s Trash Horror Odyssey. Many of his movie reviews are up on BleedingSkull.com. He is currently at work on a book tentatively titled Low Budget Action Films of the 1980s. He is also working on a murder mystery, which is fun to think about but tough to plot. At the moment, he isn't on social media but that will be rectified soon. He'll keep you posted.

Has anyone seen B.J’s rig? It’s big and red and has a chimp inside.

BJ & The Bear
“Silent Night, Unholy Night”
Original Airdate: December 15, 1979

Tom Spencer (Ted Danson) is an attorney who has been collecting incriminating information in a diary on a corrupt Sheriff named McCandles (Dana Eclar). Right before Christmas, McCandles finds out about the diary and sends some men to search Spencer’s office and his home. Tom contacts his wife Alison (Pamela Susan Shoop) and asks here to bring the diary from their home to the Federal building downtown and pick up their two kids on the way. Ali is nine months pregnant and almost set to give birth. But, she says sure. Christmas at the Federal building might be fun. McCandles sends his men after Ali and he will do whatever he has to in order to protect his name.

Attorney Tom Spencer is played by actor Ted Danson.

The face of a woman who just realized that Ted Danson is on the other end of the line.

Meanwhile, ex-Vietnam vet, stalwart truck driver and Hunk of the Long Haul, B.J. McKay (Greg Evigan) and his chimp named Bear are hauling a load of turkeys. If the viewer knows the mechanics of an episode of BJ & The Bear, they know that sooner, rather than later, B.J. and Ali will meet up and go head-to-head with McCandles. But, it’s Christmastime, so maybe B.J. can call in a special friend? And, it being Christmastime, B.J. just might have to help birth a baby in his truck.

Stay calm, ladies. The gentlemen have arrived.

On October 4, 1978, a 2-hour TV movie premiered on NBC called BJ & The Bear: The Foundlings. It introduced America to the truck driving, chimp filled world of hunky hero and ladies’ man B.J. McKay. It also introduced B.J.’s nemesis, super-redneck Sheriff Lobo (Claude Akins.) The movie was a Glen A. Larson production and no one seemed to know the psyche of the American public around that time better than the recently deceased Mr. Larson. He was two months ahead of Every Which Way But Loose, which featured truck driving Clint Eastwood and an orangutan. And, he was three months ahead of the premiere of The Dukes of Hazzard, when redneck sheriffs would become all the rage. Obviously, there was nothing B.J. and his best friend Bear could do but become huge hits.  In February of 1979, the first season began. Then, the show returned for a full season in September of 1979. 21 glorious episodes, including "Silent Night, Unholy Night." An episode that follows the formula that the show had established with one big difference.

Bear frees captive turkeys! Film at 11!

The basic formula of BJ & The Bear is this: B.J. and Bear are out and about, trucking. They live in the truck. It is their home and their livelihood. They meet up with someone in distress (or are dragged into a situation) and save the day. Usually, the person in distress is a lovely young lady and B.J. gets a little smooch time with her. I always wonder, when I watch the show, if this is a program about a trucker who helps people out because he’s a hero or a trucker who likes the ladies so much he’ll help them out for a few smooches and some squeezing. I never can tell. “Silent Night, Unholy Night” however, falls squarely into the latter camp. When B.J. meets Ali, it is not a cute moment. She is nervous. She tries to pass a car on the highway and almost hits B.J. Her car bursts into flames and B.J. rescues her.

Post-auto explosion, pre-sweet Christmas friendship.

At first, B.J. is obviously charmed by this woman but in a different way than the other ladies in the show. (Heck, there is a flashback episode called “B.J. Sweethearts” which is clips from previous episodes showing him romancing ladies.) Ali has a husband, two kids and a third on the way. B.J. wants to help her get to her kids (who are at a school party.) Unfortunately, the McCandles’ problem is building. He knows B.J. has Ali. The cops begin to mass up on the big red truck and the people (and chimp) inside.

If you can’t find time to sing kids some carols while saving the day, you’re not much of a hero.

 Even though the tension is mounting and the slightly unhinged McCandles is approaching--even though the sun has gone down and it is starting to snow--B.J. has time to sing “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire)” to the kids at the party. After that, when Ali’s kids are made safe, the chase is on. And, yes Virginia, B.J. does drive through a police roadblock causing huge explosions in the cold, cold night. But, it’s necessary. They’re on their way to visit a friend of B.J.’s who can help.

No one threw a Christmas party like Glen A. Larson and B.J. McKay.

Captain Cain, played by the late Ed Lauter, is that friend. Cain is a very by-the-books mega-stern police officer. He had appeared in three previous episodes of the show (including several episodes of the spinoff The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo.) Cain agrees to help Ali and B.J. But, McCandles is crazier than anyone thought. And a final chase ensues, ending in--SPOILER ALERT--Ali giving birth in the back of B.J.’s cab. Suffice it to say, everything turns out OK. And, although the episode has all the chasing and shooting and fighting of normal episodes, this one has priorities elsewhere.

Santa Cain!

“Silent Night, Unholy Night” seems far more interested in Ali and B.J. and their relationship together then in all the action. McCandles is a presence in the episode. But, much of the time he is represented by police cars in the darkness lurking around. McCandles and his cronies are used in the same way that the Navy boat (captained by Ed Lauter) in the Magnum P.I. episode “Operation: Silent Night” was used.  They add tension to a story that, if it wasn’t there would be, basically, B.J. drives a pregnant lady to a school, picks up her kids and then takes her to her husband, Ted Danson. (McCandles isn’t even part of the climax, which is the birth.)

Sheriff McCandles. His name is almost Christmassy.

One of the joys of the episode is that, in and amongst this chaos and Christmas chicanery, it’s obvious that B.J. is crazy about Ali. (And she might be crazy for him.) But, unlike all the other episodes with all the other ladies, Ali is not about to leave Ted Danson. We see these big smiles on their faces as they talk to each other. But, there’s no intimation of romance. It’s just two strangers thrown into a dangerous situation who have become platonically infatuated with each other. And it’s cool. The look on Greg Evigan’s face when he tells a police officer that he just delivered a baby is priceless. The falling snow makes it even better. It is this element of the episode that lends to its conclusion being semi-bittersweet.

B.J. McKay, Amateur Gynecologist. Service with a smile.

A moment of BJ & The Bear background: in Season 1, it was B.J. and Bear. Lobo and his cronies crop up three times (especially in the backdoor pilot episode “Lobo”). But, it’s mainly B.J. and his chimp pal. In Season 2, they introduce (at least for about half the season) the truck stop Country Comfort. The truck stop has a group of regulars at it (including Andre the Giant and Janet Julian). It kind of gives B.J. a home. (Although, if he travels the country and lives in his truck, one would think he wouldn’t get there often.) The beginning and ending of “Silent Night, Unholy Night” takes place in Country Comfort. At the start, it’s a tree trimming contest. In the end, it’s the annual Christmas party.

Bittersweet endings at the Christmas Party.

So, the final sequence in this episode involves B.J. arriving with Bear at the Christmas party. They’ve been through hell and back but they’re ready to party and people there love them. But, then Ali arrives. And B.J.’s face lights up. But, she can’t stay. Obviously. She just gave birth to her third child and Ted Danson is waiting. But, they say goodbye and it’s very sweet, feels very genuine. The episode ends with a melancholy B.J. walking into the festive Christmas party. It’s a sort of flip on Dr. Banner leaving a person he’s befriended on The Incredible Hulk and heading off down the street. Normally, B.J. is either with the gal or leaves the gal in a state of McKay-induced bliss. This ending is a melancholy twist that fits the tone of the episode. One could watch “Silent Night, Unholy Night,” almost a midpoint in the show’s run episode-wise, to see what BJ & the Bear did well when it was at its best.

B.J. may have lost Ali but Janet Julian is in that party somewhere.

My relationship with this show is complicated. I did watch it when I was young. But, I was very young, maybe 7 or 8. So, my tastes were not the best. Three years ago, I acquired copies of the episodes and watched the show all the way through. And, even though some of it is kind of dumb, some of it can be mediocre, some of it is repetitive and the music can drive one to drink, it works. Part of it is The Power of Mr. Evigan. He’s a charmer who plays the part of the hero well. Bear is fine too. But, the show has an innate Goodness to it. Much of which comes from the main TV Drama Law from back in the day, which is that no matter how bad it gets, by the end, things will be OK. It’s something to shoot for in your average day, I think.

In the past three years, I have watched the series through 4 times. (I sometimes watch it as I work.) It’s not a guilty pleasure because I don’t believe in those. Life is short and there’s a lot of work to do. Fill up your down time with things you love. A guilty pleasure is something you do when you should be doing something else. And it’s not Comfort TV. I would guess that The Brady Bunch is the only thing I watch that I would call Comfort TV. I can put that on in the background and read or listen to music or whatever--seeing the Brady family on TV brings me comfort. BJ & The Bear is more than that to me. Unfortunately, what it is precisely, I haven’t figured out yet. I do know that this Christmas episode is excellent. A good hour of TV and an excellent representation of the show with some nice twists. I wish I was at the Country Comfort Christmas party scrapping with Andre the Giant, having a martini with Bear and talking to Janet Julian. Thanks, Glen and Greg and Bear.

The heart of the episode. The joy of Christmas.


  1. Luv this!

    I haven't seen B.J. and the Bear in eons, but this really makes me think I should revisit it. I don't recall Janet Julian but I thought Judy Landers showed up in there at some point. Either way, it's a win.

    I am curious, since we've got a birth on Christmas (or near Christmas) and some other semi-overt holiday tones, who is B.J. in the scheme of holiday parables? Is he one of the wise men? I mean, even with the Bear, there are only two... Hmmm... maybe Cain (or the truck) make it three?

    I also agree with what you say about "Guilty Pleasures." That term implies that you should be ashamed to like something, but if you like it, just own it and enjoy it! It's not so hard, really.

    P.S. I met Pamela Susan Shoop many years ago at a convention. I remember I mostly asked about Empire of the Ants. She was a very nice lady.

  2. Amanda,

    Thanks for the comments. My question is: What character would Ted Danson be in all this? Could it be perhaps.... the Holy Spirit? I need to take a college course on TV so I can write an essay on this episode and get graded on it.

    Oh, Monty... Thanks for the offer. But, I'm OK with Mumbai Escorts this year... Merry Mumbai Christmas!

    Oh... I started on Twitter again. My handle is Daniel R. Budnik @dannyslacks1.

  3. Is there anywhere to watch Bj and the bear? I'm only 39 so I am just now finding it. I found a couple on YouTube in English but the rest I found were in another language. Do you know if there's anywhere I can find Greg Evigan singing chestnuts roasting on an open fire.