Critic’s notebook: New Christmas specials (and other holiday potpourri)

By | December 22, 2022

O TV set, O TV set, how many are thy channels — and stuffed like Santa’s bag with holiday treats. Here we are, past the winter solstice, with the Big Day imminent, and there are still Christmas and Christmassy programs we have yet to discuss — each adding to the accumulating mass of specials past, good, bad, indifferent, but each, like a worn toy rabbit, undoubtedly loved by someone. Indeed, these waning days of the calendar, marked by anticipation and exhaustion, may be the most crucial of all for what such programs bring.

So let’s discuss.

Dolly Parton, the Christmas spirit in human form, has been a regular creator of yuletide specials. Her latest is “Dolly Parton’s Mountain Magic Christmas,” now streaming on Peacock. Filmed at Dollywood, the singer’s personal Disneyland, the show takes as its narrative the creation of the show — it’s a backstage musical, featuring Tom Everett Scott as her producer and Ana Gasteyer as a studio executive, not without conflict. Dolly — who at 76 is in fine voice and fettle — wants to bring something authentic to her experience, while the suits want something even splashier than the splash she makes just by walking into a room. (The marriage of the authentic and the splashy is her brand: note bejeweled banjo.) Guests include Willie Nelson, who arrives in a spray of fairy dust to duet on his own “Pretty Paper,” Jimmy Fallon and the Cyruses (Billy Ray and Miley).

The script is ham-handed in a way that might almost be called old-fashioned and that makes almost no practical sense, but it is sincere and finds room to promote childhood literacy, a subject dear to Parton’s heart. It doesn’t break the fourth wall so much as ignore it; when Parton has something important to say, she just speaks right to the screen — of her “very special” grand-nephew, a minor character in the proceedings, she declares, “I’m going to accept and love him no matter what or who he is, because I believe whoever you are, be that.”

Love and acceptance and self-acceptance are also themes of “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse,” premiering Christmas Day on Apple TV+, an animated short feature based on the 2019 book, written and illustrated by Charlie Mackesy. The boy (Jude Coward Nicoll) begins in a snowy, almost featureless white space, knowing only that he is lost and having some vague idea of ​​getting home. On the way, he meets the eponymous animals (voiced respectively by Tom Hollander, Idris Elba and Gabriel Byrne), who become his companions, even as they need companionship.

Apart from a couple of truly suspenseful episodes, the pace is deliciously slow. The dialogue can be philosophical and aphoristic almost to a fault, its sentiments seemingly designed to allay the existential fears of anxious small children, but anyone with a taste for videos about interspecies friendships will find themselves susceptible to its charms. Not least important, both painterly and sketch-like in his interpretation of Mackesy’s art, it’s a celebration of 2-D animation, and more magical than CGI will ever be. (Fight me — after the New Year.)

“The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” (Apple TV+) animates the children’s book by Charlie Mackesy.

(AppleTV+)

Hulu’s “Dear Santa” marks the 110th anniversary of the post office’s Operation Santa, in which children’s letters to Santa Claus come to the attention of postal “elves” that collaborate with citizen elves to fulfill the Christmas wishes of needy or otherwise especially deserving children. Each of the six episodes follows the same format — explaining the program, following the progress of a couple of cases, which are shot in different cities and towns — and can be watched in any order and devoured like candy, albeit a candy that can make you cry

The series, a follow-up to the same-named 2020 documentary, might also make you think well of postal workers and of people in general — there’s nothing more Christmassy than that, after all, and so welcome in a time when human failure, greed, laziness and stupidity are so deeply engraved in the news.

I haven’t seen “Busy for the Holidays,” a QVC+ special, in which the “Freaks and Geeks”/“Cougar Town”/“Girls5eva” star offers some sort of holiday tips and hacks, but Busy Philipps is a present not to be refused.

The Netflix series “Murderville,” a kind of improv comedy game in which unprepared guest stars are dropped into a scripted mystery and have to work out whodunit, has fielded a Christmas episode, “Who Killed Santa Claus?” Jason Bateman and Maya Rudolph are the celebrity deputies, drafted to help Will Arnett’s Terry Seattle, a gruff, rumpled “senior homicide detective with a failed marriage and moderate to severe plaque psoriasis,” to discover who punched a sharpened candy cane into the gut of the Santa (Sean Hayes, as quarterback Johnny Blaze) hired to entertain at the mayor’s Christmas party. Bateman, in an elf costume, is made to drink from a saucer like a cat — “That’s humiliating,” says Seattle, who made him do it. The Christmas spirit is somehow celebrated even as it is continually undermined.

Beyond the broadcast networks and streaming platforms there is YouTube, the people’s audiovisual library, where a host of vintage holiday-themed television content may be found quietly violating copyright law. Here lives a bounty of Christmas-themed variety shows, that first while, seemingly unrevivable staple of network television, mixing song and dance and comedy. (This year, I have looked at programs headlined by Julie Andrews, Johnny Cash and Dean Martin, whose 1967 holiday edition of his NBC series is shared with Frank Sinatra and their families.)

A child mails off a letter to Santa in a scene from Dana Nachman's

A child mails off a letter to Santa in a scene from Dana Nachman’s “Dear Santa” documentary.

(IFC Films)

Among the expected fare (the Carpenters, Andy Williams, Donny and Marie) one finds such outliers as the awful yet watchable “The Star Wars Holiday Special” (not to be confused with “The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special”), which aired in 1978, between the first and second films, and was never rebroadcast or made officially available; but a fine, spruced up copy is a click away. With music, comedy and dance integrated into its more or less dramatic through-line, it does qualify as a bona fide variety show. Most of the action is set around Chewbacca’s family on Life Day, the Wookie Christmas, with human friend of the family Art Carney having the most to say — at least in words you can understand. (Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, Diahann Carroll and the Jefferson Starship are the other celebrity guests.) It feels arranged to demand as little work as possible from Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, who sings at the end. Low budget and shot on video multicamera-style, it’s as if “Star Wars” had been produced by Sid and Marty Krofft (though not as good as that sounds).

Similarly hard to classify is “The Max Headroom Christmas Special” (original British title: “‘Max Headroom’s Giant Christmas Turkey”), from 1986, starring Matt Frewer as the glitchy AI talk show host, who lives on a television screen, from which he interviews Robin Williams and Tina Turner. (He manages to take a sleigh ride as well.) The holiday trimmings, including a children’s choir, are otherwise ironically conventional.

Christmas episodes, which remain a feature of many situation comedies, go back to the beginnings of the medium, and you can find many of these legitimately streaming or scattered around the endless tracts of YouTube. Like eggnog or figgy pudding, it’s all a matter of taste, but here are a few things my own interests have led me to watch.

From way back in the Golden Age: “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” a 1955 episode of “The Honeymooners,” a kind of O. Henry variation in which Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden, in financial straits due to his poor impulse control, struggles to find a gift for wife Alice (Audrey Meadows); “Christmas shopping,” a 1957 episode of “The Jack Benny Show,” in which Benny drives clerk Mel Blanc to extreme distraction when he endlessly forces him to rewrap a gift; and also from 1957, “Santa’s Helper,” from the Betty White sitcom “Date With the Angels,” which gives perennially elderly character actor Bert Mustin an unusually juicy part. Fans of the era’s great supporting players will also thrill to the presence of Nancy Kulp and Richard Deacon, and White, a present to give yourself, was always delightful.

Who Killed Santa?  A Murderville Murder Mystery

“Who Killed Santa? A Murderville Murder Mystery,” with, from left, Sean Hayes as Santa, Will Arnett as Terry Seattle and Jason Bateman and Maya Rudolph as themselves.

(Saeed Adyani / Netflix)

Even “The Addams Family” — the 1960s sitcom from which spring all subsequent Charles Addams adaptations, right up until “Wednesday” — celebrated yuletide in a more or less old fashioned way. In the 1965”Christmas With the Addams Family,” which can be found on Freevee as well as YouTube, Gomez, Morticia, Lurch, Uncle Fester, Grandmama and Cousin Itt independently dress up to convince Wednesday and Puglsey, whose belief has been tested, that Santa Claus is real. It includes Carolyn Jones, as Morticia, singing “Deck the Halls” to the accompaniment of shamisen and harpsichord and a closing group sing of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

More recent, though still not of this century, is “O’Christmas Pete,” a 1996 holiday episode from the third season of Nickelodeon’s “The Adventures of Pete & Pete,” one of the greatest television series ever and absurdly unavailable by the usual means. With his usual resistance to convention, Little Pete (Danny Tamberelli) decides to keep Christmas going indefinitely, though his father points out that their tree is “old and dried out, shedding.” (“Could say the same about you,” Little Pete responds.) This leads to confrontations with a rather demonic garbage man, growing piles of trash and general neighborhood agitation.

Happy viewing to all who celebrate.

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