Watch This On Your Next Nerd Date: Christmas Specials Dec12

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Watch This On Your Next Nerd Date: Christmas Specials


A blogumn by Clark Perry

Dang, did Thanksgiving fall late this year or what? Hell, it nulled and voided my birthday, which usually follows it by a week. Damn you, pilgrims!

We’re all feeling the crunch this year. There are simply too many holiday parties jammed into a three-week time frame. This morning I checked my calendar and gasped. Every weekend and half my weekdays between now and New Year’s are booked solid. Where’s the fun in hustling from one shindig to another until you literally drop dead?

My advice: do your best, load your plates with more veggies instead of sweets, and be the best anti-Scrooge you can. Times are tough all over and the stress is thicker than egg nog this year. What people will appreciate is someone who can lift their spirits, if only for a few moments at the buffet table.

You may take a date to one or more of these parties. Remember that holiday parties will most likely see you pulled apart as you spend time with people. So before you even ring the doorbell and enter the party zone, take a moment to hug your partner, nuzzle them and let them know they’re special.

Better yet: take at least one night off from the madness and plan a stay-at-home evening where you can both relax and rediscover the spirit of the holidays with the help of our good friend, Mr. TV. Suggestions after the jump:

Let’s state the obvious: there are some truly awful Christmas TV specials out there. I know because I’ve watched them all. And not just Christmas crap — I even own a copy of Paul Lynde’s Halloween Special from 1976, one of the most jaw-droppingly bad specials of all time. Guest stars include Florence Henderson and KISS, swear to Gawd.

If your holiday date is brave and nerdy, find a copy of The Star Wars Christmas Special, a 1977 disaster so awful even George Lucas disowns it. An unholy marriage of Star Wars and every bad 1970s variety special ever made, it’s not commercially available (but nerds know where to download it, or have friends who do).

I don’t know what’s worse: seeing Bea Arthur and Harvey Korman slumming it in space or watching a heavily-drugged Carrie Fisher sing a Wookie anthem called “Life Day.” If you can watch the entire thing in one sitting, you are truly Jedi.

Now, that’s a bad one, an awful one, a lump of coal that will lodge in your soul. What are your favorite holiday specials? Please sound off in the comments section below so we can all set our DVRs.

Meanwhile, here’s my list of recommended holiday specials, the ones I return to year after year. So pour yourself some stiff nog or a toddy and curl up with someone who wants to share the spirit.

A Charlie Brown Christmas
The first animated adaptation of Peanuts has been airing steadily since its first broadcast in 1965. It’s an infinitely rewatchable classic for three reasons: Charles Schulz’s terrific cast of comic strip characters, Vince Guaraldi’s hip and jazzy score, and a story so simple it cuts right to the heart of the holidays.

Christmas time is here but Charlie Brown’s feeling down. Why? He can’t remember what Christmas is all about. All around him are signs that commercialism has ruined the holiday. When you think about it, that’s a pretty bold assertion for 1965, especially for a show originally sponsored by Coca-Cola.

Charlie’s upset to see everybody selling out. Little sister Sally dictates a letter to Santa where she just asks for hard cash. Snoopy’s decking out his doghouse to win a decoration award. And Lucy’s psychiatric service offers no solace because what she really wants for Christmas is real estate.

So Charlie signs up to help out with a Nativity pageant but he’s ridiculed when he brings them the saddest little Christmas tree the world has ever seen. That’s when Linus takes center-stage to remind us of the true meaning of Christmas, it’s emotionally affecting even if you aren’t a Christian.

For years the show’s director, Bill Melendez (who also provides the snickering voice of Snoopy), begged Schulz to re-do the primitive animation and uneven sound mix. Schulz resisted and I’m glad he did. A Charlie Brown Christmas has a wonderful air of childlike imperfection that adds to its charm and nicely underscores its message. In a technical sense, it’s as flawed and bent over as Charlie’s tree. But like that sad little sapling, it stands up strong and shines when you give it a little love.

And that dance scene is classic.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer
Can you believe this Rankin-Bass production first aired in the year 1164? It’s true! Check the Roman numerals in the credits! That mistake is one of many wonderful bits of trivia I discovered at the Wikipedia page for this, the longest-running Christmas TV special in history.

Nearly every child knows the lyrics to the popular Johnny Marks song. It would’ve been easy for producers Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass to just film the lyrics as written and let that be the story. What’s great here is how the story is expanded beyond the song. We get great glimpses into Santa’s toy factory, where — shock! — not all the elves are happy. We get a journey to the fantastical Island of Misfit Toys and we even meet a towering, sharp-toothed creature who hates everything about Christmas.

Rudolph is a wonderful example of stop-motion animation, where flexible models are placed on detailed sets and photographed frame-by-frame to give the illusion of motion. In the days before CGI, I was obsessed with stop-motion animation to the point where I bought a Super 8mm camera and made my own little films. It took days to create just a few seconds of footage. Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer took more than 18 months to complete and you can see the care and artistry in every scene.

The production design is simple but truly inspired, building a believable universe where talking and flying reindeer not only co-exist with Santa Claus and Abominable Snowmen, but also regularly break into song.

Rudolph is a lot like young Bambi: cute as all get-out and so fuzzy and wide-eyed you just wanna hug him and take him home and never let him go. The nasally-challenged reindeer goes on quite the Hero’s Journey with an elf named Hermey, who dreams of being a dentist. Their travels take them to the Island of Misfit Toys and it’s such a storytelling master stroke I can only drop to my knees and marvel at the thing. Any child who’s ever felt lonely or ugly or left-out can identify with these sad and hopelessly broken toys. The idea that there might be a welcoming place for those who don’t fit in is a lovely message no matter what your age.

The West Wing, “In Excelsis Deo”
The West Wing was one of those rare TV shows that hit the ground running, its characters and situations feeling fully developed and utterly real from the pilot episode. This behind-the-scenes look at a fictional White House was at once soapy and profound, a perfect example of how television can marry high-art with popular entertainment better than any other format.

Halfway through its first season, writers Aaron Sorkin and Rick Cleveland wrote, of all things, a holiday episode. Most hour-long dramas aiming for this easy target pour on the schmaltz so thick you wanna hose down your TV. It’s my experience that when a series does “a very special holiday episode,” be it for Easter or Thanksgiving or Christmas or Boxing Day, it’s often so absurd it doesn’t even feel like the TV show at all. It’s as if you’re watching an episode from some alternate universe. Everything you like comes to a halt while pod people who look like your favorite characters pay faint obeisance to (enter holiday here), and it’s another full week before you are returned to the show you like.

Not so with “In Excelsis Deo,” a heartfelt and subtly shattering episode. Even if you’ve never watched The West Wing, you can dive right in and go with things here. I’ve probably used this episode to turn more friends onto the show than any other.

White House Communications Director Toby Zeigler (Schiff) is summoned by Washington, DC police, who tell him his business card was discovered in the pocket of a homeless Korean veteran who died of exposure on the Mall. Turns out the poor man was wearing an overcoat Toby had donated to charity. The police are satisfied but the slightly neurotic Toby can’t let things go.

Who was this man, a former soldier who fought for his country, only to end up alone and broke and freezing on the streets of its capitol? Toby goes into the homeless community to find answers but discovers there are no easy ones. Finally, he uses his clout to give the man a full military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.

Toby’s eternally uncomfortable in his own skin and here Schiff excels as he uses that quirk to reveal a humanity unseen in Toby until now. Also revelatory in this episode: the president’s secretary, Miss Landingham, formerly a two-dimensional character used mainly for comic relief. In one brief and heartbreaking monologue, she becomes a fully fleshed-out and brave woman who accompanies Toby to the funeral.

There’s other good stuff going here: President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) enjoying the shelves of a rare book store that’s been sequestered for his holiday shopping, Josh (Bradley Whitford) surprising his lovestruck secretary with a touching gift, and Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Alison Janney) working to contain her emotions on hate crime legislation while fending off the advances of an amorous journalist. Meanwhile, a larger story arc concerning alleged drug abuse inside the White House continues, tying all these events into the series as a whole.

The show’s plots and characters don’t come to a halt for Christmas. They keep going, busy and distracted and driven, and they each find one brief moment to stop and observe the holiday and remember what makes it special. Isn’t that how it is for most of us?

These plot threads weave together expertly to a climactic montage, cutting between a White House choral concert and the veteran’s cold morning funeral. As a children’s choir sings “The Little Drummer Boy,” we witness a stunning confluence of writing, acting, directing and editing that brings a tear to my eye every time.

This episode justly won Emmy and Writers Guild awards for scripters Sorkin and Cleveland (who later quarreled publicly over the story credit), and Schiff nabbed an acting Emmy for his fine work.

“It was such a powerful and moving story,” said Schiff in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “After every take, I broke down and cried.”

It’s a generous gift to all of us, this episode, and an example of TV at its finest.