As the last trick-or-treaters make their way to their neighborhood homes, indulging in various sugary delights, the adult world is preparing for the next two months of bright lights, catchy carols and holiday festivities.
The Christmas season.
Whether you celebrate it or not, you cannot avoid Christmas anywhere. It's in the shopping malls, it's plastered over houses and it floods your television screens. Of course, it's not all bad when it comes to television. Some of the most enduring programs of all time are the Christmas classics from almost fifty years ago. Of course, some great holiday classics came from the last few years as well. Let's take a look at some of my favorite holiday TV favorites.
**Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)**
You know the story: a reindeer with a shiny red nose is ostracized from the group due to his facial inadequacies. A journey of self-discovery begins.
All right, it's not quite that serious, but Rudolph began the Christmas TV craze 47 years ago this year with the first of many Rankin/Bass productions, that would also include numerous Rudolph programs such as Rudolph's Shiny New Year, a much-less beloved entry in the Rudolph saga. You just cannot beat the original. Young and old appreciate the story of an ignored reindeer forming an unlikely bond with an ignored elf named Hermey, who would much rather be a dentist than an elf. Along the way, Rudolph and Hermey meet up with Yukon Cornelius (a gold and silver-obsessed prospector), the Island of Misfit Toys and an unruly Abominable Snow Monster, who happens to hate Christmas.
As the return home, Rudolph and Hermey are hailed as heroes. Hermey becomes a dentist (after Christmas of course) and Rudolph guides the sleigh during a blizzard, everyone realizing just how important that red nose is.
I'm not certain that it's THE original, but it's one of the first claymation specials to grace the airwaves. On nostalgia alone, it's one of my favorites around the holidays.
**Frosty the Snowman (1969)**
Silly, silly, silly!
After Karen and her friends build a talking snowman and name it Frosty, it's a race against time before the big guy disappears forever. Can Karen save the life of a walking, talking snowman? Or will Frosty be lost forever?
You know the song, you know the story. Accompanying the catchy Gene Autry tune of 1950, Frosty the Snowman is a cute, fun Christmas classic sure to re-ignite the nostalgia flame inside you once you watch it.
Frosty would reappear in 1976's Frosty's Winter Wonderland, 1979's Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July, as well as the lesser-liked 1992 toon Frosty Returns. Like Rudolph before him, it's the original that remains tops.
**A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)**
Chosen by most as a favorite during the holiday season, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains relevant 46 years later. Charlie Brown feels the holiday woes as he fears Christmas has become overcommercialized. We can fully relate in 2011 to Charlie's dilemma.
As he searches for a tree for the school nativity play, he settles on the only real tree in the lot: a small, thinly covered tree with no hope of standing up against the large, vastly decorated trees everyone else possesses.
Ultimately, in his search for the true meaning of Christmas, Charlie is educated by Linus on "what Christmas is all about". Still, the dang tree just won't decorate properly. The final straw is a lone ball, which forces the tree to flop over to one side, thus "killing it". As Charlie leaves in disgust, Linus and the gang fix the tree and save Charlie from his holiday slump.
It's another cute, fun story with an eye firmly placed on the over-commercialization of Christmas. Surely we've all been swooped up in recent years by the holiday storm, but even just for half an hour, Charlie Brown reminds us what it's all about.
**Olive, The Other Reindeer (1999)**
Olive, a dog, believes a radio announcement means he is the one to save Christmas this year, after Santa hopes he can complete his run with "all of the other reindeer". The joke being that Olive mistakes "all of" for "Olive" and that he is being summoned by the big guy in the red suit himself.
Executive produced by The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, Olive is the most recent of the holiday specials on my list, debuting twelve years ago. Drew Barrymore provides the peppy voice of Olive the Dog. She is joined by Joe Pantoliano, Dan Castellaneta, Ed Asner and Michael Stipe (playing Schnitzel, Blitzen's flightless cousin).
I can't quite pinpoint the reason I love this special. It just has the Matt Groening charm to it. It certainly has not attained the same level of notoriety as Rudolph, Frosty or Charlie Brown, but maybe it'll continue to grow in popularity as it ages.
**A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)**
My own personal favorite of all holiday specials, A Muppet Family Christmas follows the gang as they embark on a journey to Fozzie Bear's mother's place. Unbeknownst to them, Fozzie Bear's mother is renting out her place to Doc and his dog Sprocket (of Fraggle Rock) while she heads to Malibu for Christmas. Once The Muppets arrive, Doc, Sprocket and Fozzie's mother's Christmases are all put on hold as the entire group must co-exist under one roof. The gang gets snowed in, but Miss Piggy's stranding changes everyone's plans once more before the song-filled ending.
A Muppet Family Christmas remains one of the few productions to feature all four of the major Muppet franchise: The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock and Muppet Babies. The special aired just three years prior to Jim Henson's death, making it one of the last specials to feature the man behind the puppets.
The special is able to perfectly combine the Muppet humour we've come to know and love, as well as the sentimentality we've also come to know and love from the Muppets. Unfortunately, the North American DVD releases omits several noteworthy scenes featuring copyrighted material such as Fozzie and the snowman's rendition of Sleigh Ride, the Muppet babies singing Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, as well as the Muppets singing Home for the Holidays, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. These omissions make the DVD difficult to enjoy, but thankfully bootleg copies are available elsewhere that feature the entire 1987 special intact and uncut.
**How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)**
Before Ron Howard made a noble effort at adapting the Dr. Seuss classic in 2000, allowing Jim Carrey a chance to shine as the title character with a hatred for Christmas. You have to admire the attempt, but the final product is a misfire on all accounts.
Fortunately, the 1968 cartoon short is still here and is a favorite among most viewers at Christmas time. The cartoony world of Whoville works best in animation, as does the Grinch himself. Looney Tunes veteran Chuck Jones directed the short, with Boris Karloff narrating the tale while providing the speaking voice of The Grinch. It would be one of Karloff's final roles and perhaps one of his most cherished.
While the cartoon remains faithful to the original Seuss story (far more faithful than the feature film, which padded the short story with unnecessary character developments), one of the most recognized Christmas songs emerged from the cartoon: You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch, sung by Thurl Ravenscroft.
Much like Rudolph and Frosty, The Grinch was not safe from further holiday specials: a 1977 prequel entitled Halloween Is Grinch Night allowed the title crank to offer up scares to the Whos every Halloween, as well as a 1982 Seuss mash-up called The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat. Neither is as well-known or well-loved as the original.
Of course, some of my favorite television shows feature some of my favorite holiday special episodes as well. Let's take a look at a few of my favorites:
**The Simpsons: Simpsons Roasting on An Open Fire (Season 1, 1989)**
The debut edition of The Simpsons on December 17th, 1989, happened to be a Christmas-themed edition of the yellow family that first debuted on The Tracey Ullman Show. 495+ episodes later, The Simpsons have churned out numerous Christmas-oriented episodes, but it's the original that I still watch every year. In it, Homer and Marge plan Christmas for Bart, Lisa and Maggie via Homer's Christmas bonus and Marge's jar of saved money. A tattoo and lack of bonus later, The Simpsons are broke for the holidays. Homer takes on a parttime job as a mall store Santa, but the less-than-desirable pay sends him to the dog track, where he ultimately meets up with Santa's Little Helper, the dog that the family have to this very day.
Revisiting this classic reinforces the thought that The Simpsons have lost their touch over the years, trading in sentimal storylines and sharp writing for cheap laughs centered on pop culture references. Still, it doesn't hurt to appreciate where it all began 21 years ago this month as the series continues to chug along on FOX every Sunday evening.
**It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: A Very Sunny Christmas (DVD Release, 2009; Season 6, 2010)**
Leave it to Mac, Charlie, Dennis, Dee and Frank to get the holiday spirit and make it all about backstabbing, deception, motherly prostitution and the occasional full-on biting of a mall store Santa, complete with blood and obscenities not previously seen on Sunny, thanks to the 2009 DVD release.
It takes a strong stomach to watch and enjoy It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia at times, but it's more evident than ever during this 42 minute holiday classic. Yes, it's already a classic after only two years. Even when the gang gets it right in the end and comes together, it hits the fan and they're left with what they started with: nothing. Keep an eye out for Danny DeVito's career highlight as he emerges from inside a couch (yes), naked, like some overgrown, hairy baby, non-chalantly passing through an office Christmas party. How has he not been recognized by the Emmys for Sunny?
**The X Files: How the Ghosts Stole Christmas (Season 6; 1998)**
In the latter half of its nine year run, The X Files became a shell of its former self, alienating (pun intended) its core audience with convoluted tales of government conspiracies. By its eighth run, star David Duchovny had all but lost interest in the series. But there are a handful of enjoyable tales in those last few seasons that make it all worthwhile for an X Phile like myself.
How the Ghosts Stole Christmas is one of those tales.
The episode features a bare cast of characters: the heroes we know and love (Mulder and Scully) and a pair of cranky ghosts (Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin). Mulder believes the mansion to be haunted. Scully is less than skeptical. She's downright annoyed at the midnight call on Christmas Eve. Reluctantly, she joins him inside where they meet up individually with the ghosts desperate to turn the FBI agents against one another.
The episode works on so many levels. It could easily be expanded to 90 minutes as its own horror movie. It's never dark enough to be too scary, and just funny enough to make things enjoyable as a Christmas treat. It does come to a rather abrupt conclusion, but that's par for the course for weekly series like The X Files.
All right, folks. Thank you sincerely for reading any or all of this week's holiday-themed edition of Ecks Factor. I'll be back next week with my year-end look at the year that was in television. We'll relive a few of the ups and many of the downs in 2011. Have a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and be nice to one another.
Until next time, stay tuned.