About Christmas TV History

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Wonder Years Christmas (1988)

I've been thinking about nostalgia quite a bit lately. When I consider nostalgia, I can't help but be reminded of The Wonder Years--a TV series that aired in the late 80s and early 90s that was set in the late 60s and early 70s. In addition to the setting, the voice-over narration by adult Kevin Arnold looking back and giving commentary on his junior high and high school experiences makes it even more nostalgic. Another layer of nostalgia creeps in when you realize this series first aired 28 years ago. It's no wonder that the Christmas episodes of this series are so moving. Let's look back once again on the second season holiday episode entitled "Christmas" from 1988.

While buying the Christmas tree, Kevin attempts to once again bring up the subject of wanting a color TV for the family.

Adult Kevin's narration tells us that this story takes place during Christmas time 1968. Kevin, his siblings Wayne and Karen, and their mother Norma are hard at work trying to convince their father that they want a color TV for Christmas. Jack says that color TVs are very expensive and reminds his family that money "doesn't grow on trees." But each member of the family takes their turn trying to nudge their father closer to getting them what they all want.

Karen, Wayne, and Kevin discuss the psychology behind convincing their father to get them what they want for Christmas.

Winnie offers Kevin a Christmas present. "Don't open it until Christmas," she requests.

In another story line, Kevin is given a small wrapped gift by his dream girl Winnie Cooper.  Surprised by the attention, Kevin wants to reciprocate the gesture. So he lies and says he has a gift for her as well. Kevin explains that he'll drop his gift off at her home later. In the meantime, Kevin spends a great deal of time trying to imagine what her gift means on the junior high romance spectrum.

Kevin and his friend Paul wage a debate in the school hallway between Christmas vs. Hanukkah--essentially quality vs. quantity as Paul puts it.

At the local department store, Kevin smells many, many perfume samples.

Kevin is intent on buying Winnie the perfect Christmas gift. At the department store, Kevin annoys the counter sales woman by requesting to smell all the different perfume samples in stock, hoping to identify Winnie's current scent. Then Paul points out the flaw in Kevin's gift idea: why give Winnie the same perfume she already owns? Kevin ends up purchasing a less-than-perfect gift he had passed over earlier--a small snowglobe with a ballerina inside.

Recognize what Christmas TV special is airing on the large bank of TVs at the department store? Yes--that's "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol."

Can Christmas be happy with three angry teenagers stuck at home? Ever notice that in this scene Wayne is wearing a Christmas stocking on his head?

On Christmas Eve, the Arnold family is feeling restless as they try to hide their disappointment. Kevin, Karen, Wayne, and Norma have given up on their dream of getting a color TV--and Jack is frustrated by not being able to afford the one gift he knows everyone wants. Norma asks if anyone would like to go caroling around the neighborhood with friends but no one is interested. Karen wants to go out on a date for the evening but her parents make her stay home. Kevin decides to slip out for a few minutes to deliver Winnie's Christmas gift.

This memorable scene has been included in numerous clip shows over the years as an example of everyone's favorite Christmas moment.

Kevin's fantasy gets the best of him.

Standing in front of her door, Kevin imagines a romantic scene in which the beautiful Winnie expresses her overwhelming gratitude for his gift. Reality awakens him when a stranger opens the Cooper family's front door.

Kevin is informed that Winnie is not home.

It turns out, a family member is housesitting while the Cooper family is out of town. Winnie and her parents left town for Christmas since this is the first holiday since her older brother Brian was killed in Vietnam. Kevin (and TV viewers) immediately sympathize with the pain and grief the Cooper family must be enduring. Kevin drops off his less-than-perfect gift and slowly returns home.

Don't think about it too long or you'll realize Mitchell's "River" wasn't released until 1971. No matter--the song captures the tone of this holiday scene and probably shouldn't be read as a song Kevin was listening to (while walking) in 1968.

Kevin dwells in the complicated emotions of knowing that he's spent the previous week worried about what Winnie's gift could mean for their future. He was only concerned about finding the perfect gift to impress her into becoming his girlfriend. And now, he feels guilty and regretful for only thinking of himself. The melancholy song "River" sung by Joni Mitchell that plays under the scene in which Kevin walks home perfectly captures the sadness of the moment.

Caroling in the neighborhood finally brings the family together on Christmas Eve.

Closer to home, Kevin finds his family caroling door-to-door in the neighborhood. He joins them in song just as it begins to rain! In keeping with traditional sitcom structure, the play against expectation (it doesn't snow this Christmas Eve) causes the Arnolds to laugh and we're rewarded with a happy ending to this story, despite the heavy emotions just moments before.

Remember what Kevin found in the box Winnie gave him for Christmas?

At the beginning of the episode, did you ever notice who plays Kevin's french teacher? It's actress Liz Torres from All in the Family and more recently the Gilmore Girls.

This episode is a powerful Christmas story that reminds us about the pain of adolescence and becoming more aware of the world around us. While I don't want to minimize this episode's impact and entertainment value, I do wish to point out a minor flaw. At the episode's start, Kevin and his family are at the local store watching a color TV set that is airing a television variety Christmas special.

Screen shot from The Wonder Years. Is it 1968--or 1969?

We're told this story takes place over Christmas 1968--however the TV set shows the 1969 Christmas installment of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour starring Campbell, Cher, Paul Lynde, and more. I suppose it really doesn't matter, but it is a detail that Christmas TV fans may notice.

Screen shot from The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour's 1969 TV special as the guests sing "Silent Night." This episode was released on DVD last year.

When you think of Christmas nostalgia, what TV episode comes to your mind?  Feel free to share your comments below.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Twilight Zone Christmas (1960)

I've spoken about this Christmas episode so many times, I sometimes overlook the fact that I haven't written about it on the blog before. But don't be mistaken--this second season episode of The Twilight Zone sits at the top of the list of my favorite Christmas episodes of all time. Even more special is that the 1960 episode "Night of the Meek" frequently tops lists made by TV critics (and fans) of the best Twilight Zone episodes ever made. Let's look again at what makes this Christmas TV episode so noteworthy.

This dirty and disheveled Santa is spending his meal break at a nearby bar.

Down-on-his-luck Henry Corwin works as a department store Santa Claus. Not only is he late returning from his lunch break but we see that he's drunk. The world-weary man isn't in a hurry to get off his bar stool and go back to work. However, when he sees two excited kiddies looking at him through the windows of the tavern, he's happy to wave at them and smile back.

We all know this disillusioned Santa--it's actor Art Carney. We've seen him in numerous Christmas episodes of The Honeymooners, as well as 1978's Star Wars Holiday Special.

In a brief exchange with the bartender, we hear Corwin explain that he drinks to excess because he's trying not to cry. Corwin is disillusioned with a modern Christmas that focuses on spending, buying, and rushing around. He remarks that he longs for the holidays that used to mean something, like inspiring hope, offering kindness, and remembering simple pleasures. In his impoverished neighborhood, he sees children that struggle for bare necessities and it breaks his heart to hear them ask for luxuries like toys and games that he knows they'll never receive.

Corwin has a soft spot for children but many adults are intolerable.

Corwin returns to work but he's too drunk--the store manager fires him. In a gut-wrenching soliloquy, Corwin explains to his boss Mr. Dundee that he drinks to excess in order to fantasize that the North Pole exists and to feel like he really is Santa Claus. All he wants is to offer hope to those in despair and ensure that the meek inherit the Earth. Corwin may be a drunk but TV viewers are on his side.

Corwin's heart is in the right place even if his frustrations in life keep him from succeeding.

Corwin is moved as he hears children ask Santa for toys as well as a job for a father and a holiday meal for the whole family. Their generosity inspires him to want to give more.

Walking the streets of his neighborhood in a grimy Santa suit, children are still filled with excitement to talk with the man of the hour. Touched by their pure hearts, Corwin makes his own Christmas wish--to be able to give everyone what they ask for.

TV viewers can hear the tinkling of the familiar carol "The First Noel" on music box chimes as we cross over into the Twilight Zone.

What a jackpot!

It is in this moment that the magic of Christmas and the wonder of the Twilight Zone meet. Stumbling down a back alley, Corwin finds a large sack filled with wrapped gifts! Joyful to have something to share with others, he grabs the bulging bag and runs out of the alley to give his gifts on Christmas Eve.

Corwin is caught up in the spirit of giving.

In a following scene, we see Corwin enter the local mission and offer to give everyone there whatever their hearts desire. As each soul steps forward and names what they would like, the bag offers up another wrapped package containing that item! One elderly man asks for a pipe and smoking jacket--and the bag produces them. Sister Florence, the head of the mission, doubts Corwin's offer of a brand new dress--but the bag supplies one upon request. The unbelievable news of the Christmas gifts is spreading around the streets and soon the police show up.

"You got a receipt for these gifts?"

Officer Flaherty questions Corwin about the expensive items he's handing out. When Corwin can't provide receipts to prove the items are paid for, the generous Santa is arrested and taken to the police station. Corwin's former boss Mr. Dundee is called into the station house to help identify the gift items which may have been stolen from the department store. But when the officer or Mr. Dundee reaches into the bag, all they find are empty tin cans. Without any evidence to hold him, Officer Flaherty lets Corwin go. Corwin continues to hand out wrapped packages and gifts the rest of the night to the people in the streets.

Mr. Dundee and Officer Flaherty can't make sense of the magical bag. It even offered up a vintage bottle of brandy when Dundee asked for one!

When the clock strikes midnight, Corwin finds his bag finally offers up its last goodies for Christmas. Exhausted and satisfied from the evening's activities, he sits down on a stoop in front of the mission. There, Corwin is joined by an old man--who earlier had asked for the pipe and smoking jacket. Corwin once again echoes his happiness in being able to give away tokens of joy this Christmas and brighten a few hearts. He only wishes he could do it again next year.

Can it be true?

In the kind of twist we have come to expect from the Twilight Zone, we see Corwin once again start into the alley nearby. Something new catches his eye--sure enough, there's a sleigh hooked up to a team of reindeer and an elf! The elf calls out to Santa and explains that they have to hurry back to the North Pole and begin preparing for next year's deliveries. Without question, Corwin gets in the sleigh with the elf and together they ride off.

Dundee and Flaherty can't believe their eyes when they see Santa and his sleigh fly overhead.

Cynicism transforms into hope...in the Twilight Zone.

This profoundly hopeful story was another written by Rod Serling himself. The story's depth of feeling is pretty remarkable considering its half hour length. The economy of storytelling and its universal message makes it as powerful today as it was more than 50 years ago when it was first broadcast. I find the story's wonderful mix of melancholy and hope to be its charm. A similar hybrid of melancholy and hope is what appeals to me as an adult to continue watching A Charlie Brown Christmas year after year.

Recognize the actor who plays Mr. Dundee? It's John Fiedler. He also played Mr. Peterson on The Bob Newhart Show for years.

"Night of the Meek" is so well known and loved that it was re-made for the new Twilight Zone series in the 1980s. The second version cast Richard Mulligan as Corwin--and the episode was directed by Martha Coolidge. Twilight Zone fans should definitely check it out. The 1985 episode still airs on TV when the new series runs in syndication.

Character actor Burt Mustin plays the old man who receives a pipe and smoking jacket for Christmas. LOVE Burt Mustin.

And, if you consider yourself a fan of Rod Serling's work, I recommend seeking out the 1965 movie Carol for Another Christmas--which usually airs on Turner Classic Movies channel each year. It's quite unusual but also profound. The Serling-written movie is an adaptation of Dickens' holiday tale that expresses the political perspective of promoting diplomacy in reaction to its Scrooge's isolationist views. It's amazing--and a one-of-a-kind installment of Cold War television.  (I've written extensively about it in both The Christmas TV Companion and Tis the Season TV).

Does this Twilight Zone episode make your top 10 list of Christmas episodes too? Tell me what you think.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Jetson Christmas Carol (1985)

When we think of Christmas animation, a long list of Rankin/Bass-produced holiday classics quickly comes to mind. However, Hanna-Barbera produced some popular Christmas animation as well. I've already written about the 1964 Christmas episode of The Flintstones. Let's recall another Hanna-Barbera cartoon family yuletide--the 1985 TV special A Jetson Christmas Carol.

Remember where George Jetson is employed? Spacely Space Sprockets. I dare you to say that 3x fast!

Just as the title indicates, this is a space-age adaptation of Charles Dickens' tale A Christmas Carol. George Jetson is asked (okay--he's commanded!) by his boss Mr. Spacely to work overtime late into the evening on Christmas Eve. Adult viewers can immediately recognize the players here. Mr. Spacely is the greedy, business-minded Ebenezer Scrooge character and George Jetson is taking on the Bob Cratchit role. George dutifully works late on Christmas Eve and then goes home to his loving family.

Poor Astro isn't feeling well.

When George comes home, he finds the rest of the Jetson family in distress. The family dog Astro had opened his Christmas gift early and began playing with the toy robot kitty. Astro was having so much fun, he inadvertently broke the toy and swallowed one of its sprockets. They've tried calling for a vet to look at Astro but it's Christmas Eve and there are no vets on duty. As Astro cries out in pain, the Jetson family worries about what to do. Yes--the family dog Astro in this story is the Tiny Tim character.

It's not a reach to see Mr. Spacely play the Ebenezer Scrooge role here.

Mr. Marsley is the space age version of Jacob Marley.

Meanwhile, Mr. Spacely is feeling good about the profits he's collected this holiday season. While he drifts asleep at the desk in his office, he's visited by the ghost of his former business partner Mr. Marsley. Marsley warns Spacely about his greedy ways and alerts him to the three ghosts who will visit later tonight. You know where this is going, right?

This Ghost of Christmas Past is an anthropomorphized viewing screen--I think!?

Spacely sees that he's been stingy with George his whole life.

Mr. Spacely is visited by a ghost who wants to show him visions of his past. The ghost takes Spacely into his past, to a moment from his childhood when his friend George Jetson was working at with him at a Lemoonade stand. Spacely was greedy and kept all the profits from their drink stand back then too.

The Ghost of Christmas Presents--get it? yeah, it's not a far leap.

Next, the second ghost shows Spacely what the Jetson family is doing in the present. He sees how George and the family are worried about Astro--who is suffering in pain. And lastly, the third ghost arrives to show Spacely a vision of the future.

The third ghost is a silent and intimidating computer.

In the future, the Jetsons may be living the life of wealth that Spacely has always wanted!

In the future, Spacely sees a lavish home--just like the one he hopes to own--but it's occupied by the Jetson family! It turns out that the Jetsons have the wealthy lifestyle that he's always wanted. How did they become so successful?

The Jetsons may be wealthy but they'd rather have their dog alive.

Spacely is disturbed to find out that the Jetsons sued him after Astro got sick from eating the broken toy manufactured by Spacely Space Sprockets. Waking up on Christmas morning, Mr. Spacely is looking to change his ways.

Someone as powerful as Mr. Spacely knows how to get a hold of a vet!

There's the problem--right THERE!

Mending his ways, Mr. Spacely brings a vet to the Jetsons home to help treat Astro right away. He also has gifts for the entire family! The Jetson family is so happy that Astro is feeling better--they sing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" to Mr. Spacely.

Jetson family: Astro, daughter Judy, George, Jane his wife, son Elroy, and Orbitty.

This is a fine introduction to Charles Dickens literary tale for children but I think most adults will find this version a bit disappointing. The story uses broad strokes which means there is very little heart. Some of this is because of the half hour length. It should be noted that this animated story was created during the second wave of Jetsons episodes in the 1980s--and not the original run of episodes, first created in the early 1960s. The attention to detail is just not there. The animated Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol entertained me as a child and it is sophisticated enough to continue to entertain me as an adult. However, A Jetson Christmas Carol lacks any subtleties for adults. Perhaps if this was your introduction to Dickens as a child, you may still have warm feelings for it.

Is there a Hanna-Barbera Christmas special you watch each year with fondness? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Good Times Christmas (1974)

Last month I wrote about the 1975 New Year's Eve episode of Good Times and I've previously shared about the 1977 episode "Penny's Christmas" and the 1978 episode "The Traveling Christmas." Since there's one more Christmas episode of the series, I decided to see it once again. Each of these Good Times holiday episodes are quite different from the others. Are you familiar with the 2nd season Christmas episode "Sometimes There's No Bottom in the Bottle?"

In this episode, the Evans family is busy preparing for Christmas. Florida is grateful because members of her family are visiting from out of town. Aunt Millie and Uncle Oscar have brought their daughter Naomi. Although the cousins don't know each other well, Michael, Thelma, and J.J. notice that Naomi is a bit strange. Not only does Naomi spend most of her time in the bathroom but the Evanses have noticed that she laughs at everything.

Even J.J. knows his jokes aren't THAT funny.
It's been three years since Thelma has seen her cousin and she promises to be more friendly to Naomi--if she stops spending so much time in the bathroom.

Teenage alcoholism rears its ugly head over the holidays.

What TV viewers see is that Naomi is hiding in the bathroom so she can finishe off a bottle of whiskey. Although Naomi claims to be enjoying a relaxing steam bath, she's really numbing herself with alcohol. Soon enough, members of the Evans family begin seeing the clues.

Florida reminds James that they have food, their health, and family this year for Christmas--even if he doesn't get a Christmas bonus.

In the meantime, James is anxious about his Christmas bonus at work this year. Last year, he didn't receive a bonus, and this year he's not sure what to expect. When he returns from the car wash Christmas party, he's carrying a new bottle of liquor and a check!

Thelma's experiences in the inner city have shown her this troublesome behavior before.

Eventually, Thelma catches Naomi stealing booze from a kitchen cabinet--and she confronts her cousin's drinking. Thelma is worried about Naomi's lack of concern for her behavior. Thelma tries to offer her cousin some words of advice but Naomi isn't listening.

This vodka tastes watered down!

Later when James, Florida, and Willona decide to drink a toast to the merry holidays, they notice the bottle of vodka in the kitchen cabinet tastes watered down. They know someone has tampered with it but they aren't sure who to suspect. They ask J.J. if he has been drinking and he reinforces what they already know--he doesn't like to drink. Thelma decides to keep her mouth shut about what she knows.

If it's not J.J.--then who is it?

It's time for Christmas dinner.

Naomi's parents Aunt Millie and Uncle Oscar finally return to the apartment after visiting friends around Chicago. The family gathers together around the dinner table to share the Christmas meal. Uncle Oscar offers to make a toast to celebrate the holidays with family--even offering to pour a little wine for the children at the table to toast.

Uncle Oscar is an advocate for responsible drinking.

James and Florida don't want alcohol offered to their children for a toast but Oscar insists that a little bit of wine with a meal won't do any harm. He points to the example set by his own daughter Naomi--who has enjoyed alcohol in the past. Unfortunately, it is at that moment that Naomi stands up to agree with her father and she collapses.

Don't secrets like this always seem to come out during the holidays?

Thelma explains that Naomi has passed out from drinking all day long. Sick with worry, Uncle Oscar expresses relief that his daughter is only drunk--he feared she may be doing drugs! The Evans family expresses concern for Naomi--and the episode ends without any judgement for Naomi (or her father Oscar).

On Christmas morning, each member of the family shares what they hope for the others.

Although it seems like the episode ends abruptly, Naomi's dangerous behavior and Oscar's ignorance continue to resonate while the credits roll. If you grew up watching 1980s sitcoms, you may expect television stories about teenage alcoholism to include not only moral judgement from the other characters but also solutions provided to viewers who may be struggling with similar problems. However, Good Times was created at an earlier time in television when identifying social problems was still considered cutting edge. After all these years, I'm still struck by the powerful force of this episode because it doesn't end with any quick fixes or an inevitable happy ending for Naomi. Don't secrets like Naomi's always seem to come out during the holidays?

Which of the four holiday episodes of Good Times is your favorite? Feel free to share your comments in the section below.