Monday, December 25, 2006

South Dakota Dark's Advent Calendar, volume the last

I always forget just how NUTS everything gets around the holidays, even for a gentle soul (such as myself) in the vast media conglomerate (such as myself). To that end, here's the conclusion of the advent calendar, which, due to my desire to not make it a daily thing, has become more of an albatross around my neck than I ever thought possible.

No! Of course I'm joyful!

Dec. 15: Everybody Loves Raymond, season one, episode 12, "The Ball"

It's pretty common now for young hipsters to despise Everybody Loves Raymond (maybe they always did, but I suspect when it was a little-watched critical darling stuck on Friday nights, they had no idea it existed). And, really, if you like cutting-edge stuff, there's almost nothing to like in Raymond -- the pacing is deliberately slower, the performances are deliberately theatrical, the storylines are much more focused, and it kept winning Emmys it didn't really deserve.

But when he died Dec. 12, it seemed that EVERYbody really did love Peter Boyle. He was the only member of the Raymond cast to not win an Emmy, and that's sort of unfortunate. His best work came in the first two seasons of the show, when it couldn't get noticed by the Emmys at all, and after that, it became obvious (in some seasons) that his ailing body confined him to very limited movement, mostly reducing him to a one-liner machine, even though he was capable of much more.

Raymond's first Christmas episode is a good showcase for Boyle -- Ray finds out a Mickey Mantle autographed baseball his father got for him is a fake, but when he hears everything that his dad went through to get that ball, it strengthens their relationship anyway. It's the basic Christmas sap, but Boyle overplays his curmudgeonly side and underplays the true emotions, so when they come out toward the end of the episode, it's that much more affecting. Boyle was the real deal -- an actor who could do anything from broad to tiny -- and he will be missed.

Dec. 16: The Simpsons, season seven, episode 12, "Marge Be Not Proud"

(That above clip, obviously, isn't from this episode, but, rather, from a special Christmas message the Simpsons folks did for British TV in 2004.)

The Simpsons premiere episode, of course, was a Christmas special, but I must have seen that one over 20 times over the years, so I went with this, which I think is actually a slightly better episode, even if it allows it self a bit too much sentimentality (as said before, though, that goes with the territory). This is from when the show was still doing stories based around the characters and their personalities (there's been an attempt to do this in recent seasons, as well, but not quite to the level reached in these early seasons).

Perhaps remarkably, this was only the second Christmas episode The Simpsons had ever done. They seem to do one every year now, but this was the first since the series premiere. In it, Bart shoplifts a video game and is caught. When his parents find out, it threatens to rupture his relationship with his mother, but, of course, this being Christmas, everything is all right in the end.

It's a conceit for a Christmas episode that hasn't been done 1,000 times, and for that, this episode gets bonus points, as well as for being the only episode of The Simpsons my mother has ever enjoyed and for containing the line, "Buy me Bonestorm or go to Hell!"

Dec. 17: Seinfeld, season four, episode 13, "The Pick"

Seinfeld never did episodes that were strictly Christmas episodes. This was because the characters were fairly obviously Jewish (even if no one ever came out and said it), but it was also because the show's worldview rarely was large enough to embrace something as all-encompassing as the holiday season.

In the best Seinfeld tradition, though, "The Pick" selected a smaller element of the holiday season (getting your photo taken for a Christmas card) and blew that up into the main thrust of one of the show's four dueling plots (to wit, Elaine's picture accidentally shows her nipple, leading her to gain the nickname "Nip"). Of course, Elaine's is only one plot (the main one deals with Jerry attempting to date a new girlfriend who catches him scratching his nose and thinks he's picking it), so the episode isn't really a "Christmas" one, but it's funny and has become something of a classic in the show's run (it helps that it comes in the show's strongest season), so it goes on the calendar.

Dec. 18: Friends, season three, episode 10, "The One Where Rachel Quits"

Friends is another show that wasn't known for its Christmas episodes, maybe because its Thanksgiving episodes were so memorable. So, once again, Christmas is only really a background plot device, used simply because the episode would be airing in December.

It's not a bad plot device either (Phoebe helps out at a Christmas tree lot and grows so attached to the trees that she can't bear to see any go unsold), but the A-plot (Rachel quitting her job to enter the fashion industry as was her dream) is more compelling and has some better jokes anyway.

Dec. 19: Scrubs, season one, episode 11, "My Own Personal Jesus"

Time to confess -- I've seen basically nothing of Scrubs' first season. I liked what I saw that first year, but I wasn't watching much TV in 2001 or 2002 (hard to believe, I know). I was surprised to see just how different the show was early in its run. It was self-consciously wackier (so, for that matter, was Zach Braff), and the transitions between pathos and oddity were a lot more jarring. Also, in this episode, Turk is a deeply observant Christian, something which hasn't come up much since (it sort of makes sense for the character, who's always been a "lead with his heart" kind of guy). Watching this immediately followed by something in the show's current sixth season leads one to believe that NBC sanded off the show's rough edges.

Still, as the last sitcom episode of the advent calendar, it's not a bad way to go out. You can watch the whole thing here.

Dec. 20: Frosty the Snowman

Of the four Christmas specials that air every year (this, Rudolph, Grinch and Charlie Brown), this is probably my least favorite. The Rankin-Bass style just looks frightening in traditional hand-drawn animation (what with the bucked teeth and all), and the quality of the animation isn't very good either. What's more, the story of Frosty the Snowman doesn't lend itself to the special treatment, as Rudolph does (what with the underdog-overcoming-the-odds narrative structure), so there's a lot more tap-dancing done to fill out the run-time, including an obligatory visit from Santa Claus in a special based on one of the few Christmas songs that doesn't mention Christmas-y stuff at all (unless you count snowmen as being somehow Christmas-specific).

Maybe you have a softer spot for it. I haven't liked it since childhood. But you can watch it here. Here's a version of the story from the 1940s:

Dec. 21: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966, of course)

The Grinch, on the other hand, actually IS worth watching every year. Part of it is Dr. Seuss' irresistible reworking of the Scrooge motif, but another part of it is Chuck Jones' slick animation (his work on Max is some of the best TV animation ever). And, of course, the tuneful songs, which nicely complement the action.

The transition from hateful Grinch to helpful Grinch is a little abrupt, but it's certainly better than Ron Howard's 2000 film version, which tries to shoehorn a backstory onto the Grinch and just generally becomes tiresome after a short while, overblown production design aside.

Furthermore, what, exactly, is Roast Beast?

If you like this sort of thing, you can check out the whole thing here, here and here.

Dec. 22: A Claymation Christmas Celebration

This looked like it had the makings of a Christmas standard, airing from 1987 to 1992, but it must have dipped in popularity after that, as it has mostly disappeared since. Maybe now that members of my generation are popping out kids it will come back.

While it was praised when first released, though, I'm not sure the show really deserves to come back. Essentially plotless, it's like a claymated Perry Como Christmas special with jokes. The dinosaur hosts crack wise for a while, some carolers come by singing a wrong variation on "Here We Come a-Wassailing" and then there's a Christmas carol to sing. Of these carols, only the one with the bells (seen above) and the version of Angels We Have Heard on High with ice skating walruses work completely. The others work well as concepts (seeing the stories of ornaments on a Christmas tree) but never quite expand beyond that.

Still, it's one of the few Christmas specials to include blatantly religious content, which is surprising more than anything (we'll get to the other, of course, in a bit). As something that was probably green-lit just because CBS wanted to see the California Raisins (then popular) in a Christmas special, it's probably better than it should have been. Judge for yourself here.

Dec. 23: A Christmas Carol (1971 and 1984)

A Christmas Carol is only as good as its Scrooge, and these two films have some of the best Scrooges (the first has Alistair Sim repeating his role from the 1951 Christmas Carol -- unquestionably the best version; the second has George C. Scott). The 1971 version has become one of my favorites with its Victorian illustration-style animation and its connection to the story's ghostly roots (it can be genuinely scary). While the pacing is off all over the place (the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is rather glossed over in favor of beefing up some of the little-dramatized bits of the Ghost of Christmas Present section -- as seen above) and the hammy acting tends to clash with the naturalistic animation, the gorgeous quality of the images and Sim's strong voice work lets me forgive a lot. The rest of it is here.

The George C. Scott version (and isn't it odd how we refer to versions of A Christmas Carol based on who plays Scrooge rather than the director?) has considerably more in the way of problems. While the Yet-to-Come section is well done (and oddly chilling in places), the rest of it can be a bit mawkish, especially the portrayal of Tiny Tim, who's a problem in any adaptation of this work, as he embraces the very worst tendencies of Dickens to sentimentalize. Here, the screenwriters choose to emphasize Tim's most saintly tendencies (to be fair, they ARE there in the book), and that makes the Cratchet sections borderline laughable. Fortunately, Scott grounds all of this with a strong, naturalistic performance. It's tempting to turn Scrooge into a cliche, a big, broad portrayal. But Scott makes Scrooge's miserliness make sense, and that makes the whole movie work.

Dec. 24: A Charlie Brown Christmas

A Charlie Brown Christmas is probably my favorite thing of anything ever. Really. Its sparse animation and minimalist script and blatant religiosity and strange story and jazz soundtrack shouldn't work together, but, somehow, they do. The last ten minutes or so (from the Christmas tree lot on) never fail to enthrall me, and the soundtrack (readily available on CD, though you should look for the old version, not the 40th anniversary edition, which has a weird sound mix) is the sort of thing I can listen to year-round.

I could say more, but who wants to hear gushing? If the video above isn't working, watch the whole thing here.

Dec. 25: It's a Wonderful Life

But could it end any other way?

It's become cliche now to say that you like It's a Wonderful Life because it's a truly, truly dark movie that earns its catharsis. But I'm going to go ahead and say that anyway. Frank Capra is known for embracing the corny promise of the American Dream, but he also knew that the flipside of that dream was full of crushed hopes and black hearts (not to mention that the pursuit of that dream can lead to unchecked greed, as in the case of Mr. Potter). Capra's modern-day clones forget that, and that means that "Capra-esque" has become a bad thing.

It doesn't hurt that Jimmy Stewart is probably better here than he was in any other movie not named Vertigo and that Donna Reed is maybe the most beautiful woman in the history of history. Even after years and years of copies and parodies, the film stands up.

I'm watching it right now, in fact. Why not join me? I can't wait to see how it ends.

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