[17 December 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Here’s a suggestion for that blubbery ball of suet named Santa. Instead of wasting your time trying to figure out which children have been naughty or nice (let’s face it, most wee ones are generally wicked at their core), the fat man should really be drawing up a list of which former clients are delighted, and which ones are despondent and depressed. You see, you so-called jolly old elf, some people don’t respond well to your annual gift-giving extravaganza. Even with all the peace on earth and goodwill toward men lip service going around, all they see is the corrupt commercialization, the materialistic selfishness, and that rock hard lump of lard called a fruit cake starring back at them, culinary properties as questionable as the day medieval cooks conceived of the desperately disgusting dessert. To them, there is nothing to celebrate, no benefit in believing that anyone actually cares about the true meaning of the season.
And where did they get that idea, do you supposed? Is it genetic? Purely environmental? Is it possible that, for some, Christmas’s mental quagmire started as a result of the overwhelming influence of some morose TV specials? It’s a fact that, since the medium became a fixture—not a fad—in individual homes, the networks have knocked themselves out trying to demonstrate their innate confusion over the proper Yuletide sentiment. Some believe a popular singer, surrounded by a few famous faces and a pleasant puppet or two, have powers poised to make the season bright. Still others feel that St. Nick and his known proclivities toward elves, reindeer, and chimney sweeping, makes the perfect Saturnalia subject matter. But the truth is, many of the earnest attempts drummed up by the boob tube tug so hard on the heartstrings that they upset the internal equilibrium of a susceptible viewer. Without proper perspective, or an AA like cerebral sponsor, the descent in to unmanaged melancholia is more or less a given.
Therefore, as a kind of red-nosed warning, or a pre-eggnog PSA, here’s a look at three memorable television treats that, inadvertently, have caused more pain and suffering than a trip to Toys R Us when the Tickle Me Elmo shipment has arrived. Be careful, though. Prolonged exposure to any one of these excruciating entries has been known to cause stripper levels of suicidal tendencies.
Christmas Is (1970) Leave it to the Lutherans to take all the faith-based fun out of the entire “away in the manger” magic of the season. This sad excuse for a lesson in self-esteem stars Benji, the kind of plain portly problem child that would seem more at home on the set of an animated version of Deliverance than a typical small town tract house. Angry and depressed over the fact that once again, he has landed the role of “Insignificant Kid in a Shepherd’s Garb #2”, he has his whole individual identity wrapped up in being something other than a Nativity scene afterthought. Shutting himself up in his room, Brian Wilson style, Benji bemoans his cameo role lot in life to his anthropomorphized sheepdog, Waldo. With one of those typical pen and ink faces that has subtle slits for eyes and a huge red tongue as a character dimension, this pooch provides limited relief for our heroes inner Advent angst.
Suddenly, that old standby in formulaic storytelling—the dream-flashback-sequence—strands Benji back in Bethlehem on 24 December, 0000 B.C. There, he gets to witness the entire scope of the Birth of Jesus’ greatest hits: angels being heard on high and harking their heralded tidings of great joy; nasty night managers denying Joseph and Mary accommodations at one of the Holy Cities many AAA approved inns and motor lodges; the arrival of the Three Wise Men and the ongoing mystery over myrrh; the basic Biblical maxim that there are no small roles, just minor disciples. Thanks to the trip back in time, Benji has a Mr. Peabody moment of clarity, and decides that standing in the background with a staff in his hand while the rest of his classmates act up a storm is not such a bad thing, after all. As a matter of fact, it’s supposedly what Christmas Is.
Though some may celebrate the bringing back of the true meaning of Christmas in this ridiculous religious rot, the whole pro-propaganda position taken by The Southern Publishers Group and the Lutheran Hour Ministries (the companies responsible for this and other nauseating Noel extravaganzas) has the exact opposite effect on a viewing audience. Instead of making one happy that this fine sacrosanct festival celebrates the Lord and Savior of all mankind, the lasting message here is that conformity is the only way one can achieve any potential holiday happiness. Instead of bucking the system and standing up for himself, Benji goes through a kind of space-time continuum conversion, and resigns himself to a position as good natured doormat for the rest of the nonbelievers. At a time of year when we are supposed to be reaching out across color and creed to embrace our fellow man, allowing an animated feature to foster the notion of silent subjugation is downright demeaning.
J.T. (1969) Oh boy, is this ever massively manipulative and melodramatic stuff. Little JT lives in the most horrible part of Harlem imaginable, a bombed out Beruit like ghetto where random crime is the highlight of everyone’s day. Otherwise, the impoverished citizenry sit around and take turns starving. While playing in one of the many urban ruins that seemed to define New York City circa the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, our hero discovers a badly injured (oh!), flea-bitten and aged (aw!), one eyed (ew!) alley cat in desperate need of a little below the poverty level TLC. Luckily, JT is just the undernourished child for the job. Initially approaching his mother to let him keep the cat, JT is rebuked. Mom doesn’t want another mouth not to feed, and besides, the newly named Mr. Bones is one falling apart feline.
Determined to nurse his new friend back to health, JT sets up an old stove amongst the neighborhood rumble, places a decrepit umbrella over the top to keep out the elements, and sustains his pet pal with tuna scavenged from discarded cans (are you sobbing yet?). The arrival of JT’s Grandmother, Mama Meley, makes things better for a while. She criticizes her daughter for ignoring her child’s needs, and sympathizes with JT over his furry friend’s situation. Naturally, none of this is going to turn out well. With Christmas rapidly approaching, and our hero unable to bring his beloved kitty cat home, Mr. Bones seems destined to a completely calculated fate. Sure enough, local bullies discover the helpless animal, tease JT with him, then mindlessly toss it into the street. One manic Manhattan driver later and Mr. Bones is Mr. Crushed Bones. Of course, a Yuletide present tries to make everything better. For the audience, however, the trauma lingers.
Again, the concept of killing off a poor, frail little animal that cannot fend for itself seems so antithetical to anything remotely related to Christmas that writer Jane Wagner (later to partner up with Lily Tomlin) needs to be in weekly Freudian analysis to figure out just what she thinks the celebratory connection is. Perfectly suited for the time period in which it was produced, JT is loaded with political moralizing and ‘in your face’ confrontations over America’s treatment of class and race. On the other hand, the simple story just wants to bring a smattering of hope for the holidays. But to do so via crushing a kitty under the wheels of a moving motor vehicle—and even worse, because of some mindless act of brutality by a group of disturbed delinquents—doesn’t exactly get your well meaning point across. All the viewer is left with is the empty feeling inside their heart as the mangled Mr. Bones merges with the pavement. More than able to leave an emotional scar on any and all who see it, there’s no doubt that JT would be banned today. Our current psychologically immature children just aren’t ready to grapple with big picture issues—not when there’s a Nintendo Wii to be worrying over.
The Gathering (1977) They say the holidays are about family and togetherness. They also say that Ebola causes a person to die a horrible death via bleeding out through every available orifice in their body. Now imagine a combination of the two: relatives mixed with retrovirus and you’ve got just a part of this nauseating 1977 weeper. Apparently nothing spelled “Seasons Greetings” to a gullible ‘70s populace better than a beloved TV icon dying of an inoperable terminal disease. The soon to be late lamented one is Lou Grant—actually favored actor Ed Asner playing the role of flawed family man Adam Thorton—a successful business tycoon who can beat everything capitalism puts in front of him, but has a hard time dealing with numerous cancerous cells. As he prepares to meet his mortal sin inspired salvation, he wants to reconnect with his angry, embittered family.
Apparently Adam left the brood high and dry during his quest for financial prosperity. Now, when said funds can’t buy happiness, or health, he wants to bury himself in the bosom of their biologically mandated love one last time. Naturally, they aren’t crazy about the concept. Indeed, one can say that a good subtitle for this trying TV movie would be Daddy’s Dying. Who’s Got the Will…to Ignore His Pleas for Compassion. Since they are all adults now, leading their own lives and disregarding their own kinfolk, the notion of bellying up to a parent who dumped them for dollars just doesn’t seem right. But in typical tearjerker fashion, warmer hearts prevail and Pops gets a Christmas Eve visit from his more than forgiving flock. In a finale that only the motion picture Make a Wish foundation could fathom, dramatic disbelief is suspended so that old wounds are washed over in untold ounces of sentimental sap.
Talk about your Bah Humbug bullshit! If there’s one thing more certain during the holiday season than your boss’s inappropriate drunken advances at the year end office party, it’s the fallacy that a day on the calendar can bring warring relatives together, again. If you buy that one, then there’s a toy manufacturing plant near the top of the Artic Circle that’s looking for able bodied employees pronto. The kind of pain that one sibling inflicts on another, or a parent provides for their entire family, sinks down so deep in the individual soul that massive group organ failure couldn’t overcome its durability. Yet because we so desperately want it to be true, because we want to believe that our black sheep sister and her smelly, abusive husband will change their ways and not smack each other up during dinner, we buy into the prepackaged pleasantries and believe in the fallacy of familial bliss. In many ways, it’s hard to determine which conviction is more callous. The notion that, in an animal stall some 2,000 years ago, a baby was born destined to cleanse creation of its sin, or that shared chromosomes alone should be the basis for who we associate with at Christmastime. It’s quite the perennial personal predicament.