He'll Do His Best Not to Kill Anyone During the Holidays
All in the Family tend to get a bad rap from some classic TV enthusiasts; and it’s true that the kitchen-sink political engagement and clash-of-cultures storylines can seem a bit too overt, a bit too obviously designed-to-be-appreciated, which can detract from the impulse to promote TV as an art in itself that doesn’t need to pander to socially “relevant” themes.
However, I think it’s a mistake to dismiss the Norman Lear style sitcom as though it’s the Stanley Kramer film of the TV world: while the shows could lack subtlety, there’s something to be said for the willingness to pay extended attention to the intersections of politics and mundane everyday life, and simple cultural clashes rarely made up the bulk of individual episodes. A show like All in the Family frequently has more to offer, as a kind of sitcom extension of Noel Coward and David Lean’s excellent This Happy Breed (1944), than just a few laughs at cultural confusion and bigotry.
The impulse for shows to fall in love with their own characters (e.g., Community, anything by Joss Whedon) still remains strong, and All in the Family was certainly guilty of this at times. “Christmas Day at the Bunkers’” (18 December 1971) may feature an annoying all-cast X-mas sing-along scene, but it also emphasises the extent to which working families rely on things like Christmas bonuses to make ends meet: a simple but important reminder that class differences don’t disappear over Christmas.
All in the Family used Christmas as a platform for a key social issue in “Edith’s Christmas Story”, dealing with Edith’s discovery of a lump in her breast that may be cancer. While the result may not disprove Howard Beale’s famous assertion from Network (1976) that “nobody ever gets cancer at Archie Bunker’s house!”, the episode is far more concerned with promoting self-examination and extinguishing fear (reminding viewers that results can potentially be dealt with if treated early) than tying the resolution to some cheap “Christmas miracle”.
Barney Miller was less overt with its politics but nevertheless carried a clear progressive streak in its resigned, stoic, one-location comedy-dramas. “Christmas Story” (1976) slips in some Christmas joy, but not to the extent that it dilutes the underlying stasis that seems to permeate the characters and the series; Nick Yemana’s (Jack Soo) encounter with a “hooker” (to use the show’s phrase) still seems relevant in a society that’s only making small steps towards recognising the rights of sex workers, not just as citizens but as human beings. (In case anyone’s tempted to link this with Mary Magdalene, now might be a good time to give a reminder that Magdalene’s pre-Jesus past as a prostitute is a much later addition to the story).
The complete episode can be found on the season 3 DVD release. In the meantime, some kind soul has extracted the “hooker” storyline from the episode and posted those sections on YouTube:
The number two spot was supposed to go to “Old Acquaintances” (13 December 1997) from season 2 of quasi-psychic ‘90s serial-killer series Profiler (1996-2000), but YouTube clips are non-existent and Retro Remote isn’t sure that “Christmas spirit” will be enough to avoid a copyright violation if he takes uploading matters into his own hands. Besides, the episode itself isn’t exactly high on Christmas spirit, mostly being an opportunity for Sam (Ally Walker) to despair over her miserable lot and impotently watch her old friends get murdered simply to send her a message. Profiler may be remembered as a bit of a Se7en (1995) and/or X-Files (1993-2002) knock-off, but Walker’s sympathetic portrayal of vulnerability (that never becomes weakness) gives the series a human foundation that lifts it above some of its more well-known paranormal TV peers.
But since Profiler‘s miserable Christmas episode isn’t online, here’s a clip instead from the least Christmassy thing to ever happen on Christmas day: Ric Flair vs Kerry Von Erich in a steel cage at WCCW Star Wars 1982.
The full match is available on the excellent DVD The Triumph and Tragedy of World Class Championship Wrestling; there’s also a Retro Remote write-up, here, and you can catch the beginning of the match right here:
Confirming Retro Remote’s bias towards socially-conscious and relatively progressive series (while acknowledging that the examples here don’t all go that far in seriously overturning the still-persistent white, middle-class, male dominance of the TV landscape), Lou Grant comes in at number 1 with a beautifully sour Christmas “miracle” and a moment of Christmas charity that isn’t exactly keeping with the best traditions of Christian values. Spun off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977), Lou Grant (1977-1982) dropped Mary’s boss, Lou (Ed Asner), into a Los Angeles newspaper, using the usual array of news-based narratives to look askance at social norms and values and mildly question the uniformity of the views usually presented. Like many of the above examples, Lou Grant could be something of a narrative soapbox, but also one that attempted to delve into its issues with some delicacy and restraint. Christmas is no exception: the show isn’t quite willing to launch itself into Christmas joy without, in the best media reporting tradition, also considering the validity of the Grinch’s perspective.
As with most Lou Grant episodes, “Christmas” (written by David Lloyd and directed by James Burrows) doesn’t let itself wallow in nihilism about its negatives, nor does it provide its positives as clear, simple moral victories: the “charitable” decision that closes the episode is certainly questionable and, if nothing else, doesn’t exactly endorse traditional Christmas-time Christian doctrine. The feel-good story running alongside similarly doesn’t exactly pay off with its promised Christmas joy; if nothing else, it proves that a desire for Christmas schmaltz can make anyone a sucker.
And if all that’s a bit depressing? Oh well, there’s always the New Year.