Zappy Holidays

Like the most innocuous word in the English language, the phrase ‘holiday TV special’ means something very different in Britain and America. Christmas specials on UK television are typically bloated extrapolations or unwanted revivals of popular programmes while in the US they tend to be family-friendly entertainment specially made for the occasion. In Britain, the runs of TV series are normally over by Christmas meaning that each show is unnaturally forced back into the schedules. However, in the US Christmas falls slap-bang in the middle of the network season, allowing for a festively-themed episode preceding the mid-season break that incorporates the holiday rather than the other way round. American holiday specials tend to go straight for spectacle and showmanship, something we’ve tried unsuccessfully to imitate with musical versions of our soap operas and star performances where you text the Bee Gees for no apparent reason. I’m sure we Brits used to do this better in the days when vaudeville ruled our airwaves but US TV remains far less hesitant and bashful about pure, uncomplicated show. With the help of my wife G, who has been willingly indoctrinated by American holiday TV fare since childhood, I’ve been watching some classic specials.

 

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

 

The oppressed in 1960s American society.

 

What begins as a music video for the beloved Christmas song soon transforms into a scathing indictment of racism, homophobia and sexism. Appropriately for a TV movie made in the year the Civil Rights Bill was signed, Rudolph’s ostracision is an issue of skin colour. There’s also Hermey, a gay elf (acknowledged by seldom-used codeword ‘Dentist’) whose good hair, handsome looks and ambitions for a white-collar career make him a social misfit in the North Pole. It’s one of the few occasions in mainstream entertainment you’ll see a gay man as our closest link to normality. Such prejudices are shown to be a symptom of the stagriarchal society in which women are kept out of decision-making processes. The bare bones of the song are fleshed out with references to every children’s story and American myth you can think of: The Abominable Snowman, The Gold Rush, Narnia. There’s also a scene with disabled toys that could keep Pixar in court with the Rankin-Bass estate for the rest of existence. Add in transcendent stop-motion animation and wonderfully offbeat characters (like the prospector looking for silver and gold in the North Pole) and you have a deserved classic.

 

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973)

 

Stomach pump, please.

 

Having some of the best jazz piano riffs ever, ever, ever (courtesy of the Vince Guaraldi Trio) would be enough to destine this cartoon for greatness. But it’s so much more. A Thanksgiving variation on Charles M. Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip, the special has that perfect blend of wit and slapstick that distinguishes the very best cartoons. The combination of intelligent adult humour and childish situations sets an enduring template for some of the finest animation of the last thirty years: The Simpsons, Rugrats, King of the Hill. Schultz’s genius premise of a child with the malaise of a middle-aged man and friends who act like dinner party guests in a Woody Allen movie has one of its most memorable outings here, as Charlie tries to avoid social awkwardness by hosting an en-masse Thanksgiving dinner. Helped immeasurably by the wistful score, there’s a deep-seated melancholy here, which gives the special an unusually dark adult tone for family entertainment, making it the heir of troubling holiday movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and appropriate for Conan O’Brien’s deleted suicide scene parody. The painful deadpan on Charlie’s face was my own expression after a Thanksgiving buffet dinner.

 

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

 

A long time ago in a galaxy far far gone…

 

A classic of you’ll-think-you-dreamt-it television, this Thanksgiving spectacular featuring characters and actors from the original Star Wars movie was never re-broadcast and recordings were suppressed for decades by creator George Lucas in his ongoing quest to change history. Thanks to fans’ recordings of the original broadcast that can now be shared via the internet, we’re able to see the special in all its eminently bizarre glory. It’s the only time you’ll ever see an elderly wookie orgasming watching a helmet porno of Diahann Carroll, Golden Girl Bea Arthur tossing drunks out of the cantina, and a space drag queen TV chef cooking bantha meat while spinning her bosom. There’s a nice idea in here somewhere about using TV to bring the domestic verisimilitude of everyday life to the Star Wars universe but it gets drowned out by the tonal confusion and unintentional avant-garde of the execution. It also features some of the oddest dramatic choices in the history of TV (probably culture) such as dialogue-free, grunt-based scenes of Chewbacca’s family at home. At least we now have an idea of what Return of the Jedi would have been like had David Lynch directed it.

Watching TV with Americans will return in January…Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: