TV's yuletide tradition

December 11, 2006|By Robert Lloyd | Robert Lloyd,Los Angeles Times

Christmas is a time for television; it's television that tells us it's Christmas.

It's the electric hearth that unites the family and comforts the lonely. It fills the house with pictures of snow and skaters and charming re-created scenes from Victorian or New England life.

There are two Christmases - the one with Jesus in it, and the one run by Santa Claus. And though they intersect, they also go their own way - Santa being a secular, adaptable brand available for product endorsements and personal appearances.

Just as a family's box of ornaments grows year by year, so does the giant metaphorical expanding box that is television gather unto itself an ever-increasing yearly horde of holiday-themed programs, nearly all of them in the Santa-Christmas camp.

There have been the odd bows toward Christmas' seasonal partners - The Rugrats, for example, have produced special episodes for Kwanzaa and Hanukkah - but they are few and far between. Most of these, by the law of averages, will be ... average, and many will be worse.

But some will strike a chord with people and lodge themselves comfortably in their consciousness, like a bear in its winter den - though even some of these will look better for being seen through a haze of nostalgia or eggnog.

It's hard to say exactly what makes a holiday picture into a holiday classic, but time by definition has something to do with it, and the repetition that is television's stock in trade: Show something enough, and it begins to seem inevitable. TV is where the theatrical releases of yesteryear are made into the seasonal viewing traditions of today - most famously, It's a Wonderful Life (airing Saturday and Dec. 24 on NBC), which owes its stature to decades of airings.

If it's too soon to call 2003's Elf a classic (on USA, tomorrow and Wednesday), it's not too soon to certify 1983's A Christmas Story, so much a part of the common mind that it is being parodied shot for shot in an ad for Cingular Wireless. Once again, TBS will show it 12 times in succession, beginning at 8 p.m. Christmas Eve.

Also getting the Christmas Eve marathon treatment, beginning at noon on the American Movie Channel, is the original Miracle on 34th Street, the most perfect Christmas film of all, seamlessly weaving matters of belief into a romantic comedy, with only the merest hint at the supernatural - and one you are free to take or leave.

The Rankin-Bass holiday specials, including Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, are fetishistically adored in some quarters; though many make only marginal sense, they have an antique charm and several are on tap in yet another Christmas Eve marathon, beginning at noon on ABC Family.

There are several Christmas TV movies debuting this month, and while none cry out to be watched ritually in coming years, a couple are quite good, and the rest easy enough to avoid.

The biggest and almost the best of these is NBC's The Year Without a Santa Claus (premiering tonight, rebroadcast Dec. 23), with John Goodman as a sick and tired Santa ready to give the holidays a miss. Technically based on a book by Phyllis McGinley, it is for all intents and purposes a remake of the 1974 Saul Rankin-Jules Bass "Animagic" adaptation of the same material.

Its "Heat Miser/Snow Miser" theme even gets a reprise, sung here by Harvey Fierstein and Michael McKean, made up to perfectly resemble their puppet counterparts.

In many Christmas movies, the holiday serves primarily as a backdrop, a season to intensify stories of earthly love and human kindness; there is no Santa necessary.

In that vein Lifetime offers the serviceable A Christmas Wedding (premiering tonight), whose seasonal setting allows for a lot of interfering snow. The main interest here is the presence of Eric Mabius of Ugly Betty and Sarah Paulson of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip as the betrothed leads, though they unfortunately spend most of the movie in different cities.

TNT's A Perfect Day (Dec. 18) is another busy dad story, based on a book by pop-lit author Richard Paul Evans (The Christmas Box). It offers Rob Lowe as a cashiered middle manager who finally writes that novel he's been meaning to get around to. "I think people are hungry for a book like this, about love and family," says wife Allyson (Paget Brewster, Huff). But faster than you can say "slipper full of champagne," success goes to his head. Christopher Lloyd is a mysterious stranger who, like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, focuses Lowe's character upon his own doom to scare him straight.

Christmas Do-Over (ABC Family, Saturday) is an uninspired close replay of Groundhog Day, replicating not only that movie's central idea but its precise story arc, as divorced father Jay Mohr, trapped in an eternally recurring Christmas Eve, slowly learns the power of selflessness. (And then it's Christmas, and ex-wife played by Daphne Zuniga loves him again.)

Still, there will be authentic pleasures aplenty on TV. Cartoon Network is multiple-screening such animated touchstones as How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol; the light-operatic Wonder Pets! rescue Santa's baby reindeer in a new episode (Nick Jr., Dec. 22); Harold Ramis, of the actual Groundhog Day, directs a holiday episode of The Office (NBC, Thursday). You'll hardly be able to click a remote without hitting something seasonal.

And then there is the added pleasure of turning the TV off.

Robert Lloyd writes for The Los Angeles Times.

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