[18 December 2013]
Having to spend Christmas with my flesh-family is bad enough, but surely I should be spared the endless festive spirit when making the most of the holidays to spend a little time with my real family, the TV.
Indeed, Christmas grouches like Retro Remote usually end up fairly torn during the Christmas season. While having no interest whatsoever in the holiday or its commercialised traditions of dubious origin and merit (sorry, folks), there’s no doubt that Christmas is something of a pop culture staple. The “Christmas episode” remains almost required viewing for quasi-academic purposes and, if nothing else, provides a rare opportunity to trick innocent bystanders into watching some old TV show they’ll probably hate, just because of its sudden festive relevance.
Christmas, then, becomes something to subvert rather than denounce; finding a way to slip something with some retro cred like Chuck Berry’s great 1958 track “Merry Christmas, Baby” into the playlist offers at least some minor relief. Heck, even Berry’s “Run, Rudolph, Run” is a step up from most Christmas fare.
Even better is something like John Denver’s “Please Daddy Don’t Get Drunk this Christmas”, just to bring things crashing back to reality.
Or, if you’re too hip for words to express, there’s always classic blues like Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Christmas Eve Blues” or Leadbelly’s “On a Christmas Day” (technically a bit too fun). Personally, I like to fall back on Robert Johnson’s “Hell Hound on My Trail”, even though it can be tough to take Bobby’s passing reference to imagined holiday happiness while he tries to avoided getting snacked on by Satan’s schnoodle and pass it off as a carol.
But music is easy. What about TV, the dearest family member of all? Why does it betray us so at Christmas? In Gunsmoke “P.S. Murray Christmas” (27 December 1971) our Western pals rescue a hundred poor orphans from the misery and grouchiness of their guardian; in The Adventures of Long John Silver “The Orphans’ Christmas” (23 December 1958) our pirate pals save a bunch of miserable orphans from the misery and grouchiness of… you get the idea. Poorly treated orphans and grouchy governesses must have been stashed away in just about every show’s prop cupboard.
Even a couple of Christmas episodes from the great Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents are orphan (or at least downtrodden waif) -based. I have nothing against orphans, mind you, I just find their near-exclusive allocation to Christmas stories questionable at best.
“The Big .22 Rifle for Christmas” is probably one of Dragnet‘s best known episodes, if only because the title is so distinctive. Where the next year’s Christmas episode “The Big Little Jesus” (24 December 1953, remade as “The Christmas Story”, 21 December 1967) is 100 percent holiday schmaltz, “Rifle for Christmas” is classic Dragnet at its purest: a stern, stoic navigation through a situation that it’s too late to fix; it can only be commented on.
Dragnetcreator, writer (this episode with James E. Moser) and director Jack Webb frequently used the series as a platform for cultural education, the scenarios an excuse for terse commentary or uncontested speeches rather than delivering narrative twists and turns. Here, as in most of the best Dragnet episodes, the incident has already taken place by the time Webb’s Joe Friday gets involved, leaving the police the sole task of navigating the fallout and reminding the viewer that things really shouldn’t have turned out this way.
By the time the ‘60s colour version aired, Webb’s social commentary had lapsed into a kind of anti-hippy self-parody (though still hitting some high points) but, in the initial TV run (and earlier on radio), the speeches delivered a kind of forceful, barely-controlled resilience as the post-war cities and suburbs started to grow swollen and strange. Given that the episode deals with one child killing another in a casual gun culture – something that’s sadly still a problem – “Rifle for Christmas” is still gut-wrenching stuff. It’s probably the last thing anyone wants to see at Christmas, which is why, especially in an American culture seemingly more gun-soaked than ever, it still should be.
One of the more ambitious and sometimes gloomy of TV Westerns, Have Gun – Will Travel (1955-1963) succumbed to the lure of Christmas episode in “The Hanging Cross” (21 December 1957). Its hero-for-hire Paladin gets into the Christmas spirit right away, forgoing the usual intro sequence gun-draw and instead hanging up his holster and, because it’s the festive season, promising that he’ll do his best not to kill anyone.
Well, you can’t do much better than that.
The episode delves into one of the classic Western stories, the white child taken by Native Americans and raised in a new culture. With a foundation in history, these stories always have difficult and troubling resonances – finding a solution within a narrative is invariably some kind of dodge or, at least, can’t help but hint at all kinds of unresolved issues (as in John Ford’s classic The Searchers, of course). When Gunsmoke (1955-1975) turned to the story in “Indian White” (27 October 1956), Marshal Matt Dillon doesn’t seem to think it’s that bad an idea, helping a woman kidnap a young Cheyenne boy by doctoring some papers (“I’m a partner to the crime, if you can call it that,” is Matt’s sharp legal perspective on this fraud and kidnapping).
Paladin (Richard Boone) in “The Hanging Cross” isn’t quite so one-sided in his perspective, although everything still turns out just fine (not always a given in Have Gun – Will Travel), delivering a kind of multicultural unity that history suggests wasn’t exactly lasting. Nevertheless, despite the “spontaneous” discovery of a super-symbolic cross and the young boy’s irritating memory of the word “Chriss-masss” from his early Anglo-upbringing, the episode’s ending at least reminds us that having a sappy Christmas ending doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing a tense and worthwhile story.
Besides, this kid has two mothers and two fathers, so the episode gets points because that means it’s definitely not a Christmas story about an orphan.
Directed by series regular Andrew V. McLaglen and written by the always-popular Gene Roddenberry, “The Hanging Cross” isn’t currently available on YouTube, but you can find it on the season 1 DVD set. In the meantime, the radio version is available here.
Have Gun – Will Travel revisited the Christmas episode in season 6’s “Be Not Forgetful of Strangers” (22 December 1962), although Retro Remote hasn’t been able to get hold of that one just yet.
And if “The Hanging Cross” still has too cheery an ending, Boone introduced a suitably cheerless Christmas story in his previous series, Medic (1954-1956), a medical drama with episodes that essentially acted as dramatic PSAs, working in conjunction with medical professionals to increase public awareness of important social and medical issues and also to promote public confidence in the medical profession as a whole. A good summary of the show’s connections with the medical profession and its place in this history of medical dramas can be found in Joseph Turow’s chapter in The Revolution Wasn’t Televised: Sixties Television and Social Conflict, “James Dean in a Medical Gown: Making TV’s Medical Formula”. Retro Remote has written about the show and its excellent episode “Flash of Darkness” in an earlier column.
Medic‘s “Red Christmas” (20 December 1954) is a miserable portrayal of the outcome of a drunken office Christmas party, far more concerned with reminding people that the festive occasion doesn’t make it OK for people to get drunk, act like idiots and then jump behind the wheel of a car, before offering some pleasant story of medical miracles as a holiday placebo. As with Dragnet‘s “Rifle for Christmas”, it’s a blunt reminder that, sadly, hasn’t passed its use-by date.
Socially-conscious sitcoms like 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.