Thursday, December 7, 2017

The “New” Traditional Christmas TV Shows

By Jerry Chandler

This time of years we see any number of old favorites- whether they’re television shows or classic holiday films -filling out the TV listings each and every night. TV programmers are fairly reliable over the holiday season when it comes to packing everything from Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree to the Grinch and his sleigh and everything else into the weeks between Thanksgiving’s last belch and the first frenzied tearing of wrapping paper on Christmas morning. And, of course, who can forget the annual tradition that is the terror attack/robbery at Nakatomi Plaza? While some of the programs I’m going to touch on are starting to fall into the list of reliable holiday programming, some of them still haven’t reached (and may never reach) the “TV Tradition” stage. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t track them down and see if they fit nicely into your holiday season must see lists.  

“Twinkling colored lights are nice and so are plastic Santas and reindeers and nativity scenes, but let me tell you something. There's nothing like the sight of a beautiful, black-as-pitch raven to get you in the Christmas spirit.”

The first Christmas episode on the list is also one of the older entries. It may well also be one of the less seemingly traditionally geeky entries to many unfamiliar with the show. Trust me, if you’ve never seen the show, this was wonderfully geeky television dressed up in small town America clothing.

Seoul Mates was the Christmas episode from the third season of Northern Exposure. The basic concept for Northern Exposure was a simple fish out of water story. Rob Morrow played Joel Fleischman, a Jewish doctor from New York who very much loved his metropolitan way of life but finds himself having to work off his debt from medical school in the (fictional) backwoods town of Cicely, Alaska. While the premise was an easy setup for the types of fictional clashes popular on TV between the city character dealing with backwards country folk in a somewhat isolated town, the eccentric cast of characters- from an ex con DJ who was a sage philosopher to an ex astronaut sometimes too much in love with his image as an all American hero –created a huge range of storyline opportunities in the show.

Seoul Mates took advantage of the diverse group of characters by quite enjoyably juggling multiple story arcs across its almost one hour runtime. In the arc the episode is named for, ex-military man, former astronaut, and perennial bachelor Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin) is preparing to go through another Christmas alone when an older Korean woman, her son, and her grandson approach him as he’s out and about the town. The grandson is the only one of the trio who speaks English, so he’s at first confused as to what it is they want. Then he gets hit with a bombshell as the grandson informs him that the man, Yung Duk Won, is Maurice’s son. Taken aback, Maurice struggles to adjust to the concept of his new reality as well as struggles in the early going to even remember who the mother of his child is.

After some moments of suspicion about what he thinks the trio may really want, Maurice agrees to spend time with Duk when he learns that the trip to America to find him was Duk’s idea, and that all Duk wants is to meet and get to know his father after all  the years that have passed without him. Maurice actually eventually finds himself taking a liking to Duk, but not with incident in the early going. As the family stays in Cicely, Maurice finds himself feeling more and more uneasy with their presence; even after a short time actively avoiding them whenever he can.

One of the times while he’s avoiding them, Maurice goes for a late-night walk through Cicely and runs into the morning DJ Chris Stevens (John Corbett) who leaves his group of carolers to talk to his depressed and troubled looking friend. Maurice confesses to Chris that he’s having trouble accepting Duk as his son even if Duk wants nothing but a few days of time from him. He tells Chris that outwardly he has an issue with discovering he has a son and the son is middle-aged, but he confesses he has a greater problem that he hasn’t been able to bring himself to admit to anyone. While saying that he obviously found his son’s mother attractive in his younger, wilder days in the military, it’s another matter entirely for him when it comes to having a son who is Korean. He admits feeling guilt over the fact that he’s not sure how to cope with having a son who is not white. Chris talks to him about the concept of “The Other” and ends up giving Maurice what is both good and bad news. He explains to Maurice that his issues are very socially human, but they are learned behavior. Somewhere along the line Maurice allowed these things to become him, perhaps even chose to become what he is, but explains that there’s an upside to this as well. Learned behavior, he explains before leaving Maurice alone with his conscience, can always be unlearned.

In the other major arc of the episode, Joel finds himself discussing with local handyman Ed Chigliak (Darren Burrows) his growing up longing to be like so many others over the years and being able to have a Christmas tree in his house for the holidays. Ed asks him why he doesn’t just get a tree and Joel explains that he can’t because he’s Jewish. Ed questions why that matters and Joel starts considering the idea of having for the first time a tree in his house for the holidays. This does not go well for Joel as he finds himself utterly clueless as to how he should deal with the tree. He finally gives the tree to Maggie O'Connell (Janine Turner) who has been convinced to stay in Cicely this holiday season after subconsciously becoming an injury prone klutz as a way to find an excuse to not go home for the holidays and then finding out that her family decided to vacation without her anyhow.

Holling Vincoeur (John Cullum), the owner of the local restaurant and watering hole, discovers that the young love of his life, Shelly Tambo (Cynthia Geary), has come down with a serious case of the Christmas blues. Holling is not an overly religious fellow, but Shelly grew up around strong religious traditions during this time of year. Realizing how much she misses the Christmas mass tradition she grew up with, Holling prepares a private mass as a surprise for her.

Throughout the background of the episode the town prepares for the local natives’ traditional holiday festival and we see Cicely being decorated with raven motifs. The show ends with the a native performance of the Raven story, and Marilyn Whirlwind (Elaine Miles) tells the story of the raven who brought light to the world and brought mankind out of the darkness.

Oh, and, as with so many episodes of Northern Exposure, it had a great soundtrack playing throughout the episode.

Doctor Who has done some wonderful Christmas specials since returning to television, and my favorite of them so far has been the show’s take on a Christmas Carol. Playing on the fact that the Doctor actually knows Charles Dickens, it unabashedly plunders the idea of the story but totally reinvents it into something completely different than the many retreads of the story that came before it in television history.

The Doctor is faced with a space going cruise ship full of thousands of people about to crash on an alien world. The atmosphere is an unpassable swirling, storming mass of turbulent ice clouds, and the crew is unable to control the ship’s descent in the atmosphere. But there happens to be a man on the planet, Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon), who has a device that can calm the skies and allow the ship a safe landing. The problem with this is that Kazran could care less if the ship crashes and everyone onboard dies. The Doctor attempts to use the machine himself, but the controls are directly linked to Kazran in such a way that only he can operate it. It becomes clear even to the Doctor that only Kazran can save the ship, but he’s the last man on the planet who would bother to lift a finger to do so.

However, the Doctor witnesses something that makes him believe that there was once some spark of humanity in Kazran’s bitter, angry shell, and he takes it upon himself to find it and relight it. The Doctor hatches a plan where he plays the part of the Ghost of Christmas Past. But, unlike some who would play that game, he doesn’t simply show Kazran the past. No, the Doctor goes back into the past in order to change who Kazran is in the present.

The Doctor visits the young Kazran on every Christmas Eve, takes him on amazing adventures, and introduces him to a woman, Abigail (Katherine Jenkins), who will become the one true love of Kazran’s life. This actually makes matters worse, as the woman is hiding the fact that she has a very limited amount of time left to live and her condition means she won’t (technically) live to the present day with Kazran. This turns Kazran from a man who never loved at all to a man who lost the only thing that mattered to him. The Doctor then plays two more aces up his sleeves, and manages to save the ship and, to some degree, Kazran.

Oh, and the episode also has a flying shark pulling a sleigh. What could possibly be more Christmas than that?

“I will turn my back on him, and devote a portion of my life to destroying Santa!”

A greatly loved Christmas favorite for a friend of mine is the Invader Zim Christmas special, The Most Horrible X-Mas Ever. Set in the far future, the episode is the story of the most horrible Christmas ever as told to a group of children by a robot named Mr. Sludgey.

Zim and crew are trying their best to raise some money, and their best isn’t good enough. After failing spectacularly to do so, but netting a still beating heart and a sandwich, Zim and crew notice that men in red suits are getting all the money. They kidnap a mall Santa and during the process of interrogating him learn the human story of Santa Claus. Sensing a way gain great power over mankind; Zim orders his computer to drain all knowledge of Christmas from the poor mall Santa’s mind. As he views the Christmas imagery stolen from the man, Zim formulates his latest plan to destroy humanity. This doesn’t quite go as planned.

Bringing a mass of humanity to the North Pole, Zim-as-Santa introduces a new tradition to mankind for the holiday season. He gets everyone to pitch in on the Christmas building of a giant machine to teleport all mankind to their doom. However, Zim has two obstacles to overcome for his master plan to work.

The first obstacle is his regular obstacle in the form of his nemesis Dib. Dib isn’t very effective, however, and the bigger obstacle is the robot Santa suit starting to think it is Santa and creating issues for Zim. Dib calls in some family to help confront Zim, but the suit has now taken over and turns into a giant monster Santa and attacks Dib when he attempts to stop Zim. He eventually defeats the monstrous Santa and frees Zim, but Zim gets the last laugh on Dib by dressing as an Easter Platypus and convincing the humans that Dib killed Santa.

The story ends back with Mr. Sludgey talking to the children. He explains to them that, no, despite what transpired Santa is not dead. He is in fact alive and well and resting in space, building his strength back up in order to launch his Christmas attack on the Earth; explaining that this is why the people of Earth now live in protective domes.

I’d make a remark about how twisted some of my friends are, but then they’d come back with a response along the lines of pointing out my love of the next Christmas special.

South Park has introduced more than a few… uhm… unique… Christmas stories and characters into popular culture, but my favorite is still the Woodland Critter Christmas episode. It’s the heartwarming story (as dreamed up by Eric Cartman) of the birth of the antichrist, some satanic and not so satanic woodland critters, and Kyle dying two weeks later. Look, it’s South Park. Odds are that you’ve seen it or that you’ve done everything you can to avoid it. If you like twisted Christmas stories and you haven’t seen it, track it down and give it a watch. You’ll love it. The rest of you? Not so much.

“Ho-Ho-ho crap!”

The last entry shares two things in common with the first entry. First, it’s one of my two favorite “new” Christmas TV traditions. Second, it shares at its core a basic setup concept and the idea of a large ensemble of eccentric characters- both regular and recurring -for the show to play with.

Eureka, like Northern Exposure, is in the basic setup a fish out of water concept for storytelling. US Marshall Jack Carter (Colin Ferguson) found himself temporarily stranded in an out of the way little town called Eureka when a series of mysterious and somewhat other worldly events started to occur. The events sidelined (and eventually retired) with injuries the town’s sheriff, so Carter started to try to help only to find himself neck deep in a town that was a Department of Defense operation filled with the brightest minds of their generation. An average day in Eureka might consist of time paradoxes threatening to wipe out all existence. Having helped solve the case in question, Carter is recruited (much against his will) by the DOD to become the town’s new sheriff. It’s a tough job for Carter, because, in this town, as smart as Jack may be in the outside world, he’s basically a third grader compared to most the minds in Eureka and is often initially overwhelmed by the kinds of world threatening catastrophes such geniuses can accidentally create.

By the fourth season of the show, Carter had settled in nicely even if still occasionally being in above his head. He had also started to view even the townsfolk he saw early on as annoying as something of a (dysfunctional) family for him and his daughter Zoe (Jordan Hinson). The mid-season Christmas special really drove that point home.

Oh Little Town… starts out with Carter seeing some kids in the local eatery looking miserable. They were looking forward to getting out of Eureka for the holidays but a snowstorm hitting the state has shutdown most of the highways in and out of town, so Carter decides to tell them a story about a previous Christmas he got stuck in Eureka. It’s a little unclear if the framing sequence for the episode is set a few years into Eureka’s future with the events taking place in what would be for the show the contemporary time or if Carter is spinning a yarn, but, either way, the story itself is wonderfully done and it has some nice bits of character development for the regular cast.

The story Carter tells starts out with Carter preparing to head out of town for the holidays and see family. Suddenly, Eureka is going on full alert due to an unidentified aircraft entering its airspace at a high rate of speed and a threatening trajectory. As Joe (Erica Cerra) arrives with a team ready to blow any unfriendly visitor out of the sky, Carter tells them to hold their fire. It’s not an enemy aircraft heading at them at high speed, it’s a sleigh. The sleigh careens through the air just over their heads, knocking into some of the store fronts and fixtures on the main street of downtown Eureka before crashing.

When they track down the crashed sleigh, it turns out to have been piloted by Jim Taggart (Matt Frewer), a former regular member of the Eureka team now working on assignments abroad. What brings him back to town is his new project; the study of Santa Claus. A part of this involves his prototype sleigh and a shrink ray to simulate how Santa could both carry so many items with him and get down chimneys that are too small for most people. This study also involves figuring out a way to trap the jolly old elf so that Taggart can finally meet him.

A side plot that later becomes a huge part of the plot is local chef extraordinaire Vincent (Chris Gauthier) trying to bring respectability back to the much maligned holiday fruitcake in time for the Global Dynamics Christmas party. He believes he’s finally created the perfect fruitcake, and his samples turn Carter into a bit of a fruitcake addict.

Throughout the story people are receiving the perfect present for them, but no one knows who the secret Santa leaving these presents is. This part of the story delivers the required Christmas special sappiness, but it also delivers some genuinely enjoyable character moments as well.

The town suddenly finds itself threatened by Christmas objects that appear to be growing to colossal sizes. As the first few objects make their way into downtown and almost crush Carter and others, they investigate and discover that nothing is growing. It is in fact the town that is shrinking. On top of that, Carter has been cursed with the gift of holographic carolers who start singing whenever he says the words to activate them. Yes, it’s way funnier than it sounds.

Carter goes to see Taggart, blaming his device for the problem. Taggart insists that his shrinking device is tested and safe and in no way responsible for the town’s problems. The only possible way the device could have the effect Carter is attributing to it, Taggart explains, is if someone tried to shrink a large quantity of an already super dense material and created a feedback of some sort. Carter walks over to the machine and finds the evidence of the super dense material in the form of one of Vincent’s fruitcake bites. Taggart’s machine, stressed and kicking feedback against the shrinking fruitcakes, interacted with the defensive dome around Eureka, containing the effects to the town itself but intensifying them as well.

Carter confronts Vincent, possibly more upset at how much he’ll have to work out to work off the forty or so full fruitcakes he’s unknowingly eaten that day than the shrinking issue, and then moves on to the bigger issue at hand. The town is shrinking with no signs of stopping, and the effects of the shrinking are impacting the resources they have to stop it.

Salvation comes in the form of a particle experiment being run by Dr. Noah Drummer (Chris Parnell) who may in fact be Santa Claus. If they can get high enough above the town and detonate the particle, it could reverse the shrinking and restore the town to its proper size. Unfortunately, the shrinking has had an adverse effect on some materials, and the blades of the Global Dynamics helicopters have warped. Taggart comes to the rescue, however, and offers to get Carter above the town in fitting Christmas style.

With the town restored and the side effect being snowfall, Carter realizes that he and Zoe will now not be able to make it home for Christmas. But a few words from Dr. Drummer makes him realize that at this point Eureka is his home, and the people he’s with are his family now. Taggart also realizes who Drummer may be, but Drummer plays coy as he heads off to take care of a pressing appointment that he can’t be late for.

The next season of Eureka saw the show produce another fairly good Christmas special. While I greatly prefer Oh Little Town… if I have to pick only one of the two of them, Do You See What I See was also an enjoyable bit of science fiction Christmas fluff that saw a virtual reality simulator effect the entire town and cause everyone to look like they belonged in the Christmas TV specials of old. There were multiple changes to their looks during the show, and most of them were nice nods to the classics from Rankin/Bass along with Charlie Brown and others.

There are a number of other Christmas episodes to list, ranging from English store clerks and sales associates having to work on Christmas day to seeing Santa descend from a helicopter in Korea to perform battlefield surgery on an injured soldier. But, as we’re approaching close to 4,000 words, they might best be saved for another time and another column.

Everyone talks about Charlie Brown, the Grinch, and Clarence earning his wings when TV talk comes up this time of year, but I’d like to know what Christmas favorites have become traditions for you that don’t get talked about as much. Make a suggestion. I’ll even let the suggestion be the type of things my wife would suggest- one of the hundreds of sappy Hallmark Channel Christmas movies.

Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can occasionally be found writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the Earth Station One Network’s The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast and now regularly on The Assignment: Horror Podcast.

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