About Christmas TV History

Monday, February 23, 2015

Moonlighting Christmas (1985)

This review is part of the Classic TV Detectives Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog AssociationClick HERE to check out this blogathon's complete schedule.  Today is Day #1 during the three-day event.  Please be sure to check out all the other participating blog posts.  A show of your support for these blogathons can be demonstrated by leaving a comment here and at the other participating blogs.  Thanks!

As a Christmas entertainment writer (and blogger), the focus on my subject matter is typically limited to individual episodes, TV specials, and movies.  Some TV series create several Christmas episodes during the run of the show--some series create none.  One of my disappointments occurs when a much-beloved series or even a critically-acclaimed series makes a mediocre (or worse) Christmas episode.  However that's not the situation with the 1985 Christmas episode of Moonlighting.  Not only is "Twas the Episode Before Christmas" an extraordinary holiday story but the episode is as good as any other in the innovative series.

Several days before Christmas, Miss DiPesto is busy doing her laundry and singing along to The Crystals' "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" from the classic 1960s Phil Spector Christmas album.

Indulge me while I review the episode's plot.  The Blue Moon Detective Agency's quirky secretary, Miss Agnes DiPesto (played by Allyce Beasley), unexpectedly finds herself in the care of an abandoned baby.  Leaving her apartment door ajar while she strolls down the hall to do her laundry, Miss DiPesto returns to find a surprise waiting for her.  What she doesn't know is that a neighbor upstairs in her apartment building has been murdered.  Joseph was in the witness protection program after he testified against a dangerous racketeer.  Now that Joseph has been located by the thugs, his murder has been made to look like a suicide.  And, Joseph's wife has escaped the apartment with their baby.  Running for her life, the wife has left her baby in Miss DiPesto's open apartment hoping the baby's anonymity will help to save his life.  Miss DiPesto brings the baby into work with her the next day and Maddie and David set out to investigate who has abandoned this adorable baby.

Maddie & David.  Despite the constant bickering, viewers just want them to get together.

Of course, the detective series Moonlighting was never really about the cases or the investigations.  The plot was always secondary to the relationships, especially between detectives David Addison and Maddie Hayes, played by Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd.  The rapid-fire banter between them should remind you of Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in the 1940 movie His Girl Friday--as should the sexual tension.  The defining characteristics of this TV series include self-reflection--the characters never seem to forget that they are starring in a TV series--and an overload of dialogue filled with pop culture references, jokes, misdirections, aside comments, and yes--resistance to the inevitable romance.  So the joy in watching Moonlighting is always in the details and not really the plot.

Smirky David Addison (Willis) is running a 1-900 telephone business out of the offices at Blue Moon.  He's turned the holiday season into a commercial enterprise with a Santa Claus hotline, much to the dismay of his partner Maddie.

Miss DiPesto is able to convince Maddie that sharing Christmas with a baby helps one to forget all the bad stuff happening in the world.

The conceit of the plot is that Hayes and Addison's investigation reveals that the elements of the original Christmas story are present here as well.  The three agents from the Department of Justice all share the same surname of King.  Joseph's wife's name is Mary and their focus this Christmas is on a baby.  And when Miss DiPesto and the baby go missing, David is inclined to look for a star in the Christmas Eve sky to locate them.  David is convinced he's trapped in an allegory!

Agents Reuben King, Jim King, and Saul King.  The three Kings from the Dept. of Justice.

In this Christmas story, Joseph's wife is named Mary.  Addison's allegory complex is further triggered when Mary offers him a Camel cigarette, completing the Middle Eastern reference.

The running gag is made funnier when no one besides David seems to recognize or place any weight on the details adding up to the familiar Nativity story.  Recreating familiar elements from the first Christmas story has been overdone before on television shows but here it is played for the lightweight gag that it is.  And since it matters to no one except David, the joke is stretched even farther.  These plot points take place within an episode that has other strong ties as well--David and Maddie share not one but at least three solid scenes of their bantering, and Maddie fears Mary may be her husband's murderer for much of the episode helps to balance the episode's story throughout the hour.

David Addison ends up coming down a chimney dressed as Santa Claus to confront and confuse the bad guys at the end.

Another fun detail is that the dangerous bad guy Leonard is played by comedian/actor Richard Belzer.

For me, the highlight of this already strong episode occurs in the last five minutes of the episode.  David finally thinks he's put all the elements together from this story--it must be the Christmas episode!--except there's no snow.  Just then snow begins to fall on Maddie and David in the agency offices and they hear people singing. 

Where's the celebrating coming from?
Following the sound of voices' caroling, David and Maddie push through the agency's doors and exit the room.  They walk behind set walls, camera equipment, lighting stands, etc. to find an open sound stage full of the Moonlighting cast, crew, staff, and their families singing "The First Noel."  As many as perhaps one hundred voices are raised in celebration as fake fluffy snow continues to fall on all the participants and the camera raises on a crane to capture it all.  For four minutes, we watch the group sing several verses of the poignant Christmas song. 

"...Noel, noel, noel, noel.  Born is the King of Israel..."

TV viewers get a behind-the-camera glimpse at a more intimate yet self-reflexive Christmas greeting from those who help create their holiday entertainment.  The stars of the show join the carolers and the camera continues to pan the crowd of singers as the children can’t help but begin to play in the snow as it piles in their hair and gathers on the floor around them.

Most of the children in the group seem to be having fun.

The camera even finds someone in the crowd who brought their four-legged member of the family!

If you’re fortunate enough to watch this episode on the second season DVD, you can also listen to the commentary track with actress Allyce Beasley (Agnes DiPesto), episode director Peter Werner, and producer Jay Daniel identifying their own family members and some of the other cast and crew appearing on camera in the crowd.

In the end, Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd give their greetings and wave, "Merry Christmas, everybody!"

This musical Christmas moment is a very personal touch of the holiday spirit from a large group of people.  It’s so touching, I’m surprised this hasn’t been repeated by other TV series’ casts and crews in the years since.  While other series have memorably broken the fourth wall to express their holiday greetings, this one is certainly the most elaborate and the most memorable.

I know the 1955 Christmas episode of The Honeymooners includes a scene at the end when the cast breaks the fourth wall to talk to the audience and express their Christmas greetings.  So do Christmas installments of The Beverly Hillbillies, Full House, Family Matters, Home Improvement, and many more.  Do you have a favorite example?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Boondocks Christmas (2005)

I enjoy honoring Black History Month (BHM) on my blog because there are so many excellent Christmas episodes, specials and TV movies with exceptional African-American cast members.  There are also many outstanding and touching Christmas TV story lines aimed at black audiences.  This month I'm highlighting just a few of my favorites.

The TV series The Boondocks is a provocative, thoughtful animated series based on the comic strip by Aaron McGruder.  The series was created for Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network, intended for more mature audiences.  But you know that--you've seen it before, right?  Let me remind you about the absorbing 2005 holiday episode, "A Huey Freeman Christmas."

Huey knows his values are not readily accepted by the mainstream--even his views on Christmas.

Huey is invited by his culturally sensitive teacher Mr. Uberwitz to direct the school's Christmas play.  Looking to protect his artistic vision, Huey insists that he have complete creative control over the project.

Mr. Uberwitz meets the show's co-producer, Quincy Jones.

Huey takes the project very seriously and sets up a production team worthy of Hollywood.  He even brings in Quincy Jones as his co-producer.  (Yes--it's the real Quincy Jones who voices the character here!)  After finding his classmates goofing off during rehearsal time, Huey fires them and begins casting A-list Hollywood stars for the roles.

The casting process--what about Will Smith? Is he available?

Although Mr. Uberwitz is worried about the cost of hiring Denzel Washington for the role of the third wise man and Angela Bassett as Mary, Huey reminds his teacher that he has complete creative control.  Huey is also convinced that his play "The Adventures of Black Jesus" will revolutionize elementary school productions for all time.

The Santa Stalker strikes!

Uncle Ruckus explains to Riley that the real Santa isn't going to return to fix his mistake as long as he's under the threat of violence.  That makes sense.

This episode also contains two minor story lines.  Huey's brother Riley is seeking violent revenge against the mall's Santa Claus.  Calling himself the Santa Stalker, Riley wants justice for a previous transgression when Santa didn't bring him what he asked for at Christmas.  The physical assaults on the mall's Santa become so disruptive that Uncle Ruckus is hired to replace Santa Claus.

In a wonderful bit of satire, Jazmine voices her worship of the all-powerful, loving Santa Claus from the pulpit at church.

And, Jazmine has adorably confused the holiday role of Jesus with Santa Claus as she embraces "the reason for the season" this Christmas.  In church, Jazmine recites the lyrics from the song "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" as a sacred list of Santa's powers.  One of my favorite lines in this satirical episode is Jazmine's warning "Beware of false Santas"--a biblical sounding quote to alert Riley that Uncle Ruckus is now working as the mall's Santa Claus.

Huey spends many late nights writing his play and long hours during the day rehearsing, blocking, and staging his theater masterpiece.

Back to Huey's play.  The production of "The Adventures of Black Jesus" seems to be going well as Huey finely crafts his unique vision for the stage.  The PTA however has threatened a boycott since all the school children were fired.  Then, Huey is called in to speak with the principal.  In the horrible double-speak known to show business, the principal claims to love everything about the production yet he has just a few notes about changes.  When Huey is told that his play can't depict a black Jesus, he once again demands complete creative control over the production.  This time however, the principal tears up Huey's written contract.  Huey appeals to his co-producer, Quincy Jones who disappointingly explains that these things happen in show business.  The uncompromising Huey Freeman decides to walk away from his production, leaving it up to Mr. Uberwitz to decide to make the changes himself or cancel the show.

Curious about what happens to Huey's production?  You'll have to watch the episode to see for yourself.

What I love about this Christmas episode is that it is wholly original while it also tips its hat to Christmas TV's past.   The uncompromising Huey Freeman has a message he wants to express in this stage production that he labors to see come to life.  His message is about the misunderstood origins of Christmas as well as racial identity.  Both are serious topics to be taken up by such a young man, especially one in an animated series.

Children dancing instead of rehearsing the Christmas play?  Where have I seen that before?

He's no Charlie Brown!
At the same time, the story is told with constant reminders of another, more familiar animated TV special about another Christmas play director--yes, A Charlie Brown Christmas.  In "A Huey Freeman Christmas" --see even the title points back to the classic!--we hear piano music in the background playing "O Christmas Tree," his grandfather explains that Linus' dialogue in the Peanuts TV special is the true meaning of Christmas, Huey's classmates dance instead of rehearsing the play, Huey even has a bad attitude about what others' say he should be feeling at Christmas.  While all these references evoke the original 1965 animated TV special, in one scene Huey goes so far as to scream, "Do I look like Charlie Brown?"  Message received.  This Christmas episode of The Boondocks is both paying homage to everyone's favorite animated special while it also uses it to juxtapose the wishy-washy Charlie Brown against the uncompromising, strong Huey Freeman.  I love its originality.  Huey's stage production and this Christmas episode both acknowledge the past while creating an updated, provocative story for contemporary audiences.  I love it when Christmas entertainment is smart as well as emotionally satisfying.  Is this Christmas episode of The Boondocks on your annual must-see list?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Everybody Hates Chris (2008) New Year's Eve

I enjoy honoring Black History Month (BHM) on my blog because there are so many excellent holiday episodes, specials and TV movies with exceptional African-American cast members.  There are also many outstanding and touching holiday TV story lines aimed at black audiences.  This month I'm highlighting just a few of my favorites.

Chris Rock's narration helps to give each episode its consistent tone, sass, and humor.
The sitcom Everybody Hates Chris may have been created a decade ago, however it often feels older since the stories all take place in the 1980s.  I've already written about the 2005 episode "Everybody Hates Christmas" and the 2007 episode "Everybody Hates Kwanzaa."  Today I'd like to share about another holiday episode from the series, the 2008 episode "Everybody Hates New Year's Eve" from the fourth season.

Doc warns Chris that the only people in Times Square on New Year's Eve are "drunks and pickpockets."  Recognize Antonio Fargas--the actor who plays Doc?  He also played Huggy Bear on the 70s cop show Starsky & Hutch.

If you'll remember, Chris wants to spend New Year's Eve 1986 (into 1987) in crowded Times Square watching the ball drop.  His mom gives her consent that he may go as long as he has a responsible adult with him.  She can't take him because she's spending the evening as she does each year--prepping the apartment's windows against New Year's festivities from the street, and cooking the New Year's Day meal.

Julius confronts the jumper with the logic that a bad day or a failure is not reason enough to commit suicide. 

Chris' father Julius can't take him to Times Square because he's stuck in traffic trying to get home.  It turns out there's a jumper on the George Washington Bridge and that's why traffic is halted.  Julius takes matters in his own hands by getting out of his truck and talking the jumper down from his ledge!  Chris' family learns about Julius's feat when they see him interviewed as a hero on the TV news.  As the hero of the day, Julius will be kept busy the rest of the evening fulfilling TV interviews and receiving awards from the mayor.

Even Mr. Omar can't take Chris to Times Square.  "It's TRAGIC!"  I love Mr. Omar--this character is played by actor Ernest Thomas who also played Raj on the 70s sitcom What's Happening!!

Chris asks everyone he knows if they will take him to Times Square but no one is available or willing.  That is, until Chris learns that Tasha is going with her mother, Peaches, and Peaches' boyfriend Malvo.  If you regularly watch this series, you know what a dilemma this poses for Chris.  Peaches is not exactly a responsible adult.

Peaches is rude, vulgar, and an ex-convict.

Chris' mom Rochelle doesn't trust Peaches--with very good reason.

Tasha is the prettiest girl in Chris' neighborhood but she is burdened with a mother that is on parole.  Hilariously, Peaches doesn't understand why Chris' mother doesn't trust her or questions her judgement.  Making matters worse, Peaches' boyfriend Malvo is the other adult willing to escort Chris to Times Square--he's also an ex-con.  I love the confrontations between Peaches and Chris' mom Rochelle--these roles are played by actors Tisha Campbell-Martin and Tichina Arnold who also played best friends Gina and Pam on the 1990s sitcom Martin.  These two women are always funny together as best friends on Martin and as antagonists on Everybody Hates Chris.

Tonya makes a wager with her brother that she can stay awake late into the night on New Year's Eve.

Meanwhile, Chris' siblings Drew and Tonya have their own minor story line.  Tonya wants to stay awake until midnight and watch the pop music group The Jets perform on the Rockin' New Year's Eve TV program.  Drew bets Tonya that she can't stay awake all night and she challenges Drew to stay awake as long as she does.  To ensure her victory in the bet, young Tonya eats instant coffee crystals and ends up bouncing with energy all night long.  Drew falls asleep on the couch.

Happy 1987!

Eventually Chris' mom lets him go to Times Square with Tasha, Peaches and Malvo.  When they arrive, the police attempt to keep the Bed-Stuy group from entering Times Square because the crowds are already at capacity.  However, Malvo and Peaches distract the police and the group circumvents the restrictions.  In the end, Chris finds renewed hope in the new year when he gets to share a kiss with Tasha at midnight at the biggest party of the year, in Times Square.

At midnight, the rest of the family hit the floor to avoid being sprayed by bullets and broken window glass from revelers on the street.

Chris should have known that his evening with Peaches and Malvo would bring disappointment in the end.

But the evening isn't all a success.  When Chris arrives home, he finds his pocket has been picked!  He's lost the $20 his mother gave him to fulfill the superstition that the first man to enter a household will bring good luck and fortune with him if he has money in his pocket.  After this disappointment, Chris learns that it was Malvo who stole his wallet--so he could be the man with money in his pocket to bring good luck and fortune to Peaches' home!  Do you have superstitions about the New Year?

Tyler James Williams is currently working on The Walking Dead.

 Actor Vincent Martella who plays Greg on Everybody Hates Chris was also on The Walking Dead.  He was in the prison-set episodes--remember him?
The actor Tyler James Williams who plays Chris in this series is currently on the series The Walking Dead as Noah.  If you watch the series, you know that Noah is a friend to Beth during the fifth season when they meet in the hospital.  It's great to see Williams on this hit new show--he even has a significant role.  I'm still waiting for a Christmas episode on The Walking Dead--how dark would that be? 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Jeffersons Christmas (1978)

I enjoy honoring Black History Month (BHM) on my blog because there are so many excellent Christmas episodes, specials and TV movies with exceptional African-American cast members.  There are also many outstanding and touching Christmas TV story lines aimed at black audiences.  This month I'm highlighting just a few of my favorites.

This spin-off series was on the air for 11 seasons, 1975-1985.

A couple years ago, I shared about the 1977 Christmas episode of The Jeffersons--not only one of my all-time favorite holiday episodes but also one of my favorites of the entire series.  Since then, several of my regular readers have commented about how much they love the 1978 Christmas episode too.  So I thought it might be fun to re-visit it and consider its strengths.

George is excited about who he bumped into on the street--Uncle  Buddy.

The fifth season's "George Finds a Father" has such an emotional story, it may be easy for some to forget that it takes place at Christmas time.  In this episode, George Jefferson returns home excited, eager to share with his wife Louise that he has invited a special guest for dinner tomorrow night.  He explains that a street corner Santa Claus revealed himself to be Uncle Buddy--the man who practically raised him.

Buddy was a father-figure to him after his father died--and an important friend of the family when they needed one most.
A best friend to George's father, Buddy had taken care of Mother Jefferson and kept George out of trouble after his father died.  Not having seen him in nearly forty years (Buddy had left to join the army just after the attack on Pearl Harbor), George has invited Buddy and his friend Zeke to come for a dinner.  Having heard story after story about Uncle Buddy over the years, Louise is eager to finally meet the man.  Louise also reminds George that they have already invited Helen and Tom Willis and Mr. Bentley for dinner in order to practice their caroling.  The group has plans to sing at the local children's hospital this holiday season.

Uncle Buddy and George begin reminiscing.  Buddy even states that those times were the best years of his life.

After Uncle Buddy arrives, he and George begin sharing wonderful stories from George's childhood.  The reunion is a powerful one for both men.  The Willises arrive and so does Mr. Bentley.  Before dinner is served, the group begins chorus rehearsal, hoping Uncle Buddy and his friend Zeke will enjoy the entertainment too.

There's a running gag in this episode.  As guests drop by the Jeffersons' apartment, Florence offers each one a Christmas cookie.  We see each guest's reaction as they taste the potent rum balls and choose to not finish it.

Zeke reveals a family secret even George doesn't know.

As Louise offers Zeke a cocktail, Zeke innocently remarks that he's surprised that Buddy and Mother Jefferson never married.  Louise comes to understand that Buddy and Mother Jefferson had been lovers all those years ago.  Anticipating that it will break George's heart, she sets out to avoid telling her husband while guests are in the house.

Louise insist they continue choir rehearsal but George wants to talk!

So George hurriedly sings all the verses to "The Twelve Days of Christmas" by himself to end the song!

But George knows Louise is hiding something from him and he sets out to get her to reveal the secret.  As the group rehearses the traditional song "The Twelve Days of Christmas," George is too distracted to sing his part.  In a moment of levity during a heavy scene, George decides to sing the entire song's twelve verses all by himself just to end the song and demand Louise's full attention.  George eventually discovers the truth and confronts Uncle Buddy in the kitchen while he carves the turkey.

George is devastated to learn that Buddy had been more than an altruistic family friend.

Buddy slaps George for disrespecting his mother--and sets him straight.

George angrily asks Buddy how he could betray his best friend (George's father) by taking advantage of his widow.  Although Mother Jefferson has since died, George expresses disappointment in his mother's lapse in morality--and Buddy slaps George's face!  Buddy tries to explain that the death of George's father was devastating to both of them.  Buddy had asked Mother Jefferson to marry him but she refused.  And Buddy makes it clear to George that he loved him as a child--it had never been an act in order to seduce a little boy's mother.  However, George is so upset by this emotional reveal about his childhood that Buddy feels unwelcome and he sets out to leave. 

George is able to stop Buddy before he storms out.

Yes, the group has been singing their Christmas carols in the background the entire time!  We hear them sing both "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "Silent Night" during the emotional confrontation.  Buddy exits the kitchen and heads towards the front door, grabbing Zeke to make their exit.  George follows him and rather than hurl more judgement and anger, George asks Buddy to stay for dinner.  It's a touching moment--fans of The Jeffersons know how stubborn George can be.  But this time, the dry cleaner has decided to get over his hurt feelings, hold his dear friend close and attempt a mature, compassionate understanding of his mother's grief and bonding.

In the end, everyone joins in singing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" together.

If you think about it, we all may have experienced something similar--although perhaps not as dramatic.  Christmas time is often the time when adults reunite and share memories of the past.  Haven't you ever learned a family secret--or at least discovered something new about events from the past that you were too young to appreciate at the time?  I know I have.  I think that's what makes this Christmas TV episode a little better than some others.  It taps into a common experience at the yuletide.  With a bit of comedy around the edges, the story fleshes out some of the depths of George's feelings of betrayal.  I'm glad George finds the strength to not only forgive his Uncle Buddy but also to renew their friendship.  I'm a sucker for a happy ending at Christmas. 

Uncle Buddy is played by character actor Arnold Johnson.

This episode's guest cast may seem familiar to TV junkies.  Actor Arnold Johnson who plays Buddy was also frequent actor on Sanford and Son as the character Hutch.  Johnson also is the featured character in the 1975 New Year's Eve episode of Good Times entitled "A Place to Die."  The role of Zeke in this Jeffersons Christmas episode is character actor Raymond Allen.  He too appeared on Sanford and Son--as Aunt Esther's husband Woody--and on Good Times as Ned the wino.  And, Ja'net DuBois who sings "Movin' On Up," the theme song to The Jeffersons, also plays Willona on Good Times--but you knew that, right?